During the 1860s Rebecca Williams, née Tuggay, worked in Bath as a laundress. Six days a week, for twelve hours or more, she whitened the soiled linens of the city’s fashionable residents and visitors. Her work began at dawn on Mondays with the collecting, sorting, marking, soaking, cleaning and mangling of the wash. Heavy loads of sodden clothing were scrubbed or boiled or starched or rinsed, before being ironed and folding later in the week. On her day off, Rebecca scrubbed dirt from the clothes of her husband, James, and their three children. The family lived not far from the Roman Baths and close to the River Avon, but there was no direct water supply to the last house on Back Street Place.
Rebecca wanted her daughter Rose to have a different life and sent her to Cardiff to apprentice to a tailor. In 1886, at the age of nineteen, Rose married Henry Williams, a 37-year-old upholsterer, and soon afterwards gave birth to a daughter, Maud. Cardiff in the 1880s was the ‘coal metropolis of the world’; dust from the coal mined in the Rhondda Valley and brought to the docks for export ‘colonised’ the air. In 1888, another daughter, Beatrice, was born, followed two years later by Lillian Estella (known as Stella), and then a boy, Henry. Rose listed herself as a ‘tailoress’ on the 1901 census; around that time she returned to England, living in the Bedminster slums in Bristol, where she survived on piecework. Henry had died in Cardiff some time before the birth of Rose’s fifth child, Herbert, in 1896; Stella died of tuberculosis in Bedminster in 1903 aged thirteen.
Bristol ‘appeared to wear history on its surfaces’. The Home and Colonial Tea Stores opened a branch in Bedminster in 1903; Guinea Street by the Avon was a reference to the ‘Guinea trade’ in human beings along the West African coast. In November 1746, a Captain Eaton promised a guinea to readers of the Bristol Journal who assisted in the capture of the escaped ‘negro Mingo’, whom he had owned for eight years; in March 1757 a guinea was offered in the Journal for the return to the Rising Sun pub on Prince’s Street of ‘a Negro lad about eighteen years of Age’ called ‘Starling’ who ‘blows the French horn very well’. Between 1698, when the London-based Royal African Company’s monopoly on English trade in Africa was removed, and the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, 2060 slave voyages to Africa were funded by merchants in Bristol.
Bristol was Britain’s leading slave port between 1723 and 1743, when it was eclipsed by Liverpool. Captains and colonial functionaries could bring slaves back from the New World for sale or to keep in the metropole, where the boundaries between free person and slave were less fixed than in the colonies. Men who had grown rich on blood money from the West Indies or America, or through the processing of slave-produced goods in Bristol, invested in civic culture and the infrastructure of the city. After the 1834 Abolition Act, which ended slavery in the British Empire, Bristol received £158,000 from the Slave Compensation Commission for the loss of human property. What’s harder to measure, as the historian David Richardson noted, is the sheer ‘utility or pleasure’ Bristolians derived from the consumption of slave-produced sugar and snuff.
As Hazel V. Carby writes in Imperial Intimacies, it was not just traders who profited from slavery. Residents working on the docks, at brothels and inns, those handling sugar or tobacco or making goods for export to Africa or the Americas – ‘everyone benefited.’ Carby is a descendent on her mother’s side of Rebecca, Rose and Beatrice. In Imperial Intimacies she seeks to recover the forgotten history of their life-sustaining work. Yet such ‘maternal family stories [fail] to account for empire’, even if these women were – or especially if they were – conscripts to its project. Instead, Carby tells the ‘tale’ of the complex bonds of kinship between Britain and Jamaica through the encounter between her Welsh mother, Beatrice’s daughter Iris, and her Jamaican airman father, Carl Collin Carby. The discovery of intimacy in the imperial ‘contact zone’ undermines the binaries – metropole and colony, white and black, master and slave – on which imperialism depends and is a strategy of post and decolonial thinking. Yet, as Carby knows, the production of the past remains tied to the contingencies of the present, and is limited by them (her description of Imperial Intimacies as a ‘tale’ suggests that it could always have been told otherwise). To uncover what has slipped from or been pushed out of family memory, Carby moves into the archives.
