The Private Life of Empire

The Private Life of Empire

In her new memoir, Hazel Carby uses her family’s history to uncover the intimate side of the British Empire. Reckoning with its legacies will be the only way to move beyond them.

Jamaican migrants arrive in Essex in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. (Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands
by Hazel V. Carby
Verso, 2019, 416 pp.


Selected for a solo in her ballet school’s first concert, the young Hazel Carby was elated. It was only years later that she realized that she had been cast as a “gypsy”—decked out in bangles, beads, ribbons, and a head wrap—so that her brown skin wouldn’t disturb the white homogeneity of the rest of the show. At school on the fringes of the South London suburban sprawl, the same question came over and over: “Where are you from?” The idea that the daughter of a Welsh mother and a Jamaican father—a patriot who served in the Second World War—could be British was met with disbelief. She wasn’t being asked where she lived; she was being asked to provide a reason for her being. In Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands, Carby’s new sociological memoir, she follows the buried roots of her family tree to uncover the story of the British Empire. Tracing threads back through the plantations of Jamaica, over the hills and into the tenements of England and Wales, Carby shows the private underbelly of a history Britain has repressed.

Carl Carby, Hazel’s father, came to Britain in 1943. In Jamaica, he had volunteered with the Royal Air Force and, at a dance in the English city of Worcester, met a young woman named Iris Leaworthy. The two were married, and he stayed in England. When Jamaica won its independence in 1962, he chose to remain in Britain. He was born a British citizen and had spent twenty years of his life in the metropole; it was his home. The British Home Office had other ideas. An officer from the department responsible for immigration accused him of lying and sneaking into the country illegally. She declared his documents forgeries and threw them off the desk. Carl bent to gather them, and, refusing to meet her gaze, he left.

“Living with him was like living within the radius of a sleeping volcano,” Carby writes. He spoke little of Jamaica. Stiffened by the exigencies of colonial schooling and the biting poverty of the Kingston in which he grew up, Carl brushed off questions with the phrase “difficult times” and let his daughter piece together the past through the filter of her own metropolitan gaze. Many of the book’s most painful passages retrace Carl’s painstaking efforts to retain footing on a small island that seems perpetually on the cusp of spewing him out. An accountant, he sought tranquility in the poise and equanimity of his ledgers. Donning his neck tie, starched shirt, and polished shoes, he assumed a posture of “dignity”—a shell that would protect him from the rampant discrimination he faced in the colonial center.

Things with Carby’s mother were not always easy. Despite living in a world that repeatedly tarred her daughter a “wog” or “half-caste,” Iris Leaworthy refused to accept that Hazel was black. The same woman boasted of her bravery in asking Carl to dance. Inheriting a hunger for social betterment from her mother Beatrice, Iris grew to resent the exclusion that came from being part of a mixed-race couple, the hard fact that as a married woman she was forced to resign from the civil service, and the remittances Carl sent to family in Jamaica from their meager income. These strains came to be more than the marriage could bear.

Whiteness is forged through these encounters. Beatrice, Hazel’s grandmother, lived in the port town of Bristol until 1887, where the myths of an exotic periphery etched in relief the stories the imperial center told about itself. Walking down Guinea Street, so-called because it was where enslaved people had been bought and sold, did she hanker after the imported luxuries of chocolate, sugar, and tobacco? Carby quizzes her white forbears: “How many came to believe that they were, justifiably, rulers of the earth even if they didn’t have enough to eat?” Beatrice didn’t know then how these histories would converge in the figure of her granddaughter.


Carby works with the scant evidence left by her ancestors to enact what the scholar Saidiya Hartman—a colleague of Carby’s at Yale—calls “critical fabulation,” a spirit of reconstructive sympathy that breathes into being the stories history occludes. Imperial Intimacies is a theoretical memoir, akin to Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims or Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger—books that illustrate how vast social forces govern in an individual life. Carby renews the genre’s conventions to her own ends. Embroidered with inset pictures and quotations, its experimental intertextuality amounts to more than a technique to cut against historical amnesia. Heaving its footnotes into its main body, it points to the world beyond it to show how a life spent raking over texts can shape a self. Michael Ondaatje, King Lear, James Baldwin, Zia Haider Rahman, P. D. James, Karl Marx, W. G. Sebald, Jane Austen, Paul Gilroy, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Michel Rolph-Trouillot emboss the memoir’s pages like a starscape.

Stuart Hall in particular is a major presence in the book. The origin of Carby’s memoir extends back to conversations she had with Hall as a graduate student in 1979. Identity, Hall once wrote, is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Following this insight, Imperial Intimacies depicts identity as a process, a composite formation that comes into being by degrees. “Far from only coming from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside, they are the way in which we are recognized and then come to step into the place of the recognitions which others give us,” he is quoted saying in the book’s inscription. “Without the others there is no self, there is no self-recognition.”

