30 September 2017 - 31 August 2018
Empire through the Lens
Pictures from the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection
From 500,000 photographs and 2,000 films in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection, we asked 27 people to each choose just one. Their choices are shown here, and the reasons for that choice are explained in their own words.
The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum collected photographs and film from people who worked in the Empire, their families, and companies and government departments working with the colonies. Some are from well-known people, such as the writer Elspeth Huxley, others from anonymous photographers working for organisations like the Crown Agents. Some record great historical events, but many document the everyday lives of families living and working abroad. It is a fascinating collection, giving a broad view of the Empire and the early years of independence.
The selectors reflect the range of the collection: academics, artists, photographers, film makers, colonial workers and their families, development workers and local communities. Each brings a different perspective to how they ‘read’ the image and the legacy of Empire.
Empire through the Lens is an exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery showing photographs and film selected from the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives. Click on the images below to read more about them.
“Photography is so important to understanding colonialism.”
These Water Melons
Izinduna attending indaba
Witch of Ghoom
Bonny oil palm
Leopard at Bonny
The Merewether Clock Tower
Letembia and Ann Chandor
Armistice Day 1938
Internment camp guard
Mysore Dasara Festival (film)
Empire Day 1954
Scenes from the Seychelles (film)
Ma Ngo, a Kuria woman
Weights and Measures (film)
Assembling a locomotive
These Water Melons
Selected by Kat Anderson and Graeme Mortimer Evelyn
This photograph is a testament to the endurance of the enslaved and indentured Jamaican labourers, upon whose grave misfortune, great fortunes of the British Empire were amassed.
Initially, the image can be seen as rather benign or even jovial. However, if we consider the image from both the photographer’s and sitters’ perspectives, we begin to understand it in another way. The photographer represents ‘Empire’, with all the advantages of a position of power, privilege and the technology of the time, whilst the eight young Jamaican boys are reduced to caricatured objects set within a Caribbean landscape.
The photograph depicts a prevailing stereotype of the post-slavery era of the ‘lazy black labourer’, relaxing in the fields and eating an insatiable amount of watermelon, giving rise to the phrase ‘Watermelon Smile’. It is almost certain that the young sitters photographed would have sat motionless for 15 minutes for light to be exposed to the print. Looking closely at the boys’ faces, they have bored and tired expressions. There is a certain knowingness, an understanding that they are being made fun of.
Exhibiting photographs from the British Empire and Commonwealth archives gives us an opportunity to unpick their hidden historical meaning. The presiding ‘joke’ in this image – that strips these boys of their humanity and individuality – has been told for centuries and in thinking of images of the Black bodies in contemporary news and media, one could argue that this joke is being re-told today.
These Water Melons, photograph in album, photographer unknown, Jamaica, about 1860
Kat Anderson and Graeme Mortimer Evelyn
Kat Anderson and Graeme Mortimer Evelyn are artists and curators who both work with the theme of Empire, its colonial past and its legacy.
2014 – 2016 they co-curated ‘Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora’, a visual art exhibition held at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol. The exhibition examined the present day political and social concerns of Jamaica, which as a former British colony and member of the British Commonwealth, still feels the negative impact of Empire on its people, land, political system, as well as the construction of national identity.
Izinduna attending indaba
Selected by Giya Makondo-Wills
This image for me is very powerful and speaks volumes about the colonial heritage of the British Empire. The many indigenous men sat on the floor with legs raised to the chest remind me of sitting on the floor in primary school assembly. Not to be trusted with standing or being given a chair, being placed on the floor in a child-like setting only reinforced the idea that indigenous peoples were sub-human and unsophisticated. The image talks about the power structure between indigenous peoples and colonialists at that time, with the indigenous peoples made to feel subordinate even in a meeting, which was the meeting of two equal peoples.
The implication of such power structures paved the way for institutionalised racism and forced removal of land and human rights for hundreds of years, and struck a deep trauma into the people of the land. When looking at the image, one can feel the electric combination between intrigue and resistance through the many eyes looking directly at the camera. This gives the viewer a sense that those sitting are looking directly into their mind, silently unpicking the façade of imperialism. The halo-like rings placed primarily on the heads of the elders in the photo are a nod to the traditional way of life and are juxtaposed with the western dress of jackets and shorts, they speak to the meeting of two worlds and foreshadow the mass westernisation to come.
Listen to Giya talk about her selection:
‘Indunas attending indaba’ (advisors at a meeting), print from an album, photographed by W. Rausch, Bulawayo, about 1890
2003/076/21a On loan from Lord Wraxall (his grandfather was in the colonial service in Matabeleland 1895-1901)
Giya Makondo-Wills, born 1994, is a British-South African documentary photographer based in Cardiff, UK. Her practice looks at identity, colonisation and new perspectives regarding documentary and the western gaze. She graduated from the Documentary Photography BA from the University of South Wales (formerly Newport) in 2017. She has recently been selected for the Source magazine and It’s Nice That magazine ‘graduates of 2017’ and is a winner of the IAFOR documentary photography award.
Witch of Ghoom
Selected by Jan Birch
I would like to know the story behind this image. If the woman was indeed a witch, consented to being photographed and was allowed to live freely as a witch, attitudes in India in the 1900s must have been very different to today. I doubt that any woman in India now would be willing to be portrayed in this way, as the punishments meted out to anyone suspected of witchcraft are brutal. There have been many incidents of women, rarely men, accused of using black magic to cause miscarriages, diseases, crop failure and other misfortunes, being shunned, tortured, sexually assaulted, expelled from the village or even murdered.
According to official figures 316 people were killed in 2013-14 on suspicion of witchcraft. This is probably the tip of the iceberg, as crimes like these often go unreported. Most incidents take place in remote areas and the victims are typically poor, low status (caste) and often widows. Usually land acquisitions are behind the attacks rather than matters of culture, religion or tradition.
Perhaps the word witch was used as an epithet for a healer or fortune-teller, or maybe she was a witch but lived in isolation from the community, possibly feared, but tolerated. She looks poor, wrinkled and worn but the photo could have been staged and sanitised as a curiosity to decorate a wall. Otherwise, if women were persecuted for witchcraft then as they are now, the story behind this enigmatic portrait could have been a lifetime of hostility and practices of ill treatment that continue hidden but prevalent to this day.
Listen to Jan talk about her selection:
No. 88 Witch of Ghoom (Ghum), [probably a Tibetan woman known locally as the ‘witch of Ghoom’, a village near Darjeeling, whose image was published as photographs, postcards and cigarette cards], commercial print from an album, photographed by Thomas Parr, Darjeeling, about 1900.
2003/071/1/1/3/30 Given by Mr I Sitwell
Born in London in 1957 to an Indian mother and English father, I have always felt a strong connection with India. I’ve lived in Cardiff for most of my adult life, working in local government and the NHS and was a founder member of BAWSO, the Welsh Black women’s refuge group, and the Black Voluntary Sector Network Wales. Since 2008 I’ve worked in India, specialising in criminal justice and gender equality, with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Indian Non-Governmental Organisation Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), one of India’s most prominent voluntary organisations, internationally recognised for its ground-breaking public interest litigation.
Bonny oil palm
Selected by George Osodi
BONNY ISLAND: A TALE OF TWO FARMS
The Kingdom of Bonny is inhabited by the Ibanis /Igbos and is an island in Rivers State, Nigeria. Founded about 1000 CE, the people of Bonny Island mainly fished and farmed crops like palm fruit, cassava and yam. The Bonny kingdom became important in the 15th century with the arrival of the Portuguese and the growth of the Atlantic slave trade. At the height of its power, Bonny Island was one of the main entrepôts [trading centres] on the Slave Coast. Later the Dutch and then the British took control of the slave trade in the region, with the British renaming the port ‘Bonny’. When the British passed an act to abolish the slave trade in 1807 it became an important port trading in palm oil products. During the 19th century the British became increasingly involved in the internal affairs of the kingdom, when in 1886 they assumed control under a protectorate treaty.
Having photographed the Delta region for many years, when I saw Jonathan Adagogo Green’s image of the Palm Fruit Farm with locals sitting on the ground apparently resting after a long day’s work, it immediately cast my mind back to the time the farms would have been of paramount interest to the EMPIRE. Bonny Island was a major trading and export point for palm fruits produced from the trees seen in the background. For more than five centuries, the fortunes of the Niger Delta have been closely tied to that of the Empire’s global economy through its slave ports, the palm oil industries and now the oil industry since the 1950s.
Farm at Bonny, photograph by J A Green, Nigeria, about 1900. 2003/174/1/44 Given by Mr S Jones
J A Green’s photos in his era attest to the early exploitation of the palm trade. In my era as a photographer making photos of the Niger delta region as J A Green did, I witnessed the destruction of the palm oil industry to be replaced by the new farming interest: Oil. Bonny Island has become an export port for CRUDE OIL, in the same way as it was for PALM OIL. I have had the opportunity to be a photographic witness in my era, which reminds me of Bonny: a tale of two farms.
Leopard at Bonny
Selected by David Olusoga
It’s hard to believe that Nigeria – today home to 186 million people – was once the domain of large populations of forest-dwelling leopards. This photograph by the pioneering Nigerian photographer Jonathan Adagogo Green captures what was not an unusual sight in 1900. The Leopard was regarded as a ‘symbolic animal’ by many of the ethnic groups who shared the great southern forests of the region with these powerful cats, and appeared in art, folk stories and proverbs.
The Leopard had particular significance to the people of the Kingdom of Benin (Edo), near Bonny. Benin existed as an independent polity for almost 1,000 years, until a British invasion in 1897, the aftermath of which Jonathan Adagogo Green witnessed. Among the titles of the Obas (kings) of Benin was ‘Leopard of the house’. As the Leopard was regarded as the king of the forest, the embodiment of power and cunning, so the Obas were said to possess those same qualities. To emphasise the point the royal court of Benin kept semi-domesticated leopards within the royal palace, parading them through Benin City at special events.
Not surprisingly the image of the leopard, with its links to the Obas, is one of the most significant motifs in the world-famous art of Benin. Among the treasures known as the Benin Bronzes are many leopard statues, and they appear in the brass plaques that once decorated the walls of the royal palace.
Leopards live in Nigeria today, but mainly in areas of low human habitation, and numbers are so low that the species is defined as ‘Near Threatened’.
Leopard at Bonny, photograph by J A Green, Nigeria, about 1900
2003/174/1/42 Given by Mr S Jones
David Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian, author, presenter and film-maker. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he studied history and journalism before joining the BBC. He is an award-winning documentary maker and is also co-author of The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and The Colonial Roots of Nazism, author of The World’s War and a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Black British History.
His books and television programmes have explored the themes of empire, military-history, race, slavery, and contemporary culture in the UK and USA. He’s currently writing a new book on world slavery.
The Merewether Clock Tower
Selected by Abdul Razzak Memon, Shabir Osman and Tariq Khan
Beautifully carved, elegantly designed and adorned with mysterious motifs, Merewether Clock Tower is a well-known landmark in Karachi, Pakistan.
