Food and the British Raj in Africa: A Photographic Interlude

Africa colonial mapBecause photographs and artwork lend insight into time periods that words might not (a picture is worth a thousand words, right?), it behooves those of us with a penchant for food history (and just plain prurient curiosity!) to examine visual renditions of the past. While reading old diaries, journals, and letters of the British Raj, I want to chide the authors, “Just take a picture!” or “Why didn’t you take a picture, so we can see what you really mean.”

But some people did take photographs, and like many of us, failed to write the details on the back, so in some ways we are no better off than we would be had we had no pictures at all.

The following photographs come from the The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960.

Africa colonial rest houses at Lukudu
Rest houses at Lukudu

The East African equivalent of the dak bungalows of India. In A Household Book for Tropical Colonies (1939),* author E. G. Bradley proposes the following for “Lunch on the Road”:

Meat or fish sandwiches; Salad sandwiches; Cold boiled chicken joints which have cooled in their own jelly; Cold mutton or pork chops; Little pies or sausage rolls; Fish, chicken, or potato salad in a glass jar, made the night before; Potatoes boiled in t heir jackets, eaten cold in slices in the fingers, with butter; A tin of asparagus, and a tin-opener [emphasis hers, indicating that people tend to be the same regardless of the times, and FORGET the can-opener! Yikes!], and a small jar of mayonnaise; Radishes and salt; Cold stuffed eggs; Cold stuffed tomatoes; A tin of fruit and a tin-opener. Spoons!

Africa colonial the vegetable garden
The vegetable garden

Africa colonial house Mrs. Inglis
A house of British officials

E. G. Bradley says, in a way contradicting her advice for road food,

It need not be added that fresh food is much more healthful than tinned and should be used in preference when possible. In very hot climates even cooked meat will not keep. Small quantities of steak, mince, oxtail, tongue, chops, etc., are bought two or three times a week, with chicken or fish on other days. A diet chiefly of fish, egg and chicken dishes is more healthful and pleasant in the tropics when it can be achieved.

Africa colonial kitchen
A typical kitchen

Kamante, Karen Blixen’s cook, wrote a chapter about cooking in his unique work, Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s tales from Out of Africa (collected by Peter Beard, 1975):

Many Europeans came to see my cooking. I had to cook a fish with egg at the top and no bones. Such could make them very happy. Once, there came very important people: the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Wales. I had to cook a very strange fish got from Mombasa. It is the crab one with many legs and arms. I had to boil it so as to take off the skin; then take off its meat and mix with a sauce and salad.

Africa colonial lunch
A lunch with Italian dignitaries

In her 1890 Colonial Household Guide,** Mrs. A. R. Barnes wrote of setting the table:

In preparing a table for any meal care must be taken to have different dishes placed as uniformly as possible, and no knives or forks so near the edge of the table as to be easily knocked off. Be careful to keep the table cloth clean and neatly folded up after use. …

Africa colonial eating manioc
Eating manioc at Lado

Africa colonial menu

*Although this book came later than many of the photos in this essay, the sentiment remains true to the experience.

**Now in a reprinted edition, titled Where the Lion Roars: An 1890 African Colonial Cookery Book (2006). It deals with South Africa. Note that the new edition left out Mrs. Barnes’s comments on gardening.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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3 comments

  • Most interesting journey Cynthia. I have to agree. The impact of the Victorian era flows to this day. Thanks for sharing…

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  • I find this whole period most interesting, and as I’ve said before, I think the Victorians really impacted the history of the world. In so many, many ways.

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  • nice entry, Cynthia. Today’s Brits in Kenya – most of whom are at least 2nd. generation – continue the cooking traditions of their colonial forefathers that you describe, all speak KiSwahili (except relative newcomers) and ‘of course’ have their own ‘Kamante-clones’: More British than the original British!

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