Freya Stark (married name: Perowne)

Dame Freya Madeline Stark DBE (31 January 1893 – 9 May 1993), was a British explorer and travel writer. She was the wife of the Barbados Colonial Secretary Stewart Perowne and was one of five passengers who travelled in May 1948 from Barbados to Trinidad to join the Empire Windrush for its historic passage to London.

Freya Stark wrote more than two dozen books on her travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan as well as several autobiographical works and essays. She was one of the first non-Arabs known to travel through the southern Arabian Desert in modern times.

In 1947, at the age of 54, Freya Stark married Stewart Henry Perowne who was an Arabist and historian, whom she had met while working as his assistant in Aden early in World War II. Perowne was homosexual, which Stark did not know when they first married, although most of his friends did. Their lavender marriage had many troubles and Stark did not adjust well to being the wife of a civil servant. The couple separated in1952, but did not divorce.

Stewart Perowne died in 1989.

Freya Stark
Freya Stark

Bill Hern’s article on the the Windrush affair makes for uneasy reading as it smashes the fairy story of the welcome of honest black workers coming from the Caribbean to the aid of the mother country. Much worse was to come after their arrival as these travellers faced the harsh realities of the world they had entered. A far cry from the England they had learnt about from their school books.

Freya Stark marriage to Stewart Henry Perowne
Freya Stark marriage to Stewart Henry Perowne in 1947. This is a colourised photograph.

In his article, Bill Hern mentioned Freya Stark the “explorer and traveller” as one of only five travellers who had travelled on the 1948 voyage of The Empire Windrush that had come from Barbados. I knew that name as she was the wife of the Colonial Secretary in Barbados at that time. He was Stewart Henry Perowne, the antagonist of Colonel Duke. Perowne oversaw the sacking of the Police Commissioner in 1948.

In May 1949, Freya wrote an article in The Spectator, London entitled “Colonial Prospect”. She used a Hans Anderson fairy tale analogy to describe the island she was about to leave. The story tells of two children who played in the garden of dreams. When they grew up and had to leave, the fairy queen of the garden gave them a handkerchief as a parting gift. Whenever they opened it a perfect land appeared for them to step into:

“Pear-shaped and crumpled at the northern end, the fairy handkerchief has been flung out into the Atlantic farther than any of the other islands of the Antilles. The Gulf Stream and marauding sharks here touch it, and an eroded landscape pours in short steep ranges to dangerous breakers and teeth of coral ; there is quicksand, and here and there a trick of waters that seep invisibly and gather themselves suddenly together behind the unwary wader and carry him out to sea.”

Freya Stark is writing at a time when the British Empire was crumbling into the sea. She writes of it lovingly:

“…the Atlantic Ocean surrounds it with a breath of immensity, piles its high Coreggio sunsets on the horizon, and drowns every year a dozen fishing boats or so that, with their dipping bowsprits and nets for flying fish, have ventured out too far. When the catch comes home in the short and glowing dusk, women with baskets on their heads cry the flying-fish, the king-fish and dolphins through Bridgetown streets and suburbs.”

What I was hoping to find in this article was some mention of the political norms of the white ruling class in mid century Barbados. Freya was married to the Colonial Secretary and was rubbing shoulders with the white élite of the time. I thought I was to be disappointed when she described well cared for children wearing:

“clean socks and stiff frocks”

and the careenage:

“where a bronze Nelson looks down with his empty sleeve, and the Government buildings stand in pleasing Hanoverian Gothic solidity.”

Her bucolic description of the countryside ends with a telling note; suggesting that she was fully aware of the troubled underbelly of this tropical paradise.

“The factories work day and night shifts, and light the island in its Atlantic darkness; until the middle of summer comes and the crop is finished, and the machinery lies idle, undergoing oiling and repairs, and the problem arises of what work to find for the men with their cutlasses, who have done with the cutting of the cane.”

Freya is only mildly critical of the norms of the white society which she is observing; perhaps restrained by her position as the wife of the Colonial Secretary. She was told on coming to the island that she would find it “fiercely parochial.”

“As a matter of fact, I have found nothing fierce here except the colour bar, which boils over forgotten wrongs and sorrows as the surf boils over a reef, submerged and dangerous. Nine-tenths of the population are coloured, and no future except one of amity can promise any good to the whites of these islands. Self-interest now urges what Christianity has urged so many centuries in vain. The dark people have kept their strange and gentle simplicity; they like to work little, to laugh, and to pray, and many chapel varieties blossom among the churches.”

She pointedly mentions that she has:

“…met Africans in Arabian villages, and seen them treated with a tolerance so genuine that I need not bother about the name when it has the substance of equality. This basic feeling has been lost in Barbados, not so much, I imagine, through slavery as through the industrial exploitation of the past.”

And what of the future? She ends her piece:

“The coloured future is attached to education, representation and all the democratic furniture of our time. The schools are places where all mix together ; and the island reads more books than any other in the West Indies. For better or worse the coloured Barbadian is now absorbed into the West, and into that passionately Parliamentarian form of Western civilisation which Barbados imported from England in the seventeenth century and has clung to ever since. There is a sturdy and jealous independence in its legislative assembly, where the King’s Governor himself is not allowed to attend debates. Island Hampdens abound and their breasts are as dauntless as ever; they are often educated in England, and they join up and fight her battles when she is at war ; their buildings, their gay little racecourse, their social life, are mid- to early-Victorian ; but their principles and deeper convictions belong to an earlier time, distrustful of foreigners and innovation, serious and generous for sport, rigid and narrow for gain, individualistic, intolerant and hospitably kind.”

