It can't face the future until it takes an unflinching look at its pastby Afua Hirsch / March 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Wembley, in north London, is one of the capital’s most diverse and congested corners; a cacophony of intersecting shopping malls, ethnic minority grocery stores, tube lines, traffic gridlock and 24-hour commuters. But at the turn of the 20th century, it was just a quiet civil parish on the edge of the countryside. Things changed, irreversibly, here in 1922, when construction begun on a project unlike any other—the 56 nation, 216-acre, £12m British Empire Exhibition, the “biggest fair Britain had ever known.”
The British government had briefly neglected its pro-Empire PR machine in the aftermath of the First World War, but it was kicked decisively back into action with this 1924 bonanza of imperial propaganda. This vast project included a Palace of Engineering six times the size of Trafalgar Square, a statue of the Prince of Wales made of Canadian butter, a reconstruction of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and Tibetan trumpeters.
Nothing, however, was more telling than the West African display. This covered a crucial economic link in the Empire. The Gold Coast (now Ghana) where my mother was born, was the colony which made the slaves, who made the sugar and cotton, which made the industrial revolution. At the time of the exhibition, it was still a highly lucrative source of gold and cocoa. By the time of the Second World War, it was the combined resources of the colonies that would repay Britain’s war debt to America. But there was, of course, no art, literature or invention on display: this section was nothing more than a bunch of mud huts. Craftsmen and bare-breasted women from the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigeria were put on display, not unlike animals in a zoo, and elsewhere it provided a source of entertainment. “There you will find me in a costume gay,” sang a dance-hall musician, “in charge of the girls from Africa. All they wear is beads and a grin; that is where the exhibition comes in.”
The Empire Exhibition was phenomenally successful—27m people visited it, half of the population of Great Britain, reminding them of their inherent superiority, as a white race civilising backward savages overseas. This was an old message, but by 1924 it had been updated. This was Empire 2.0, one whose…