The Empire strikes back

The 19th century culminated in an extraordinary period of national jingoism as film, the popular press and photography inspired European nations to jockey for imperial dominance.

Caricature of European political relations titled 'John Bull and his friends, a serio-comic map of Europe' showing the Russian Empire as an octopus with tentacles reaching into Asia, France and Spain as attractive women, while Germany and Great Britain are military commanders, 1900. Illutsration by Frederick W. Rose.
Caricature of European political relations titled 'John Bull and his friends, a serio-comic map of Europe' showing the Russian Empire as an octopus with tentacles reaching into Asia, France and Spain as attractive women, while Germany and Great Britain are military commanders, 1900. Illutsration by Frederick W. Rose. Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Between 1870 and 1936, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Belgium and Spain acquired large swathes of Africa, Asia, the Far East and the Pacific. They did so to enhance national prestige, secure economic and strategic advantages, and as a service to humanity. It was widely believed that the new empires would extend Christianity and European intellectual and scientific enlightenment.

The notion that the new empires were beneficial to all of mankind was of supreme importance. This assumption appealed to societies that were still predominantly Christian, justified the human and monetary costs of imperial wars, and silenced critics on the left who condemned the new empires as rapacious and oppressive. In 1885, when France was preparing to invade Madagascar, the republican premier Jules Ferry told the national assembly that ‘superior races’ had a right and duty to ‘civilise inferior races’. Rudyard Kipling famously described this duty as ‘the White Man’s Burden’.

Shouldering this responsibility enhanced a nation’s moral stature. Each imperial power stressed the unique genetic qualities which qualified it to rule others. On becoming colonial secretary in 1895, Joseph Chamberlain asserted that ‘the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen’. German imperialists insisted that their ancestry and culture made Germans the perfect rulers of other races. Similar boasts were made in Italy and France, whose ‘mission civilisatrice’ was to deliver republican enlightenment and modern science to the rest of the world. In 1911, as France was establishing its toehold in Morocco, Le Petit Journal predicted a utopian future for the country. Its cover showed an amply proportioned lady wearing a republican cap of liberty stepping ashore and showering gold coins on crouching Arabs. Ahead lay ‘Civilisation, Riches and Peace’.

Many imperialists saw the hand of God behind their enterprises. Writing in 1907, Lord Curzon, a high-minded and energetic viceroy of India, detected the hand of providence guiding and ‘blessing’ Britain’s worldwide ‘endeavours’. The new imperialism also looked to the past for inspiration and justification. Mussolini harkened back to imperial Rome (‘the mother of civilisation’) to win public backing for Italy’s ambitions in Africa. Appeals to history, religious fervour and national pride were reminders that empire-building could only be accomplished with popular support.

The role of the press

The words and images that justified and exalted the new imperialism were read and seen by millions. The rush for a place in the sun coincided with two revolutions within the leading imperial powers: the gradual extension of democracy and the spread of mass education. The last was father to the creation of what we now recognise as the mass media. It embraced daily newspapers, weekly illustrated journals, children’s magazines and comics. Circulation figures spiralled; the Daily Mail, launched in 1896, was selling half a million a day within four years. In 1914, 9.5 million newspapers a day were printed in France and were read by a quarter of the population. The new press was deliberately aimed at a lower-middle and working-class audience and attracted advertisers keen to sell their products to this expanding market.

Although they disdained its often strident and demotic tone, Europe’s traditional ruling class and all political parties recognised the popular press as an invaluable ally. The British Conservative prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, spoke for many when he dismissed the Daily Mail as written by and for ‘office boys’, but he could not risk alienating its owners and readership. Newspaper owners were, however, constrained, for their papers were commercial businesses whose fortunes depended upon identifying and satisfying their readers’ tastes and prejudices.

The Fashoda affair

There was a brief, but alarming display of the influence (and irresponsibility) of the new press in the first fortnight of November 1898, when British and French newspapers aroused public emotions to such a pitch that war seemed imminent. The source of the uproar was a minor crisis at Fashoda, a settlement on the banks of the Nile deep in the Sudan. An Anglo-Egyptian army had recently defeated the forces of the Khalifa Abdullahi at Omdurman and was in the process of consolidating control over the Sudan and the upper Nile. The British encountered a French officer, Major Jean Baptiste Marchand and a small detachment of native troops at Fashoda. He had cycled and trekked eastwards from Senegal as part of an ambitious gambit to stake a French claim to the Nile, which would open the way for a French railway that would run across Africa from Senegal to the Red Sea. General Sir Herbert Kitchener, the British commander, was ordered to expel Marchand, who reluctantly agreed to go.

