Masters and servants

Cultures of empire in the tropics

Claire Lowrie
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Masters and servants explores the politics of colonial mastery and domestic servitude in the neighbouring British tropical colonies of Singapore and Darwin. Like other port cities throughout Southeast Asia, Darwin and Singapore were crossroads where goods, ideas, cultures and people from the surrounding regions mixed and mingled via the steam ships lines. The focus of this book is on how these connections produced a common tropical colonial culture in these sites. A key element of this shared culture was the presence of a multiethnic entourage of domestic servants in colonial homes and a common preference for Chinese ‘houseboys’. Through an exploration of master-servant relationships within British, white Australian and Chinese homes, this book illustrates the centrality of the domestic realm to the colonial project. The colonial home was a contact zone which brought together European colonists, non-white migrants and Indigenous people, most often through the domestic service relationship. Rather than a case of unquestioned mastery and devoted servitude, relationships between masters and servants had the potential not only to affirm but also destabilise the colonial hierarchy. The intimacies, antagonisms and anxieties of the relationships between masters and servants provide critical insights into the dynamics of colonial power with the British empire.

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‘Based on her PhD thesis, the author draws on a very wide array of sources to explore a subject seldom found in official documentation to paint a vivid picture of class, race and gender relations amongst both male and female masters and their domestic servants.'
Michael Quinlan, University of New South Wales

‘Lowrie has brought to light a fascinating, hitherto neglected aspect of the 'cultures of empire in the tropics', as her subtitle puts it. Her study is crisply written, carefully researched, and clearly argued.'
Dane Kennedy, George Washington University
Australian Historical Studies, 48

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