My father has, or more accurately used to have, beautiful handwriting. The headmistress at my secondary school, a Miss Pym, prized the art of penmanship and would have considered his handwriting exemplary.
Before dementia began its relentless encroachment through his mind, before an autoimmune disease wrought havoc on his muscular system, my father wrote lengthy, thoughtful and carefully composed letters to me and mailed them across the Atlantic. He was a man who was reserved yet quick to anger. When he wanted to express emotion, affection, or explain a deeply held belief, my father wrote it down, for over time he had become fearful of mis-speaking.
The act of putting pen to paper, of shaping individual letters into words in solitude, of making many drafts of a letter before being satisfied with it, allowed my father to say exactly what he meant.
Every day Miss Pym wore a tightly buttoned suit jacket and pencil skirt and secured her steely grey hair in a knot at the nape of her neck. She had a ramrod straight back, and a stern demeanor. Miss Pym was a woman of convictions, one of them being that the content of my character did not reside in the color of my skin or my “mongrel” background, another that one’s future was not determined by the social status of one’s parents.
I loved Miss Pym without reservation, even though she could be very aloof and her grave frown of disapproval made me a little afraid of her. She took her responsibilities as headmistress very seriously. For some reason she believed that I—one of the few day pupils on a scholarship, a gangly almost-teenager who ran when she should have walked and who was accused of “having her head in the clouds”—had the potential to become, in her opinion, an accomplished woman.
Among the accomplishments that Miss Pym was determined I should acquire was the art of the English round hand. “Penmanship,” Miss Pym declared, “reveals qualities of character.” I considered her dictum: recipients of correspondence in an elegant hand judged the writer as a person of confidence and worth; I concluded this was true.
My mind was not so much in the clouds as saturated with the fictions of the 19th-century English novel. I was a young woman possessed by Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. From these fictional worlds of country houses and estates I gathered that, after breakfast, gracious and elegant women retired to a “morning room” to deal with their “correspondence.” Correspondence was among the words I savored, rolling it around in my mouth, tasting it.Being a pupil in a private school surrounded by girls from wealthy families, I assumed that everyone but me was rich.
Miss Pym also proffered advice on dress. Clothes made of quality British cloth were a statement that signalled good taste and judgement. Her own severely tailored dark blue suits were made of the finest serge, her feet were encased in tightly laced, brown English leather Oxford brogues, her legs wrapped in thick grey woollen stockings in winter and white cotton stockings in spring and summer. I imagined rows and rows of identical blue suits hanging above rows and rows of identical brown shoes in an imposing wardrobe in Miss Pym’s bedroom in a large Victorian house.
Being a pupil in a private school surrounded by girls from wealthy families, I assumed that everyone but me was rich. It only occurred to me years later that Miss Pym may have only possessed one or two suits and that the sharp tailoring may not have been a sign of wealth but disguised the lack of it.
My mother made all my clothes, except for certain items of my school uniform: a rust-colored school blazer and beret, a grey gabardine raincoat and indoor (red) and outdoor (brown) lace-up Oxfords. My scholarship to this private ballet school did not include an allowance for the compulsory uniform but the “College Handbook” declared that these items must be purchased from Burberry, an exclusive London department store, at a price my mother could ill-afford. It was fortuitous that she was a talented dressmaker, like her mother before her.
Although my mother worked full-time in the city she would spend her winter evenings sewing for me, creating elegantly tailored grey skirts, cream shirts and blue and white polka-dot shirt-dresses from beautiful wools and soft cottons.
Consequently, I never had reason to feel dowdy or envious among the girls I saw as glamorous: girls with confidence and composure, young women who possessed an unselfconscious equanimity about their place in the world, a self-assurance that I gradually came to associate with words like “good breeding” and “family.” These girls never ran; they sauntered.
When we day-pupils arrived each morning by bus we arrived as outsiders, unfamiliar with the alliances and discords of dorms and bathrooms, confidences whispered and secrets spilled at night. After hanging up our coats and tying the laces tightly on our red shoes, we hurried toward the assembly hall only to hesitate at its threshold before entering a world already in the full flow of conversations that our arrival now interrupted.