Was Beatrice in the audience when the Scottish-born missionary James Johnston lectured on ‘Jamaica: The New Riviera’ in Bristol in 1903? Fruit steamers had recently begun to import bananas from Jamaica to Avonmouth and it was thought that this trade, along with the growth in tourism, would revive the ailing Jamaican economy following the decline of the sugar plantation system towards the end of the 18th century and the removal of protectionist tariffs in 1846. Johnston had first travelled to Jamaica in 1874, hoping the climate would aid his own tuberculosis, settling in the parish of St Ann, where in 1865 108 landless Jamaicans had petitioned Queen Victoria to allow them to cultivate crown lands (their labour would be better spent ‘render[ing] the Plantations productive’ again, they were told by the Colonial Office). In 1891, Johnston spent eighteen months crossing Central Africa to the Indian Ocean ‘alone so far as a white companion is concerned’, as he wrote in Reality versus Romance in South Central Africa (1893). Six ‘young Jamaican men’ accompanied him to ‘relieve the white man of manual toil’, although there was ‘their natural lack of “stick-at-it-iveness” and backbone to be overcome’. By 1901, Carby notes, he had become ‘a well-paid creator of tourist dreams’ in North America, Canada and Britain. Beatrice could not afford the tins and tea cloths commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on display in the Bristol shop windows, but lantern slideshows were free. The spectacle would have showed her that she was a child of empire belonging to the imperial race.
British subjects weren’t immune to poverty, however. Rose ended up sewing in a workhouse after her tenth child, Annie, was born. Beatrice married Charles Leaworthy (the brother of Maud’s husband, Walter) in Pontypridd in 1919 and gave birth to Iris one year later, entering into a life of agricultural insecurity in the backwaters of South Wales and the West Country. Charles had served as a private in the Welsh Regiment in the First World War and, on his return, everybody had assumed he would follow Walter in rejecting agricultural work for a career in the Great Western Railway. Instead, he tended livestock on land that was not his own. Beatrice supplemented his poverty wages with sewing work. It was only later that Carby, their granddaughter, came to understand ‘the relation between the marginalisation of areas dismissed as rural backwaters, and the marginalisation of colonies’.
Beatrice died in 1938 in the tied cottage she shared with Charles in the hamlet of Huntworth, Somerset, where they could be visited at will by the lady of the manor, who spoke to them without ever ‘removing her gloves’. Free TB treatment had been available since 1921, administered by local authorities, but conditions inside sanatoriums varied and Iris left school to care for her mother. Being a daughter was about self-sacrifice (Iris tried to jump into Beatrice’s grave when she was buried near Rose in Bristol), a belief Iris tried to impress on her daughter Hazel, who was born in Devon in 1948. But Carby was unruly. She resisted assimilation into the maternal family code, with its emphasis on bettering yourself, discipline and the moral problem of dirtiness. On summer holidays in South Wales, Carby’s relatives (descendants of Maud and Walter) gaped at the dinner table when she declared she was going to be a dancer. Sitting with her younger brother in the back seat of their uncle’s car, Carby feared they might spoil the clean surfaces, already aware of their ability to contaminate and to embody contradictions. They were ‘multifariously coloured pieces’ of different familial and national stories and ‘remained oddities’ because of their brown skin, which no amount of cleanliness could change.
Carl Collin Carby was one of around 12,500 mostly Jamaican volunteers deployed to Britain from the Caribbean in the early 1940s. He was born on Potter’s Row in Kingston in 1921 ‘at the tail-end of the second generation of freemen’ and grew up in an area overshadowed by the maximum-security General Penitentiary prison built by the British in the years after the abolition of slavery. The prison was meant to arouse fear, but Carl often queued at the back door for loaves of bread from the prison ovens. Jamaica in the 1930s was ‘a cesspool of unemployment’, in the words of the trade union activist Ken Hill – Jamaicans sometimes marched through Kingston just so that they could be arrested, jailed and fed. Unemployment, seasonal work and poor education were widespread, and wages had hardly increased in the hundred years since emancipation. ‘[W]e are the descendants of slaves, a people who have come down the stream of time with great suffering,’ the editors of the first edition of the Jamaica Labour Weekly wrote in May 1938, as unrest increased among workers across the island. ‘The present development of the country is ample evidence of black sweat poured out upon the land.’ But the land was still in the hands of a white planter elite, although a small Jamaican peasantry, including some Carbys, scratched out an existence in settlements and on steep hillsides.
