'It's fun in South Africa': interior design for the Union Castle Shipping Line, 1948-1977

McKay, Harriet (2022) 'It's fun in South Africa': interior design for the Union Castle Shipping Line, 1948-1977. In: The Politics of Design: Privilege and Prejudice in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Te Pūkenga, Otago Polytechnic Press, Dunedin, pp. 231-253. ISBN 978-0-908846-66-5


This chapter examines the history of interior design for the Union-Castle passenger liners sailing from Southampton to South Africa between 1945 and 1977, when the route ceased to operate. Interrogating the interiors of six Union-Castle ships in service between 1948 and 1977 I analyse the design choices and decisions taken by Union-Castle and its managing company, British & Commonwealth Shipping Ltd. (B&C), posit explanations for these, and consider their implications for the creation of Union-Castle’s interiors.

Drawing upon established design-historical methods, I also argue throughout for an interdisciplinary approach. I contend that it is essential to engage with the wider histories that provided the environment for Union-Castle’s operations and argue that this is a design history that cannot be meaningfully written without also tracing the relationship between B&C and the Afrikaner National Party government (1948-1994). I investigate the extent to which the co-constitutive themes of both the ‘representation of politics’ and the ‘politics of representation’ informed the interior design of Union-Castle’s ships.

Such was the nature of the apartheid government’s hegemony that its political ethos can clearly be demonstrated to have had an impact not only upon the process by which, but also the interiors of the vehicles with which, the Union-Castle conducted business. Of critical significance to this history is the fact that nowhere on board any of the ships mentioned is there ever any reference to black Africa. Instead, a series of interiors were produced which were variously inscribed with wholly ‘white’ ideas about emigration, nationhood and colonial relations between Britain and South Africa. In the post-colonial period, these were further inscribed with ideas about power-broking vis à vis Pretoria, with discourses associated with the rise of air travel and mass tourism and, above all, with selling the passage to South Africa as being one of unlimited fun.

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