The British press, already jubilant about the conquest of the Sudan, took the official view that Marchand was an interloper, adding with relish that his expedition had been a further example of French chicanery and that Britain would fight if France pressed its claims to this stretch of desert. Affronted, the French newspapers also worked up a head of belligerent steam. Le Figaro praised the ‘heroism’ of Marchand and declared his expulsion as France’s worst ‘humiliation’ since its loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in 1871. Moreover, extremist British newspapers were inflaming public opinion to the point where there was a clamour for war. Battleships were mustering at Portsmouth and there were rumours that Britain was mobilising its reservists. The former was true, for the Admiralty was secretly activating exigency plans for a war with France which included the bombardment of Toulon. The normally calm Journal des Débats Politiques et Littéraires regretted the ‘most disagreeable language’ and noted that even The Times had spoken disparagingly of the aggressive Anglophobia of what it called the ‘uninfluential’ classes of France.

Marchand was lionised when he returned home and French patriots promised to avenge their country’s abasement by the haughty British. Yet the Fashoda affair was settled by sober diplomacy which confirmed Britain as master of the Sudan. France, now riven by the Dreyfus affair, backed down, but the rancour remained. It resurfaced in 1900 when the French press rejoiced in British defeats in South Africa and accused British troops of rape and killing prisoners (‘barbarie anglaise‘). The Daily Mail responded in kind. It warned its French counterparts that if they persisted with their calumnies then France would be ‘rolled in mud and blood’ by Britain – and its colonies would be delivered to Germany and Italy. By now, and thanks to its pugnacious patriotism, the Mail’s daily circulation had reached a million.

Jingoism comes to Europe

The new press fed on a visceral and bellicose patriotism which became known as ‘jingoism’. No country was immune from it. Inspired by the clamour of the press, most notably William Hearst’s New York Journal, jingoism swept the United States on the eve of its war with Spain in 1898. Again with intense newspaper prompting, jingoism spread swiftly across Europe during July 1914.

Jingoism was a natural offshoot of the new imperialism. It gave a bellicose edge to existing nationalism in Britain and France and in the recently formed states of Germany and Italy. All sought prestige, in particular France, which had been defeated in 1871 by Germany. One French imperialist lamented that his country would ‘sink to the level of Romania and Greece’ if it did not acquire colonies. Empire building was intensively competitive; winners cheered and losers wept. In 1882, after a brilliant coup de main had delivered Egypt into British hands, the French novelist and imperialist, Pierre Loti, grieved: ‘Alas! Alas! A nation which for a century has been our rival, and whose unshakeable ideas we can only marvel at in terror, is pursuing at our expense her grandiose and determined aim of becoming the greatest, indeed the only power in the Islamic world, and everywhere she is supplanting us.’

Success intoxicated. In 1911, when he visited the Italian armies then invading Libya, the futuristic poet Filippo Marinetti fell into a trance in which he imagined that the neighs of the cavalry chargers sounded like the word ‘Italia’. Imperial wars, and there were plenty of them, were the stock in trade of the new press. Reporters, war artists, photographers and, after 1897, film cameramen accompanied the armies on major campaigns. Striking images highlighted the courage of the European fighting man. In 1898, the capture of Samori Ture, an able and persistent enemy of French power in the western Sahara, was portrayed by a spirited but wholly imaginary image on the cover of Le Petit Journal. Dressed in white robes and riding at a gallop, he is being grasped by a sabre-wielding French cavalryman in red kepi and blue jacket. The implication is clear: the French soldier was more than a match for his adversary in the traditional military arts of horsemanship and swordplay. Such vivid scenes were complemented by sensational headlines: during the Anglo-Boer war those in the Sun included ‘Koorn Spruit Ambush’, ‘More Deeds of Derring-Do’, ‘New VCs – shells that come in the night’, and ‘The Banner Cry of Hell’.

Images of the Sudan war of 1884–85 depicted in illustrated magazines made an impression on Flora Thompson, a carpenter’s daughter who lived in a remote Oxfordshire village. Fifty year later she recalled: ‘Theirs had been the day of the bayonet and the Gatling gun, of horse-drawn gun carriages and balloon observation of soldiers fighting in tight-necked scarlet tunics.’