In 1839, the British Empire transformed the sleepy fishing village of Karachi into a bustling urban area.
Merewether Clock Tower was commissioned as a memorial for General Sir William L. Merewether, who served as Commissioner of Sindh from 1867 to 1877, during British rule of India. It was designed by James Strachan, Municipality Engineer, and the foundation stone was laid by the Governor of Bombay, Sir James Fergusson in 1884.
After eight years of construction, the tower was opened to the public in 1892. It stands on a platform 13.4m (44 feet) square and rises to a height of 31m (102 feet), built with buff-coloured local Gizri stone. The talent of local craftsmen was well-used to construct a tower in the Gothic Revival style, popular in Victorian England. The four clock faces are 21.3m (70 feet) from the ground, and each face is 2.1m (seven feet) in diameter. The larger bell at the top announced the hour, while the smaller bells rang the quarter.
When few people had a watch, it was difficult for them to know the exact time when they were out of their homes, and tall clock towers helped people keep track of time when in public places. The clock towers represented the architectural design of a specific era and of the specific country, that’s why today they are a symbol of cultural heritage. The striking bells of the Merewether Clock Tower alerted the surrounding community of the Karachiites as when to work or when to pray.
Merryweather Tower, Karachi B.L. 15, photograph in album, photographer unknown, Pakistan, 1910
1998/133/033 Given by D Bolland
The three selectors are members of Dhek Bhal, a project for elderly South East Asian men.
Abdul Razzak Memon: Every day I would see the Merewether Clock Tower on my way to and from school. The picture takes me back to my school years. I came to the UK in 1973 as a student, then worked in the NHS as a biomedical and pathology scientist.
Shabir Osman: I went to Karachi from Kenya in 1978 to attend a wedding. The Merewether Clock Tower served as a great landmark to navigate my way around the city. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and came to Bristol in the 1990s.
Tariq Khan: At the age of nine, my mum would take me for evening walks, past the Merewether Clock Tower. The photograph transports me back to the wonder years of my childhood. I came to Britain on holiday, and met my future wife. I worked in local government and for the Civil Service.
Selected by Mark Sealy
Decolonising Christmas Photography in Racial Time
The mass of photographs taken in Africa by Europeans, such as the one made in 1923 and sent back to England as a colonial Christmas card from the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers, which was based in Badagry, Nigeria, illustrates the debasing approach by colonials to taking photographs of Africans as a form of trophy image-making.
This seminal photograph now forms part of a permanent exhibition at Liverpool’s Slavery Museum. It is on continuous public display because it highlights the level of colonial cultural arrogance that was at work in visualising the black body and which existed in the mind of the coloniser in the early part of the twentieth century.
The marking of the African men with white paint constructs the workers as being wholly devoid of any authority over their own bodies. Each painted letter represents an absolute mark of domination by the colonial rulers. The company owners join the frame, positioning themselves for the camera in front of the marked black bodies that function as the backdrop to this colonial festive message. It is the complete objectification of the black men that makes the photograph so extreme and is vital to the transference of the intended colonial humorous message generated by the photograph.
Reading the photograph now allows us to connect the colonial mindset across space and time, creating a cultural affirmation of the racist attitudes so prevalent in the making of images of black subjects in Africa and within the imagination of Imperial Britain.
Listen to Mark talk about his selection:
Merry Xmas, photograph in album, photographer unknown, Nigeria, 1923.
2000/098/1/52 Given by Miss V Verdin
Dr Mark Sealy MBE
Dr Mark Sealy MBE has been Director of Autograph ABP since 1991. He has a special interest in photography and human rights. He was awarded the Hood Medal for services to photography in 2007 by the Royal Photographic Society, and in January 2013 he was awarded an MBE for services to photography. He gained his PhD from Durham University, where his research focused on photography and cultural violence. He has curated and commissioned numerous exhibitions around the world, and his many publications include the critically acclaimed Different (Phaidon 2001) with Professor Stuart Hall.
Letembia and Ann Chandor
Selected by Elizabeth Edwards
This photograph appears in an album documenting the first year of the life of Ann, who lived at Old Moshi Government School where her father Peter was a teacher. Letembia was a local man who worked as a servant at the school. Although his exact role is not clear, he appears in staff photographs in the album, and he and another servant seem to attend to Ann amongst their other duties. He is dressed in the typical uniform of a ‘houseboy’ in East Africa. Letembia is supervising a small meal, and holds a cloth and a rattle, while Ann drinks from a little cup.
What is interesting about this photograph for me is the way it complicates our understanding of colonial relationships. We all know of the violence, oppression, dispossession and inequalities on which the system was grounded, symbolised here perhaps by an adult man crouching on the ground to feed a small and very white child. But there is tenderness, care, and even perhaps affection, in this image. The photograph captures the ambiguity of personal relations within the colonial system. How are we to understand it? How do we balance those two very real narratives? But also more widely, how do photographs complicate our understanding of historical questions? To what extent do they reach into corners of human experience which get drowned out in the larger questions of ‘history’? And finally of course, the photograph holds two histories, two sets of experiences, that of Ann and that of Letembia, and their moment of intersection at Old Moshi.
Listen to Elizabeth talk about her selection:
8 months. Ann and Letembia, Old Moshi, photograph in family album, photographer unknown, Tanzania, 1930
1994/020/1/3/4 Given by Mr C. Carlin
Professor Elizabeth Edwards
Why this photograph? I am a visual and historical anthropologist who has worked for many years on photography within a colonial environment. In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the more abstract questions about what photographs ‘do’ to the way we tell historical stories, a question that has become even more pressing in the digital age. This photograph seems, at one level, so ‘unknowable’. Photographs confront us with the appearance of the past, but what can we actually know of it? I found this modest family photograph immediately compelling because it raised all those complicated questions about history and how we think we know about the colonial past.
