Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

They Mistook Kenya for the Home Counties

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire


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Empires are usually travesties of home. On every frontier you can sense the tension: on the one hand, the ‘frontier effect’ draws restless spirits, rebels, outcasts and escapees to open a new kind of society, unfenced or utopian. On the other, cultural baggage piles up: people crave the comforts and recreate the ways of home. Some metropolitan values triumph; others are blown away by winds of change. In sixteenth-century Mexico and Peru, some conquistadors dreamed of a genuinely New World — with a new Church and a new society, heralding a new age; others erected ‘New Spains’ which were passable simulacra of the old one. In seventeenth-century Ninguta, traditional Chinese hierarchies persisted alongside new rankings: mandarins’ daughters slid barefoot down the icy hill to the only well, while merchants greeted the military governor as they would a younger brother. To Kenya’s Happy Valley, English colonists carefully transposed their home-grown etiquette, then subverted it with transgressive adulteries. In some jungles, settlers wear dinner jackets; in others, they change into leopard-skin spots. Some go home, some go native. Some, when ‘pukka-sahib traditions cracked’, ‘took to pig-sticking in quite the wrong way.’ We wonder, with Noel Coward, ‘what happened’ to them.

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