Media and the British Empire
Imperial associations offered a powerful and exotic canvas for companies and advertisers to link their products to or to inspire film makers or artists. Certainly during the heyday of Empire, it conveyed a sense of power and awe mixed with the first truly global brand - which was most commonly, but not exclusively by the red, white and blue of the Union Jack. There were actually all sorts of interesting images and settings that could be mined to make this imperial connection and so it offered an extremely versatile backdrop for products to be associated with; deserts, tropics, arctic, all sorts of weired and wonderful native peoples or products from the far flung corners of the world and many, many more... The Empire also made an instant association to the most technologically advanced nation on the planet as the first country in the world to undergo an industrial revolution exuded a sense of the modern and the reliable. These associations diminished through the Twentieth Century as the empire seemed to lose its way and headed towards decolonisation. What had been a positive product association lost its lustre and the patriotic connections seemed to become increasingly anachronistic.
Sources and the British Empire
Rival European powers (plus the USA) tended to be highly critical of the British Empire. There attitude could change over time, but in general it was hostile to the Empire. Some of this criticism no doubt represented rivalry; some of it was aimed more at Britain herself; some was genuinely critical of British policies that led to wars or famines or misuse of local populations. Occasionally, when some of the nations became allied to Britain, their attitudes changed from hostile to benevolent almost overnight. Historical context explains a great deal behind the motivation for the kind of sources that are shown below.

Of course, there are many kinds of sources; documents, official communiques, cartoons, photographs, audio recordings, film, art, etc... and it mattered greatly who the intended audience was. Official communications were intended for private diplomatic consumption and so could speak more frankly, but the comments were often made with diplomats or careerists who often had their own agenda or wished to 'please' their masters with confirmation of viewpoints already held. Cartoons were intended for a wide audience and were often highly inflammatory and intended to rally people for a cause or their particular nation's interests or against the British in general. They often did not need to heed the consequences of their statements and could be highly charged and emotionally loaded. This was a period when most nations had extremely lax, or non-existant, laws on incitement and slander. As a result, the level of satire could often be far more brutal than it is today. Photography became increasingly popular as the Nineteenth Century progressed, but even its ability to record actual images did not mean that it did not have its limitations. As important as those people who 'posed' for photographs were those who were not photographed. Photographic equipment was often too heavy, cumbersome and expensive and so often missed actual events and often had to console itself with taking formal group photographs of politicians or soldiers after an event had concluded. There is also evidence that the appearance of a photographer 'changed' the actions of indviduals who were suddenly conscious that they might be recorded for posterity. Audio and film were very basic technologies until the advent of the Twentieth Century. There were recordings made before the end of the Nineteenth Century, but these are few and far between and often of very poor quality. Much like photography, they appeared to represent a reality but could often end up misrepresenting events by deciding what to include or what to leave out. Often, famous events were 'recreated' back in studios by actors whose 'performance' often did little to reflect the genuine events and yet they were played in cinemas as if they were a genuine recording. The weight and bulkiness of the equipment continued to be an issue for the technology. It was one reason that black and white images were for so long more prevalent as they required only one reel of film rather than the four required for colour recordings. There is actually colour film from as early as the Delhi Durbars but it was an expensive luxury that required special equipment to view. Black and white film prevailed until the middle of the Twentieth Century as a result. Artistic representations tended to portray events in what seemed to be a realistic version of events but was often painted to portray events in a more 'heroic' or 'satisfying' way - leaving out too gruesome images or inconvenient facts or characters. Art was certainly a popular way to represent imperial topics, but once again it was often painted 'after the event' and to a particular 'viewpoint'. In the Twentieth Century and particularly during World War One, abstract art became a new way of representing issues that were too difficult to compose in any other format. Abstract representations could be far more thought-provoking and critical although its message did not always reach as large an audience.

When analysing sources it is always useful to know:

  • When the source was created?
  • What was the historical context of the time?
  • Is it a primary or secondary source?
  • Who created it?
  • How reliable is the author of the source?
  • For what purpose was the source created?
  • Did the author have a motive or agenda to put forward?
  • What grounds might the author have for being biased?
  • What are the practical or technological limitations of the source?
  • Who was the intended audience of the source?
  • Are there other sources which affirm or challenge the accuracy of the source?

    It is not always possible to get all the answers to all these questions, but the more that can be proposed, the better chance one has of understanding the full context behind any sources.

  • Sections to Visit
    Film and the British Empire
    Silver Screen
    Advertising and the British Empire
    Punch and the British Empire
    Cigarette Cards and the British Empire
    Cigarette Cards
    Foreign Cartoons and the British Empire
    Foreign Cartoons

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    by Stephen Luscombe