“Intentions of Kindness”: Exploration, Domesticity, and “Civilization” in the Sudan

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:50 AM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Matthew Schauer, Boston College
My paper examines the exportation of British middle-class ideals of domesticity and imperial conceptions of civilization to the Sudan during Samuel and Florence Baker’s expedition to the region from 1869-1873. The Bakers, who had already achieved fame for their discovery of Lake Albert, embarked on the expedition primarily to end the slave trade in the Sudan, but also to promulgate their ideas concerning “civilization” to the members of the indigenous population they encounters.  An aspect of this “civilizing mission” was the exportation of British middle class conceptions of dress, behavior, and domestic life. These ideas were exported through the reproduction of an idealized and portable form of an English-style Victorian household in the Sudan. Florence Baker, a former slave in the Ottoman Empire, who was herself the product of her husband’s civilizing efforts, constructed a household structure within the expedition. She used her status as head of the household’s daily activities to instruct the indigenous carriers and servants on the expedition in Western conceptions of proper behavior, differential protocol, language, religion, and “useful” skills, such as cooking for Western palettes.

            I will analyze the journals and published writings of Samuel and Florence Baker, and examine the ways in which ideas of British middle-class domesticity, particularly in terms of gender divisions, class status, and conceptions of modernity, were present in the Bakers’ “civilizing impulses” towards the people of the Sudan. I will contextualize these concepts with other contemporary opinions concerning the end of slavery and expansion of British influence in the Sudan, including differing sentiments of paternalism and white superiority in the region, and the presence of Western ideas of domesticity and social engineering within British imperial education in Africa.