Selected by Abdi Mohamed
Camels at a water hole, Bardere (Baardheere), Somalia
The picture shows a well where Somali nomads bring their camels for water. Camels are known to stay without water for 30 days, and usually camel herders (young men without shirts or tops – as shown in the picture) come to the well with their camels once a month. Thirsty camels can drink more than 30 gallons of water within 15 minutes.
Camels have leathery mouths and they eat every type of vegetation including dry plants, huge thorns and salt bushes which other animals avoid. During the dry season, camels are taken wherever there is grazing which means they, together with the herders, are away from their families for a long time.
The picture also shows women (not many of them) who are getting water for their families. They usually use camels to transport pitchers full of water back home – pitchers are shown in the picture (near left corner). Families are expected to use that water for over a week. They won’t be able to come to the well every day for reasons including logistics, distance or safety.
It can be seen in the picture that the camels have been gathered into groups. This means that they belong to different families or tribes. As the Somali proverb says, ‘Geeljire geela waa wada jiraa, haddana waa kala jiraa’ (‘When the camels graze together each herdsman keeps close to his own’).
The area around the well is flat. This is always the case because of the water table and, more importantly, accessibility.
Camels, photographic print, photographer unknown, found by A Wright. Somalia, 1930. 2000/084/1/1/4/58 given by Mrs B Wright, widow of A Wright
I have years of valuable experience in project development, management, teaching, training and community development work; and I’m also passionate about community journalism and big data analysis. Currently, I deliver careers advice and guidance in addition to being a Director at Ashley Housing and The Bristol Cable, a project manager (and co-founder) at the Somali Media Group, and a trustee at Wellspring Healthy Living Centre and Black South West Network.
Armistice Day 1938
Selected by Professor Robert Bickers
The year is 1938, and in a scene rehearsed all over the British Empire, often in parks that share the name, Britons living and working in Tianjin have gathered to mark Remembrance Day in the city’s Victoria Park. In the heart of this north China port British residents had erected a memorial that was unveiled in 1921, and looks as if it might stand in a Victoria Park in Leicester, or in London, in Glasgow, or in Bristol. Only the Chinese pavilion hints of its setting.
A park survives there today, but the memorial was swept away after China’s communist revolution. The Tianjin cenotaph was just one of a score of lost British war memorials in China that marked the involvement in the conflict of Britons living there: around two thousand joined up, out of some ten thousand residents, and two hundred young men died – ordinary men, drapers, policemen, tax collectors among them.
Here we might at first only see colonialists, reinforcing with armed ritual their stranglehold on a Chinese city – and this memorial commemorated also those who had died in 1900 when the anti-Christian and anti-foreign Boxer uprising was crushed by foreign invasion. But I chose this photograph for its provocative ambiguity. For if this showed those other Victoria Parks we would accept it as a record of a community’s pain at deaths in France or Gallipoli. I think, alongside imperialism’s echoing wrongs, we should still find time to think about other lives lost, wasted, broken on the deadly wheel of the colonial past: Tianjin’s Great War dead among them.
Listen to Robert talk about his selection:
Armistice Day 1938, photograph in album, photographer unknown, possibly Howard Payne, Tianjin (Tientsin), 1938
2002/027/1/16 Given by Mrs M Jeans, daughter of Howard Payne
Professor Robert Bickers
My own family involvement in the world of the British Empire dates to at least 1885. Since then my forebears have worked or fought, farmed or preached, married, given birth, or died, in Burma, India, Malaya, Hong Kong – where I spent three childhood years – South Africa, Rhodesia and Australia. This is hardly unusual (nor is it a complete list). This is why I think it worth noting that the sons and daughters of such an ordinary Yorkshire farming family sought opportunities that took them far across the world. The story of British imperial power lurks in many such ordinary families, often unspoken, unspectacular, banal.
Selected by Annabel Trechmann
Peacemaking amongst the Beja people of Eritrea
This photograph shows a Nara [Baria] man carrying a shield and dagger. In 1945 a similar shield and sword were given to my father, Armine Wright, as a thank you by Ali Muntaz, leader of a Beni-Amer [Beja] rebel group, after he risked his life to obtain Muntaz a pardon and broker peace.
Father was Senior Civil Affairs Officer of the British Military Administration in Eritrea. He tried to work with the local tribal system to enable tribes to make their own decisions. After negotiations with the rebels failed, he was only allowed to meet with Muntaz unarmed and unaccompanied, at a remote location. He was faced with angry men, bearing rifles. After persuading them that he came in peace he was allowed to speak with Muntaz. In his own words:
‘I put my arm around his shoulder, and said to him in Italian that it was very hot and that as I had only come to hear what he had got to say, we had better find a comfortable place in the shade… He at once asked me what I had come to offer. I said nothing at present. I am here to hear what you have to say, and why you have made war in this country. Tell me your story, for the Government does not know you, or what you want.’
After a five hour discussion they parted on good terms, and Father returned home through the night. He arranged a pardon for Ali Muntaz, who rode into Agordat on Christmas Eve on his camels and took the Oath to the British government.
‘Eritrea – giovane Baria [young Baria man]’, postcard print in album, by unknown photographer, Eritrea, about 1945.
