“Island Collectors: Colonial Lives in the Indian Ocean”

Sarah Longair, University of Lincoln

My research examines colonial collectors who acquired material culture on the islands of the western Indian Ocean. Collecting on these small islands – Zanzibar, the Maldives and Seychelles – offers numerous insights into how insularity influenced collecting practice, and how islands shaped the kinds of objects which were collected.

This paper will focus on three collectors who were active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – Carl Wilhelm Rosset, a German explorer collecting in the Maldives, Swinburne Ward, a British administrator based in Seychelles, and Josephine Choveaux, a British missionary stationed in Zanzibar. Their collecting experiences – which ranged from negotiations to coercion – offer important hidden stories behind their collections which are now housed in several museums in Britain and Europe.

I argue that islands are a revealing setting in which to investigate collecting – the idea of the ‘island as laboratory’ was one forged at the time, and certainly islands of the size in question here offered the possibility of comprehensive collecting and knowledge. They were also sufficiently understudied that collectors could claim fame for their revelations of ‘unknown’ cultures. But the experiences of these collectors and an investigation of their lives reveals the limitations of colonial knowledge – which was in part an environmental one as a result of islands themselves as well as islanders’ resistance.

My aim with this paper is to use insights form the lives of these three collectors to highlight the significance of ‘island collecting’ as well as the different motivations and collecting practices they engaged in. The vivid accounts of their lives compiled from a variety of sources offers a more rounded picture of the histories of collections, ones which give us an insight into the exertion of imperial power at the individual level – an understanding which is critical for informed decolonial practice in museums.

Dr. Sarah Longair is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. Her research explores the British Empire in East Africa and the Indian Ocean world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through material and visual culture. Her publications include Cracks in the Dome: Fractured histories of empire in the Zanzibar Museum, 1897 – 1964 (2015) and History through Material Culture (2017, co-authored with Leonie Hannan). She previously worked at the British Museum for 11 years in the Learning department and the Africa section. Her new monograph explores colonial collecting on islands in the western Indian Ocean.

See also: