Interview with Hazel Carby


Interview with Hazel Carby


Hazel Carby discusses her father Carl's early life in Jamaica, his experiences training in Canada and serving as aircrew in the RAF, and how he and his family were treated in London in the post war period.

She also discusses her research into her family's history and the connections between the Carby family, Coleby in Lincolnshire and slavery in the Caribbean, for her book, Imperial Intimacies.




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01:21:41 Audio Recording

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HH: Ok. So, today’s the 15th of March 2021. I’m Heather Hughes sitting in Lincolnshire and I’m talking to Professor Hazel Carby who’s agreed to be interviewed for the IBCC Digital Archive because her father, Carl Carby served first of all in RAF Coastal Command, and then in RAF Bomber Command. So, Hazel, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I discovered about your dad through having read your incredibly moving and wonderful memoir, “Imperial Intimacies,” and I’m sure that there will be a lot of times that you want to refer to, to the, to the book and that’s absolutely fine. Maybe it’s going to encourage listeners to, to pick up that book and read it as well because it is indeed a very wonderful and moving account. If we could start off this is an interview partly about your dad and partly about you and, and your, your experience of growing up knowing in the knowledge that he had come all the way from Jamaica to serve in the Second World War, which is partly what brought him to Britain and gave him a basis on which to, to stay in this country for the rest of his, for the rest of his life. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit first about him and then we’re going to talk about you and your family. But tell us a little bit about where your dad was born and brought up.
HC: Yeah. My father was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1921. He was raised by his, by his grandmother and you know, Kingston, well Jamaica in general was although it was a source of wealth for the UK, the population living there at the time were incredibly poorly paid. Starvation wages they used to, they used to call it. So, you know he had a very, like other Jamaicans in the city it was, he lived in a very poor area. Then in fact during, you know, during the ‘30s there were the starvation wages marches where people were actually begging to be sent into the penitentiary because there at least they would have been fed. They were starving and so because of the starvation there was, there were a lot of health problems. Jamaica was being run directly by, it was a Crown colony it was being run directly by the Colonial Office, by the UK Government, but it didn’t have you know the emerging health system that was being put in place in the UK in Jamaica. And companies like, you know Tate and Lyle who were reaping enormous profits did not put any of that money into, into wages. In fact, there was a big strike in the ‘30s. They wanted a dollar a day [laughs] they thought they’d been promised and they couldn’t even get that. So, you know, people talk about emancipation after enslavement but it was, it was another form of sort of, you know of, of indenture really, actually if you, if you want to call it that. So when my father was quite, quite young he had to, he actually had to leave school. His father, his father deserted the family. My father actually grew up with his grandmother but the fact the rest of the family weren’t far away. My grandmother was very young when she had him but anyway his father left, and my father had to leave school and, and go and earn money to take care of school fees and other sorts of things for the rest of the family. And of course healthcare wasn’t free or whatever so he was, he really became the financial provider for the rest. For the rest of the family. He worked in, as a, as a clerk in, in the back room of a of a store. I think he had originally started by cleaning up and then worked to evening, went to evening classes. And it was clear that he must have received the patronage of, of the owner of the, of the store because I’m pretty sure that he must have put in a word for my father to get him into, you know the college and to do some, well he ended up becoming a book keeper so he was doing math and English and things like that. He was clearly, my father was clearly very bright so he did well from that point of view. So —
HH: But he also, obviously he, he somehow perceived education and qualifications as, as very important in terms of improving himself.
HC: They were key. They were absolutely key for him. Education. He would tell me that he was, he was very very upset when he’d had to leave school to go and earn money to support the rest of the, of the family and he had clearly had encouragement, you know from, in particular one of, one of his uncles who was a sort of, I don’t know a sort of a self-educated polymath really. He had taught himself various languages or whatever and so and I think you know my, I think my grandmother had been a very ambitious woman but her, you know her husband had died in the Jamaica earthquake of 1907 so they, you know they lost their, their wage earner then. And the British government was very paternalistic in terms of the quote unquote their support. They were quite eager to support [pause] well, white survivors. But you know the white, sort of plantation class if you like from the earthquake but they had some very, very stringent requirements about support after the earthquake and you know operated on terms like the worthy. The worthy people. I mean who was worthy depended a lot on class and skin colour and, and the usual, you know divisions that imperial governance imposed. So it was a very, very hard life. When the war began the RAF was not actually accepting black recruits, and the recruits, the white recruits from Jamaica who did join up I think actually had to travel to England. So they, they, you know you had to be, you had to have money to do that. But in 1942 when those policies changed actually there was a training scheme that started up and my father had to take exams to enter this training scheme and pass, and it clearly was, it’s a terrible thing to say about war actually but I think my father looked at it as an opportunity, you know to, to earn money. And during the war there were very very strict embargoes on, on trade and imports. Things like clothes and food —
HH: Yeah.
HC: Had become, you know very, very expensive. And he got, you know he would tell me that he, he was given two suits of uniform and things. That actually it’s that’s not actually not a petty thing.
HH: No.
HC: When, when you can’t afford clothes. Do you see what I’m trying to say?
HH: Yeah.
HC: So and it was also an opportunity I think for him to, to use his education and he’d always believed in the British sort of education, you know, system. The courses he was doing at college were from the Royal Society for the Arts and stuff they were, and those were the examinations he’d taken. So he was very proud of that sort of success. So anyway so he was, he was among the first recruits from Jamaica to aircrew.
HH: Amazing.
