King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938


Photograph showing a lorry driving through the wilderness of the Kalahari desert regionGovernment lorry following in spoor of leading lorryPhotograph showing a tall waterfall concealing the mouth of a caveWaterfall concealing mouth of caveBritish explorers such as David Livingstone (1813-73) and Henry Stanley (1841-1904) helped to pave the way for European colonisation and the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ with the well-publicised accounts of their journeys through sub-Saharan Africa.

Livingstone described Africa as an opportunity for British business, just as he stated his belief that British rule would be greatly welcomed by the indigenous peoples of the vast regions he travelled.

Biographical accounts of these famous explorers and the narratives of their travels became immensely popular in the mid-19th century, informing and reinforcing the perceived idea of a ‘dark’ African interior.

With the advent of the camera, the explorers could illustrate their account with photographic visual evidence, generating a better claim to truth than a drawing or painting.

In this way, these towering Victorian public figures popularised certain images or narratives about the continent, highlighting the role of the publishing industry and photography in disseminating glimpses of Britain’s Empire.

The holdings of the FCDO Historical Collection reflect this trend, where exploration was detailed to a wider audience. Works such as In unknown Africa (1904) and Camera adventures in the African wilds (1913), which also feature earlier in this online exhibition — in The presentation of indigenous peoples and Hunting with the camera sections — whilst principally concerning East-African hunting, also display photographs of natural phenomena both authors encountered on their trips, with a waterfall taken from the former reproduced here. In other words, these authors were ‘representing the unfamiliar’ to their audiences.

These titles alone emphasise the presentation of Africa not only as unitary, but also in a primitive state of nature which requires ‘discovering,’ as well as ‘civilising.’

The FCO Historical Collection also highlights examples of how exploration was undertaken for administrative and economic reasons, both in and away from Africa.

Sir Bede Clifford’s 1928 account of his journey across the Kalahari Desert, within which he enclosed photographs of his trip, was the first recorded journey of its type undertaken by a European. Yet his purpose was in part to combat the tsetse fly epidemic and to seek watering points for those herding cattle to market.

Whereas Sir Walter Barttelot’s journey across the Northern Territory, showcased earlier in this online exhibition, was carried out for military and defensive intentions. It also reflected a family history of exploration. It has been suggested that Barttelot’s uncle, Edmund, amongst others, provided the inspiration for the infamous Colonel Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness. During Stanley’s mission to find the physician Emin Pasha, Edmund treated the indigenous peoples brutally before ultimately being shot after striking an indigenous woman with his pistol.

Link to King's College London catalogue records:

Sir Bede Clifford. Report on a journey by motor transport from Mahalapye through the Kalahari desert. [Pretoria: Government Printing and Stationery Office], 1928

PHG Powell-Cotton. In unknown Africa. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1904

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