In this spirit, Imperial Intimacies avoids centering its subjects for their own sake, instead teasing out the tethers spun between history and the people that comprise it. Fragments from Carby’s personal story organize the book, but she objectifies herself as “the girl,” looked at from high above. (“Maps . . . make birds of us all,” she quotes.) Scathing notional objectivity, Carby clutches at clues—coming from the word “clew,” or a ball of thread, like the one Theseus used to retrace his steps while pursuing the Cretan minotaur in its labyrinth. The final result is less like a work of academic analysis, Carby writes, “assembling details into a recognizable pattern of events with discernible causes and effects, and more like the instinct of a moth flying toward the open flame of their resentments.”

Take, for example, a critical reverie prompted by Carby’s father’s penmanship. Carl’s handwriting, in the long letters his daughters received, was unusually beautiful. Its form sparks a speculative flight, in which she situates the script within a rigid colonial setting. At school, left-handedness was considered a sin and drummed out. Should Carl reach to write with his left hand, he was lashed with a ruler or cane. “It was when my father picked up a pen with his right hand as an adult that he glanced at the deformed knuckles of his left hand and told me this story for the first time,” writes Carby. “Did his hand ache with memory? Is this why he made such circumspect, studied and deliberate movements when he wrote? My dad learnt his lesson; his English round was perfect.”

Following this method, Carby relates the shadow history of “enlightenment rationalism.” “Empire is accounting: continuous and rigorous accounting,” Carby writes, and it is more than just a metaphor. Her father was an excellent bookkeeper; he saved, in quiet, many a cricket club from going under. The practices of accounting, however, contain a shadow past, traceable to “techniques and technologies of imperial governance.” While its early roots date to ninth-century Baghdad, modern accounting developed under the auspices of William Petty, who not only pioneered methods in economics and statistics but used these devices in service of a system of racialized hierarchy across seventeenth-century Britain and its emergent empire. “Colonial subjugation, the surveying and mapping of bodies and space, and accounting systems for measuring and estimating their value, all emerge simultaneously,” Carby writes. And new forms of accounting were above all used to log human beings as cargo. “Calculating the depreciation of value in decrepit, decaying bodies or corpses is particularly tricky when defects affect sale price, because the same words cannot be used to describe ‘damage’ in ‘negroes’ as ‘damage’ in other types of goods.”

This train of regressions brings Carby to some dark and difficult places. The Carl we meet in the here and now lives in a care home in northern England. His short-term memory failing him, he fixes on old memories for safety, regaling her with tales of a flight during his time in the air force in which he used a church in the town of Coleby, Lincolnshire, as a beacon by which to land his plane. She hasn’t got the heart to tell him that 170 years ago, this was the site of his ancestor’s baptism. Former solider and soon-to-be plantocrat Lilly Carby left his namesake Coleby in 1789 for Jamaica, where, “enacting his fantasy of unlimited domination,” he give rise to the ancestral line of which Carl Carby formed a part.


Carby gets into the crevices of the lives she depicts. She fixes on the ravages of tuberculosis, to which she lost a grandmother and a great aunt. “Soot coated the surface of things, but also burrowed into seams, penetrated the weave of fabric, and gathered in every corner and crevice.” Clean air was the preserve of the middle classes. Quoting Capital, she deplores the morality of sanitation inspectors who recommended 500 cubic feet of breathing space without compelling bosses to make such a concession, amounting to a declaration, in Marx’s terms, that “consumption and other lung diseases among the workpeople are necessary conditions to the existence of capital.”

Sanitation is today some distance from the 1860s, making it all the more incomprehensible that London, glittering center of global finance, is also the “TB capital of Western Europe,” the only place where rates are rising, with a 50 percent increase in reported cases over the last twenty years and 9,000 cases now reported annually. But rather than confront the root causes of these conditions, the right-wing Faragist Brexit strategy has scapegoated immigrants and people of color, averting a deeper reckoning with the mushrooming inequality, austerity, kleptocractic financialization, the uneven spoils of globalization, and the legacies of empire. “As a society we choose what we excavate, decide what is digestible and what we cannot stomach,” Carby writes.

In the immediate aftermath of the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016, racially motivated hate crimes spiked 21 percent in London and Manchester. A “hostile environment” for migrants has bitten deep into the social fabric, and every week a new story emerges of a descendant of the Windrush generation—British subjects who came to the UK to aid in postwar reconstruction, named after a ship arriving from the Caribbean in 1948—facing deportation back to a “home” country in which they have never lived. The entanglements of empire’s forbidden past hang spectrally across British political life, and Carby’s timely project draws them into the open.

Imperial Intimacies ends on a mournful note. “I owe my life to the National Health Service,” Carby reflects. “The dismantling of the Welfare State in Britain has broken my heart.” These sentiments resonate for many on the British left after the disastrous election in December. But reckoning with these legacies will be the only way to move beyond them. While the minotaur of the British imperial past is very far from dead and buried, Carby’s memoir offers a course, a set of clues; it brings us a bit closer to the mouth of the maze.

Phoebe Braithwaite is a PhD student at Harvard and has written for Frieze, Tribune, and openDemocracy.