HC: He passed the exams for aircrew and they were transported from Jamaica to, by boat to New York where actually they were, they were given a long lecture on the sort of racial, racialised codes of the US and how they should behave. And then they were transported to Canada by rail and in those days actually Canadian Railways did have a, did have a line down to New York. So after, after a very long journey he ended up in Moncton in Canada which was a very, very large Commonwealth air training unit and so there were people there from all over the world. From South Africa, Australia, New Zealand. One of the things I discovered in terms of the absences in RAF history is that you look at all these histories that you can obtain of the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan and you can’t find any reference to those being recruited from what I think of as the black colonies. You know there are records of the South Africans, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Canadians and in fact even the US volunteers who, who went up there. But you try and find the sort of Trinidadians and those from Barbados and those from Jamaica like my father, and they are not part of the official history at all.
HH: No.
HC: And in the, in the National Archives at Kew it took a long, long time to figure out that actually they did the various, I’m trying to think of the name. The various sort of squadron leaders. I don’t think they were called a squadron but the various leaders of the different units. Moncton was huge. I mean this, this was like enormous. So I could actually sort of eventually figure out which of those units he was part of, and I also realised that they kept daily logs. There was someone on each unit who kept daily logs. And it was only by going through and scrutinising these daily logs that I was actually able to actually find his arrival with others from the Caribbean, because the ship had been going to various islands and picking up RAF volunteers because it was all volunteers.
HH: Yeah.
HC: It wasn’t a conscription. And in fact, Canada is a, is a lot better with its records actually and very, very helpful. I actually went to Moncton and the librarians there were extraordinarily helpful. I mean they really were, you know incredible. So Canada has a very different attitude towards these histories it seems to me than even the British government do now. And the Canadian people, I mean my father always told me that the Canadian people were extremely generous. I mean, they would invite, you know, crew to their homes and he would be sent food even, they obviously kept in touch with him because they would send him hampers of food from Canada.
HH: Oh, is that when he arrived in the UK?
HC: From Canada.
HH: Oh gosh.
HC: From Canada. Yeah. So, and the other thing you know my father told me about being there at Moncton, and I have sort of maps of the whole way that the, you know the various units were laid out. It’s quite an extraordinary thing. But the other thing that he remembered. I mean the first one was, he was very proud of being in the RAF obviously and there was this story of clothes. But he was also totally amazed at the food. I mean you’re talking about someone where food had, had not, you know been easy to come by their entire life.
HH: Yeah.
HC: And there was just all this. I remember him telling me stories. As much as you could eat. He couldn’t believe that there was food as much as, as much as you could eat.
HH: Yeah.
HC: So, so as I say it’s a terrible thing to say about war but coming from the poverty that he did come from I think he did think that this was an opportunity. He didn’t hesitate. He believed in [pause] I’m not sure that he believed in imperial rule but he, you know he believed in British education system, whatever and he was prepared. He was loyal. He absolutely thought he was, you know, he was very loyal to the sort of British ideals of fair play and things he’d actually grown up in. Well, he’d been educated into. Even though he hadn’t been the recipient —
HH: Yeah.
HC: Of this fair play and this justice. He did believe.
HH: Well, it was a sort of ideal that he thought probably like so many other people who served from the colonies that it was an ideal that the, and what the war was being fought for.
HC: Yes. And I think also for his generation because in the 1930s the protests, and the rebellions had been so powerful that in fact if it hadn’t been for the war breaking out in ’39 there was already a huge influential movement for independence actually.
HH: Interesting.
HC: For the, for the realisation of these ideals by really achieving emancipation at last.
HH: Yeah.
HC: And a sort of freedom. And I think my father did think, you know and I heard him, you know tell stories about this. That they really were fighting for these ideals against, you know a tyranny represented by the forces of, of Nazism and fascism. So, he had, you know those motivations were propelling a young man to be prepared to risk his life.
HH: Yeah.
HC: So —
HH: So he, he’s trained in Canada. In Moncton. Does he go anywhere else in Canada?
HC: He actually starts training in Jamaica.
HH: Oh, he started training in Jamaica. Ok.
HC: In the camps they set up. They had a training thing there and that continued in Moncton while he was waiting for the convoy. That’s really why he was there. It was a huge transportation hub. So in addition to, you know training pilots and doing was they also actually were transporting people to the UK in these massive convoys. And when the convoy that he was going to be on was ready he was transferred with everybody who was going to be on that convoy to New Brunswick. And that convoy, I think he must have been in Moncton I think I worked out for maybe six to eight weeks.
HH: Ah huh.
HC: I forget the exact dates now. I’m pretty sure they’re in the book but anyway. Yeah. So then he was, they were then transported by convoy. And also in the British archives I’ve put together some of my father’s stories about the convoy being attacked. With information I actually found how to look up all the history of all the convoys.
HH: Gosh.
HC: Going across the North Atlantic. It was quite an extraordinary. It was, I don’t know, working through these military records is interesting. You have to sort of figure out. It takes a long time to figure out exactly how they work and I had to actually learn all the different coding systems which, which I did. But I put together my father’s memories of being attacked. The convoy being attacked, and which ships had actually been. He would tell me stories about, you know as he, as he said the crew that, that were lost. Not in his ship but in the, in the ships around it. Anyway, I put together his stories about remembering this torpedo attack and ships being destroyed with convoy records.
HH: Interesting.
HC: And that’s when I discovered that actually his convoy was being used as a, as a decoy because they had actually discovered how the German coding system was working, but they didn’t want the Germans to knew that they knew about the coding system. So they basically, you know they divided the convoy up and they sent them directly to, you know to a, you know to a submarine group, toward a submarine group and when the submarine group attacked they destroyed the submarine group. But some of the convoy actually also was destroyed. But I was, I also became very interested in, I don’t know, what it must have been like in the bows of those ships, you know, and how sound travels underwater faster than in the air and trying to imagine what it was, what it was like. And I found some record in, in Jamaica —
HH: Gosh.
