King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
West of Suez: Britain and the Mediterranean, 1704-1967

A narrative of travels in northern Africa

A group of people wearing traditional costumes in TripoliA group of people wearing traditional costumes in TripoliIn 1821 the explorer and naval officer George Francis Lyon (1795-1832) published an account of his travels in northern Africa, illustrated with hand-coloured lithographic plates made after his own drawings.

Lyon was keenly interested in the local life and customs of the communities he encountered and the images here, from two copies of the featured work, show costumes worn in the port city of Tripoli.

In the group portrait, the figure on the right wears a pink waistcoat called a sidrea, ‘in the same manner of the Guernsey frock worn by seamen’; the figure in the centre wears a beneish, a type of short-sleeved caftan; and the woman is covered with a barracan, ‘so arranged to envelop the body and head’.

Upper-class woman  of Tripoli wearing a brightly coloured barracanUpper-class woman of Tripoli wearing a brightly coloured barracanThe single portrait of the magnificently attired upper-class woman shows her wearing a different type of barracan, ‘of silk or fine cotton of the most gaudy colours, which is so put on as to form a species of petticoat’.

Lyon adopted the alias Said-ben-Abdallah and had accompanied Joseph Ritchie, secretary to the consul in Paris, on his ill-fated expedition into the African interior. Ritchie unfortunately died on the expedition and Lyon himself contracted dysentery, one of a number of diseases from which he would suffer on his worldwide travels.

In the 19th century British and European explorers and missionaries increasingly ventured further into the hinterland of Africa; with many, like Ritchie, meeting their fate through disease or misadventure.
Ruled by the Ottomans from 1551 to 1911 and then by the Italians for the first half of the 20th century, Libya became the centre of the North African Campaign in the Second World War (see the final section of this online exhibition).

Britain and France administered the country until independence was declared in 1951.

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