Representing “Our island Sultanate” in London and Zanzibar: cross-currents in educating imperial publics

Longair, Sarah (2015) Representing “Our island Sultanate” in London and Zanzibar: cross-currents in educating imperial publics. In: Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire. Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp. 257-278. ISBN 9780719091094

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The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley was a spectacle on a grand scale designed to reinvigorate the spirit of empire in the minds of the British public in the decade after the First World War and to encourage new commercial networks between imperial territories. Although the global political and social landscape had altered immeasurably in the postwar years, the well-established medium of the colonial exhibition was employed to celebrate the diversity of the British Empire and once again ‘bring the world’ to London.

The Zanzibar Court, located within the East African pavilion, is the focus of this chapter. While scholars have examined other African courts and displays at Wembley, in particular analysing the presence of craftsmen from the region, Zanzibar is a significant omission from the scholarship. The court’s display and the accompanying handbook provide a rich source for examining imperial identity and cultural representation at a time of reckoning across the Empire. Zanzibar’s economic significance had been diminishing since the late nineteenth century. The prevailing conceptions of the island for the mass of the British public were of an exotic ‘eastern’ unknown, based primarily upon references in the music hall or lingering memories of slavery in the nineteenth century. The exhibition therefore presented an opportunity for the Zanzibar Government’s to reassert the image of the Protectorate and create “a correct impression of our Island Sultanate”, according to the handbook. Within this rhetoric, Zanzibar’s history was used to reinforce their imagined superiority over the mainland African territories. To achieve this, the formulation of an acceptable narrative overlooked the more unsightly chapters in Zanzibar’s history. Other stereotypes, such as those of an “an Eastern atmosphere and glamour”, were perpetuated.

This chapter uses the exhibits displayed in the Zanzibar Court, the accompanying handbook and other primary sources to examine how the British organising committee produced an image of Zanzibar for consumption in London. Most critically, the court became a prototype for the narrative and organisation of the Zanzibar Museum, opened in 1925. The handbook was reworked into the School History of Zanzibar and then the School History of East Africa which was taught across the region until the 1960s. The motivations behind the creation of this court and its formulation therefore had lasting cultural repercussions for Zanzibar, arguably more significant than the anticipated expansion of trade following exhibition in London. As such, the essay will investigate the interplay of cultural representation in the ‘metropole’ and ‘periphery’.

Keywords:Imperial History, East Africa, Exhibitions
Subjects:V Historical and Philosophical studies > V140 Modern History
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V254 East African History
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V210 British History
Divisions:College of Arts > School of History & Heritage > School of History & Heritage (History)
ID Code:24237
Deposited On:21 Sep 2016 17:07

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