For millennia the Indian Ocean has been an arena of cultural and economic exchange through the movement of people, objects and ideas. By the late nineteenth century, British control extended across the Ocean and material culture continued to play an important role, not only as commodities but collected as objects representative of local cultures. Colonial officers, their wives and other British figures acquired significant collections through archaeological excavation, ethnographic collecting in the field, gifting, seizure or purchase. Local translators, assistants and scholars acted as mediators in the transmission of cultural knowledge associated with these objects, which were then displayed locally and globally, privately and publicly, in residences, exhibitions and museums. This paper will investigate the ‘colonial moment’ in the lives of objects collected in Zanzibar and the East African coast to shed light on British engagement with and representation of the region. It will demonstrate how objects and their biographies are a rich source for exploring imperial entanglements in East Africa in the age of ‘high imperialism’.