HC: Of people who had you know they’d been interviewed about being in convoys and those quarters and what it was like so I assembled various records from from various archives trying to sort of re-imagine that because my father did not provide those sorts of details. He never talked about being scared.
HH: No. Interesting.
HC: Or what it was really like in the bow of those ships. Do you see what I mean? And he said that it wasn’t actually until they, they arrived in the UK that they realised what ships had been and it was always like, these people had been lost. I mean they weren’t, you know the language of, of avoidance was quite profound. I think you, you know, you managed to survive being part of a war machine by also a sort of language that really didn’t acknowledge that people were dying around you.
HH: Yeah.
HC: I suppose.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Quite horrible deaths. So it was just, it was, it was trying to sort of discover the details of these stories that my father didn’t want to tell me if you like. To really start to understand how, how you actually have to survive as part of a war machine. Although he did tell me that when they arrived at RAF Bridgenorth, he and the other recruits, there were a couple, there were other recruits with him from the Caribbean. You know, how those sort of black volunteers were treated really very, very badly you know. There was, there’s an example I include in the book of the racism that they suffered when they were introduced in excruciating detail to what a toilet was, and what a shower was and how you washed yourself and kept yourself clean. I mean extremely, extremely sort of demeaning.
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
HC: So, he never, he never explicitly said and he never really sort of said oh they were a racist bunch of whatevers. He wasn’t that sort of person. He was very, very reserved. But he did, and he in fact he actually wrote that in the letter about in, in detail, because he knew I was working on the book. That was something, you know —
HH: Fascinating
HC: He chose to, he chose to tell me just as an indication of basically how they were regarded by, you know by the UK.
HH: Yeah. Which was which they wouldn’t have dreamed of telling white recruits.
HC: No. No.
HH: So, yeah. So, yeah, I mean I think that there are probably, when one stands back from some of this there are two kinds of racism to deal with here. One is what is now called but wasn’t then I guess structural racism, and the other was casual. You know, it just depended who you came in to contact with, you know. And, and you know it seems as if there are both of these kinds kind of, there are interplays and interactions and some people get, get really caught up in, in terrible situations and others tend to sort of escape the worst of it, it seems to me in terms of the, the memoirs that I’ve read and the interviews that we’ve, that we’ve done and but, but there are definitely these two different sorts of, of discrimination going on at the time I think. Even though the RAF was officially had lost its colour bar by then it wasn’t quite like that.
HC: You know, I think there’s a way in which the racism is deeply entrenched. It is, it is institutionalised in that.
HH: Yeah.
HC: You know, because they actually needed more person power because of the exigencies of, of war I don’t think it meant that they actually really respected these volunteers from India, from the, from what came to be known, you know the black Commonwealth if you like. [laughs] You know, needing, needing fodder for war doesn’t necessarily mean that you regard everyone who’s volunteering with any sort of, you know equity.
HH: Yeah.
HC: So —
HH: Yeah.
HC: I mean I think you know he did he really, he went into Coastal Command. He was a navigator and radio operator he’d been trained as. And he really clearly felt that was an important role. I mean they, they were also looking for wolf, they were looking for the wolfpacks of the sort that actually had attacked his convoy.
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
HC: You know. They were also doing a lot of which actually my father found very interesting. The sort of scientific study of weather patterns and things, you know.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Various other operations and he clearly, he clearly really liked that. I think he felt he was learning a lot as well as actually playing an important —
HH: Indeed. Yeah.
HC: Role. My son actually found in a museum I think in Edinburgh in a display case, because he sent me photographs of the suits that they wore in Coastal Command because it was unbelievably cold. It wasn’t like these planes were heated but the suits were. And so my son sent me that it was it was really very interesting in these like bulky seats I was trying to sort of, you know imagine.
HH: Yeah.
HC: What it must have been like in Coastal Command. But the other thing I would say is that it was clear that I think there’s a, you know there’s a, there’s also a vulnerability being in these planes. Whether actually it’s in Coastal Command or later in Bomber Command that is shared and that the, because of what they’re going through aircrew become extremely dependant on each other. And it was clear that he felt the bonds that he was forming with other people as crew not as black, not as white, you know, not as brown were forming bonds that he hadn’t ever experienced before in Jamaica.
HH: Interesting.
HC: You know, where the class skin colour system was extremely rigid, and no one would ever have experienced any, any sort of, any equality between the various —
HH: Yeah.
HC: Skin class demarcations and separations. It was clear there was something over and above that happening between aircrew. I mean this is not something I can experience for myself.
HH: No.
HC: But it was clear in his, in his language that there was a real closeness —
HH: Yeah.
HC: And interdependency among this various aircrews in, in spite of, and I suppose also because of the dangers they —
HH: Yeah.
HC: They were facing together.
HH: In that sense, I mean it’s an interesting point that it would probably have been novel for all of them to experience that kind of closeness across various colour bars at that time in history in those crews.
HC: Yes. And I think, you know it was also clearly very, you know, fraternal. Just something happening between and among men. It was also I think what started me thinking about this was because I had an uncle. The next, my father’s next brother down who was also in the RAF.
HH: Oh right.
HC: Yeah. But he was in, he was ground crew and this was not something that my Uncle Dudley experienced.
HH: No.
HC: He was, he was far more vocal about the daily insults.
HH: Interesting.
HC: You know and the racism that they all faced, and my uncle was, he was the one who used to tell the stories about how, although my father was clearly involved in this sometimes but he, he, my uncle was the one who would actually come out with the stories about how often they had had to fight. Get involved in fights in alliance with black Americans.
HH: Oh wow.
HC: Against the white military police, US military police who would invade dance halls. Who would attack and, and arrest, you know black Americans if they were seen with white British women and that sort of thing. And there was, it was clear that there was a lot of alliances and resistances.
HH: That’s, that’s so fascinating. It’s —
HC: Among the sort of the black British and the black US forces.
HH: That’s really fascinating.
HC: In the policing, the policing of social places.
HH: That’s really —
HC: You know, all these contestations that would happen in pubs or dance halls were a real —
HH: Huge things dance halls.
HC: Right. Yeah. So but it was but yes it was basically a unified front against the US military police.
HH: That’s really fascinating, Hazel. Do you know where your Uncle Dudley served?
HC: No. He died when I was a child.
HH: It’s probably, it’s probably would have been somewhere in East Anglia which is where most of the African American airmen were based. Yes. That’s very fascinating.
HC: Yes. It wasn’t, it wasn’t just airmen.
HH: Oh, so it was, yeah —
HC: It was —
HH: No, it was, it was GIs as well.
HC: Oh yeah. It was GIs too.
HH: Yeah. Ok.
HC: Yeah. And, and because the, you know, because the various parts of the country practiced this, you know this social segregation.
HH: Yeah.
HC: The, the days where, you know white Americans had leave as opposed to black Americans and that sort of thing. It was happening all over the country.
HH: Ok.
HC: There were, I think it was a hundred and thirty thousand.
HH: Oh, it was huge.
HC: Black US sort of maintenance forces.
HH: Yes.
HC: Just in the West Country alone.
HH: Yeah. I mean it was huge.
HC: I mean these places were huge.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Yeah.
HH: What’s interesting, you know it’s an interesting point just that your, your uncle was also in the RAF like your father because —
HC: So was my grandfather.
HH: Oh really. Amazing. Gosh. So, that’s quite a history. Family history. Yeah. So, your, your father as far as I can work out from —
HC: That I should also my father’s father.
HH: Yeah. Your father’s father.
HC: He was brought from Jamaica.
HH: So your father’s father was Wilfred. Is that right?
HC: Yeah. And he also served.
HH: Amazing. Gosh. Incredible. So your father served for most of the war as far as I can tell from, from your account in the book, in Coastal Command and then quite late in the war he joins Bomber Command. Is that right?
HC: Well, he, he must, no he must have left. I’m not sure how long he was in Coastal Command actually.
HH: Ok.
HC: Because when he met my mother that was at a dance in Worcestershire, and they were married by 1944.
HH: Ok.
HC: So I think after Coastal Command he was actually based from what I can remember, he would talk about Herefordshire.
HH: Ok.
HC: Before then he was, before he was then transferred to RAF Waddington in, in Lincolnshire.
HH: Ok.
HC: And you see I would need the actual official RAF records.
HH: Yeah, well we can get that.
HC: To confirm those dates.
HH: Because it’s going to be really fascinating to see that.
HC: Yeah.
HH: But he, I mean he clearly sort of comes to Waddington. Your mother lives in Lincoln, and he flies a number of operations from Waddington. And he mentioned to you I think that he had flown on an operation to bomb Essen.
HC: Essen. There were two operations he would talk about. One, one was Essen. That was because I was really, really pushing him because I was, you know I was a very [pause] I was, you know, I spent a lot of my college life protesting outside of the American Embassy against the Vietnam War. So, we had conversations about war where we were very much on, sort of opposite sides, I think. My father trying to argue that, not that always but sometimes it was necessary and it was because of, it was because of the bombing, it was because of the atrocities basically that the US forces were perpetrating from the air in Vietnam that prompted me as a student. So you’re talking about, you know ’67/68 to attempt to confront my father about aerial warfare.
HH: So interesting.
HC: And I also had learned enough by then as a student and remember as someone who was fighting their own battles at that time to be recognised as black and British which is a whole other story. But I had by that time also read enough to understand that actually aerial warfare and bombing was, you know was started, it was practiced first against the colonies by the British. This is the history of the aerial warfare so, you know I was trying to push him to talk about the contradictions as someone who had grown up in a British colony about them participating in, you know the British war machine. And that’s, that’s when Essen came out but the only stories, the only things he would talk about in relation to Essen was that their targets were, you know industrial. This was part of fighting against the German war machine. He wouldn’t talk about civilian casualties.
HH: No.
HC: And I don’t know in some ways that he could really afford —
HH: No.
HC: To, to sort of revisit all of that.
HH: No.
HC: The only other operation that he talked about that he was actually extremely proud of that was I think also launched from RAF Waddington was a rescue mission to Italy. I think, if I’m remembering correctly it was actually perhaps a bomber. I’m not sure but anyway, a crew had had to bale out, or a plane had crashed or something in Northern Italy and they went and they actually did manage to rescue the crew.
HH: Gosh.
HC: But that, you know those were the, he wanted to talk about what he did in Coastal Command. He wanted to talk about rescuing people.
HH: Interesting.
HC: He didn’t want to talk about what he left. What he left behind him in Essen.
HH: Yeah.
HC: He did talk about the terrible losses of rear gunners.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Because they were the most vulnerable.
HH: Vulnerable.
HC: He would, he would talk about how terrible that was actually, and he would tell me. He told me one story about a rear gunner when they got back. They must have landed in RAF Waddington at some point and, and left to go in the barracks but the rear gunner must have been asleep or something because he woke up. The plane was silent and he leapt out of the plane and pulled his parachute because he thought the plane was going down because [laughs] I don’t know. There was some, he would tell amusing stories and he would tell stories about I don’t know the officers serving them at Christmas and that sort of thing. He would tell stories about his promotions as he became a non-commissioned officer, but he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t talk about Essen other than —
HH: Yeah.
