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.
Domestic service and colonial mastery in the tropics
The Introduction argues that studying the colonial home and the relationships within it provides crucial insight into the colonial project. The colonial home was a contact zone in which European colonists, non-white migrants and Indigenous populations came together, 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 colonial power relations. The introduction outlines how the book reinvigorates the study of colonial intimacy by drawing attention to issues which have been neglected in the literature including; the significance of non-European homes, the importance of masculinities, colonial anxieties about interracial homosexual encounters and, the ways in which colonial homes changed over time. This will be achieved by studying mastery and servitude in the neighbouring tropical British colonies of Singapore and Darwin, considering them within a transcolonial network of connection and exchange. The introduction concludes by arguing that the process of comparing an exploitation colony and a settler colony provides an opportunity for a fundamental rethinking of the politics of colonial intimacy, revealing specificities and broad patterns as well as the sharing of ideas and cultural practices between colonies.
The connected histories of Darwin and Singapore, 1860s–1930s
This chapter explores the connected histories of Singapore and Darwin from the 1860s and the 1930s. The chapter begins by acknowledging the marked differences between Darwin and Singapore. Singapore was a key trading port in Southeast Asia and an exploitation colony while Darwin was a colonial backwater and a member of a settler colony. While acknowledging the differences between the sites, shipping records, newspaper articles, trade figures, migration statistics and colonial memoirs are used to show how these neighbouring colonies were connected by an exchange of trade, travellers and migrants. In addition to exploring this forgotten history of connection, Chapter 1 outlines the similarities between Singapore and Darwin. They were both tropical colonial ports and were characterised by having multiethnic populations that included a white minority and large numbers of Chinese migrants. The two colonies also shared a similar tropical colonial culture. In both sites, arguments about the degenerating impacts of the climate and the need to demonstrate colonial prestige as well as a ready availability of affordable ‘coloured’ domestic labour ensured that white colonists and non-white interracial elites, employed a multiethnic entourage of servants in their homes. The favoured servants were Chinese ‘houseboys’.
Cultures of male servitude in the tropics, 1880s–1910s
In colonies across the tropical regions of Southeast Asia, northern Australia, the Pacific, India and Africa, male domestic servants called ‘houseboys’ were widely employed in European homes well into the twentieth century. In Southeast Asia and northern Australia, Chinese ‘houseboys’ were considered to make the best servants. Chapter 2 considers why it was that Chinese ‘houseboys’ became the favoured servants in Darwin and Singapore. It points to the transfer of culture as people, products and literature moved along the steam ship lines between the two colonies and across the tropical colonial world more broadly. The chapter also outlines the influence of pre-colonial traditions of male servitude which colonial migrants brought with them to the colonies. In the descriptions of Chinese ‘houseboys’ in Darwin and Singapore it is possible to observe the influence of the British tradition of the butler and valet along with the Chinese tradition of the male steward and the eunuch. By exploring the emergence of the tradition of the Chinese ‘houseboy’, this chapter provides broader insight into the complex process of interaction between colonisers, colonial migrants and Indigenous people through which cultures of colonialism were produced.
Masculinity, sexuality and racial anxiety in the home, 1880s–1930s
This chapter focuses on the relationships between British and white Australian masters and their Chinese male servants. It does this by analysing British and white Australian men’s representations of their servants in novels, travel stories, memoirs, newspaper articles and photographs, unpacking the intended and unintended messages contained within them. The chapter explores how white men’s sense of manly authority over Chinese ‘boys’ was connected to their conception of themselves as successful colonisers. Rather than an unquestioned relationship of servitude and mastery, however, white men’s reliance on Chinese servants for their daily survival, as well as anxieties stemming from their intimacy with these servants and the fear of being violently assaulted by them rattled their belief in the superiority of white manhood. The chapter argues that while the British and white Australian masters of Singapore and Darwin were equally anxious, the ways in which their colonial anxieties played out were different and reflected the contrasting concerns of exploitation and settler colonialism.
Chapter four plots the decline of Chinese ‘houseboys’ in Darwin and Singapore and across Southeast Asia in general from the 1910s to the 1930s. The chapter contests the theory put forward by a variety of historians that the arrival of increasing numbers of white women in the tropics was the central cause of the feminisation of domestic service in the tropics. It points to the importance of transcolonial political forces in shaping domestic service in both sites, specifically the politicisation of Chinese men in the context of the Chinese Revolution and the introduction of policies of immigration restriction in Singapore and Darwin. These factors ensured that Chinese men were either unwilling, unavailable or considered unsuitable for domestic work. By focusing on Chinese men as household actors in their own right and by exploring impact of transcolonial political developments on the home, this chapter presents a new explanation for the feminisation of domestic service in Southeast Asia.
Domestic tension and political antagonism in the home, 1910s–1930s
Chapter 5 explores the tense relationship between British and white Australian mistresses and their Chinese male servants. Drawing on oral histories, fiction, travel writing and newspaper articles produced by white women, this chapter illustrates that white women in Darwin and Singapore believed themselves to be competing with Chinese men for power and control in the home. The chapter considers household tension in the context of the nationalist and colonialist politics of the interwar era. At the same time as white women were asserting their status as ideal homemakers in order to prove their worth to the colonial project in Singapore and the nationalist project in Darwin, Chinese male servants seem to have been asserting their status as workers’ with rights in line with the Chinese and Australian nationalist rhetoric of the era. By bringing mainstream political history back inside the home, this chapter seeks to consider the mistress-‘houseboy’ relationship from a new perspective.
The politics of Chinese domestic mastery, 1920s–1930s
Chapter 6 considers the politics of intimacy within Chinese colonial homes, drawing on the accounts of Chinese employers of servants and analysing representations of these employers in government reports, colonial fiction and newspaper articles. It explores how the transcolonial child rescue movement of the interwar years resulted in governmental intervention in Chinese homes in Darwin and Singapore. In Singapore, the reluctantly government intervened in the practice of keeping mui tsai (girl slaves), publically emphasising that the vast majority of Chinese employers were good and moral masters. In Darwin by contrast, the government pursued intervention with enthusiasm, banning the Chinese community from employing Aboriginal people in their homes and businesses and resolutely condemning them as corrupt masters. The chapter concludes that the different attitudes towards Chinese domestic mastery were related to the symbolic significance of domestic mastery and the differing emphasis on distinctions of class and race within exploitation and settler colonialism.
The conclusion outlines the changes to domestic service in Darwin and Singapore from the 1890s to the 1930s. The conclusion reflects on the differences between the two sites and the insights which an analysis of the master-servant relationship can provide into the contested nature of colonial power in these two sites. The book closes with a broad overview of the impact of the Second World War on the colonial project and domestic service in Singapore and Darwin.