2000/084/1/1/5/2 Given by Mrs B Wright, widow of Armine Wright
Annabel Trechmann née Wright
I was born in Kenya during the Second World War whilst my Father, Armine Wright, was Senior Civil Affairs Officer of the British Military Administration in Eritrea. After the war Father continued in the Colonial Service in Uganda and then Tanganyika. He wrote a paper for the Foreign Office in 1947, suggesting the people should learn to govern themselves as it would not be long before they wanted independence. This was not well received.
Father possessed very little diplomacy. His focus was learning about the Africans and their customs, and latterly teaching them to prepare for their future. This was not popular with Colonial high-ups who felt he did not support the ‘System’.
Internment camp guard
Selected by Gabrielle Knapman
One of the Payne family Memory Books is a record of my Mother’s parents’ internment, when Japan was occupying China and later also at war with the Allies.
Alice Payne was an amateur artist of some local repute. She made a number of watercolours illustrating aspects of camp life, and among them is this pencil sketch of a guard.
This picture stands out to me as different, and rather sad. The face itself is beautiful. It is also severe – but I imagine that is the formal pose the guard would have considered suitable for a portrait.
As with much else in the Payne Memory Books, questions and mysteries arise to which we will never have answers –
Who suggested that Alice should comply with the guard’s pestering?
Why did the guard want the picture made?
What happened after the first sitting? Did he ‘disappear’ or was he merely reassigned elsewhere.
Why did my Grandmother keep the sketch?
How did she manage to hang on to this and other mementoes of camp life until the end of the war?
To me, this sketch suggests some fellow-feeling between the artist and sitter, but also the personal constraints, on both sides – the sorrow of war.
In 1949-50, my Grandmother travelled round the world, visiting family and friends, including a short visit to Japan. This suggests to me an international spirit, but perhaps it also hints at more mysteries arising from her internment years.
I wish the family of that guard could learn of this sketch, and get to keep a copy of it.
“A Guard who pestered me to do his portrait. Was advised to do so less something bad happen to me. He ‘disappeared’ after one sitting for disobeying ‘No truck with P.O.W.’”, pencil sketch in album, by Alice Payne, China, 1945.
2002/027/1/19/p92 Given by Mrs M Jeans, daughter of Alice Payne
Alice Payne (the artist) by Gabrielle Knapman
My Grandmother, Alice Payne (1883 to 1973) was the eldest daughter of a Scottish missionary, Thomas Bryson, who went out to north China in 1866. He married and raised a family in China, and eventually retired and settled in the European Concession in Tientsin, a town some 80 miles from Beijing (Peking as it was called then). Alice grew up in China, was schooled in England, and married a merchant in China, Howard Payne.
During the Japanese occupation of China they were interned, along with other family members and the local European community. Howard died in camp, of complications following an illness, but Alice survived, and lived on to travel the world, before eventually settling in the Home Counties.
Mysore Dasara Festival (film)
Selected by Kay Barnard
The stories told to you as a child about your family history stay with you throughout your life. My father was born in Bangalore in the early 20th century. He talked fondly of his Ayah (nanny) and my grandmother would chivvy us to hurry saying ‘Jolthi, Jolthi’. We have photographs of the family sitting outside their bungalow in Bangalore and of processions like this one.
I chose this film because it is a wonderful display of how I imagined the Bangalore of that time. The town was a British Garrison town until Indian independence in 1947, with my father’s family closely involved with the British army stationed there. Filmed in 1952, the procession is part of the centuries-old festival of Dasara, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. It takes place in Mysore, about 90 miles southwest of Bangalore.
The blending of cultures is extraordinary: Indian soldiers looking as if they had stepped out from Sandhurst, a marching band complete with bagpipes, two beautiful Rolls Royce cars. But more important are the truly Indian celebrations: the gloriously decorated elephants with the Maharaja in a howdah, the camel-drawn carriage and the illuminated sign with its echoes of the past.
My great-grandmother died in Bangalore four years before this film was made. She herself was a product of the blending of cultures, with both Indian and English blood running through her veins. We British owe a debt to India in many ways and we should celebrate the ties that bind our countries together.
Memories of Mysore, 16mm film by David Bolland, India, 1952
1998/133/014 Given by A Bolland
Kay Barnard (née Burns) for the Bristol Commonwealth Society
The Commonwealth is a network of more than fifty countries across the world, from tiny islands to economic powerhouses like India and South Africa.
The Bristol Commonwealth Society is a long-established charitable trust which works to raise awareness of the Commonwealth’s nations, their people, their cultures and their histories. The society supports Commonwealth students in Bristol and encourages young people from Bristol to widen their experience of the world. It promotes partnerships between Bristol’s businesses and Commonwealth countries. For further information visit the website.
‘The Commonwealth is a champion of democracy, freedom, sustainable development, the rule of law, and human rights, especially the rights of women and girls.’ Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, 2017
Selected by Shawn Sobers
Please take a moment to stare at this photograph before you read the rest of these words.
When I first saw this photograph my eyes focused on the two men in the centre, engrossed in what appears to be a conversation, private yet strangely public, surrounded by a circle of seated men. My initial thought was that this was a peaceful scene, an assumption challenged when I see the guard behind them, and my optimism tested further when the barbed wire fence comes into my view.
The title reveals that the photograph shows part of the process to reverse the secret oath that Mau Mau adherents had to swear upon joining.
I do not want here to discuss the politics of the Mau Mau uprisings, and will concentrate on reading the image. As a photograph in and of itself I find it captivating, as even though (I now know) it is essentially a scene of interrogation, the aura of the image feels to be one of the wish of brotherhood and peace in a violent national colonial context. Photography has the ability to freeze time, and time-travel a past scene into the future. In this frozen moment I see the opportunity for new solidarities to be built, and dialogue and understandings fostered. Transported back to 1953, when this photograph was taken, what happened after this scene is a different conversation, found in history books. Time-travel forwards to 2017, where I sit typing, I can create a new future, and choose to see the peace that can form a new reality of my today, tomorrow, and tomorrow’s yesterday.
Listen to Shawn talk about his selection:
Government de-oathing ceremony, photograph by Elspeth Huxley, Kenya, 1953
1995/076/1/1/15/3.20 Given by Elspeth Huxley
Dr Shawn Sobers
Dr Shawn Sobers is Associate Professor of Lens Based Media at University of the West of England, and lectures in Photography and Research Practice. He has carried out a wide range of research projects spanning diverse topics, ranging from the legacies of slavery, the African presence in Georgian and Victorian Britain, disability and walking, and creative citizenship in social media. Principles relating to community media and participatory practice underpin much of his work. As a filmmaker and photographer his work has been exhibited and screened nationally and internationally, and he has directed and produced documentaries for BBC1, ITV and Channel 4.
Empire Day 1954
Selected by Gus Casely-Hayford
How did our tiny island-nation forge and then maintain the largest empire the world has ever known – how did we hold sway over a quarter of the world’s population, control a third of the surface of the planet?
In part, British colonialism was everything you might imagine: ruthless, foot-on-throat-denial of the rights of others. But there was also something else, there was the strategically deployed utilisation of culture – education, music, portraits, statues, flags, museums – to help us reflect upon the might, scale and import of Empire. Such as Empire Day, when millions of children across the world would salute the union flag, sing patriotic songs and listen to speeches evoking colonial heroes like Clive of India. But by the 1950s, after two centuries of expansion and after two world wars there was a growing feeling that change was inevitable.
It is Empire Day 1954 in Banyang, Western Cameroon. A young man takes on the high jump. He leaps. His back rod-straight. Legs whip up and over the rope. A camera moves in the crowd. The shutter opens – and Africa pours through the aperture. The briefest of moments is captured, less than a breath, less than a heartbeat, yet this beautiful fraction of a second transcends its particularity. A momentary window to gaze backward, perhaps with rage, maybe with a little poignancy, to consider the mountain that Africa has ascended and to embrace the coming change. A body suspended, a moment burned onto a negative by the West African sun on a balmy sepia-tinted afternoon – a part of something that had passed, tainted by time itself.
Listen to Gus talk about his selection:
Empire Day, photograph by Dr Malcolm Ruel, Cameroon, 1954
2012/001/6/7/AM5 Given by Ann Ruel
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford is a cultural historian and curator. He has presented two series of The Lost Kingdoms of Africa for the BBC, as well as other television work. He is an Honorary Fellow of Kings College and the School of Oriental and African Studies, has given a SOAS Centenary lecture, judged the Art Fund’s British Museum of the Year Award, advised the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is currently developing a National Portrait Gallery exhibition telling the story of the abolition of slavery through 18th and 19th century portraits. He is a trustee of the National Trust and the Caine Prize for African Writing, and has delivered a TED Global talk.
Scenes from the Seychelles (film)
Selected by Victoria Howard
The film shot by my father, Archdeacon Charles Roach, is a snapshot of the way of life, the cultural institutions, working practices and church life in the remote tropical islands of the Seychelles between 1951 and 1955. It also includes footage of our family. This was a time when there was no airport and everything came by sea, the nearest land being 1,000 miles away. The main industries were copra production from the coconut plantations and fishing. People may be shocked to learn that turtle meat was a staple of the Seychellois diet, but one has to remember that there was little animal husbandry, with a handful of oxen, pigs and relatively more chickens.
There is no indigenous population in the Seychelles. French settlers arrived in the 18th century and claimed the islands for France. Indian and Chinese traders made it their home. The French started coconut and spice plantations and brought in enslaved people from Madagascar and Africa. Viewers will see that the population in the fifties, (and as it still is now) is a complete range of skin colour, encompassing European, African, Indian and Chinese heritage.
The country was still a British Colony, having being ceded to Britain by France after the Napoleonic defeat. Independence did not come until 1976. Life was simple and church played a big part in people’s lives. My father was an unsophisticated man, with a simple but deep faith who fell in love with the people and the place.
16mm film of the Seychelles (edited from several reels), shot by Archdeacon Charles Roach, Seychelles, East Africa, 1950s
2007/141, given by Victoria Howard and South West Film and Television Archive
My father had a profound passion for serving others. He spoke for the plantation workers and against corruption and mismanagement. This incurred the wrath of the former French plantation owners and government staff, and the Bishop asked him not to return from leave in England. Many of the population signed a petition to get him back, and questions were asked in the House of Commons, all to no avail. I had the opportunity to go on a nine month volunteer mission placement in 2014/5. I too came to appreciate the simple faith and beauty of the people and place where I was born (and named after the capital) and to understand more about my father’s motivation.
Selected by Jayne Pucknell and Nicky Sugar
Union Jacks fly high above the heads of eager shoppers on a sunny day in Bridgetown, Barbados, waiting for their new Woolworth’s store, in Prince William Henry Street, to open its doors.
As archivists for the British Empire and Commonwealth Collections we care for some eye-catching images from all corners of the world, but this image brings back memories of our childhoods and trips to ‘Woolies’. There is always a story behind each image, usually beginning with who took the picture and why. This photograph was taken for Woolworth’s annual report which, like the operation of all the Commonwealth stores, was managed from London. The accompanying caption boasted that the store, opened in October 1956, was ‘well received by the public’ and that the shop front and interior fittings were in the traditional (i.e. British) style. Managers were sent from the UK to work alongside local staff on the shop floor.