HC: Those targets were purely —
HH: Yeah.
HC: Industrial.
HH: I mean, I think that that’s quite —
HC: I knew better.
HH: Yeah. I think it’s quite a common form of defence really in, in a way for those aircrew partly because they were facing such enormous dangers themselves in the air.
HC: Yeah. Yeah.
HH: But I think what’s so strikingly unusual about your particular story is that it’s very very rare for a daughter to have had these conversations with her father. It’s usually sons and the fathers have never really spoken to daughters. So, I mean, I find that really an interesting part of your story is that it is just so unusual that it was because of your own, because of your own sort of political involvement as a student that sort in a way created a bridge to talk about these things with your father.
HC: Yes. I think that’s true.
HH: Yeah. So I mean your, your at the, at the end of the war your father applied to undertake further training ostensibly as a preparation for returning to Jamaica.
HC: Yeah. Well, the British, ok the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office were playing very different roles actually in relation to all the people they had recruited from the colonies. Not talking about just RAF people. Even just military people but the Honduran foresters working in Scotland. All the people working in the factories in Liverpool producing armaments etcetera. And this goes back to the sort of racism that we were talking about. The institutionalised racism. The Foreign Office and the Home Office were extremely keen on getting everyone to commit to returning to their home colonies at the end of the war. The Home Office was terrified of having a black population after the war. They were terrified of the threat to Britishness particularly. I mean this is not unrelated to the fear of, of black men and white women having children but anyway they had to make, people had to sign these forms. Make these promises that they were all going back. The Colonial Office, and I’ve been through all these minutes it’s quite strange. The Colonial Office were much more wary. What they didn’t do, they didn’t, the Colonial Office really understood how close for example the Caribbean had come to outright rebellion before the war. They also, the Colonial Office also understood that there were generations now of people who had become educated and who were committed to movements for independence. For decolonisation. The Colonial Office understood that there were political, political consequences for how black recruits of all sorts, all the different peoples and this is brown too. I mean this is, you talk about India, you’re talking about all of the colonial world. They were very concerned that this idea of having to be repatriated was in fact not made public and they had to be, they had to be there to be very cautious of doing this because they were very, very wary of, as they used to say all the time of causing unrest in the colonies. So you have the sort of Home Office and the Foreign Office, the sort of protect Britishness, protect whiteness. Protect Britain as a sort of ongoing white nation, right and the sort of interests of the Colonial Office which was actually just keeping everything peaceful and not firing up those sorts of people who were in fact serving in the military who were going to go back and become leaders of their colonies and lead these movements. So, they were always aware of that, of that tension. But anyway, so because my father had served, like other people who had served he did qualify if his education had been interrupted, he did qualify for actually taking courses. So my mother had, when they married my mother had had to leave the Civil Service because she couldn’t be a married woman in the Civil Service. So yes she had moved to Lincoln, but my father’s courses were going to be in London so he was still serving in the RAF but he was on secondment. And these are all the records that you can find in the Colonial Office papers in, in Kew because the Colonial Office were, had all these people under constant surveillance actually, and it was very interesting when you see all these records, you know together. In fact, there are a lot of these records are of people who went. Who returned to their, to their countries and led, you know resistance movements and decolonised or whatever.
HH: Fascinating.
HC: So the Colonial Office were not wrong about, about that. So, so he was still serving in the RAF but he was on secondment and he wanted to do an accountancy course. He wanted to become an accountant. Yeah. So then I looked up all those, you know records and then you come across I suppose rather a different form of sort of racism. A more sort of paternalistic form of racism because the Colonial Office were, you know very aware of what people were, people were facing when it came to sort of finding jobs and they were also aware that you know my father had married a white woman and all this sort of thing and then was having a child. So they kept scrupulous, scrupulous records. But yes, he was supposed to return back like all the others. He was supposed to go back to his home country. There wasn’t anything to go back to of course, like, you know, my father would tell me this. So —
HH: But he applied for a, he applied to leave the RAF and to stay in the UK then.
HC: No. He, he was in, he was in the RAF all the time he was taking the courses.
HH: Yeah.
HC: He was in the RAF until I think 1947.
HH: Ok.
HC: Yeah. And then he was discharged. I mean, I can double check those dates but I think it’s —
HH: No. But the thing is that he, he somehow, he was able to make a case for staying here.
HC: Yeah.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Yeah. He did actually have to go. He was, one of his, after he’d finished with the courses he was sent to Jamaica actually.
HH: Oh, really?
HC: So, yes he was. Ok. So they had, they had a way of sort of demobbing people in fazes and so he went back with a ship full of people who had been demobbed. In charge of them really, you know. So yeah he was and then, and then he, he came back. I was already [pause] I’m just trying to think. I was already on the way when he did that.
HH: Ok.
HC: Because that was the summer of ’47 and he was, so he was still serving in the RAF, and I was born January ’48 and he returned that Fall so he must have been discharged in the Fall of —
HH: Ok.
HC: Or the Autumn, sorry of ’47.
HH: Ok.
HC: After he, after he’d taken the returning servicemen back to Jamaica.
HH: Ok. That’s interesting. Most veterans in the post-war period found that it was a badge of pride and it helped them to get on in the world to, to be able to say that they had served in the war. Particularly I think that was the case for the RAF. Did that work in that way for your father?
