‘Your home is a microcosm of the world in which you live.’ I came across these words in Dearest Priscilla: Letters to the Wife of a Colonial Civil Servant. Written by Emily Bradley and published in 1950, this advice manual appeared shortly before the end of British Empire and the beginning of independence movements across West Africa. No doubt frequently consulted by British colonials, it is now tucked away in the Cambridge University Library Special Collections.
What kind of world, or worlds, did Bradley mean? I was curious to learn more about the homes that Bradley and her readers created, as well as the people who lived and worked in and around them. What was that ‘world in which you live’, a British colonial world, really like on a daily basis? And how different was it from domestic worlds in German or French colonies at the beginning of the twentieth century? Beyond the Bungalow is an attempt to get to know these worlds through the eyes of those people who still experienced empire first-hand, as well as their children, grandchildren and extended family.
This website is part of a larger historical research project which considers the private dimensions of European overseas empire through the lens of domestic spaces. It began in 2012 during my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where I started comparative research on British, French and German homes in sub-Saharan Africa from 1880 to 1960. The project, including this website, has been generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Some of the posts on this website originate from personal interviews and correspondence conducted during that time, as well as previous research interviewing ‘colonial families’ in Germany and Namibia for my book Postcolonial Germany (Oxford University Press, 2014). But to really understand the everyday experience of empire for former coloniser and colonised together, a wider network of informants needs to be consulted in Europe as well as in Africa and Asia. Using digital technologies is one way of connecting geographies which, almost 150 years after the opening of the Suez Canal, still require considerable time and finances to reach in person.
Since 2015 I have been based in the Department of History at Utrecht University. Working together with Anne Marijn Damstra, student in the MA Cultural History of Modern Europe, I have extended the project’s scope to include nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial homes in various geographical locations, including the former colonies of the Netherlands. Our collaboration will help make this research accessible to a wider community of participants who have been involved in making and living in colonial homes, or who have witnessed their transformation over the years.
The vision of this website and associated publications is to deepen our understanding of the history of colonial ‘everyday life’ in a comparative context. It also aims to find out more about the colonial home from various perspectives: from district officer to clerk, from missionary to fundi, from settler to domestic servant. The website is intended to provide an inclusive space and generate productive discussions on our ‘Community’ page about everyday life in the age of empire and colonial legacies today.
Do you have memories, photographs or stories about colonial homes in the age of empire? You can upload your documents by clicking on ‘Add your Story’, look at other people’s contributions under the ‘Browse Stories’ heading, or visit our ‘Collections’ page, which offers insights into different spaces of the colonial home. We look forward to hearing from you.
Dr Britta Schilling
Assistant Professor, Utrecht University