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

Uncovering reception and visitors’ experiences

Delight, dissent and debate: expert visitors and detailed exhibition visits

Some expert visitors did seem to experience the exhibitions as intended. Medical Officers and Public Health officials from South Africa, Palestine, the USSR and Japan visited, and were reportedly impressed, having ‘gone away with much information as to the latest progress in Public Health work’.[21] The Chief Medical Officer of New Zealand was particularly enthusiastic, and after the BEE closed in 1925, he requested that its medical sections be dispatched to Dunedin for a special exhibition in 1925–1926.[22] Likewise, various distinguished visitors to the Walled-City were given private tours, and were apparently impressed by the displays. One of these, the Nigerian Emir of Katsina, inspected the exhibit, viewed its displayed films, and met with the Nigerian craft-workers. He was reportedly ‘particularly charmed with his reception’ (West Africa, 20 September 1924, p 999) and awed by the fair as a whole. He stated, ‘through an interpreter that Wembley stood alone easily; he had never seen anything to equal it’ (The Manchester Guardian, 2 October 1924). The Colonial Secretary, J H Thomas was given a detailed tour of the city, and took great interest in West African industries, histories and peoples. He remarked to Lady Guggisberg, wife of the governor of the Gold Coast, that ‘you must be very proud of your people’. To which Lady Guggisberg promptly answered, ‘we are’ (West Africa, 12 July 1924, p 708A). Psychoanalyst Carl Jung was also fascinated by the Walled-City. In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961), he wrote that he ‘was deeply impressed by the excellent survey of the tribes under British rule’ at the BEE, which inspired him ‘to take a trip to tropical Africa’ (1989, p 253). At the end of the 1924 season, a reporter for West Africa felt that although the story ‘that the Gold Coast is the “White Man’s Grave” has been hard to live down, much has been done to kill it’ (West Africa, 27 September 1924, p 1037).

Other visitors, however, had expected complete verisimilitude, and were left unconvinced. Many settlers in Nigeria and the Gold Coast who had returned to Britain to visit the West African Walled-City found it replete with hyperbole and inaccuracies. Many of their responses appeared in West Africa, a periodical dedicated to the colonial development of that region. One writer, in response to a speech from BEE-planner Lord Stevenson was critical of the idea that disease had been pacified in the Gold Coast, calling this idea ‘unjust and absurd’. He argued that while tropical medicine had improved the situation, ‘the belief that somewhere in West Africa careers in agriculture are awaiting thousands of young Britons…is pathetically far from the facts’ (2 August 1924, p 778).

Other settlers in West Africa interpreted the exhibits quite differently: as an inaccurate misrepresentation of Africa as a ‘Dark Continent’, rather than as the rapidly developing region they had chosen to settle in. They, and West African students in London, lodged complaints on the grounds that curators had gone too far in showing off a spectacle of foreignness, and neglected the realities of West African life (West Africa, 4 October 1924, p 1050). One disgruntled trader wrote to the editor of West Africa (12 July 1924, pp 708A–708B) to complain that while the Walled-City had succeeded in showing ‘make-believe’ African culture, ‘curios and bric-a-brac’, it had failed to showcase its economic potential. Another trader grumbled that the pavilion represented ‘primitivity’, rather than the rapid urbanisation that was taking place in West Africa (West Africa, 22 August 1925, p 1052). Perhaps the best example of this is a cartoon in West Africa, which suggested that while real cities like Lagos were sites of impressive development, the Walled-City was a terrifying representation of Darkest Africa. In this cartoon, drawn by a British tradesman from Lagos, the displays were presented as frightening, depicting Africans as violent and primitive, and African environments as dangerous and diseased. At the end, the tradesman flees the terrifying confines of the Walled-City, bound for the comparative comfort and safety of Lagos.

Figure 8

A satirical cartoon relating to African stereotypes

A cartoonist businessman from Lagos portrays the Walled-City as a terrifying series of displays, depicting violence, danger and primitivity. The cartoonist satirises the concept of Darkest Africa, thanking the curators for backing ‘up the lies we tell our sweethearts’ (West Africa, 16 August 1924, p 843)

West African students in England were often disgusted by the representation of their home countries. After the publication of an offensive article in the Sunday Express, ripe with ‘crude sexual allusions’ about the workers of the Walled-City, the Union of Students of African Descent (USAD) lodged a series of critiques about the representation of West Africa (Geppert, 2010, pp 167–8). These students protested that West Africans had only been brought to Wembley ‘to be ridiculed’ (West Africa, 9 August 1924, p 801).

