Photographs Explain Empire to Me
by Drew Thompson
The public relations role for the British Empire was carried out, after World War II, by the Central Office of Information. Their photographic collection is now housed at the National Archives. Drew Thompson has been looking through the images produced to represent life in Britain’s African colonies and asking how closely they match the reality of the last years of British rule in Africa.
Setting the stage
During World War I and II, the Ministry of Information produced wartime propaganda for the British government. In 1946, the Central Office of Information (COI) replaced the Ministry of Information, marking a shift and new front in the British government’s attempts to influence public opinion. From its opening, the COI operated a photographic section that amassed and circulated news agency style photographs of Africa and Asia, sites of British imperial rule. Then, in 1966 just as the UK recognised the independence of its colonies in Africa and Asia, the COI photographic section ceased its Africa and Asia coverage. The COI used its expansive archive for public relations and disinformation campaigns that targeted audiences in Great Britain at a time when the British government transformed itself into a social welfare state and grappled with decolonisation. The reality portrayed by the COI photographs greatly differed from the one that colonial states and populations native to Africa experienced while living under British colonial rule.
Photography went hand in hand with European colonisation in Africa. Before 1884, European occupation of Africa was marginal. The Berlin Conference of 1884 separated Africa into segments as part of an attempt to lessen competition and to bring territorial definition to European economic and political interests on the continent. Great Britain and France became the largest colonising powers in Africa. From the late eighteenth to mid-twentieth century in British colonies photography was practiced by missionaries and for scientific purposes. The colonial states that Great Britain constructed in parts of Western, Eastern and Southern Africa made their own photographs or integrated photographers into expeditions depending on the interests of individual administrators. The British public did not have the same views of Africa as British colonial officials and populations native to the colonies.
Photography was instrumental to how the British and French publics, amongst many other European spectators, became aware of colonial Africa. In order to promote government policies, the British and French governments organised and hosted public exhibitions, starting with the Great Exhibition in 1851 and continuing up to the inter-war period when events like the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 and the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931 took place.
Ethnography played a central part in many of the exhibitions and was a channel for racism. The display of anthropometric images that sought to measure the differences between races was common to exhibitions hosted from the late nineteenth century. From the 1870s, exhibitions simulated ‘native village’ life through a combination of photographic reproductions, the display of living populations in mocked up habitations, and taxidermy. Exhibitions conveyed the racist ideologies and logics that had initially prompted Europeans to travel en masse to the continent of Africa with their cameras.
After World War II sustained public outcry over the widespread and large scale killing of Jewish populations in Europe was critical to condemning the racist ideologies associated not only with Nazism but also Europe’s imperial impulses. The incompetence of colonial administrators and their frequent abuse of power further undermined assertions of racial superiority that European nation-states had used to justify colonial occupation. Long before the end of World War II, labour and land protests as well as the rise of African-born and European-educated political philosophers had planted the seeds for Africa’s independence. After decades of ambivalence, the British public had little appetite for the nation’s longstanding and failing imperial aspirations. Nevertheless, the British government was not ready to abandon its colonies. The African continent presented labour and material resources that could prove beneficial to the post war rebuilding of Great Britain’s economy. The British needed a new image of empire that reflected and withstood the post-World War II global landscape and geopolitical realities. This is where the COI came into the picture of British Empire.
Giving Empire a Make Over
Housed at the National Archives in London, the COI photographs of Africa and Asia number over 8,000 images, and collectively reflect an attempt by the COI to generate a comprehensive view of British imperialism as decolonisation was happening in real time. Populations in Great Britain and its African colonies had contrasting views on decolonisation. Just as in the UK, many photographic practices flourished in African colonies; there were photographic economies of studio portraiture and documentary photography that African populations accessed widely in parallel to British use of photography. However, the COI was not concerned with Africans’ views of themselves. Like a press office, the COI aimed to influence British public opinion with regards to the benefits and outcomes of colonial rule. Officials came up with a particular story, paired photographs with long-form stories and captions and sent the packaged materials to news agencies and publications for reproduction as recipients deemed appropriate.
Categorised and grouped according to region and subject matter, the photographs depicted scenes of voting, technical and health training, buildings, landscapes, and sporting events that served the dual purpose of illustrating how Great Britain contributed to Africa’s development and how citizens from across the Commonwealth could represent the interests of Great Britain abroad. For example, a photograph shows a Salvation Army captain from Australia who had travelled to Kenya where he taught blind students basket weaving. The historical dates associated with the photographs correspond with widespread and robust efforts from African populations in the photographed locations to envision and achieve independence. However, these currents are not explicitly found in the COI photographs.
