Global Black History

Homing Empire | Public Books

Family memoirs are a special kind of historical offering. They have the power to tell fine-grained stories of the past, of epochal events—wars, migrations, empires—and to intricately connect them to the lived present of the author who reconstructs them. Done well, memoirs people the past, putting their reader in touch with affects, intentions, and relations that animate history in palpable and revelatory ways. Imperial Intimacies, by Hazel V. Carby, is one such offering.

The book shares a lived history of Britain as empire, told through the carefully woven biographies of Carby’s ancestors in Jamaica, Wales, and South West England. These biographic strands of near and distant kin are united with memories of her South London girlhood, as well as reflections on the Atlantic odyssey she undertakes—through archive, Jamaican village, and English hamlet—to locate countless knots in a tapestry of imperial contact. Contrary to the amnesia that so often clouds public memory, Carby reminds us that wherever you move in Britain or her former dominions, traces of empire (in buildings, genealogies, and names) are rarely far from hand.

Serendipitously, I read Imperial Intimacies during a summer visit to my natal Bristol (one of Carby’s ancestral stomping grounds). This slaver-enriched port city was where my maternal grandparents settled from Dominica (British West Indies) in the 1950s, raised children on an all-white council estate, and worked in Wills’s Imperial Tobacco and Cadbury’s Chocolate factories, respectively. I was visiting home with my partner (the grandchild of Jamaican emigrants) and our daughter to escape the frenzy and fumes of South London, where we live and work. We were also home to celebrate our baby girl’s first birthday.

Encountering Carby’s ancestors in intimately familiar places forced me to reread my city. A block of unassuming “postindustrial” apartments overlooking the city’s trendy docks transforms into a former sugar-processing plant. The leafy park behind my mother’s house—where I learned to play football and where I now push my daughter on the swings—becomes the scene of a vast Empire Day parade, complete with a living Union Jack flag composed of hundreds of children. The Society of Merchant Venturers—a well-known local philanthropic organization, which funds city schools and shelters for the elderly—now reveals itself to be a guild that controls Bristol’s 18th-century shipping traffic (in captive bodies, tobacco, and sugar).

Such imperial hauntings follow me through this black Atlantic artery of a city, remapping my home with each turn of page or cobbled street (from Guinea Street to Jamaica Street, Blackboy Hill to Whiteladies Road). Bristol’s imperial past is palpable.

And yet, reading Imperial Intimacies—as a scholar of Caribbean kinship, who is reflecting on his first year of paternal life—encouraged other observations, too: concerning fathers’ names, fathers’ hands, and the stories we pass on to our children.

 

The Name of the Father

Within British imperial logics, perhaps nothing more readily signals social rank than a surname. “The girl” (Carby’s childhood self)—a mixed-race / black child of working-class parents and scholarship holder at a girls’ private school—observed how surnames symbolized class standing among her bourgeois London classmates.

Take one girl surnamed Bathurst, for instance. Bathurst boasted ancestral ties to the landed gentry of Berkshire, governors of the Royal East India Company and the Royal African Company, and plantation owners in Jamaica. This contrasts with the girl’s British maternal forebears. Their little-known surname Leaworthy was of West Country tenant farmers on an estate (not dissimilar to properties owned by the Bathursts), who experienced “the poverty of agricultural life in a neglected rural outback of the imperial metropole.”

Similarly, the girl—or, rather, the woman that the girl would become—learned that a similar kind of British accounting of names governed the stratified racial landscape of 18th- and 19th-century Jamaica. We meet Lilly Carby, a carpenter’s son and Lincolnshire militiaman who was conscripted to colonial Jamaica. He settled, became a plantation owner, and established the Carby name in Jamaica.

Lilly became a white man in plantation society Jamaica. That is, he owned enslaved humans, with whom he could do as he legally pleased. This meant that he could also register them with names of his choosing. Curiously, he registered these enslaved humans with the first names of his mother, father, and other immediate kin he left behind in England. But he offered no surnames, whether his own or any others. This decision seems like a reminder to himself that they were—to him—nonpersons: chattel with neither status nor rank, fatherless as far as slave registers go.

However, Lilly did father children of his own. Those conceived through concubinage, carried and birthed by a free woman of color, would inherit his surname and a portion of his estate (including several enslaved humans). “Mulatto Matty,” the son of an enslaved woman, was most likely conceived through rape or sexual coercion. Matty inherited the status of his mother, and so remained enslaved and without a surname. More importantly, Matty remained the property of his siblings (despite his father’s will stating he should be freed after a period of “apprenticeship”).

In early 19th-century Jamaica, according to the archives, the Carby surname signaled free status (whether white or of color) and that a person had a father (from whom property and people-as-property could be inherited). That changed, however, with William Carby, Lilly’s heir and son. William, perhaps persuaded by arguments for “amelioration” (the legislative easing of planter brutality), had eight of the twelve enslaved people he owned baptized as Carbys—including Matty.

For such enslaved Carbys, being named did not suggest that William Carby was presenting himself as a benevolent father figure (though baptism and a surname signaled a kind of partial admission of personhood). In fact, the Carby surname may have even felt, for these enslaved recipients, like “a stamp of ownership, a form of branding.” But for Matty, perhaps, it offered a form of belated paternal recognition, the kind that was never granted during his father’s life.

And yet, at this moment of alleged “amelioration,” another kind of differentiation between free and enslaved emerged. Though all Carbys shared a surname, a way was found to distinguish the patriarchal father’s inheritors from their dispossessed kin. Hazel would learn of this distinction nearly two centuries later, when, in written correspondence, a Jamaican professor asked her, “Who is your father?” This was a coded question. What the professor really asked was: “Is your father a white Carby or a black Carby?” Her line of inheritance is the latter, the descendant of black Carbys rendered silent in archival accounts.