In the wake of this controversy, the protest was ‘generalised to cover all the sights, real and imaginary, felt by educated Africans who visit the show’ (West Africa, 9 August 1924, p 801). Some students reportedly felt insulted by the photographs of the ‘half-naked individual, grimy and streaked with perspiration, whose struggle with nature it is that arouses the interest and respect of an ignorant public’ (West Africa, 19 December 1925, p 1703). Others thought that the exhibits had done nothing to showcase the development of West Africa, and reflected only a vision of the past. At a meeting of the USAD, Dr Adeniyi-Jones, a member of the Nigerian Legislation Council complained that while the BEE was ‘wonderful, he regretted that the particular form of the Nigerian exhibit was that chosen, merely to show a village without…showing the progress made in Nigerian life as a whole, was to give only a partial and incorrect idea of Nigeria of to-day’. This, he felt, would do little to ‘improve or educate the opinion of the millions of visitors at the Exhibition as to the actual conditions of home life in Nigeria’ (West Africa, 4 October 1924, 1050). Mr W F Dove concurred: ‘All of the West Africans who had seen the Walled City were unanimous in the view that it did not give a true picture of West Africa’ (Ibid).

These complaints were articulated throughout the 1924 season, and the issue became so controversial that when the exhibition reopened in 1925, the Africans’ living quarters were closed off to the public entirely, although visitors were still free to watch them working at their crafts (West Africa, 23 May 1925, p 557 ; West Africa, 6 June 1925, p 3, p 7). Both the students and (reportedly) the African workers themselves were pleased with this change because they had come to ‘demonstrate to us their handicrafts and skill. They did not like their home life being the object of public curiosity’ (West Africa, 6 June 1925, p 7).

These expert visitors with personal experience of tropical Africa, or training in public health, were not the only inhabitants of the fairgrounds who carefully studied the displays and left records of their experience. The Government Pavilion was staffed by ‘demonstrators’ – guides who were paid to explain certain sections of the exhibits to the public. The experience of J W S Fawcett, employed by the Ministry of Health, is revealing. As a demonstrator, his role involved intimate knowledge of the displays, and a great degree of public interaction. Perhaps disgruntled by his working conditions, perhaps seeking to lobby the government for more funds for the proposed 1925 season, Fawcett delivered a scathing polemic against the Ministry of Health’s exhibition. This, he felt, was not an environment conducive to learning, but a hot, sticky mess of people, clambering to gawk at images of disease and decay. ‘General visitors’, he felt, had been interested in looking at, but not learning from the displays. To him, the hundreds of visitors per hour was not an adequate metric for success. Instead, he saw crowds obscuring the displays, preventing visitors from examining them in detail, and forcing them to push through throngs of people without learning much at all.[23] To make matters worse, because the visitor had ‘so much to see and so little time in which to do it…he could not afford to stop and examine each exhibit carefully and ascertain the interesting features’.[24] Furthermore, the catalogue for the Government Pavilion, which was intended to help visitors remember what they had learnt, and contained much of the educational material for the medical displays, was a commercial failure.[25]

Perhaps Fawcett’s most pointed critique was that, embarrassingly, an exhibit designed to showcase the medical prowess of the Empire, was itself an unsanitary environment. Crowds of people, a lack of natural light and poor ventilation, wrote Fawcett, led to the experience of inhabiting the space becoming ‘very oppressive’. Fawcett worked long hours entertaining visitors in a musty, foul atmosphere, with ‘acrid fumes’ wafting across the pavilion from the nearby Admiralty Theatre, no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the ‘washing of the gallery floor…left much to be desired’ and rain leaked through the roof during every storm.[26] Fawcett’s experience was one which suggested illness, rather than health. To him, the exhibit’s only successes were a series of spectacular displays. For example, the Sewage Disposal section had succeeded in piquing the interest of the public who, like flies, congregated around photos of sewage drains, only to quickly lose interest.[27]

These visitors and participants all had different expectations, expertise and aims with their critiques and comments. Public health officials, interested in devising new ways of preaching health and hygiene, were impressed to see it communicated in a simple and striking way. Settlers in West Africa felt that their experience of the region afforded them a degree of expertise with which to assess the accuracy of the displays. Indigenous West African students were hoping for a favourable representation of their countries to combat ubiquitous stereotypes about African ‘backwardness’. These students were disappointed when they only found primitivity reiterated. Even for these expert visitors, many of whom conducted careful studies of the displays, curatorial messages were often fragmentary and incoherent. Representation had escaped the confines of curatorial intent: in some cases, triumphant declarations of development were directly contested. In others, sections officially representing progress were interpreted as showcases of primitivity. The voices of these experts, however, do not encapsulate the experience of those millions of visitors who, as Fawcett pointed out, did not have the time to study the displays in great detail.


