Colonial postcards from a disturbing past, 1890-1914

Postcards were widely available throughout continental Europe by the 1890s. The postcard appealed to tourists looking for a souvenir of their foreign trip. Although travel was still largely confined to the elite class, it was becoming more accessible to the middle class.

The postcards gave these new travelers a means to share their travels with their friends and family at home. Postcards became such a popular commodity that the period from 1895 to the end of the Great War is now considered the golden age of postcards.

The popularity of postcards also extended to postcards depicting images of European colonial possessions. While postcards from Africa served to reinforce stereotypes about the colonies, they also served a greater purpose.

The objective was educational in nature and portrayed colonial West Africa as a place that reaffirmed European stereotypes about the region. These images told his audience about the possibilities and economic potential of the colonies.

More than any other photographic format, colonial-era postcard images of Africa and African peoples helped to reinforce and perpetuate 19th-century European stereotypes of Africa as a "dark continent" devoid of history or culture.

As a protest against Western 'cultural superiority', Africans were depicted in postcard representations as "barbarians and uncivilized peoples", a foreign other, with no cultural ownership. This stereotypical visual representation of African people played an important role in Europe's argument for its so-called 'civilization mission' in Africa.

In general, postcard production for the African continent focused on the civilizing influence of indigenous peoples and colonial-missionary systems. In addition to imagery attempting to define and classify the anthropological profiles of African ethnic "types", postcard representations depict dress and ornamentation, body decorations, indigenous settlements, scenes of daily activities, and ceremonies and rituals. Equally important, many postcards depict local chiefs or kings wearing ceremonial regalia and other aristocratic clothing.

One of the most prominent themes of colonial-era postcards was the imagery that documented the scope of colonial projects, including the construction of new buildings, roads, bridges, railroads, industries, and the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources.

The postcard representations also featured images of landscapes, cities and towns before and in the early stages of "modern" development.

Postcard images depicting specific political or historical events such as the arrival and departure of important European dignitaries in Africa were another popular colonial postcard style.

Another stereotypical image of Colonial Africa postcards was the widespread nude or semi-nude depiction of the bodies of indigenous African peoples, particularly African women and girls.

These portrait postcards, typically featuring erotic content and often openly obscene material, complement the prevailing Eurocentric male fantasies about the 'primitive' sexuality of African women, among others.

This provocative stereotype imagery was actively used in colonial propaganda campaigns to attract European men to the colonies for work, or to enlist them in the navy or colonial armies. A large series of semi-naked postcard images featuring male "warriors" with weapons were also widely distributed.

Colonial photography was an integral part of European representation. Like guns and rifles, the camera was another equally prominent weapon, used to perpetuate racial discrimination and colonial rule.

By distorting social ideas, promoting empire, justifying colonialism, and misrepresenting indigenous peoples and cultures, colonial photography nurtured a belief in European superiority.

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