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1834 ushered in a so-called apprenticeship period lasting until 1838. The Morant Bay uprisings in 1865, and the judicial atrocities that followed, testified to the persistence of forced labour and the destitution and arbitrary violence associated with slavery. The labour revolts of May 1938 brought memories of Morant Bay and of slave insurrections on plantations: workers agitating for better wages were shot by police at Tate & Lyle’s sugar estate and factory, and the unrest spread to dockers working in Kingston for the United Fruit Company. By 23 May the strike had spread across the capital. Civilians were killed by the police: a woman and child were shot in the head in Carl’s neighbourhood. Carby doesn’t know if her father took part in the uprisings, and the people she could ask are no longer alive.
Carl survived Iris and all of his siblings, dying in Yorkshire in 2014 aged 91. Carby describes the time she spent with him as his dementia worsened – although he was still able to recite his RAF number. Imperial Intimacies is in part a work of mourning for those people whose memories are beyond reach. In the ‘pigmentocracy’ of Jamaican society, in which even the finest distinctions of skin colour had social meaning, Carl’s ‘coffee-coloured’ skin had given him the opportunity to work as a clerk, away from the sugar estates on which darker-skinned Jamaicans laboured. Many years later, when he was dying in Northern England, his skin had faded to ‘a translucent vellum’.
Iris and Carl both came of age in neglected places: Iris on the rural margins of the metropole, Carl in the ‘imperial backwater’. The Second World War was a way out of ‘the bile of poverty’, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate imperial loyalty. The Black West Indian Regiment – 15,204 men – had served in Palestine, Egypt and the Middle East between 1915 and 1918, as well as in France, Italy and Belgium, but West Indians on the Western Front were largely excluded from combat roles and informally demoted. During the Second World War, men ‘not of pure European descent’ were deployed in skilled combat in Europe, although the RAF didn’t admit black recruits until 1940. Carl joined in 1942, two years before Jamaicans gained universal adult suffrage. He left Jamaica in June 1943, ‘unaware that he would never live there again’. He would remain in the RAF until 1950, flying with Coastal Command and Bomber Command. On arrival at RAF Padgate in Bridgnorth after training in Canada, he and the other Jamaicans immediately ‘received instructions in meticulous detail on how to use the shower, the wash basin and the toilets, as if to say we had never seen or used a bathroom before’.
Racialised ideas of belonging were reconfigured in the early 1940s as white Britons interacted with black colonial subjects stationed in Britain, as well as with the formal systems of racial segregation practised by the American army on British soil from 1942. Three million American troops were stationed in Britain until the D-Day landings in 1944 and 130,000 of them were black. These men were not colonial subjects like Carl, but second-class citizens of another state. The official segregation of black and white servicemen in the US army could not be explicitly supported by the UK government, which feared revolt in the colonies, but the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, repeated a long-established trope, also used by the War Office during the First World War, when he explained that the climate in Britain ‘was badly suited to negroes’, who might be better off in Italy. Attempts were made by the British government to reduce the number of black troops being sent to Britain from the US, and the Americans rotated leave passes to ensure that black and white troops attended recreational events at different times. A Foreign Office consultation in 1942 referred to the ‘social problem’ of permanent settlement that ‘the recruitment to the United Kingdom of Coloured British subjects’ might entail.
In 1943, ‘ladies interested in the Colonial problem’ were encouraged by the Colonial Office and the Ministry of Labour and National Security to ‘accompany the coloured men to theatres and dances’, on the understanding that such cordiality would promote pro-British sentiment in the colonies. But when 1200 British Hondurans were sent to Scotland to work as foresters, the Duke of Buccleuch complained to Harold Macmillan that some citizens were all too eager in their duty. ‘The people in the neighbourhood were encouraged to be friendly to them and the girls have interpreted this rather widely … Personally, I dislike this mixture of colour and regret that it should be allowed with no discouragement.’ He wasn’t the only one. Intimate encounters across the ‘colour bar’ provoked violence from white Southern GIs, instructed in Jim Crow and the perceived sexual danger of black masculinity, while the limits of British hospitality were quickly clarified. White women who ‘consorted’ with black men were condemned as careless pleasure-seekers, and whispering campaigns, probably helped along by the Women’s Voluntary Service, associated interracial sex with the spread of venereal disease. Interracial couples, Carby writes, ‘were designated vectors of disease, carriers of a threat which could literally and metaphorically infect the nation’. General Arthur Dowler, in charge of British Southern Command (where a large number of black GIs were stationed), issued his ‘Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops’ in August 1942. He explained that black men were mostly ‘of simple mental outlook’ and that British soldiers ‘should not make intimate friends with them’ and ‘white women should not … walk out, dance or drink with them.’ Dowler was ignoring the official reluctance to endorse covert segregation practices, but written advice later issued by the War Office wasn’t so far from his guidance: contact between white women and black soldiers, it said, ‘is likely to lead to controversy and ill-feeling’ and ‘may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves’.
