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Beyond Adventure - Boredom in the British Colonial Empire

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When I came across the title of the book "Imperial Boredom," my thoughts immediately turned to the movie "ZAMA" (2017), masterfully directed by Lucrecia Martel. It tells the story of Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish colonial administrator who is sent to a Latin American colony where he falls into monotony. His letters asking for a transfer go unanswered, and Zama sinks deeper and deeper into routine. The book "Imperial Boredom" (2018, Oxford University Press), published shortly thereafter, proves to be a perfect companion, exposing the boring aspect of daily life in the colonies.* Jeffrey A. Auerbach demystifies the tropical image of the colonial British Empire and confronts it with boredom and monotony. The once brave pioneers who ventured into the unknown gradually become less surprised.

We ask ourselves: what exactly is boredom? Auerbach notes that the description of this feeling first appears in 18th century and is consistent with the division between work and leisure. This era witnessed the emergence of entertainment, accompanied by progressive technological advances that made it more accessible. At the same time, expectations rose, and unmet expectations led to what we now call boredom.

The book "Imperial Boredom" takes the reader on a long distance and longue durée journey from embarkation to settlement, exploring various aspects of boredom in different corners of the British Empire. Divided into five consecutive chapters, this book begins with the tedium of travel (Chapter 1), the increasingly less surprising landscapes (Chapter 2), the monotony of the lives of governors (Chapter 3), soldiers (Chapter 4), and settlers (Chapter 5). Each chapter tells the stories of different people, accompanied by illustrations and photographs that reveal the boredom of each phase of colonization..

One might wonder if colonial voyages can be boring? The author does not negate the fascinating stories, but instead shows how monotony gradually set in over time in the British Empire. Over the years and as technology advanced, the nature of long-distance travel changed from one of discovery and adventure to one of commercial and eventually tourist travel. Technological advances contributed to the commercialization of travel, while British colonial policy opened new doors for a different kind of traveler - immigrants. The ships that once embarked upon uncharted territories underwent a gradual process of commercialization. Accompanying their husbands on these voyages, women with children joined the journey, frequently relocating with their families to the colonies. Boredom, however, could be experienced differently by male and female crew members, by tourists and sailors, and by first- or second-class travelers, mentioning that travel could be "tendious" or that "nothing remarkable happened."

Many British men and women set out for the colonies, driven by their desire to explore and migrate. But the greater the expectations of these 'tourists' became, the more banal numerous destinations appeared or failed to arouse their enthusiasm. Over the decades, residents of major cities gained increasing access to travelogues that showed the world, as well as numerous guidebooks and travel narratives. This led to the formation of certain ideas about the colonies, including popular destinations like the Taj Mahal. However, it soon became clear that these places could not fulfill their expectations. In addition to individual motivations, perceptions of the colonies were also influenced by British colonial policy, and it is worth noting that boredom did not always have a negative connotation.

Let us look at three compelling case studies that shed light on how British painters portrayed India, South Africa, and Australia, often aligning their artistic representations with colonial policies. In the context of India, these artists often painted the nation as a country in ruins, evoking a sense of monotony and disillusionment. The intent behind such depictions was to emphasize the perceived necessity of the British presence and the supposed need for British-led modernization in India. The city of Goa in India was also depicted by these painters as a dilapidated ruin to emphasize the damaging effects of Portuguese colonial policy in the region.

On the other hand, Cape Town in South Africa was depicted as an interesting place, which corresponded to the growing British interest in Africa. The African landscape was, to some extent, "tamed" and presented as boring in terms of its familiarity and security. This portrayal aimed to entice British settlers to establish roots in Cape Town, which bore resemblance to their own cities. In other paintings, the remote landscapes of Australia were depicted as nondescript, isolated, and unexciting.

Newcomers to the British colonies - civil servants, soldiers, and settlers - sensed the monotony of everyday life. Whether they came from aristocratic families or landowners, they all shared a common experience: routine. Gradually, their complaints about the dreariness of colonial life grew louder, and many longed for the day when they could return to England, much like Don Diego de Zama, the protagonist in the aforementioned film.

During the transition period from the 17th to the 19th century, British colonial policy underwent significant changes. First and foremost, the process of bureaucratization set in, burdening officials with a dizzying flood of reports from the Empire. Moreover, the era of discoveries and novel encounters evolved into a period of territorial occupation and colonization. As a result, officials were assigned to specific regions where they stayed for extended periods of time and followed a monotonous daily routine. As racial categorization and segregation progressed, direct contact between the British and local communities gradually diminished. Consequently, the British found themselves trapped in their colonial microcosm and increasingly distanced from local elites.

Boredom affected not only the younger soldiers, but also the experienced military personnel stationed in remote locations of the British Empire. Despite the impression that the vast Empire was fully engaged on all fronts and soldiers were constantly busy, Auerbach shows that boredom permeated the military ranks. There are several explanations for this phenomenon, one of the most important being the evolving nature of colonial warfare. Toward the end of the 17th century, conflicts became more frequent, while the number of soldiers who could keep busy decreased. By contrast, in the 19th century, conflicts decreased but the number of soldiers increased. Despite the resurgence of imperial sentiment and the promotion of military careers in the late 19th century, the number of soldiers increased, but boredom remained. Another factor was the changing definition of masculinity in the era of advancing industrialization. The once awe-inspiring image of the male military hero lost its luster and was supplanted by men in industry. Over time, the combination of boredom, loneliness, isolation, and changing social values undermined soldiers' morale and drove them to seek solace in alcoholism or gambling to relieve their monotony.

Eventually, boredom became an inseparable companion of many settlers in the British Empire and collided with the expectations of men and women who had hoped for a better life and prosperity in the overseas colonies. One interesting aspect is the extent to which this sentiment was gendered. Women living in the colonies, where their lives revolved around men, often experienced isolation, a limited sense of responsibility, and a lack of knowledge of local languages, which confined them to small British communities. On the other hand, men often associated their boredom with disappointment, as their hopes for high income and business opportunities in an unstable labor market went unfulfilled. The resulting longing, alienation, and nostalgia often led to a range of psychological problems and illustrate the universal challenges faced by emigrants. As we can see, Diego de Zama was just one of thousands of officials, soldiers and settlers trapped in "cosmic loneliness and bureaucratic imprisonment".

"Imperial boredom" is not only a well-crafted scholarly work based on a variety of historical sources and accompanied by numerous images, photographs, and caricatures, but also a compelling narrative about how fascinating boredom can be.

* Jeffrey A. Auerbach had first published an article on "Imperial bordom" in 2005. See: Auerbach, Jeffrey A. "Imperial boredom." Common Knowledge 11.2 (2005): 283-305.

Bibliography: AUERBACH, Jeffrey A. Imperial boredom: monotony and the British empire. Oxford University Press, USA, 2018.

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