Go back to article: From the White Man’s Grave to the White Man’s Home? Experiencing ‘Tropical Africa’ at the 1924–25 British Empire Exhibition

“A Family Party of the British Empire”: broader aims of the British Empire Exhibition

[2] The British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25 at Wembley Park (henceforth BEE) was an expression of a triumphant vision of imperial utopia. It was Britain’s first ‘Great Exhibition’ in thirteen years, mounted against a backdrop of the ravages of the First World War, and the shock of Spanish flu. It took place over two seasons, from April to October in 1924, and May to October in 1925. The BEE was one in a lineage of ‘Great Exhibitions’ in the UK, ‘World’s Fairs’ in America, or ‘Expositions Universelles’ in France. Beginning with the London Great Exhibition of 1851, which sought to display the arts and industries of the world in a single site, these exhibitions were popular in the West and Japan, as well as in African and Asian colonies from 1851–1951 (Geppert, 2010, pp 1–8 ; Hoffenberg, 2001, pp 1–30). Like those before it, the BEE was a spectacular display of the people, products and cultures of the British Empire across a series of twenty-four museum-cum-arcade buildings called pavilions. Its distinction was in its status as a 'colonial exposition' – a sub-genre of the World’s Fair, popular amongst imperial powers, in which only colonies were invited to participate.

Exhibits were diverse, yet the official intent was largely unified: to increase inter-imperial trade and to promote the development of a more self-sufficient empire (British Empire Exhibition Official Guide, 1924). Its politician organisers, distrustful of European allies and rivals in the aftermath of the First World War, sought to direct increased attention towards its ‘great, underdeveloped estate’ and, in doing so, reduce the need for European trade.[3] It also wished to assert economic dominance in the face of increasing threats from the USA and Japan.[4] The colonies were considered essential in pursuing this goal, but were underfunded, and under-settled. The BEE provided an ideal stage upon which to present their natural and mineral wealth, employment opportunities, climate, or lifestyle.

Curators of the African sections sought to steer public attention away from the gloomy but prevailing idea of the Dark Continent towards a more optimistic vision of 'Brightest Africa'. At the BEE, tropical Africa was not depicted as a region of savagery, death and disease, but a vibrant, exotic culture, and a land of infinite wealth for the intrepid British capitalist. Such depictions were aligned to the broader goals of promoting the development of resource colonies like the Gold Coast. The enduring prevalence of ideas of the White Man’s Grave – implying that Europeans were racially incapable of surviving in tropical Africa – needed to be challenged, as these would have been a deterrent to even the most fearless industrialist.[5]

The exhibition also arrived in a time of growing nationalism, pan-Africanism, and anti-imperial sentiments in Africa and the USA, with intellectuals like Marcus Garvey advocating the end of European colonialism and African leadership in Africa (Stephen 2013, p 123; Wintz 2015, pp 1–18). In many ways, the African exhibits can be read as a counter narrative to such pan-Africanism. By challenging the concept of White Man’s Grave, curators attempted to suggest that Britain had rendered its African colonies healthy and productive, and their inhabitants disciplined, cooperative, and eager to work. How the tropical African exhibits attempted to pacify fears of the White Man’s Grave, and how various visitors engaged with them, is the subject of the remainder of this paper.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191101/002