Iris must have felt eyes on her when, at an event for the local RAF, she walked across the dancefloor towards the Jamaican airman who later became her husband. She had been conscripted into the civil service in 1939 and was working for the Air Ministry in Worcester, not far from where Carl was stationed at Padgate. The couple married in autumn 1944 with no family present. (Iris had to leave the civil service, which refused to employ married women.) The spectre of a racially mixed future lay behind wartime anxieties about such relationships. ‘A difficult sex problem might be created,’ Herbert Morrison, the home secretary, had stated in November 1942, ‘if there were a substantial number of cases of sex relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children.’ ‘They’ would then be truly ‘here’. If Iris was defined as ‘white’ during her encounter with Carl, ‘did the bloody, brown emergence of an infant’ from her body ‘reconfigure that whiteness in relation to motherhood’?
The ‘brown babies’ born to white women and black servicemen during the 1940s were the public embodiment of transgressive racial crossings at ‘home’ and across the empire. It was thought in 1946 that there were 563 such babies, rising to 775 two years later. The panic about mixed-race children recalled the pseudo-scientific discourse of the 1920s and the racial eugenics of the late 19th century that had shaped perceptions of a ‘colour problem’ in areas of long-established black settlement. The Liverpool Association for the Welfare of Half-Caste Children was set up in 1927 to survey the ‘unhappy condition’ of the young ‘unfortunates’ whose existence couldn’t be incorporated in the national story. ‘It is practically impossible,’ Muriel E. Fletcher wrote in the association’s Report on an Investigation into the Colour Problem in Liverpool and Other Ports, ‘for half-caste children to be absorbed into our industrial life and this leads to grave moral results.’ The ‘general standard of life’ of white women with black or brown babies was ‘usually permanently lowered’, the report stated. The League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) was formed in 1931 in part to ‘educate English people’ on ‘the matter of race’ – ‘Hybridisation is supposed to improve stock in plants and animals … Why then should not the same thing obtain in the human being?’ – but even its founder, Dr Harold Moody, wanted the babies fathered by black servicemen in Britain to be considered ‘war casualties’ by the British and American governments. It was reported that some black servicemen in the US army whose English girlfriends were pregnant were transferred across the country by commanding officers, and at least one man was told that he would be charged with rape if he continued his relationship with the mother of his child.
Meanwhile, white women like Iris were under pressure to ‘get rid of’ their babies through the welfare services. The journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in America stated in 1951 that ‘British men (whether husbands or prospective husbands) would usually be reluctant to accept a child when its illegitimacy could not be hidden.’ In Illegitimate Children Born in Britain of English Mothers and Coloured Americans, an LCP report from 1946, Sylvia McNeill estimated that up to half of the women who had ‘brown babies’ were already married to white British men serving overseas. According to Alma LaBadie, speaking at the Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, the ‘condition of forgiveness’ was often to send the child ‘elsewhere’. Dr Barnardo’s Homes registered as an adoption society in 1947; it was noted that the charity accepted children ‘of dusky skin’ but would struggle to find homes for them. After their marriage, Carl initially had to live apart from Iris and Hazel because landlords didn’t want to rent to an interracial family.