So what can all this tell us about the man who would give the girl the Carby name? Carl Carby, Hazel’s father, was the great-grandchild of “Mulatto Matty.” Names can allude to what someone was or where they came from: their rank, social class, racial ascription. But names say little to nothing of who they are or how they lived. Human hands are, perhaps, far more telling.

 

The Hand of the Father

In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine offers a meditation on the word “here.” “Here,” she tells her reader, connotes one’s presence “in this world, in this life … in this place … In other words, ‘I am here.’” And so, “here” also represents an act of giving or handing something over: “A hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life.” Hands that share or are held, gesturing toward a copresence in the world.

Carl Carby is depicted by his daughter as a quiet man, a man of method and principle. Seldom does the anthropological or sociological record reveal descriptions of Caribbean fatherhood and masculinity in such unassuming and diligent terms (instead, we see dominoes; we read of infamous reputations, rum, tall tales, and performative concealments of infidelity). But Carl’s story was different. He came to Britain as a Royal Airforce Crew member, then worked as a bookkeeper at a London engraving firm. He did not have much of a social life to speak of. And as a father his hands could give little by way of grand material gesture. Yet, unlike his father, Wilfred—back in Jamaica—who had abandoned him, Carl was very much present as a father and gestured toward his daughter in many ways.

“My father enjoyed cooking,” Hazel recalls. She remembered how,

when the girl was young enough to be lifted up to perch on a stool, he took pleasure in preparing Jamaican dishes and sharing them with his daughter. … The girl devoured her fatherʼs curries, fried rice or banana fritters and drank his homemade ginger beer, flavours, spices and textures more tantalizing than boiled vegetables and the mush that was served at school.

They stole time in the kitchen, her authoritative mother’s domain, where “the girl” felt a kind of defiant pleasure from “eating so eagerly from her fatherʼs hand.” A father’s alimentary care—the preparation and act of feeding, in a place they shouldn’t be, sharing the flavors of Jamaica in a kitchen and a land hostile to such tastes and smells—brought a closeness between father and daughter.

And it was not only his meals. Hazel also fondly recalls her father’s “beautiful handwriting,” honed under the gaze and rod of English schoolmistresses in Jamaica. Schoolmistresses who lashed him each time he used his left hand (“an intolerable and un-English perversity”): until a six-year-old Carl’s left hand was disfigured, and his right hand had perfected “the English round” (the calligraphy of British administrators the imperial world over: from clerks to ambassadors, lawyers to traders in captive humans, merchants to planters).

Carby’s offering contributes to the kind of imperial postmortem that can usher forth a process of redress and a proper burial of empire.

Good handwriting, the girl’s own English teacher had instructed, is a reflection of good character. Once Hazel began an academic career in North America, her father repurposed his attractive handwriting. Carl wrote “lengthy, thoughtful and carefully composed letters” to his daughter, “and mailed them across the Atlantic.” These letters were drafted and redrafted in quiet solitude to “express emotion, affection, or explain a deeply held belief.” There was care in every stroke—form a reflection of thought.

Writing such letters was perhaps the way he really wanted to be understood. Elsewhere, Hazel writes of moments when her father’s emotions buried his expression (for instance, his difficulty talking of the “hard times” faced during the poverty of 1930s Jamaica, when he was provider for his mother, elderly grandmother, and alcoholic uncle); or when outbursts of violence overcame him during fights with the girl’s mother. “Living with him was like living within the radius of a sleeping volcano,” Hazel recalls of her father’s quiet volatility.

It seems the main route into his interior world—a world that sought order in the face of unpredictable postwar British racism and an imploding marriage—was via the consistency of the written word. Within a shared world of words that bridged an ocean, Hazel and her father, Carl, penned their continual presence in each other’s lives.

And finally, as a woman, the girl felt her father’s hands during the long final days of his life: “I held my father’s hand trying to gauge his health and state of mind … [They] felt cool, almost cold.”

 

Reckonings

As the generation of [19]39–45 combatants dies out, we drift towards becoming an anxious nation that can’t get away from the Nazis it pluckily vanquished, or past the loss of its imperial pre-eminence. The vanished empire is essentially unmourned. The meaning of its loss remains pending. The chronic, nagging pain of its absence feeds a melancholic attachment.

Paul Gilroy (2005)

The lingering, absent presence of empire haunts a contemporary Britain intoxicated with its bygone grandeur. Imperial Intimacies urges a face-to-face reckoning with the past, a new way of remembering that incorporates imperial metropoles, their backwaters, and former peripheries within a single interconnected frame.

Carby reminds us of Britain’s black communities that existed long before Windrush; of how the British Home Office’s hostile immigration environment is an enduring one (designed firstly to exclude nonwhite British citizens from colonial territories); and of the fact that empire touches all Britons (not simply those racialized as black or brown). Carby’s offering contributes to the kind of imperial postmortem that can usher forth a process of redress and a proper burial of empire.

Such an exorcism demands a sincere comprehension of empire at its metropolitan heart. Imperial Intimacies is the kind of honest story of empire I intend to tell my mixed-raced/black daughter as she grows up between Bristol and South London.

Imperial Intimacies ends with Hazel imagining her father in flight, descending from the sky. In her mind’s eye, he is completing an RAF mission and returning to a Lincolnshire airbase, just miles from the village where his ancestor Lilly Carby set off to fight an imperial war in Jamaica. Much as Carl himself set off to fight a European war in Britain. She envisages him seeing a beacon atop the parish church where Lilly was christened; and, “when he saw its light, my father knew he was home, in England.”

 

This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and Ben Platticon

Featured image: Adom Philogene Heron, Bristol’s Black Triangles

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