Heroes at home and abroad

Colonial campaigns yielded a crop of new national heroes such as victorious generals like Kitchener and Lyautey, who shared a pantheon with the explorers David Livingstone, de Brazza, Carl Peters, and the unlucky Marchand. The dashing Colonel Fred Burnaby, killed fending off Dervishes during the Battle of Abu Klea in 1885, gained instant celebrity, and dealers in prints, photographs and chinaware exploited his fame. Photographs and engravings suitable for framing and brightly-coloured porcelain figures of the colonel were soon on the market, destined to adorn the drawing rooms and parlours of middle-class households. In 1900, portraits of Kitchener were on sale for two shillings and six and three shillings and sixpence framed. Bronze, basalt and marble busts of these and other commanders were also available.

What did the presence of these souvenirs in the bourgeois drawing room signify? Certainly there was national pride and a sense of being a people destined for greatness. Advertisers identified imperial images as positive and attractive. That was why a German brand of chicory was sold in a package that showed (incongruously) a howitzer shelling a Herero village. Pictures of colonial soldiers enjoying a smoke appeared on cigarette packets and one cigar maker used the image of a naked Herero girl to puff his product. The distillers of the French aperitif Byrrh adopted the 1911–12 Moroccan campaign as a selling line. One advertisement showed a French officer enjoying a drink with an Arab sheik as an aeroplane flew over. The French manufacturers of Perdix soap showed it whitening the skin of a caricature African, a distasteful image copied by the British competitor.

The Anglo-Boer war was a godsend to British advertisers. Manly, firmjawed cavalrymen affirmed the excellence of Tortoise-Shell pipe tobacco, Bovril fortified frontline soldiers and victims of African distempers and fevers testified as to how the manufacturers of patent medicines and universal curatives had saved their lives. In Britain and elsewhere, imperial images tended to plug such manly products as cigarettes, pipe tobacco, cigars, coffee and spirits. Empire-building was not only glamorous, it was a statement of national virtue which, most imperialists agreed, was genetic. During the 1893 Matabele War, The Times correspondent was overwhelmed when he surveyed a band of young volunteers in Cecil Rhodes’s army. He wrote of them: ‘Energetic, stalwart, bronzed, the pioneers of Matabeleland were the pick of Anglo-Saxon manhood.’ If empires were to grow and flourish, the young had to learn what was expected from them. Real and fictional heroes filled the pages of a new genre of popular adventure fiction aimed at children and adolescents which emerged at the end of the century. Packed with action, these ‘ripping yarns’ were often set against a background of contemporary imperial wars. Their heroes were young men of courage, spirit and resourcefulness who proved their mettle on the imperial frontiers or suppressing native uprisings.

Empire unbounded

These tales also conveyed political messages. In Muhéro Rikárera (‘Watch out, Herero!’), set against the 1904 German campaign in South West Africa, the hero gets a lesson in imperial ideology from an old hand: ‘God allowed us to triumph here because we are noble and progressive… the world belongs to the most vigorous, the most alert.’ British lads heard similar explanations of their own and their country’s duty in the works of G A Henty and Captain F S Brereton which were often given as prizes in Sunday and elementary schools. In the latter’s In the Grip of the Mullah (1904), set during the contemporary campaign in Somaliland, the two young heroes receive a lecture on Britain’s imperial ideals from the consul in Berbera: ‘Britain has always been the one friend of the oppressed. It has been our policy for generations, and we are known the world over as a fighting race who love freedom and hate the oppressor.’

The imperial message was even absorbed in the nursery and kindergarten. An ABC for Baby Patriots of 1899 included the following: C is for Colonies/Rightly we boast/That of all the great nations/Great Britain has the most. When Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1936, a series of officially approved postcards appeared with bizarre pictures of small children dressed in Fascist black shirts and army uniforms introducing civilisation to the natives. Abyssinians kneel before the Italian flag, and children teach a bewildered native the words of the Fascist anthem Faccetta Nera. In all countries, children fought the wars of empire with model soldiers. They included native troops and the paraphernalia of modern war (such as an Indian mountain battery complete with mules). Opponents of empire were also available: ‘Togoland Warriors’ with bows and all-purpose ‘Arabs of the Desert’.

Childhood impressions of empire were augmented by postage stamps. Collecting them became a major, largely middle-class pastime throughout Europe and the United States. Sales of stamps to collectors raised revenues for colonies (they paid for the Seychelles’ education system) and so governments began to choose pictorial designs that would appeal to philatelists. Tigers appeared on Malayan stamps and the kaiser’s yacht, Hohenzollern, on all German colonial issues. French issues tended towards the exotic with images of wild animals and tropical scenes.

