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This article investigates the development of worker housing – collectively the commonest built element in the colonial landscape – and its role in shaping cultural and urban space. Two basic housing forms – the barrack (or hostel) and the single-family house – came to symbolize alternative strategies for the control of labour in colonial societies and a historical progression can be traced from one toward the other. The state had a central role in the devising of these built forms, informed by its specialist advisers in sanitation, engineering, architecture and welfare. The process was contested and negotiated with the employers of labour, notably such capitalist colonial ventures as plantation estates and mining companies, with pressures exerted by the workers for housing improvements through industrial and political action. Southern Africa was a testing ground for methods of managing African and Asian workers which survived in extreme and tenacious form into the apartheid era, and the article explores Natal and Northern Rhodesia as case studies. Natal and the port city of Durban show the evolution from the 1870s of the Indian indentured labour barrack to the African hostel and mine compound. The Copperbelt towns of Northern Rhodesia show the negotiations between the colonial protectorate and the mining companies, with African mineworker strikes influencing the shift from barrack to family housing.