HC: No. No. The opposite actually. I mean my parents couldn’t, you know they found it hard to find anywhere to live together. Actually, they couldn’t for a long time so no [pause] There’s a lot of stories during the war, you know of how all people from across the empire were welcomed. You know, when they were in uniform and fighting. Once the war stopped the country didn’t want those, those brown bodies at all. At all. They did not. The racism was extraordinary. Wouldn’t rent houses to them. Wouldn’t rent any sort of accommodation. So it wasn’t until they could, my, my mother had some savings, it wasn’t until they could actually put down a small deposit on actually what was a bomb damaged house. We could, we could only live on the ground floor, that they could, and that was in Streatham that they could actually be, you know together.
HH: Together.
HC: My mother was completely vilified. And I was. You know, half cast children. It was, it was, it was a racist nightmare actually.
HH: Yeah. I mean, I think —
HC: What they lived through. Both. All of us. All three of us.
HH: Yeah.
HC: And there was immediate historic amnesia actually about any of these, of any of these people from across the empire from India, from Africa, from the Caribbean, fighting.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you talk so movingly or you write, sorry so movingly in your book about that question sort of which kind of framed your early life. This question where are you from? Yes, but where are you from? Yes, but where are you from? Did your father have that as well after the war?
HC: Oh yeah. All the time. My father. Ok. My father had that all the time. I mean I didn’t realise he was going through the same thing when I was a young child. When my parents retired and moved from London they moved up to York. My brother lived up there. He’d been up there for years. He’d, he’d gone. Moved up there for, for a job. And it started all over again. My father used to tell me how, and he used to try and put it in the politest terms that the neighbours as he was saying trying to be polite would ask him all these questions about Jamaica. He had not been to Jamaica since 1947 and he’d lived in, in the UK since 1943. But it wouldn’t occur to them to ask him anything about the UK. They thought he must [pause] you know. So, this sort of sense of being totally other haunted him his entire life.
HH: Yeah.
HC: And it was actually as a, you know the racism takes different forms at different moments, and after sort of Margaret Thatcher’s encouragement of the extreme right in the UK. The formation. The British National Party, the sort of real rise of fascism that my father was actually attacked. You know, as an, as an older person by fourteen year olds who, who had swastikas carved into their skin. I mean they stoned him at a bus stop when he got off coming back from work one night. So the, ‘Where are you from?’ that I was experiencing initially was part of that post-World War Two reaction against black migration in to the UK. I mean the UK was on its knees right after the war.
HH: Yeah.
HC: It needed, it needed people to run the National Health System.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
HC: It needed a workforce but that didn’t mean that it was, that it was welcoming.
HH: Welcoming.
HC: And in fact, you know, people from the European, what they called European displaced people were actually offered all sorts of support with accommodations and encouragement that actually people from the Caribbean didn’t get.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Because it was imagined that people from Europe displaced by the war who were regarded as white could integrate and become British. It was never imagined that people from the black colonies could become integrated. Could really become British.
HH: Yeah.
HC: They were seen as a threat to British character and, and values. So then, you know when I was being asked, you know, ‘Where are you from?’ It was, it was a denial that I could have possibly have been born in Britain.
HH: Or belonged here in any way.
HC: I was actually quite upset, you know.
HH: Yeah. Tell me there’s, there’s an incident that you describe in your book about, in school when you were at school and you stood up in front of your class to tell your class about how your father had been in RAF.
HC: It was, it took a long time as a child to understand that the stories I was being told at home about family history which is also, you know history were very different from the stories I was being told at school under that label. Quote unquote, history. So, yes in Primary School we were all asked to stand up and describe what our fathers had done during the war. And I remember vividly the boy who stood up before me, you know talking about Egypt and sand and dust and flies. I mean his, I think, you know his father was driving tanks across the desert. And so then I was next and, and stood up and said, ‘Well, my father was in the RAF,’ and was immediately shut up by the teacher and told that I had to sit down. And then we were all given a lecture about the consequences of lying. It was terrifying actually. It was terrifying. I mean I grew up, there was a photograph on our piano of my father in his RAF uniform and so it’s this, along with this question of, ‘Where are you from?’ Which I realised, it took a long time to realise, really wasn’t actually a question of geography. It was actually a sort of racial fiction. I was asked to account for myself in ways that a child cannot possibly account of myself. And if I said I was born in Britain that was even worse frankly because then I was this aberration. The story of being as thought of as a liar by my teacher was, as I say in the book my first introduction actually to, to British history, and so that’s that sense of Britain actually mobilising a global war machine was completely replaced by the Churchillian, ‘We stood on our own. We were entirely on our own.’
HH: Yeah.
HC: The other thing I learned about this that the teachers said, was not only that there were no black people fighting during the war they could not possibly have been in the RAF. The crème de la crème she said of the British fighting machine. So there was also, it came when I had to say, what I was trying to say my history, what my father did completely contradicted in some people’s minds the sort of mythology of the RAF as this incredibly prestigious elite fighting force.
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
HC: So —
HH: Your, your, did, did you ever get to visit Jamaica with your father?
HC: No.
HH: So when was your first visit to Jamaica?
HC: My first visit to Jamaica was in the early ‘70s actually. I went with my mother. So, my father was the eldest in his family actually, which was why he was raised by his grandmother and looked after the rest of the family. But after the war, now his next brother down was already also in England because he’d been in the RAF and did some training and stayed and married. They felt a real responsibility for the rest of their family. The next brother down, my Uncle Duston was in, migrated to the United States without papers after the war, and he volunteered to fight in Korea, because if you agreed to fight in Korea you got US citizenship. Now, together what they basically did was to pool their money and to get everybody out of Jamaica one by one. I told you that life in Jamaica was extremely hard and the poverty, you know, the poverty was intense. I don’t. Our family wasn’t part of the Jamaican elite.