After 1920, the iconography of imperial stamps showed new preoccupations. There was greater emphasis on economic activity: an issue from the Côte d’Ivoire showed natives working and, in the distance, a quayside with derricks loading a steamer. Picturesque elephants and palm trees appeared alongside images of economic growth (rubber tapping and tea harvesting) appeared on the 1936 stamps of Ceylon. The vital part played by the monarchy in strengthening imperial loyalty and cohesion was reflected in uniform issues for every colony in celebration of George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 and King George VI’s Coronation two years later. Images of progress in the form of aircraft were common on Italian colonial stamps: one issue from Tripolitania depicted a plane flying over tribesmen on camels. It was an apt symbol of imperialism which was bringing the wonders of modern science and technology to those who lacked them.

The return of the natives

Native peoples wearing their traditional dress appeared on many colonial stamps. Their lives and customs generated intense curiosity and often abhorrence. The spread of European civilisation involved not just building hospitals and laying railway lines, but the uprooting of cultures which were judged barbarous. The most shocking condoned slavery, tribal warfare and paganism. The last was the concern of Europe’s Christians. One cannot underestimate the influence of the humanitarian and missionary movements of the 19th century which provided an immense popular groundswell of support for imperialism. In 1800 there were a few thousand Christians in Africa, by 1900 there were 15 million.

By this date, French Catholics were sending three million francs annually to overseas missions and they learned how it was spent from pamphlets and mass-circulation journals. Annales had a readership of 1.5 million in 1900. Like its counterparts, it treated conversion as crucial to the advance of civilisation. These publications continually contrasted the brutal and degenerate lives of France’s heathen subjects before they were converted to the bliss they enjoyed afterwards. In 1907, Les Missions Catholiques ran an account (‘Les Mémoires d’un Sauvage‘) of a Masai warrior as told to a missionary in Kenya. It included horrifying descriptions of witchcraft, with a sorcerer foretelling the young man’s future over the entrails of a slaughtered ram. There were also uplifting stories of the physical stamina and devotion of individual missionaries facing an unkind climate and hostile natives. In 1899, Les Missions reported the murder of a missionary in Ubangi-Shari in Central Africa, a land of ‘fierce savages and cannibals’. Cannibalism appalled Europeans, for whom it epitomised the degradation and wickedness of Africans and Pacific islanders.

Photographs, which first appeared in religious magazines during the 1890s, were visible evidence of physical and moral progress. There were hospitals, schools, and converts who had discarded nakedness and traditional costume for European clothes. British missionaries stressed sexual continence and temperance. In the 1890s a Basuto girl was reprimanded for drinking local beer and dancing (she called it ‘singing with my feet’) by a female missionary. A French missionary in Senegal urged his flock to use tables and chairs and knives and forks when they dined, which he considered to be marks of civilisation.

Europeans also had opportunities to experience the intimate, everyday life of their colonial subjects. Natives and their livestock were imported and displayed going about their normal lives in reconstructed villages set in appropriate landscapes. These human zoos appeared in the great civic and commercial exhibitions held in Europe and the United States throughout this period. The vast Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900 attracted 50 million visitors. One, a child, recalled being mesmerised by the ‘colonial’ pavilions. There was a replica of a Dahomey village occupied by ‘great negroes, still savages’ who ‘strode barefoot, with proud and rhythmic bearing’ past women pounding millet. They had been ‘our old and recent enemies’ but now, tamed, they were ‘our liegemen’. Immensely popular were displays of ‘Amazons’, naked African women armed with spears who appeared at exhibitions across Europe and in America. Visitors were indoctrinated as well enthralled. The guidebook to the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition reminded them that France ‘had delivered millions of men, women and children from the nightmare of slavery and death and imposed new values which overturned societies in which the strong oppressed the weak and women and children counted for nothing’.

Film in the colonial world

One of the earliest films made in the 1890s by the Lumière brothers showed an African village, its inhabitants and various African wild animals which were part of the Lyon exposition. Films soon became the most popular source of mass entertainment and, by the 1930s, 450 million cinema tickets were sold weekly in France and over twice that number in Britain. Official and commercial film-makers were quick to recognise and exploit the allure of the colonial world.

Newsreels gave a new immediacy to imperial wars. At the turn of the century, cinema audiences watched footage of American troops landing in Cuba and the Anglo-Boer War. In 1925, Pathé cameramen in Morocco shot dramatic footage of operations against the Rif insurgents in Morocco. One sequence showed entrenched French soldiers with artillery and machine-guns firing on a village and scenes of shattered houses, abandoned by their owners.

