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Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938
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Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

Introduction to this online exhibition

Photograph of the Parade Ground, Georgetown Cricket Club, showing a game in actionThe Parade Ground, Georgetown Cricket ClubThis online exhibition was curated by Ed Thompson, who undertook an internship in the Foyle Special Collections Library from January to April 2019. The internship was undertaken as part of Ed’s MA Modern History course at King’s; and a blog post he has written explains his work in more detail.

The focus of Ed's internship was on the photographic representation of the British Empire, as reflected in the historical library collection of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)

In the course of his work, Ed surveyed the collection for original and published photographs depicting life in the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and this online exhibition is curated using his research and analysis of the photographic material he has discovered.

By Ed Thompson

The rise of photography as an accessible and popular medium towards the end of the 19th century coincided with the growth of the British Empire, both in a territorial and cultural sense.

Imperial agents, sent to report on a variety of topics, were increasingly able to illustrate the information gleaned with pictures of their subject, whether that be farming techniques, fellow imperial administrators, industrial development or the indigenous peoples of colonial territories.

Many of these reports were subsequently held in the library collection of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and are now held in the Foyle Special Collections Library, from which the material in this online exhibition is sourced.

Before its acquisition by King’s in 2007, the FCDO Historical Collection acted as a library for consultation by the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its former associated offices of government. In this guise it would have been consulted by civil servants and played a significant role in the mechanism of governance.

The nature of the items

Rather than expressing constant exotic fascination, many of the documents which contain photography address subjects that at first sight appear mundane.

Indeed, for the most part, these are practical reports, designed to inform and document the contents of British imperial territories. Yet despite the initial appearance of banality, reports sent back to the Colonial Office contain a wealth of attitudes and reactions, interweaved with the facts and figures collected.

The collection does not straightforwardly chart popular attitudes towards the Empire. Nonetheless, the process of documenting the Empire reveals not only the limits to imperial knowledge, but also the perspective of the British imperial agents and the inner workings of the colonial project.

Hidden within potentially diffuse and mundane documents are a multitude of tales, which can elucidate Empire-wide manifestations of territorial expansion, imperial capitalism and most importantly, the at-times distressing domination and exploitation of indigenous populations by British administrators and businesses.

The British Empire remains a large, if often unspoken, influence on British society. This imperial hangover continues to pervade contemporary political discourse, even if subtly, as the United Kingdom reflects upon its geopolitical position. For example, The Windrush scandal in 2018 highlighted the potentially ambiguous position in which inter-imperial and inter-commonwealth immigrants, once welcomed with open-arms, now find themselves.

This exhibition therefore presents a survey of how the people, places and dynamics of the British Empire were represented in the photography held in the FCO Historical Collection, from 1866 to 1938 and provides an insight into the machinations of imperial governance which continue to have global repercussions.

The photograph reproduced above is the earliest in the exhibition, portraying a game of that most English of Imperial exports: cricket. This game was held in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1866 and for such an early photograph has extraordinary detail given the size of the pitch in question.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

George Hanneman Bennett. An illustrated history of British Guiana. Georgetown, Demarara: Richardson & Co., 1866

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