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An ancient Cornish tradition in which residents of the fishing village of Padstow blacken their faces and parade through the streets singing traditional songs is being investigated by police after complaints that it is racist.
The event, known as Darkie Day, has taken place at Boxing Day and new year for as long as anyone can remember. Some claim it dates back to the days of the slave trade, others that its origins are even older — in pagan festivals suppressed elsewhere by the Christian Church.
The revellers who paraded through the streets collecting money for charity were filmed by police officers, after a complaint from an organisation calling itself the “Cornish Council for Racial equality”. A file from Devon and Cornwall police has been submitted this week to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will have to decide whether the festival breaches the Race Relations Act. The police action has angered many Padstow residents, who fear that their traditions are under attack from politically motivated “do-gooders”.
David Edwards, a town councillor, said: “There is strong feeling about what has happened and what is going to happen. Will there be a prosecution and who instigated it?”
Devon and Cornwall police used four vans of officers to patrol this year’s festivals, despite the event’s virtually non-existent history of crime. Members of the town council, who have had requests for extra patrols during the holiday season turned down, believe that it was an unnecessary waste of resources. Despite its possibly pagan origins, this winter’s Darkie Days raised money for the parish church, St Petroc’s, and had the backing of the vicar.
Locals have felt defensive about the festival since complaints from the same organisation seven years ago led to calls for a ban. There was concern that the event could become a flashpoint between anti-racism campaigners and the far-right National Front.
The fears were unfounded and Padstow residents claim the festival is just harmless fun and a variation on the traditional West Country tradition of “guising”, in which poor people would disguise themselves and sing songs in return for money or food from richer neighbours.
Linda Reynolds, 50, who runs a newsagent in Padstow, said: “I have always gone out to Darkie Day. If it was even vaguely racist I would be the first one to stand up and shout.
“I was in a relationship with a black man. I can’t think of anybody who has a racist thought on Darkie Day. It’s a traditional event at which people get blacked-up. They are not imitating black people.”
A pub landlord, who plays the accordion at the event but did not want to be identified, said: “I’m sick of all this commotion. Padstow is a small place with a close-knit community and this is festival should be kept for Padstow people.”
A police spokesman said: “We took video evidence on Boxing Day and sent it to the CPS to see if any offences had been committed. We are now waiting for the file to come back.”
(Posted on February 25, 2005)