Is Carby inside or outside the story she is telling? In Stuart Hall’s memoir, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands (2017), he writes that ‘in recounting the story of someone born out of place, displaced from the dominant currents of history, nothing can be taken for granted. Not least the telling of a life.’ The ‘I’ of autobiography and racial belonging is not assumed in Imperial Intimacies. Carby’s shifting perspectives for her present and past selves – her narrative moves from the singular ‘I’ to the third person ‘she’ or ‘the girl’, once or twice in the same sentence – register the splitting of the self that can result from experiences of racism and abuse (‘rather than acknowledge abuse the girl believed she had been very bad, and I carried the burden of guilt’). More significantly, it tracks the development of an ‘I’ that refuses to submit to racist logic. ‘Where are you from?’ is ‘The Question!’ to which Carby was continually subjected as ‘the girl’ growing up in South London. Carby’s many literary and historical references, her reproductions of family photographs and archival images, suggest an ‘I’ emerging from encounters with external discourses and representations. Here ‘race’ is a discursive event, ‘not a material object, a thing; it has to do not with what people are but with how they are classified … It is a verb not a noun.’
Slave inventories, made by planters and colonial administrations to keep track of human property, mirror the ideological ways of seeing and not seeing that upheld slave societies. They are acts of invention on which humans are turned into things for ‘the use of those who wield the pen’. The act of writing may be for Carby ‘a partial substitute for return’, but it is also part of what Saidiya Hartman has called ‘the administered logic of the plantation’. The end of the traffic in slaves on British ships in 1807 did not end plantation slavery, and the registration of the enslaved in British colonies began in earnest a decade later, when it was no longer possible for slave populations in the New World to be replenished by new arrivals. An ‘increase of goods’ meant the birth or purchase of people; a ‘decrease’ meant sale, escape or death. These records were updated every three years, with births regularly under-reported because planters waited to see if babies survived before confirming their existence. Slaves were listed under the names imposed on them by planters and, across the 18th-century Atlantic world, slave names commonly referenced European literature or British place names. Slave naming practices were exclusionary, asserting European superiority, but they also remind us of the planters’ anxious need to foster an atmosphere of ‘home’, given how vastly outnumbered they were in the Caribbean by enslaved and formerly enslaved peoples.
In the accounts of Her Majesty’s Treasury at the National Archives at Kew Carby found ‘an apotheosis, if not a resolution’ to her story. In 1817, the first full year of slave registration, some men and women who had survived the Middle Passage in the 1790s were registered as the property of a Lincolnshire man, recently deceased, the son of a carpenter who was, by the end of his life, the owner of sixteen slaves and a coffee plantation in north-east Jamaica. Lilly Carby, along with his cousins Bryon and Aminadab Carby, arrived in Jamaica in 1788 after a six-week crossing as part of the Tenth Foot Lincolnshire Regiment. Of the 89,000 British soldiers who served in the West Indies between 1793 and 1801, half died from dysentery or fever, but Lilly survived. While his cousins returned to Europe, Lilly was discharged or deserted in Jamaica and by the time of his death was a minor planter tended to by slaves and by a free woman of colour named Mary Ivey Mann. Lilly had two children with his ‘housekeeper’ Mary Ivey, and both were born free; he had another child, ‘A mulatto Matty, 10, Creole, son of Big Fanny’, on the neighbouring estate, where more than three hundred slaves laboured. This third child was not free. At the time of Lilly’s death in 1811, there were legal limitations restricting the right of free people of colour to inherit, but his two children with Mary Ivey each inherited part of his estate, including slaves, as well as his patronymic and lighter shade of skin. Matty was later transferred into the property of his half-siblings and gained the Carby name after William Ivey, his half-brother, decided to baptise a group of his slaves in the 1820s.
Lilly Carby was baptised in the Lincolnshire village of Coleby in 1771 (‘Carby’ is derived from ‘Coleby’). He named his settlement Lincoln after the city and gave his slaves names belonging to his Lincolnshire family, including Bridget, his mother’s name. Slaves were usually only given first names, as if they existed outside of kinship. (In Imperial Intimacies, Carby rarely uses her own first name.) Lincoln was also the name Lilly gave to another male slave, estimated to be 27 in the inventory of 1817. Names are insecure creations, and slaves inhabited parallel naming worlds. We don’t know the names given out in secret by the enslaved – the names they used among themselves, the names that ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Bridget’ might have had for Lilly – and what these could tell us. If one reads them against the grain, however, the records in the metropole begin to betray themselves, and can point us to richer histories than are at first apparent, the sort Carby knows how to uncover. It isn’t the end of the story to say that between 1944 and 1947, a man called Carl Carby was stationed at RAF Waddington, about an hour by foot from the village of Coleby, and that a woman called Iris was living close by in a place called Lincoln.