HH: No.
HC: My uncle told me actually, he said the phrase to describe our family was no shoes poor. That’s what you said if you went to school without, without shoes. But anyway, so that their response, their basic responsibility was to the rest of the family and one by one in fact everybody did then move to the US.
HH: Gosh.
HC: Because, well the UK, you know became completely antagonistic.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Any further migration from the Caribbean.
HH: So there wasn’t, so, so by the 70s perhaps there wasn’t the same sort of family connection to go back to if, if —
HC: No. There wasn’t.
HH: Yeah.
HC: They were out by then.
HH: Yeah.
HC: They were out. No. They were out by the —
HH: Yeah.
HC: They were out by the early 60s.
HH: Yeah.
HC: You know, including my grandmother. Now, so when I came to the United States in 1969 I met them all.
HH: Ok.
HC: So, and there was, there was a large, you know family over here. I met my Uncle Duston who was then still in the, well he had visited. I mean some people had visited the UK.
HH: Ok.
HC: Before that. But I met them all. I met all my cousins. So, yeah and we are in fact it’s, extremely close.
HH: Ok, so I mean —
HC: The whole [unclear] generation so.
HH: That’s, that’s, that’s incredible.
HC: But we’re all very close to each other but not sort of like in Jamaica.
HH: Yeah, so, so — but —
HC: Jamaica’s a very, Jamaica’s a very difficult place actually. It was a very difficult place to visit.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Because if you were slotted in to the tourist label, the inequalities were extremely difficult to face. So most of the visits that I’ve been since, since then they’ve all been all sort of basic research visits.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Yeah. To the, you know the University of Jamaica or to archives or, you know whatever.
HH: Yeah.
HC: We have done some family visits but not to the hot tourist spots. There’s a, there’s a sort of Jamaica run, you know eco place that we stay at in Portland but we keep very very, we keep a very big distance from the European run and US run tourist economies because basically they are just a gigantic sucking sound of money out of Jamaica.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
HC: They’re all there tax free. They built these huge hotels tax free.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Various European countries and the US.
HH: Yeah.
HC: So it’s a very, you have to make sure that when you go you only stay in, in Jamaican run places.
HH: Yeah. So I mean, I imagine that, that, that many of your research trips to Jamaica were connected to your own exploration of your family history and roots in this incredible reflection that is in your book. Your latest book. I think it’s your latest. Have you published another one since? So I’m talking about, “Imperial Intimacies.”
HC: No. I’m working on it.
HH: So it’s about, “Imperial Intimacies,” that we, that we’re chatting here and you talked, you mentioned Portland there, so it seems an appropriate moment to raise that and the burning question I have is to what extent your father was aware of how close to his ancestors origins he really was when he was at Waddington.
HC: He wasn’t aware at all.
HH: I mean, I just find that, I find, I find the geographic connection completely overwhelming.
HC: So, my father used to tell me stories of how his grandmother every summer took him from Kingston over to the north coast to Portland, to a place called Swift River and everyone there was called Carby. So you grow up with these stories. You know, you grow up with the photographs. With all these sorts of things. As a child I don’t know that I made an awful lot of sense of it but in the National Archives at Kew it started to make sense. I actually did find the slave register for this particular Jamaican plantation run by a Carby. So, in 1815 actually the British government decided it was going to count every enslaved person in its entire empire. It actually instituted it in 1816 and then the first one is 1817 and this is all preparatory to emancipation that happened gradually between 1834 and 1838. So I imagined it was when I found this register of these enslaved people which is actually a very difficult and painful moment. I imagine that what I was going to be doing was to track from the people on this plantation through anyone else I could find in Swift River through all sorts of parish records which is actually extremely painstaking and difficult. I imagined I was going to track all the way up there to my father and that was, that was the street that I was following. But I did become increasingly interested in this person called Lilly Carby who actually ran the plantation. For a while I was trying to look for a woman because of the name Lilly which was a mistake. But after a lot of digging and a lot of time I actually tracked Lilly Carby to Coleby In Lincolnshire and to, you know these, these hand written parish records, Lincolnshire parish records and found the entire family. And what was bizarre about it actually, I realised that this was absolutely exactly the right family not just because of the Carby name and the Lilly name, but because everybody in Lilly Carby’s family in Coleby, he took all their names and he, he gave them to his enslaved quote unquote property, so there were these two sets of records of the same name and it took me a long time to get my head around that. Why he would do that. He also called the plantation Lincoln, and it was a coffee plantation. So, anyway, so then I, you know did a lot of research about Lincolnshire history to track his entire history, and to track the history, I came across this record in the Lincolnshire archives about how, you know Lincoln, Lincolnshire emptied out of young, of young men and I realised in fact what had happened of course it was actually all about the sort of the militia they established because they worried about fighting the French on the coasts and then in fact scooping everybody up into the British Army, the revolutionary, the Napoleonic wars, the huge shipping of all these people to, to Jamaica. So, you know I sort of went off on this huge tangent in terms of British military history and it took a while for the penny to drop actually that the story that my father used to tell me about RAF Waddington was that this is really the same place and as a navigator you know he was using the lights on the, you know that’s, that’s what they would use.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Flying back via [unclear]
HH: I mean it is extraordinary that I mean because Lilly Carby himself I mean, think goes to Jamaica in sort of 1788/89 you —
HC: With his cousins.
HH: With his cousins. And then you know he either gets a discharge for which there’s no record or he deserts. He sort of finds his way into ownership as you’ve traced so incredibly in your book. He finds his way in to the ownership of this plantation up on the North coast at Portland. He calls it Lincoln. He names these enslaved people after members of his family. He has three children. Two of them by a freed person of colour, woman of colour Mary Ivy, and one by an enslaved woman called Bridget which was his mother’s name. And that child is called Matthew and that is a direct descendant of yours and your father’s.
