Unhomely Empire: A Forum, Part 1

Published: Posted on

By Ellen Smith (University of Leicester)

In Unhomely Empire, Dr Onni Gust considers eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century conceptions of ‘home’ beyond the physical and material space of the house. Gust offers a complex understanding of the ideological and discursive work that home has performed as an emotional concept throughout history. They take the reader through the tracts of key Enlightenment thinkers to plantations and Scottish Highland communities, to the personal correspondence networks of East India Company families. The book thus prompts many methodological questions, from the complexities of producing multi-site histories to working across genres. Gust’s work embodies new imperial history trends, moving through and recreating global and imperial networks of individuals, ideas and text that span the Americas, the British settler colonies of Canada and Australia, South Asia and other colonial contact zones.

In particular, I was interested in Gust’s approach to these kinds of histories that demonstrate the transmission and exchange of ideas through the relationships between metropole and colony, and often more global intellectual, social and familial networks. These discourses of home and exile were configured and enacted by mobile British men and women who carried specific versions of home as white, heteronormative, respectable and fixed to colonial spaces, consolidating ideas of ‘home’ and ‘homeliness’ as markers of civilisation, progress, and whiteness. The exclusionary politics of ‘home’, we discussed during the reading groups, generated by the ‘messy’ ‘home-lives’ of empire ‘wanderers’, provides an important insight into the anxious constructions of home, nation and belonging that litter imperial accounts from this era, right up to the twentieth century and beyond.[1]

In the final session, Gust left us to ruminate on the present-day contexts of these intersecting ideas of race, home and mobility, drawing on Warsan Shire’s poetic interpretation of ‘home’ in relation to contemporary migration and refugee crises: ‘no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark’. Home is a familiar concept that continues to register racialised meanings of belonging and citizenship in the present. Gust’s work sits in a broader emerging field of study, with contributions from scholars like Laura Ishiguro and Adele Perry, that examines the erasures and violence which have historically accompanied European and imperial designations of certain spaces as ‘home’.

One of the recurring discussion points that the book has raised and that the group grappled with as we responded to Gust’s work, was the problem of the diffusion of ideas through society, and the receptibility of these ideas within, and outside, the ‘British-imperial literati’ that provides the focus of Unhomely Empire.[2] Gust’s book opens up avenues for further research that maps geographies of home for ‘subaltern’ groups and seeks to recover articulations of home and belonging through subaltern voices. Studies such as Voices from Indenture (1996) or Chain Letters (2001), for instance, show how the displacements of migration, indenture and enslavement were negotiated and how correspondence was used to express longing for home by those entangled in these diasporas. The future holds exciting potential for productive connections to be made between these more fleeting insights into subaltern responses and experiences, and Gust’s fascinating and timely enquiry into imperial elite perspectives of home.

[1] Onni Gust, Unhomely Empire: Whiteness and Belonging, C. 1760-1830 : Whiteness and Belonging, C. 1760-1830 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), pp.18, 154.

[2] Ibid., p.13.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *