The faces of men, women and children on numerous postcards of African and other “ethnic” villages can be interpreted in several ways. To the modern eye these people seem victims – brought from their homelands to be displayed in shows, fairgrounds and exhibitions. By the 1900s ethnic villages or human zoos were featured around Europe and the USA. The Somalis who lived at the Bradford Exhibition in 1904 have left an interesting trail of evidence that allows something of their humanity to be seen.
They were employed by the Continental Syndicate, having been recruited after a group of Ashanti (Asante, modern Ghana) was not available. Numbering about 100, the Somalis built their village and lived in it from May until the exhibition closed on 29 October 1904. At least 9 postcards were on sale: Chakim the doctor, fourteen children at school, “washing day” (an all-women affair), and so on. Britain’s military campaigns in Somalia continued to be in the news, and despite the Exhibition’s aim to show its textile and other manufacturers produced excellent goods, the Somalis attracted many of the 2.4 million visitors. At the end of August a fire destroyed property worth nearly £300. Purchased in France, these goods had been insured by the Somalis. Tuberculosis killed one woman (Halimo Adbi Batel) – her grave has recently been marked with Koranic inscriptions. Sultan Ali’s wife gave birth to a daughter in mid-September.
The Bradford Daily Telegraph reported their departure, noting half of the men wore English suits, many spoke English, and the Sultan expressed the view that trading sheep was not as good as working at the exhibition: and they were scheduled to appear in Liege in 1905. The paper noted they had remained staunchly Muslim.
Upset by a misunderstanding over pay and tips, the Somalis went to the Town Hall (the paper said “Somalis Besiege the Town Hall”) and so were late for their train – their two carriages were added to the next train to Hull, when the mayor and others were at the station to bid them farewell. Even allowing for the bias in these Yorkshire reports, we can see the Somalis as a proud and independent group. We lack information on what they experienced and what they thought.
With the development of anthropology white enquirers do not appear to have considered that the Third World people and societies they were examining had prior knowledge of a larger world. Human zoos employed hundreds of people every year from the 1890s – if we see those people as victims we may never be able to trace the impact of foreign ideas on them. The 130 Senegalese who worked in London’s Franco-British Exhibition in 1908 had been in France earlier – in 1909 there was a Dahomey Village at the Imperial International Exhibition in London.
Some participants visited places as well as seeing them through their train’s windows – Mandingo children working in 1908 at the Toy City at Earls Court visited parliament and met Member of Parliament John Burns. Their leader’s father had had his life saved by the-now socialist MP who had been in West Africa decades before. Five of the six Congo pygmies in England 1905-1907 were photographed at Westminster in 1905. Such appearances were restricted as the public would not be keen to pay admission when they had seen the people on the streets.
Comments on surviving cards range from “they look interesting dont they” (Dahomey Warriors, 1905), “I do not care for them” (Bradford, 1904), “They were so funny” (Pygmies, Exeter, 1906) to “What lovely faces they got” (Pygmies, 1905). Most of the cards I have handled have no written message, suggesting they were kept as souvenirs or the owner had a blank mind about the people pictured on the card.
Television has replaced postcards in the presentation of images of the Third World in wealthier countries.
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