We were not unwelcome, but we returned to our own separate houses and families, each with its own particular stresses and strains, while the boarders remained a community without us, a separate world of intimacies.
I longed to be best friends with a girl whose surname was Bathurst, and I was a constant presence on the margins of her circle. Her parents would not allow their daughter to visit the house of a Jamaican. Even from my distant orbit I learnt that the name Bathurst was a name to be found in Burke’s, along with the names of a few other girls at the school.
I thought I was hearing “Berks,” the abbreviated term for the county of Berkshire. The word was spoken with such reverence that I imagined the Bathursts must be connected in some way to the Royal Family and Windsor Castle. The significance (and correct spelling) of Burke’s was revealed in one of Miss Pym’s history lessons on “Peerage.”
What was not to be found in my school history books or in Burke’s was that Bathurst is also the surname of descendants of enslaved persons in Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and Jamaica. This discarded, forgotten family I unearthed for myself many years later sitting in one of the leather and oak chairs of the old British Library Reading Room.
While researching the lives of black Britons in the 18th century, I was startled to come across the name Bathurst in a biographical sketch of Frances Barber, who was born in Jamaica and became well known as the black servant of Dr. Samuel Johnson, English author and lexicographer. Now a confident academic, rather than a teenager intimidated by Britain’s arcane class system, I set out to discover the ancestry of my old classmates.Family, I learned, referenced a history echoing across generations and resonating through surnames.
Consulting Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic histories of the Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage and of the Landed Gentry, what I had considered a historical detour returned me to my main concern with colonialism, plantation slavery and, my particular interest, Jamaica.
Weaving my way through a bewildering array of Bathurst “issues” was a process akin to being in a Scripture class at school, poring over the endless repetition of “begat” in the books of the Old Testament in the King James Bible. Arriving with the Saxons in the part of Britain that would become known as England, the Bathurst estate and castle were established near Battle in Sussex.
During the Wars of the Roses, a Laurence Bathurst supported the Lancastrians and was summarily executed in 1463 by Edward IV, after his defeat of Henry VI; the Bathurst lands were forfeited and the castle destroyed. A Lancelot Bathurst was Alderman of London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and a Dr Ralph Bathurst a Latin Poet, and President of Trinity College, Oxford. In 1712, the family advanced to the Peerage.
I was most interested in the moment at which Bathurst activity entered the colonial arena: Sir Benjamin Bathurst, MP, “was elected in the reign of Charles II, Governor of the Royal African Company, and, under James II, Governor of the East India Company; the 2nd Earl Bathurst became Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain in 1771; and Henry, 3rd Earl Bathurst, was Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1812–27.”
In a less illustrious branch of the family tree in Jamaica, a John Bathurst acquired land in 1674. His grandson, Colonel Richard Bathurst, who inherited the 4,000-acre Orange River estate, brought Frances Barber to England with him shortly before his death. The colonel’s son, also a Richard Bathurst, was born on the estate but left to study medicine in England, where he became a great friend of Dr. Johnson. According to James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, it was Colonel Bathurst who “bequeathed” Barber to Johnson in his will.
It was listening to the conversations of girls at school that made me aware of a set of associations for the word “family” beyond my immediate horizon of parents, sibling, aunts, uncles and cousins, Jamaican and Welsh. To distinguish new knowledge from old I imagined their definition of “Family” began with a capital “F.”
Family, I learned, referenced a history echoing across generations and resonating through surnames; Family was a form of belonging given substance by a long association with particular English counties, with legacies, inheritances and, sometimes, even titles. Family meant lineage, Ancestors with a capital “A.”
When they spoke of Family it was a flood of information about possible pedigrees and lineage tinged with elements of swagger. I was intimidated and silenced by these exchanges. Now I see that they must have been anxious performances of class insecurity, presumably second-hand versions of conversations overheard at home. In the 1960s, these young women appeared incredibly wealthy and “well connected” to me, but their fathers were professionals rather than aristocrats: solicitors, chartered accountants or government bureaucrats, whose wives did not work outside the home.
Perhaps one or the other parent came from a minor branch of the British elite. True, untrue, or exaggerated, boasting about lineage and social position was my first introduction to how ideologies of Englishness and of national and colonial belonging were inherited possessions.
