BVI Emancipation Festival

BVI Emancipation Festival
Most Caribbean countries and territories host an annual carnival, and the British Virgin Islands are not an exception. The BVI Emancipation Festival is held on the island of Tortola every summer in July and August.

Caribbean carnivals are descended from a Christian festive season that occurs right before Lent, which, in turn, has been linked to ancient Greek festivals dedicated to Dionysus, the Roman Saturnalia, and other pagan celebrations. Pre-Lenten Carnival typically involves parades and public street parties, elaborate costumes and masks, and the consumption of meat, alcohol, and other foods that are prohibited during Lent.

European slave traders brought Carnival celebrations to the Caribbean. They hosted lavish masquerade balls during the Shrovetide season, but their African slaves were excluded from these festivities. Everything began to change after the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean; freed slaves transformed Carnival into a celebration of freedom, blending the European masquerade with their African heritage and Creole culture, and expressing their freedom through music and dance. Caribbean carnival as we know it originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 19th century.

Today, most countries and territories in the Caribbean have a Carnival celebration. Some still celebrate Carnival in February or March, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, while others have moved their celebration to late July and early August in order to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire that came into effect on August 1, 1834. The British Virgin Islands are among the latter.

Founded in 1954, the annual BVI Emancipation Festival, also known as the August Festival, is held every year in late July and early August on Tortola, the largest and most populated island of the British Virgin Islands. It commemorates the abolition of slavery in the territory and showcases its culture and history. The celebration is filled with activities like parades, music and dance performances, beauty pageants, folklore presentations, gospel celebrations, early morning street dancing (Rise & Shine Tramps), food fairs, and more.

The key events and activities in the program of the BVI Emancipation Festival are the Prince and Princess Pageant, the torchlight procession and opening ceremony, the calypso competition, the gospel fest, boat shows and races, horse and donkey races, a car show, the Miss BVI Pageant, the Grand Parade, the J’ouvert party, the Carrot Bay Cultural Fiesta showcasing the different cultures of the British Virgin Islands, and more.

In 2020, the celebration was scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic but it still took place. Some events were held virtually (the opening ceremony, a poetry slam, emancipation services, the gospel fest, soca and calypso showcases), and the few physical events, such as a cultural food fair and the Carrot Bay farmers market, followed social distancing and sanitation protocols. Once the pandemic was over, the BVI Emancipation Festival returned it its full glory.

BVI Emancipation Festival

Photo: Charmaine McInnis




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