Immersion, sensuality and fantasies: interpreting ‘general visitors’ narratives

Press material and unofficial guidebooks are replete with evidence that there was simply not enough time for ‘general visitors’ to see the fair in its entirety. Although curators had hoped that visitors would visit the BEE multiple times, this was not a possibility for most. The attendance of Londoners was disappointing – more than two million people had decided not to see it (The Times, 1 November 1924, p 13).[28] The remaining ‘invading armies’ of visitors came from other parts of the UK, the colonies, Europe, the Americas and Japan (The Times, 29 July 1924, p xiv). For these tourist visitors, time was limited, and multiple visits more difficult. Several guidebooks and press articles noted this problem: one review claimed that ‘a week is barely enough to glance over the surface’ (The Times, 23 April 1924, p xix). The official guidebook begged that visitors not ‘attempt to “do” the Exhibition in one afternoon… That way leads to headache’ and warned that visitors ‘cannot see it all in one day… Try to arrange at least five visits, but better fifty’ (British Empire Exhibition Official Guide, 1924, p 13).

In spite of this, the fair did incorporate some features catering for visitors with limited time. It included a ‘Never-Stop’ railway – a train that would give visitors a whistle-stop tour of the fair (Ibid, p 12). Likewise, guidebooks did try to provide condensed tours of the exhibition – one offering both one and two-day tours (Walks in Wembley, 1924). This exhibition itself was, after all, an attempt to encapsulate the ‘empire in microcosm’ (The Scotsman, 24 April 1924, p 6). The Prince of Wales called the BEE the Empire’s ‘shop window’ – an enticing vignette of what might lie inside (Manchester Guardian, 17 January 1924, p 15).

How exactly did visitors with limited time navigate the 238-acre fair, and how did they interpret the African exhibits? Visitors boarding the ‘Never-Stop’ railway, walking down the streets of the fairgrounds, into and between its pavilions, must have experienced a bombardment of unfamiliar sights, smells and sensations. Few visitors perusing the Empire’s shop window in a single day (or a few days) could have studied displays in detail, unless they arrived with specific knowledge of, and interest in particular pavilions or cultures. The ‘general visitor’, whom curators had so ardently sought to educate, would not necessarily have seen a clear, organised and taxonomic display of culture, but rather a clutter of sensory information associated with foreign places and peoples. Essentially, this would have been what Armstrong (1992, p 199) calls a ‘jumble of foreignness’. To Armstrong (1992, p 203–242), because the experience of navigating a World’s Fair was almost like a trip around the world, visitors pieced together assumptions about ‘the other’ from various sources, frequently conflating peoples and displays, rather than necessarily distinguishing them hierarchically. Indeed, in retrospect, The Times itself (14 January 1927, p 10) conflated the East and West African pavilions, even though these were two clearly demarcated and completely different buildings. Evidently, some visitors were inclined to confuse the images of Africa they encountered, failing to discriminate between different curatorial zones.

The evidence in support of these speculations is fleeting and anecdotal. Some visitors’ testimonies survive in the form of personal accounts and letters to press editors. But by-and-large, such narratives need to be extracted from the experiences and comments of reviewers, themselves often visitors with limited time, and much to see. In these reviews, and associated film, photography and literature, fragments of the affective and immersive experience of navigating the fairground, its sights, smells and sensations, do survive.

Such evidence suggests that partly because of time constraints, the exhausting nature of sightseeing, and the expectation of curiosities that characterised these fairs, most people appeared to have sought out spectacle and entertainment, rather than careful and considered study. Many sources suggest that few visitors were absorbing the captions and catalogues intended to contextualise each exhibit. In the case of the Tropical Health displays, The Lancet (26 April 1924, p 855) recognised that only a minority of visitors would leave with a clear understanding of the complexities of tropical health, stating that ‘No one who visits this graphic display of tropical medicine and hygiene can fail to be impressed by it; but few, it is to be feared, will realise to the full what it signifies’. An unofficial guidebook included no educational information about the displays, rather employing metaphor by describing the exhibition in militaristic terms – as a battle against disease fought by the armies of science.[29] The British Medical Journal (11 April 1925, pp 703–704), recognising the need to catch the attention of wandering visitors, explained that the 1925 revision of the exhibit had included summaries of the lengthy bodies of text, and a ‘kaleidoscopic apparatus’ to draw people’s attention to the most important features. The new exhibit included fewer technicalities, more spectacular tableaux and arresting visuals.[30] Curators, this suggests, were learning from their audiences.