At school, the accounts of ancestors that captivated me came from Miss Pym, for they were not just about Family. I learnt little about her personal history, except that she was a Quaker descendent of the Pym family of Ireland, that she was not married and that she refused the word spinster. Miss Pym created a world of stories in the classroom, prompted by an historical incident or an event recounted in a novel. Miss Pym introduced me to History, not Family, and I was hooked.
She described the Puritans, the English Civil War and the period of republican rule by Oliver Cromwell, not only because she claimed that John Pym, one of the leading Parliamentarians, was a distant ancestor but also because Cromwell’s ambition to seize Spanish colonies in the Caribbean led directly to the British invasion of Jamaica in May 1655. I do not know if she was trying to make historical connections between her ancestors and mine via British and Jamaican history, but I created analogies.
The most famous of Miss Pym’s ancestors, John Pym, was born in Somerset. This was the county where my mother grew up in a series of tied cottages, and the place where I used to walk in bluebell woods grasping my grandfather’s hand. Pym, born in 1584, became famous for his financial abilities, which I could appreciate as my father, born in 1921, was clever with figures though never famous for it.
Whereas my father’s ancestors were listed among the property of an estate in Portland, Jamaica, John Pym was landed gentry and held a post as a tax collector for the King, receiving his revenue from the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. My father was treasurer of the local cricket club in Mitcham; Pym became treasurer for the Providence Island Company, founded by a group of Puritans who wanted to establish a colony on Providence Island in the West Indies. In 1625, Pym was elected to Parliament, eventually becoming the leader of the Puritan opposition to Charles I.
I sided with Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, not the Royalists, when we learnt about the English Civil War. In 1642, John Pym became “the architect of Parliament’s victory,” raising suffi cient money from City financiers’ loans, taxes on land and the seizure of Royalist estates to allow Cromwell to raise an army to defeat a King. John Pym organized the committee structure that would administer the nation during the war and throughout the existence of the Commonwealth and Protectorate.
I knew that my father was a magician with figures who had saved more than one local club from bankruptcy, but we couldn’t lay claim to illustrious predecessors whose expertise in accountancy had financed a war. Miss Pym solicited information about my background but, it seemed to me, the more I revealed the greater was her conviction that my handwriting was paramount in announcing my worth to the world.
Hunched over my school desk or dining room table, fantasizing that I was sitting gracefully at a desk in a morning room, I raised my treasured silver and turquoise Parker pen over the page of my exercise book, bottle of ink and blotting paper in close proximity. I took a deep breath, determined to wield the pen to my advantage. Yet endless hours of patient practice produced unruly results, evidence, I suppose, that a beautiful hand is not an inherited trait. I disappointed Miss Pym, my father and myself, eventually settling for a readable, functional, inelegant scrawl.
More than 50 years later I still have my pen but it lies, ignored, in the velvet confines of its original box, usurped by a laptop computer. Sitting at my table in the National Archives at Kew, I remember what Miss Pym used to say about handwriting and British character. I am scrutinizing a document, hoping it will reveal the character of the man who wrote it.
My finger slowly traces the fluid but faint lines of ink originally penned 200 years ago in Jamaica: broad, flowing, upward and downward strokes that, with the slightest movement of the wrist, become whisper thin, curve, then end in a graceful, controlled flourish.
As I work my way down each column on the copy of a copy of a page numbered 37, the act of tracing triggers body memory: wrist, hand and fingers anticipating the changing angle of the pen nib as it captures letters and words and phrases in measured, elliptical black shapes, evenly spaced and inclined at an angle of 55°. I recognize the English round hand I tried to make my own.
My father’s writing always appeared controlled and deliberate; I never knew him to make a careless stroke. His letters left the impression of precision, constancy, careful consideration and exactitude of meaning. Is this what is meant by character? My aging hand with its wrinkles, bulging veins and encroaching rheumatism, abruptly stops moving down the page. I can feel my child’s hand grasping the barrel of a pen tighter and tighter in a fruitless attempt to prevent its wayward ramblings, random deposits of blots, nib skittering off the page, gouges in its wake.
When my father raised his pen as an adult and began to write, did he remember learning how to form his letters in a Jamaican classroom between 1925 and 1927? In a letter, he once told me the story of how he learnt to write.
