Reconstructing the lives of professional women in 1930s Zanzibar through image, object and text

Longair, Sarah (2018) Reconstructing the lives of professional women in 1930s Zanzibar through image, object and text. In: British women and cultural practices of empire, 1775-1930. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN UNSPECIFIED

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Item Type:Book Section
Item Status:Live Archive


Helen Haylett (née Wilson), Office Assistant to the Zanzibar Secretariat, recorded in her account of her tour of service: ‘By 1938 the block of 4 flats, known as Paradise Mansions (or amongst the bachelors as “Virgins Retreat”) was occupied by the Lady Doctor, the Schoolmistress, the Lady Curator of the museum and myself.’ This illuminating sentence captures various realities of women’s lives in interwar Zanzibar which will be investigated in this chapter, and draws attention to the range of professions women undertook. Two of these women, Haylett and the ‘Lady Curator’, Ailsa Nicol Smith, will be the focus of this chapter. These two women’s contrasting careers in Zanzibar offer important insights into how women forged professional and social paths in the colonial world.

The ways in which we access these two women’s narratives also highlight different methodologies and sources for investigating how women inhabited colonial space. Haylett laid down her narrative through diaries, newspaper cuttings and photographs, and left these, as well as a retrospective account, to Oxford University. Her professional career and the lively social scene of the Protectorate are brought to life in these personal papers. Nicol Smith was a devoted curator but was regularly hampered in her work by the Protectorate Government. She left no collections of papers and her experiences have to be reconstructed through official documents, museum papers and a small number of letters to former colleagues in Cambridge museums, as well as photographs in her academic articles and the material legacy of her work in the Museum.

This chapter focuses upon the diversity of female responses to colonial service. The experiences of these two women complicate generalisations about ‘colonial women’ by focusing on the 1930s, a period during which various factors simultaneously enabled and inhibited women’s participation in colonial government. This chapter also indicates the need to draw upon a wide variety of sources – visual, material and archival – to uncover these previously untold histories.

Keywords:Imperialism, East Africa, Cultural history, Material culture, gender
Subjects:V Historical and Philosophical studies > V140 Modern History
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V254 East African History
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V210 British History
Divisions:College of Arts > School of History & Heritage > School of History & Heritage (History)
ID Code:27625
Deposited On:20 Jun 2017 12:02

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