In the case of the Walled-City, like the Tropical Health displays, the evidence suggests that visitors had embarked on a sensorial journey, and showed less interest in the textual propaganda. Jests were made about the heat, coupled with the presence of hordes of school-children, which made visiting the Nigerian building ‘both disagreeable and useless’ as a learning experience (West Africa, 9 August 1924, p 817). Likewise, Africans on display may have been contextualised as educational spectacles, but seem to have been experienced viscerally. West Africa (5 September 1925, p 1118) noted that the major attraction of the Walled-City was the opportunity to experience displayed peoples, claiming that ‘When the interest of the public in things – inanimate things – fails, interest in our fellow human beings from other parts of the world at their day’s work remains’. A series of Pathé newsreels of the Walled-City demonstrates that various visitors simply passed through the African village, some stopping to peek inside dwellings and others just glancing and walking by. From a viewing of these films, it appears that the congested passages brimming with people and the lack of visible information conspired to offer the visitor an immersive, voyeuristic experience of life in West Africa with little incentive to learn about its achievements in health and industry. Rudyard Kipling commented on the experience, declaring in unrepeatable  racist terms that he could almost smell inhabitants of the Walled-City while passing by.[31]

Video 1

Film still from Contrasts in Black and White at Wembley

Famous fashion designer, Paul Poiret is depicted inspecting and appraising West African women’s hairstyles. The video compares contemporary European and West African fashions, declaring that ‘whether they’re dusky beauties from Africa or Europe’s modern maids – all have the same love of fine clothes’. Poiret’s presence here likely signifies curatorial intentions to sell a vision of an industrious, fashionable Africa. Contrasts in Black and White at Wembley (British Pathé, 1924)

Video 2

Film still from the British Empire Exhibition

King George, dignitaries and others passing through the Walled-City, British Empire Exhibition (British Pathé, 1924)

Other sources suggest that this was not a problem specific to these two exhibits, but was characteristic of the BEE as a whole. Punch ran a weekly BEE column, which continuously poked fun at the idea that the various pavilions were exact replicas of foreign cultures, and suggested that while spectacular sights, like the Queen’s dollhouse were always crowded, educational pavilions such as the Palace of Industry were often deserted (Punch, 5 March 1924, pp 238–239; Punch, 12 March 1924, pp 264–265; Punch, 7 May 1924, p 490). Punch was not the only publication to ridicule the idea of the BEE as an educational experience – P G Wodehouse’s story, The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy (2008, pp 140–146), set at the BEE, satirised the idea that visitors were learning about the colonies, their people and industries. Wodehouse’s characters found the exhibits boring, and sought out food, drink and curiosities such as puffed-up fishes, and women performing in the Palace of Beauty. Finally, an interesting hand-written account of a visitor spending ‘one whole day’ at the fair supports this point. It mentions only the architectural and visual elements, such as the splendour of the pavilions, the beautiful dioramas, and various curios for sale. The author writes that ‘One felt all the time that there was so much to remember and so many scenes to visualise'.[32]


Visions of ‘Darkest Africa’

Because many visitors were more interested in an immersive experience of otherness than reading textual captions and catalogues, a chasm emerged between curatorial intentions and the experiences of a multitude of visitors. Accounts of the sights, emotions and sensations associated with the Tropical Health exhibit do not paint a picture of West Africa as desirable. One unofficial guidebook claimed that the Tropical Health displays were ‘rich in nightmares for the sensitive youth’ (Walks in Wembley, 1924, p 19). The Lancet (26 April 1924, p 865) declared that despite its hopeful outlook, ‘its realism must be almost painful to some laymen’. The Manchester Guardian (19 September 1924, p 11) called it ‘grim, yet fascinating’, and The Observer (21 September 1924, p 15) called its various models ‘ghostly’ and ‘sinister’. The Times (29 July 1924, p xiii) interpreted the exhibition as a battle of ‘MAN VERSUS MOSQUITO’ where ‘the question whether man or insects will finally triumph…has by no means been settled’ – suggesting a continuing struggle with disease, rather than a situation under control.