Was the store aimed at the needs of local people? There is evidence that the Caribbean branches initially stocked local produce, but this tailed off quickly as goods were increasingly shipped from the UK. The subsequent story of Woolworth’s ‘stores in the sun’ has parallels in the story of the Empire itself: these little corners of England, imposed with token local consultation and admired from London in a self-congratulatory fashion, were sold into local ownership in the 1980s.
Today, nearly a decade after the disappearance of Woolworth’s from British high streets, the Prince William Henry Street store is thriving.
Listen to Nicky talk about the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives:
Woolworth’s, publicity photograph by an unknown photographer, Bridgetown, Barbados, 1956
2003/066/1/6 Given by Woolworth’s
Nicky Sugar and Jayne Pucknell, archivists
Nicky Sugar and Jayne Pucknell have formed the British Empire and Commonwealth Collections team at Bristol Archives since summer 2015, and successfully delivered the Exploring Empire project to open up these photographic and film collections to a wider audience. They are both graduates of the University of Liverpool’s archives training course, and between them have experience of archives in the local government, central government and higher education sectors. They are passionate about continuing the next phase of work, focussing on the paper and sound archives alongside the films and photographs and further spreading the word about these incredible collections.
Ma Ngo, a Kuria woman
Selected by Ann Ruel
This photograph of Ma Ngo was taken by Malcolm Ruel in 1956 when he was living among and carrying out research into the way of life and traditions of the Kuria people of East Africa.
I have chosen this photograph because it is an arresting image, striking and direct, and because it reflects the trust that this elderly woman has for the man behind the lens. Although Malcolm was a young white man in colonial times, this woman appears to feel comfortable to present herself openly.
Ma Ngo is standing outside one of the houses of the family homestead. The house has two entrances; the one shown and another opening into the internal space of the corral. The house would have been built by the men of the community using local materials – grass for the roof, walls of timber and mud brick, with a white render. In the background is the local bush with rolling hills in the distance, typical of the area, bisected by the Kenya / Tanzania border, where the Kuria live.
Ma Ngo is a senior woman who has undergone Isubo – the ultimate ceremony of a series of rituals undertaken to mark various stages in an individual’s development. She is wearing her formal ritual garments; an untrimmed goatskin over her right shoulder, and although we can’t see it, a trimmed cowskin skirt; both significant indications of her maturity. In addition she is wearing brass armbands which she will have worn since early womanhood, heavy earrings in her much distended earlobes, and many strings of beads – a symbolic reference to fecundity.
Listen to Ann talk about her selection:
Ma Ngo, photograph by Malcolm Ruel, Kenya / Tanzania, 1958
2012/001/6/2/20B Given by Ann Ruel
Malcolm Ruel by his wife Ann
Malcolm Ruel’s Archive is in itself a scholarly legacy of Empire.
Malcolm was a Social Anthropologist working in Africa in the 1950s; he was attached to Research Institutes sponsored by the British Social Science Research Council in London, towards the end of the Colonial period.
Social Anthropology gives an insight into what makes people tick, what they make, what they do, and what they think. It is based on the study of actual societies through ‘participant observation’, living with the people for a period of time, and learning to speak their language. This Malcolm believed to be an essential tool for the anthropologist, and became fluent, with the help of native speakers, in the languages of both the societies he studied.
Weights and Measures (film)
Selected by Ingrid Sinclair
Accurate weights and measures allow for honest trade and safe construction. But in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) the magnificent 700 year old stone palace of Great Zimbabwe was built without a shred of accurate geometry and still stands today. It testifies to a kingdom that traded as far as India and China without the benefit of accurate weights and measures. 700 years ago that trade was more equitable than today, when Western World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund agreements are biased against Africa, imposing tough tariffs and discouraging production of anything but cheap raw materials.
Used in combination with laws, army and police, accurate weights and measures enabled the British Empire to run its extractive policies efficiently whilst appearing to be fair and honest. A post-war influx of English immigrants to Rhodesia led to booms in agriculture and industry. White standards of living were high, black labour costs low. In the film, the dirty old measures with hidden pads used by cheating local shopkeepers had to go. Proper weights and measures were needed with the Queen’s seal (ER FRN9: Elizabeth Regina, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, 1959) to prove their accuracy.
But seal or no seal, the British Empire cheated their subjects on a massive scale.
However, at least Empire re-invested some of its profits. The infrastructures left by Britain at independence gave Zimbabwe good roads, schools and clinics. As a sad colonial legacy, many African leaders continue extractive policies, but make scarcely any investment in the local economy.
Weights & Measures, 16mm educational film made by the Central African Film Unit, Zimbabwe, 1959.
2005/059/1/1 Given by Mrs A Penn (widow of the lecturer in the film)
Father, German refugee, Mother, Somerset lass. 1970s Bristol was stiflingly ghettoised so I moved north, where at least different classes mingled. When Moss Side rioted in 1981 I curated ‘Reading the Riot Act’, exploring representations of black people, before directing progressive films for Channel 4. Visiting Zimbabwe I fell in love and stayed. I made films that offered more complex and positive views of Africa than the standard famine and poverty stories, and directed the first Zimbabwean feature selected for Cannes. When the economy collapsed, work dried up. Back in Bristol I co-founded the Afrika Eye Film Festival, now in its 11th year. I still work in Africa, most recently curating a photographic exhibition for the Mandela Foundation.
Forest Guard Odong reads the Theodolite
Selected by James Lang Brown
Forest Guard Odong reads the theodolite, assisted by a Suk porter
There are forests in the world that have an essential role in ameliorating the effects of high rainfall: without tree cover the runoff washes away soil and erodes the plains below. These are the protection forests; a vital asset protecting the environment on their own slopes, and farmland and cities from flooding.
The highest mountains in Karasuk, on the Kenya / Uganda frontier, were to become protection forests. The semi-nomadic people saw our plans as encroaching on their traditional right to have as many cattle as possible – in a cattle culture cows are money. The process took years. First the District Commissioner and his assistants (British) had many meetings with the senior chiefs, then with the village chiefs and the people. A senior chief would explain the situation to the cattle owners, while the DC and District Forest Officer sat quietly aside. After months of meetings the DFO was authorised to erect huge cairns at a suitable altitude around the largest mountains, using local labour. Then came the survey, mapping from cairn to cairn. Weeks of walking safari with porters carrying tents, food and survey instruments. Walking direct was impossible, so we used a range finder – difficult in the shimmering heat. The porters could pick out the next cairn in the distance, and find a route through the thorny scrub and rocks.
When the surveys were finished, we had little faith in the rules forbidding grazing animals above our line being observed, so more meetings (barazas) were arranged. At last we had to pull out and leave it to our African foresters and Forest Guards to do their best.
Listen to James Lang Brown talk about his selection:
Survey expedition, from a transparency, photographed by James Lang Brown, Kenya, 1959
2001/291/1/4/III/69 Given by James Lang Brown
James Lang Brown, District Forest Officer, Uganda
I was born in Hertfordshire in 1931, spent the war years in Canada and now live in Mere in Wiltshire. I left school aged 17, determined to become a forester, and later studied Botany at Oxford University before embarking on a two year postgraduate ‘probationership’ for entry to the Colonial Forestry Service. I chose Uganda as my base, a decision inspired by my uncle who worked as a professor at the University of Kampala. Uganda was a protectorate, so I was working directly for the Uganda government. Those years from 1954 to 1963 were the happiest of my life.
1st October 1960
Selected by Ben and Gabbie Mellor
We picked this film – scenes from Borno (North-east Nigeria) on the cusp of Independence from the United Kingdom – because the challenges and opportunities of Nigeria that were seen (and filmed) by forester Robert W. Fishwick in 1960 resonated with our experiences nearly sixty years later – the huge potential of Nigeria (an entrepreneurial people, the largest economy in Africa, an increasingly confident democracy) but also the challenges. Part of the film shows a team searching for water in the dried up bed of Lake Chad. This, it was hoped, would be ‘the key that opened up to profitable use the whole of this wide and fertile area’, turning Borno into ‘the granary of Nigeria’.
Instead Lake Chad has continued to shrink, livelihoods have been lost, and rather than the hoped for prosperity, poverty and lack of opportunity is one of the reasons for the violent insurgency of Boko Haram. In 2015, the vibrant market town of Gwoza, pictured in the film, was declared the capital of the caliphate – and most of the population fled. Today some people have started to return – but rather than trading in the market, they depend on food aid – from UKAid and others. The film reminds us that, despite the challenges and setbacks of the last sixty years, the spirit of optimism that defined the moment of independence still remains. And so does one of the main legacies of empire: the partnership between the people of Nigeria and the people of the UK that has a strong history but an even stronger future to come.
Independence October 1st 1960, 8mm film filmed by R Fishwick, Nigeria, 1960
2001/087/001a Given by Mr R Fishwick
Ben and Gabbie Mellor
From the United Kingdom and Australia respectively, we met when we were both working in New Delhi in 1997. Ben was on his first overseas posting with the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) working on water projects, urban development and economic development; and Gabbie was an Australian Volunteer Abroad working for a sustainable development non-governmental organisation (NGO). Twenty years later, and having lived in Washington DC (USA), London (UK), Kinshasa (DR Congo) and Khartoum (Sudan), we are currently living in Abuja (Nigeria) with our two children and still working in development.
Assembling a locomotive
Selected by Johnny Kalsi
My Parents were both Indian-born but from an early age, moved to Kenya.
My Grandfather Mr Sohan Singh Kalsi was a qualified engineer, and served the British in the Second World War as a rifle engineer. From India, he migrated along with 20,000 Indians to Kenya in the early 1920s in search of prospects.
In Kenya he worked as an engineer for the railroad. This was my connection to this photograph, and doing research I realised this was a very dangerous job. During the completion of the Kenya-Uganda railway, between 1896 and 1903, 38 people died each month. By the time it was finished over 2,400 Indians had lost their lives to disease, accidents and wildlife.
The photograph is of the largest railway workshop in Kenya, used for overhauling locomotives and carriages and for accident repairs. The locomotive is lifted by two cranes under the supervision of the European foreman (in the centre, in shorts). The wheel sets are being moved using crowbars. The boiler cover sheets are newly-painted and the locomotive is being re-assembled after repair. The Sikh gentleman is the Supervisor.
Listen to Johnny talk about his selection:
Assembling a locomotive, East African Railways Workshop, publicity photograph by an unknown photographer for the East African Railways and Harbours Administration, Nairobi, Kenya, about 1960
2002/133/1/34 Given by Mr J Wall
My name is Johnny Kalsi. I am the Artistic Director and Band Leader for The Dhol Foundation. We are a UK based drumming outfit who play North Indian Dhol Drums.
This drum has a history that goes back centuries and this version of Dhol originates from Punjab, India. The influences I had, came from all the weddings I had to attend as a child in UK. I was exposed to the sound of the Dhol from the age of seven. No one from my family is from a musical back ground.
“It’s really important that people in Britain understand the Empire’s part in their own history.”