The COI images do illustrate African populations exercising political opinions through the placement of ballots in boxes or expressing their views and support for political organisations by looking at posters. Even then, as Great Britain recognised the independence of African nations like Ghana (1957), Nigeria (1960), and Kenya (1963), there appears uncertainty in how to tell the story of the historical moment and how to frame Great Britain’s role in that history. The narrative constructed hedges on forgetting of the past and displays at times an unwillingness to recognise that British involvement in Africa is ending.
The COI photographs reaffirmed the political, economic, and military practice of indirect rule, in use since the 19th century. British officials in London drafted laws and left their enforcement to populations that settled from Great Britain in its territories. Unlike the colonising powers of France and Portugal, Great Britain never pretended to confer citizenship onto populations native to its colonies in Africa. To be ‘British’ was to be ‘white’, and ‘African’, ‘black’. The COI photographs do not demonstrate a change of heart with regards to this policy. In fact, the collection promotes this long view of racial difference through the guise of instruction. British populations appeared in Africa as teachers, caregivers, election observers, and surrogates, who touched, held, and watched benevolently over African populations. They showed them, through architectural models and demonstrations, how to operate the infrastructure and political and economic systems introduced by Great Britain. Exchanges between the ‘African’ pupil and ‘British’ teacher at a school operated by the religious group Salvation Army allowed the COI to depict African populations as dependent and needing paternalistic guidance.
However, the British government and its colonial representatives, the majority of which included civilian settlers, were not benign in the ways the photographs depicted them. In Kenya and the Asian colony of Malaya, British land and labour policies, and British settlers’ reliance on force to assert power, caused anti-colonial unrest. In Kenya, ethnic groups like the Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu responded by joining forces to form the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) and to challenge British colonial authority through sporadic attacks. Tensions resulted in the colonial state declaring a state of emergency. In response, British officials used counter-insurgency tactics, including detaining political activists in concentration camps and subjecting detainees to invasive surveillance and identification measures, in order to separate the KLFA according to ethnic group.
The COI archive conceals these forms of violence and its repercussions – documented elsewhere photographically and through oral histories – perpetrated by British colonial settlers in Kenya. Depending on what side you were looking, these events became known as either the Mau Mau Rebellion, the Mau Mau Revolt, or the Kenyan State of Emergency. In the wake of this unrest, the COI presented a reality where Kikuyu women perform needlework, a mobile post office savings bank came to visit, and police officers learn different traffic patterns and how to fire rifles. There are suggestions of the wider political contexts however, especially in terms of the COI’s coverage of Southern Rhodesia where photographs show the training of military forces. In the short-term, the training of these white men to use automatic weaponry provided additional manpower for the British government to fight in the Malayan State of Emergency. In the longterm, such activity contributed to the regional divisions that resulted in arguments for Southern Rhodesia’s independence from Britain under white-minority rule.
Looking back (or forward)
The archived COI prints present the work of professional photographers who were employed in the service of the COI and mobilised the documentary qualities of the camera to tell the story that the COI wanted to tell. The COI did not fashion stories by looking at the independently produced images of photojournalists. Instead, it produced stories through photographs and text that followed its own briefs and which news agencies and publishers elected to reproduce and circulate. These could be tailored articles, as in the case of the collection of photographs titled ‘Rhodesian Force for the Far East’ or, in some cases, like the file on Southern Rhodesia that was re-captioned and re-catalogued as depicting ‘racial types’, used opportunistically – standard practices of news agency methodology in the mid-twentieth century.
The COI photographs are part of a longer and still ongoing history of disinformation, misrepresentation, and the imperial imagination. The COI photographs served to instruct British publics how to look at empire post-World War II. But, in hindsight, they elicit a range of responses, some of which are contradictory and representative of the semi-truths and part-falsehoods that the collection promoted. Independence struggles in Africa, social movements, and the global institutions that followed after World War II challenged the territorial and political condition of empire. Despite these changes, little about the ‘look’ and appearance of empire changed. The makers of the COI archive already knew the story they wanted to tell. Photographs were another way to perpetuate that lie.