At its height from the 16th to 18th centuries, the British Empire was the largest empire of its time. Its territory stretched from Africa to India to the Caribbean as Britain imported then-novel commodities like tea and rubber, and made itself one of the leading powers of the time.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the era’s sense of globetrotting adventure, it’s also important to remember that the history of colonialism often wasn’t pretty. To the British crown, the lands it colonized were merely sources of raw material for trade and shipping, and it was willing to violently subjugate (or enslave) native people in the pursuit of wealth and power.
It’s important to remember those things when discussing one aspect of the period that is still celebrated: the emergence of classic British colonial decor. With its eclectic approach and careful interplay of soft, airy tones and dark accents, the reigning style of the time remains popular to this day. It’s also less stuffy (and more versatile) than you might expect. Let’s cover some of the basics.
Elements of British Colonial Decor
In its heyday, British colonial decor combined pared-back aspects of Victorian design with details drawn from local materials and traditions. Whitewashed walls and sheer fabrics contrasted with native teak or mahogany, while the use of palms, ferns, and other natural elements reflected a fascination with local plant life.
The influence of Asian, Caribbean, and African design could also be felt in the use of eclectic fabrics, distinctive prints, and unique accessories collected from world travel. Meanwhile, the use of rattan and bamboo furniture (as well as items like collapsible writing tables) provided another dimension of texture that’s quintessentially colonial.
All told, British colonial decor represents a marriage of traditional (but then-modern) approaches from the Western world with stylistic elements borrowed from the nations being colonized. In these spaces, the decor tends to be airy and light, with billowy fabrics and plantation-style shutters designed to provide a cooling atmosphere in what were usually hot, tropical climates.
How to Incorporate British Colonial Decor
The core element of British colonial decor is the contrast of light and dark tones. Consider using a soft white paint for walls and outfitting windows with light, sheer fabrics for that feeling of a cool oasis in a tropical setting. You can match the contrasting look of the era’s dark timber floors by using a stain on yours and adding other wood accents like plantation shutters or a classic four-poster bed.
This style of decor also offers plenty of opportunities to show off your favorite art pieces and knick-knacks acquired during trips abroad—these add visual interest while staying true to the well-traveled aesthetic of the time. We love repurposing items like vintage trunks and suitcases to add to the mood of breezy adventure.
The current trend of using botanical prints and greenery also plays well with a classic British colonial approach. This is one occasion where everything old truly is new again—many of these contemporary touches wouldn’t have been out of place during the original colonial era, and can also contribute to that light-dark interplay that defines the style’s color palette.
Why the History of British Colonial Decor Matters
There’s nothing wrong with decorating your home in a British colonial style. It’s a beautiful aesthetic that’s held up to this day for a reason. But if you choose to adopt it as your own, it’s important to acknowledge the historical reality behind how it came about in the first place.
The British Empire was no benign ruler over the lands in its control. It took power by force and violently subjugated most attempts to resist. In the 1870s, India lost over five million to famine while under British rule—even as the country exported grains crucial to its own food supply to the rest of the world. In Kenya, up to 1.5 million of the Kikuyu ethnic group were detained in concentration camps after staging a political uprising against colonial rule.
That’s just a small taste of what British imperialism meant for those being colonized. But in the same way that we can appreciate works of art created during history’s darkest periods, we can recognize (and even celebrate) the beauty of the era’s signature aesthetic.
Marshall, P. J. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Elkins, Caroline. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Pimlico ed, Pimlico, 2005.