The same was the case with the Walled-City. Rather than reinterpreting Africans as industrious, peaceful and cooperative, for many visitors the experience was one that suggested adventure tempered by violence and danger. The arresting images were those of spears, rather than hoes and ploughs – the evidence of supposed primitivity, rather than industry. One retrospective article called the Walled-City a place which could ‘never [be] entered without a feeling of adventure’ and a museum to ‘heathen gods and pagan customs’ (The Times, 14 January 1927, p 10). Much like in earlier colonial expositions, The Times made it clear that this was a place for the intrepid and the brave. It drew attention to its fearsome exterior, and depicted the Walled-City as having:

a character of its own. Other buildings may suggest dignity, others grace, but the West African Pavilion, looming grim and rugged, is suggestive of the adventure and the splendid romance of Empire-building… Its rugged battlements speak of raids and sudden danger; its loopholes frown down upon the broad walk outside (23 April 1924, p xv).

Such ideas of romance and danger were, no doubt, exacerbated by the Prince of Wales’s visit to West Africa in April 1925. Curators of the Walled-City used this visit to generate publicity for their pavilion’s reopening in May 1925. The Prince’s visit did little to challenge dominant stereotypes of West Africa as ‘barbaric’. On his first day in Kano, Nigerian leaders had cleared the streets of all Africans, to ‘avoid offense to the senses of sight and smell’ (West Africa, 4 July 1925, p 789). The Prince complained about this, and completed the rest of his tour as an anonymous tourist, only to discover a gory corpse. This unfortunate man, a thief, had been killed while resisting arrest, his body left in the open because the ‘Native official responsible’ had planned to watch the Prince playing polo, rather than identify it (West Africa, 4 July 1925, p 789). This extraordinary tale contradicted the curators’ vision of productivity and ‘civilisation’, reinforcing the stereotype that Africans were supposedly unable to maintain law and order. Other articles reported primitivity, rather than violence and incompetence. Punch, for example, suggested that Asante workers in the Walled-City were beholden to a talking-drum which was believed to issue messages from the spirit world (Punch, 30 April 1924, pp 462–463). Such drums were in fact a successful means of long-distance communication used widely across West Africa (Carrington, 1949).

Figure 9

A satirical cartoon from Punch relating to African stereotypes

Punch’s depiction of a group of Africans dropping to their knees in supplication to spiritual commands issued by the ‘Illustrator’s’ inept beating of the drums (Punch, 30 April 1924, p 462)

Even Captain Rattray, an anthropologist of Asante peoples, suggested that displayed Asante workers were unable to comprehend their experience of England, and the BEE. They had allegedly interpreted it not as a physical place, but a ‘visit to the samandow (land of spirits)’ (Rattray, 1926, p 402). Frequently, the Walled-City was interpreted as a site of Romantic imagination, an opportunity for musing, a fantastical place, rather than an educational display communicating real life issues and challenges.

For many visitors, tropical Africa was perceived not only as a place of violence and primitivity, but also, perhaps partly as a result of the Tropical Health exhibit, a White Man’s Grave. The declarations that West Africa was now as healthy as London did little or nothing to shift perceptions shaped by earlier prejudices and expectations about African bodies amongst racist Britons. Catering to these authorities ensured that Africans on display (unlike white settlers from West Africa) were inoculated and vetted for tropical diseases (Rattray, 1926, p 395). The Lancet (31 May 1924, p 1127) proclaimed that careful health and sanitary services were ‘more important than it has been in the case of former exhibitions’ because of ‘a very considerable permanent population in the Park largely unused to Western ideas of sanitation’. Public Health (November 1924, p 61) made sure to notify its readers that all ‘Native Quarters’ were inspected daily by European officials so as to ensure that they were cleaning and using them correctly. In reporting the successes of the Walled-City in 1924, West Africa listed the cleanliness of African facilities. It noted that not only were toilets kept ‘in a thoroughly clean and sanitary condition’, but also that ‘no serious case of illness has occurred’ (West Africa, 1 November 1924, p 1215). To keep things this way, the prevailing view suggested that Africans had to be kept separate from Europeans as far as possible. They could coexist on British terms within the Walled-City – but not outside – they were ‘not allowed to leave the Walled City except by special permissions and under suitable escort’ (Ibid).

Last of all, Africans visiting the BEE from the colonies struggled to find housing due to social segregation in the surrounding area. This stimulated the Committee for the Welfare of Africans in Europe to create a network of contact details for English landlords who were willing to house them at an affordable price.[33] Some activists even suggested that in order to deal with this problem, Africans should be kept offshore in steamer ships – so as to avoid racist Britons who might cause ‘harm to British-African relationships’ (West Africa, 19 January 1924, p 1675, quote on p 1687). Even if we assume that visitors received the Tropical Health exhibition and Walled-City’s message loud and clear – that Africa was supposedly medically safe for settlement and investment – the situation on the ground told another story.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191101/005