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Hidden voices of Empire
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Hidden voices of Empire

This online exhibition was curated by Tom Mitchell, who undertook an internship in the Foyle Special Collections Library from January to April 2022, as part of his MA Modern History course at King’s.

Tom also completed a blog post explaining the internship.

Cover illustrations from the West African annualCopies of the West African annual‘Toil in the sun to provide margarine’

In 1950, journalist DMR Cobban watched a group of Hausa farmers in northern Nigeria – one man, three women, and a young boy – ‘from the wide, low window of my thatched, semi-bush dwelling’, as they harvested groundnuts all day to make their living.

Growing this crop had become increasingly attractive due to ‘the rise in imported consumer goods for which he may exchange his crop with surplus’ and ‘the guaranteed price the new Market Board ensures’.

The scene Cobban described - was made a reality by British development policy in West Africa. In his West African annual article recording his observations, he wonders…

Would it have made them feel a little less tired had they … had the knowledge to reflect that a white child in the far off country of their King (someone in Britain they do not know) would have a little more margarine on his bread some day because the little black boy at their side, had helped that day to swell, ever so little, the groundnut harvest for export? More likely, thoughts tended towards the dawn of another day of bent-double toil on the nuts so precious to their well-being.’

Yet at no point through that long, hot day did the journalist ask them this question. Perhaps they spoke no English and he no Hausa, or perhaps it simply did not occur to him. Whatever the reason, their voices are not recorded. This is a very common and well-known problem in history.

This online exhibition seeks to expose voices that have been traditionally hidden from the historical record. Based on a detailed investigation into several periodicals from the historical library collection of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), its focus is African attitudes toward British development policies from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.


A scene showing the picking of cotton at NamulongePicking cotton at Namulonge‘Development’ is an umbrella term for suites of imperialist policies ostensibly designed to raise living standards in what were considered ‘under-developed’ colonies, providing grants and loans for schools, hospitals, infrastructure, research, and training in Western agricultural techniques.

Development was pursued to varying degrees by all the major European powers in the 20th century, though this exhibition will focus solely on British examples.

British development projects began under Joseph Chamberlain’s Colonial Office around the turn of the century, but they did not reach their zenith until the post-war years, following the passage of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act (1940), which would allow for the allocation of up to £5 million per year for the enterprise.

Funded jointly by British taxes and corporations, this increase was packaged with a stronger focus than ever before on ‘welfare’ and preparing colonies for independence.

Much historical research into post-war development examines the motivation of British policymakers in facilitating and maintaining this shift in focus and intensity, with historians broadly agreeing that altruistic intentions were a front for continued imperialist exploitation aimed at resolving Britain’s desperate post-war financial situation.

The sources under examination here can make some contributions to this area of research. But they can also offer a unique insight into contemporary African attitudes towards development which have been considerably less explored.

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