HC: Ok. No. Yeah, the mother wasn’t Bridget. Matthew actually, so Lilly Carby before becoming a plantation owner served on other plantations.
HH: Yeah. Ok.
HC: That’s the track. And so, the Matthew Carby was actually from another plantation.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Which was one of the sugar plantations. I mean those are, those are sort of three that I know of. But I mean —
HH: There might have been others.
HC: White men raped at will.
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
HC: So who knows how many.
HH: Yeah. So they were the three you were able to trace.
HC: To trace. Yes. And the problem about military records, British military records is they keep meticulous records of officers but if you’re, if you’re not an officer its very very difficult to find records.
HH: Ok.
HC: So I found records of the cousins who returned to the UK because, through the Chelsea Pension Records.
HH: Ah huh.
HC: Because he qualified for a pension.
HH: Ok.
HC: So, but clearly that’s what happened. He either and you can look at the history of the people who deserted or were discharged because of illnesses. He could have been discharged because he was ill.
HH: Yeah. Ok. Yeah.
HC: But there was massive, I mean because the death rate.
HH: I know.
HC: In the West Indies was absolutely huge.
HH: Huge.
HC: The desertion rate was huge. And the discharge because of ill health was very big. So I mean, so it’s you know it’s, it’s speculation but it’s clearly, that’s clearly what happened and he must have, the unit he was part of went and was based around the other side of the island. I mean they were there. Yes. There was the revolutionary Napoleonic Wars but the British Army was primarily there to put down to stop rebellion and put down rebellions on, on the plantations.
HH: Yeah. To safeguard planter interests basically.
HC: Yeah. So, he met, he met planters. He went to work on sugar plantations there and then he started himself off. You know, I found the wool. I found land records and he was actually, purchased some land from one of the people he had originally been working for on their plantation. So it was, you know it was adjacent to one of the sugar plantations but it was a further up, you know in the hills and he started a coffee plantation and bought people.
HH: And, and, and the sort of detective work that you undertook to trace back is really just a remarkable story of its own.
HC: Well, it took a long time and this is the thing about my father never really knowing. So, you know, late in his eighties my father he had a number of, of illnesses including a sort of motor neurone disease but he also started to get sort of dementia. So by the time I was, and I would, I would visit him every time before I went came down to visit Coleby or do anything in the Lincolnshire Archives, but it was actually really sort of difficult and explain to him about these connections that I’d made. So I would try and start to talk about it and then he would talk about RAF Waddington. I mean, to the very end he could recite his RAF number and he would start to talk about it but he couldn’t really understand the connections I was, I was making. But it was, it was clear that it was the best decision I ever made to try and track the slave owner down.
HH: Yeah. I mean it is.
HC: It was clear that it was. I mean, it was an unbelievable amount of work and that’s why it did take so many years.
HH: Yeah.
HC: And my father was deteriorating during all those years so it was, it was tragic.
HH: I mean there is just something so incredible that, that he should end up his, this war service coming to the UK to serve the allied sort of, in the allied war effort and he was that close to his origins. There is something just so extraordinary about that and I know it’s to some extent —
HC: Well, these stories are connected by war.
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
HC: Because the person who becomes the slave owner.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Goes out there because of war and the other reason for telling it is because I really wanted it to be about ordinary stories and ordinary people. You know people in, in Britain think that these stories about enslavement somehow only involved aristocrats.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Bu, you know, this there were ordinary white men all over the Caribbean.
HH: Yeah.
HC: Who became slave owners.
HH: Can I, I’m sorry to do this to you Hazel but I want to quote one sentence from your book which is just, you know it should cause us to stop and think a lot about our practice and I think it is causing us to stop and think a lot, “Links to colonial exploitation and oppression to Atlantic slavery and imperial wars are not the exception. They are, they are our quotidian past.”
HC: Yeah.
HH: And the thing about that statement is that why has it all been forgotten then?
HC: Indeed. That’s the question the book, you know, poses. This historical amnesia. I mean, if you think about it Lilly’s parents in Coleby, in Lincolnshire Bridget and William had grandchildren. Black grandchildren in Jamaica. As did many ordinary people in Britain but we don’t call them family stories do we? See, this is the point of the book, “The Imperial Intimacies.” These are extremely intimate entangled relationships, but somehow the history of the colonies are somehow seen as other. You know what I mean? That’s a completely separate history. So when black people were serving in Britain or were living in Britain were sort of like, ‘Well, where have you come from?’ As if there were actually no relationships between the metropole and the colonies. When I was, you know when I became politically active in the UK in my late teenage years and as a student you know we used to say, ‘We’re here because you were there.’ But the you were there part of the story is the sort of the sense of responsibility. The sense of how these histories are intricately tied to each other is the one that we have to recover. That’s the stories we have to recover. We’re not alien. We haven’t come from somewhere other or completely different. My father thought, you know, my father was raised as British. He had a British education. He went to [unclear] He wasn’t an other. He wasn’t an alien. So if we don’t, if we erase these histories we will never understand how closely tied we all are to each other.
HH: Hazel, you know that seems to be a very profound point to make and one on which perhaps we should conclude this interview because it has been, just so, such an incredible privilege to hear you recounting these stories and I know some of them remain painful but we are just so grateful that. That you’ve been able to do this for our Archive. Thank you so much.
HC: You’re very welcome.
HH: And I’ve stopped recording.



Heather Hughes, “Interview with Hazel Carby,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 17, 2024,

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