Stewart Perowne – a Colonial Misfit

When I was researching the demise of Colonel Duke I came across two letters in the Colonial Office files now collecting dust in the National Archives, Kew. They referred to an episode called the “Perowne Affair”. All the personnel files in the Colonial Office records were destroyed a long time ago; so we are only left with snippets of information gleaned from the general correspondence files.

Perowne had spent many years in the Arab world after the First World War. In 1927 he went to Palestine as Head of Education in the Palestine Government Education Service. In 1930 he transferred to the administrative branch of the Palestine Government. He had been employed in Aden as an Information Officer in 1939. By 1947 he was back in England, and to further his diplomatic career married Freya Stark. His administrative experience in the Middle East was not a good preparation for his appointment as Colonial Secretary in Barbados where the white population was still in ascendance and there was a vibrant local Parliament which held the administration’s purse strings.

Sir Hilary Blood, the new Governor, arrived on 5th February 1947. He was not impressed by anything he saw in the Barbados administration. He was astonished at the way the Police force was overmanned and underfunded. The state of some of the Police barracks was deplorable. Nothing had changed for fifty years. Perowne had hardly got his feet under his desk when the Governor demanded action.

Perowne was quick to place the responsibility for this situation on the Police Commissioner rather than the inadequacies of the Colonial Officer’s administration in getting funding for the modernisation of the Police through the local Parliament of which he was a member as Colonial Secretary.

Perowne was homosexual which of course was illegal at the time and would have been scandalous if it became widely known. He admitted to Freya that for pleasurable reasons he was attracted to men wearing uniform. We don’t know whether the Police Commissioner knew of the situation, but Perowne may have been fearful of crossing swords with Colonel Duke publicly. Rather than confront Duke’s reluctance to reform the Police to his face, he criticised him behind his back, digging up unfavourable reports (which Duke was unaware of) and feeding them to the new Governor.

Perowne’s marriage to Freya gave him the air of respectability that he needed to gain acceptance of white society in Barbados.

Sir Hilary Blood's letter to FCO London
Governor, Sir Hilary Blood’s letter to the Colonial Office London 14th December 1948 suggesting the removal of Colonial Secretary Stewart Perowne.

This acceptance turned out to be frail after Freya returned to England in June 1948 (on the Windrush). Perowne’s character faults were troubling Sir Hilary, especially when Perowne was away from office and Campbell (his deputy) showed the Governor how well the administration could be run. He wrote to the Colonial Office, hoping that Perowne might be transferred to another posting. The officials in London had only received good reports of Perowne’s work in the Middle East and dismissed Sir Hilary’s concerns. In December 1948, Sir Hilary wrote again to London:

I am really rather disturbed about Perowne. I told you in various recent letters of the troubles we have had with the legislature recently and the outburst against “impolite officials” in particular the feelings against Perowne and Wyatt.

His first disadvantage is his, at times, unbridled tongue – not in the sense of temper but of cruel criticism of local people and things. Sometimes he means what he says – sometimes he talks to get a rise – but either way it is most unfortunate. Wyatt lived with him for some months and instead of setting a good example Perowne set him a bad one and they talked much too openly before servants etc.

Secondly Perowne has a curious, almost exhibitionist streak in him which shows itself in the way of wearing odd clothes. The [Barbadian] is still very conventional in dress and is shocked to see the Colonial Secretary wearing sandals and no socks, or an open shirt or gayly coloured sports shirts in his office. It is very silly, but there it is.

One maybe bad effort, which I have just heard of was when he went to pick up in his car the wife of one of the doctors who was lunching with him and the husband could not get away. Perowne wore bathing pants only! and to anyone outside his car would appear naked. It may be most these things don’t matter in other places: they still do matter here.

Finally Campbell, who is loyalty itself, did let out that Perowne had his whole office in a dither and was most extravagant over staff.

The Governor concluded his letter:

If all my information is correct Perowne will never do for anywhere in the West Indies. Whether he would fit in elsewhere I don’t know. His line is writing, speaking and lecturing, which he does admirably. Is there any chance of the F.O. wanting him again? If so I say see him on the mend then he be allowed to go.

Ultimately Blood left Barbados on leave in 1949 before taking up a new appointment as Governor of Mauritius, leaving Perowne in charge. Little else is known about Perowne’s tenure as the Colonial Secretary though he is credited with approving the pictorial Barbadian postage stamps with scenes from around the island which came into use in 1950. Perowne’s final posting was as political adviser in Cyrenaica (Libya) in 1950 taking early retirement in 1951.

Further reading:

Response to “Freya Stark (married name: Perowne)”

  1. Dr John T. Gilmore

    Fascinating story! There seem to be many aspects about which one would like to know more, but can only speculate. I knew Peter Campbell in his old age, when he was for many years an excellent editor of the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. He occasionally mentioned his career as a colonial civil servant, but never went into any detail.

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