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Imperial Relations: Histories of family in the British Empire
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Imperial Relations:
Histories of family in the British Empire

In early 1860, Mary Moody gave birth to a daughter, Susan, at the Royal Engineers camp in New Westminster, British Columbia, where her husband was stationed as detachment commander, chief commissioner of lands and works and lieutenant governor of the colony. Writing to her Newcastle family, she longed for the emotional and practical support that her sister Emily could have offered in person in the immediate post-partum period, concluding that “[o]ne really needs relations in a Colony.” While rooted in her own concerns and experiences in New Westminster, Moody’s sentiment resonates more widely: family connections were often critical to securing a new immigrant’s position in an unfamiliar context, and more generally to navigating colonial configurations of power, identity and everyday life for men, women and children across the British imperial world.1

Indeed, as a rich and growing scholarship suggests, family and empire were entangled in a wide range of ways. Familial connections could be vital elements in networks of political patronage and power, while the family also worked as a site of economic strategy and capital accumulation; colonial employment and enterprise, for example, often supported the flagging fortunes of metropolitan relatives. Ideas about marriage, gender, sexuality, childrearing and domesticity both shaped and were shaped by configurations of imperial power and identity, while family communication also helped to produce personal forms of colonial knowledge for those who remained in the metropole. In these ways, the British Empire became a “family affair” or an “intimate project”;2 in ideal and practice, imagination and experience, duty and emotion, blood and metaphor, family constituted key sinews of empire.

But empire, too, could operate as a key sinew of family. It was not simply that one “needed” relations—that family connections underpinned the operation of empire in political, economic, social and emotional ways—but also that imperial processes remade relations and created new ones. Imperialism provided new arenas for sexuality, domesticity and kinship and contestations over the implications of these opportunities were intimately entwined with understandings of identity and power in colonial contexts. Whilst absence, distance and surrogacy stretched the limits of the family, for example, sexual relationships that bridged what were construed as distinct “racial” groups could reconfigure the boundaries of colonial rule. In these ways, the emotional and structural dynamics of family life were altered by imperial separations and collisions. Overall—whether in representation or experience, regulation or expectation—familial “relations” shaped and were shaped by the empire in ways that were critical to the histories of both. In this sense, while Mary Moody wrote from an “edge of empire,” her call for “relations in a Colony” cut to its very heart.

This special issue examines the place of “relations” in colonial life, interrogating their forms, meanings and significance in a range of contexts across the British Empire from the late eighteenth century to the present. We are concerned with exploring both “family” and “empire” as contested categories, with particular attention to rethinking the configurations of “blood, contract, and intimacy”3 that might be seen as constituting imperial families. To this end, the articles consider a diverse range of ways in which family—broadly defined—operated as a key site of imperial processes, a social and economic unit at the heart of colonial life, and a building block for imperial relationships and identities. The histories of ministers and missionaries (Rhonda Semple and Sarah Duff), servants and employers (Fae Dussart), sexual relationships that crossed “racial” and cultural boundaries (Chie Ikeya), and orphans and institutions (Andrew May) provoke new considerations of who and what “colonial relations” were, how they operated and why they were significant. Individually and collectively, these articles push the scholarship on imperial family in new directions, questioning the conceptual boundaries of family and rethinking its connections to empire.

Both within and beyond the context of the British Empire, the study of colonial families is a vast and porous field—in part because of the very fluidity and malleability of the term “family” itself. Made up of shifting configurations of “blood, contract, and intimacy,”4 the family operated as what Esme...