My grandmother, Rose, paid for my father to attend a local nursery school between the ages of four and six years old. It was very small, just eight to ten pupils, and run by two English sisters referred to as the Misses Lopez. My father’s natural inclination was to pick up a pen with his left hand, but the Misses Lopez not only believed in the early inculcation of the values of the British Empire, they considered left-handedness an intolerable and un-English perversity: a sin deserving a sound whipping.
“They insisted,” his letter read, “that I wrote with my right hand, so when I was caught using my left to write—I had to place my hand on the desk only to be lashed with a 12 inch ruler or cane. I had to go home with my left hand swollen and in pain—I could not complain to anyone.”
Is each en dash an act of extraction or exclusion? In the spaces between words lies the memory of punishment: in the first a conflicted hesitation, an anticipation of pain, a reluctance to place the hand, which had been rapidly hidden between thighs when footsteps approached, back on the desk. In the second, a young black child’s agony and anxiety, slow steps on the path toward a home without a sympathetic ear, with each attempt to suppress a sob, a swallowing of the bitter taste of injustice.
I do not know how often my father must have picked up his pen with his left hand, despite instructions to the contrary, but it must have been many, many times. Assiduously, deliberately, systematically, the Misses Lopez instilled character into this black male child, teaching him to conform to their wishes, to conform to the order of the classroom, to conform to the British order of things by beating his left hand with a cane.
Daily beatings crushed and broke the knuckles of each and every finger of his hand, as they lay spread-eagled on the blood-soaked desk.
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. 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.
The art of English round hand is a conduit through which multiple histories and geographies flow—it was taught to my father in Jamaica and to me in England more than 30 years later. In the same hand accounts of empire were produced in meticulous detail by its ambassadors: clerks, bookkeepers, lawyers, merchants, planters and traders in enslaved human beings.
As academics we sit in archives and stare at these records and registers, ledgers and lists, each carefully rendered in measured and elegant script. But the terror and the violence camouflaged by this cosmetic beauty can be exposed through a starkly different aesthetic practice.
John Hearne, in the opening pages of his novel, The Sure Salvation, recreated such a moment when Hogarth, the English captain of a ship becalmed in the Atlantic, sought pleasure in the task of the daily entry in his ship’s log:
For a little while, etching with such precision, Hogarth had been happy. It was not often at sea that he could experience the dutiful pleasure of fashioning letters as he had been taught. Too often the shudder of the barque as it lunged into a wave would mar the smooth hook that should have completed an a, or the bows would toss briskly, forcing the table up against his hand and squashing the perfect curve at the top of the 9. Now, in this calm, the deck steady as the floor of a room, his fist returned effortlessly to its first lessons . . . he closed his log on the lines that read
Noon, May 17, 1860 – Lat 1º 14’ S, Long 32º 16’ W. No distance. Calm continues. Full sails set. Cargo in prime condition because of our special care.
Hogarth’s “Cargo” lay in the dark beneath the desk at which he sat, which held “a desk set of heavy silver; two inkwells, one covered, sunk into a broad slab,” and his pens. His “Cargo” consisted of “four hundred and seventy-five bodies he had discriminately culled along the coast from the Congo to Angola . . .”
In the 1790s, women who were in the future to be called Nancy, Penny, Betsy and Bridget were items among the “Cargo” of such a ship on their way to be sold in Jamaica.
All the Hogarths who compiled accounts for empire lived and breathed within the carapace of their own (un)reasoning; each and every carefully controlled mark of a pen was intended to inscribe British character, the truth of civility, discrimination and taste, testament to the enlightened values of the civilization that bred them.
Hogarth’s pleasure in his accomplished hand denied the hand that traded in human flesh, revealing the depths of its inhumanity with each letter of “Cargo in prime condition because of our special care.”
Acts of gracious writing that account for empire are evidence of the bottomless depths of unacknowledged violence and brutality embodied in British character and values across the colonial and imperial landscape. As I held my father’s letters I could feel the imprint of his deformed fingers steadying the paper as he lifted his pen to write to me.
Excerpted from Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands by Hazel V. Carby. Used with permission of Verso Books. Copyright © 2019 by Hazel Carby.