Black Eagles and the Spy Princess
On Sunday 23 October, the RAF Museum hosted an event to celebrate Black History Month, titled ‘Black Eagles and the Spy Princess’. The focus of the event was to highlight the often under-represented stories of the black and Asian airmen and women that contributed to the war effort during both World War I and World War II. The event engaged audiences of all ages from across Barnet and beyond.
Kicking off the day was a talk from the Museum’s Assistant Curator Peter Devitt, on the contributions of African-Caribbean pilots during the First World War. A wide-ranging talk, it covered well-known figures such as Eugene Bullard and William Robinson Clarke, along with lesser known figures such as Ahmet Ali Çelikten, a pilot hailing from the Ottoman Empire who fought alongside the German forces. It was followed by a lively and appreciative Q&A, with interesting topics and ideas being raised including the future use of similar talks and materials to workshop with young offender programmes.
At midday, storyteller Jan Blake held the first of her twenty-minute children’s story sessions, telling stories, folklore and fables from Africa, the Caribbean, and Arabia to the young audience. The stories were involving and enlightening, with call and response exciting the children. Jan ran this session three times through the day, enrapturing the audiences. At 1pm, Peter Devitt followed his talk earlier in the day with a guided tour around the First World War in the Air gallery, focussing on the stories and experiences of black and Asian pilots of the First World War. The Museum collection holds examples of the five types of aircraft flown by BAME pilots during World War I. The tour took in these aircraft of the types flown by those pilots, such as a SE5a, a type flown by India’s first flying ace, Indra Lal Roy.
After lunch, the Halton Gallery hosted a performance of classical South Indian dance. Dancers from the Bhavan Centre in West Kensington performed several highly choreographed pieces for the packed audience, some of which told stories from Indian folklore. The dancers were highly skilled and engaging, and the backdrop of red and purple lighting accentuated their shadows as they moved around the floor.
Somewhat continuing the theme of Indian performance, Second World War heroine Noor Inayat’s Kahn’s life was celebrated with a talk by Shrabani Basu, author of the Spy Princess. Noor was at times a performer herself – a harp player, a young poet, and a published storyteller, though her life took a different turn as she joined the Womens Auxiliary Air Force before being trained by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a radio operator and dropped into German-occupied France. The talk was wide-ranging and moving, highlighting intriguing stories and perspectives on her life growing up, leading ultimately to her death at Dachau concentration camp and her final word – 'Liberté'.
Completing the day, MistryMusic put on a performance of Indian classical music, using flute and tabla. Feedback from people attending the day has been incredibly positive. The Museum hopes to put on similar events in the future and will place notification of such events at its London Site in London's Event Section.