Governments made extensive use of films for imperial propaganda. The British made much of the pageantry of royal tours. In 1925, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) toured Africa and audiences glimpsed the Africa of romantic empire depicted in Rider Haggard’s novels. In Swaziland, the prince receives gifts of leopard skins, shields and assegais from fighting men in their traditional dress. In return, he gives them blankets and, afterwards, the warriors perform dances and then the massed impi retires towards a nearby hill. The message is simple: African chiefs and warriors pay homage to the eldest son of the king under whose fair and wise rule they now enjoy peace. Everywhere, children appear waving Union Jacks and cheering the prince. Captions remind cinemagoers that throughout the empire they are now attending schools.

This message of hope for the future was reinforced by commercial films. Zoltan Korda’s Sanders of the River (1935) tells the story of a British district officer in Nigeria who embodies the firmness, patience and dedication of the empire’s servants. He struggles against slavers, gunrunners and gin-peddlers and is assisted by a loyal chief, Bosambo (played by Paul Robeson), who appreciates the benefits of British rule. The imperialist Daily Express applauded the film: ‘One cannot be modest about the Empire.’ Conversion to the ideals of France is the subject of Itto (1934), a romantic adventure set in Morocco. A Berber chief, Hassan, chivalrously sends for a doctor to tend a wounded pilot. The medical man diagnoses anthrax among Hassan’s sheep, inoculates them, and saves the flock. The grateful chief swears never again to resist the French, but his son fights on and perishes in a dramatic siege.

The forces ranged against Italy’s civilising mission are crudely depicted in a propaganda film Ti Saluto, Vado in Abissinia, released on the eve of Mussolini’s invasion of that country in 1936. Against a soundtrack of discordant music, the film opens with grim footage of shackled slaves, a screaming baby having its cheeks scored with tribal marks, and a leper. These chilling images fade. We hear the opening bars of the catchy song of the film’s title and we see footage of jaunty Italian soldiers embarking for a war in the name of civilisation that will be waged with bombers and mustard gas.

For Hollywood and the commercial cinema in Britain and France, empires were a fruitful source of scenarios for films packed with action and a strong love interest. British and American studios were drawn to India’s Northwest Frontier, where sahibs and memsahibs defend the Raj from predatory tribesmen. The British government approved and gave assistance: British and Indian troops were loaned for the battle scenes in The Drum (1938). It has a political message for the villain, Ghul Khan, is receiving machine-guns from the Soviet Union to use in a mass uprising against the Raj.

Nationalist riots followed The Drum’s appearance in India and the government quickly had it withdrawn. The official world always took a close interest in the cinema and its political influence. In 1938 and 1939 the British government blocked the production of a film of Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab revolt for fear of antagonising the Turks, and one on the Indian Mutiny, which would have led to protests in India. British scripts were vetted and a moral code imposed; among the taboo subjects was European depravity in the tropics. Hollywood was extremely chary about interracial love affairs.

Over 70 years, empires became part of popular culture in Britain and, to a slightly lesser extent, in France, Germany and Italy. On one level, the creation of empires and their new subjects were a source of entertainment and curiosity. On another, words and images promoted and validated the imperial idea, gave it legitimacy and persuaded millions of people that their countries were doing good in the world. Popular imperialism also fostered a heady and pugnacious nationalism which fed on national rivalries. Yet imperial tensions only led to two wars, the first between Russia and Japan in 1904, and the second, in 1911, when the Italian attempt to snatch an Ottoman province, Libya, led to a small-scale conflict between a rising empire and a declining one.

In terms of politics, popular, emotional imperialism made it easier to pursue acquisitive policies, but it did not intoxicate people to the extent that they forgot about pressing domestic issues. This was what socialists and trade unions had feared. Both condemned imperialism as the child of capitalism and in Britain, France and Belgium compared the lot of exploited natives to that of the working classes. In 1912, French deputies protested that working-class conscripts were being sent to fight in Morocco for the benefit of industrialists and bankers.

Popular imperialism also created racial stereotypes and notions of genetic superiority that would survive long after empires had vanished. Words and pictures combined to present the African and Asian as the ‘savage’, cruel, burdened by superstition, childlike, and incapable of knowing what was for his good. This chimed in part with the Darwinian view of human progress in which the white races had secured immense advantages while the inhabitants of Africa and Asia lagged behind. Empires would change this by giving these people the chance to catch up, enter the modern world and share its benefits. This was what Churchill and many other imperialists believed. Nonetheless, it was also argued that so-called backwardness and ignorance were the consequence of genetic faults. The racial hierarchy was, therefore, natural and permanent, an assumption that underwrote the cruel racial theories of the 20th century. As for jingoism, it has enjoyed a long life: today it regularly surfaces whenever the Olympics are held, or the World Cup is played.


Lawrence James