Top of page

Africana Historic Postcard Collection

Share this post:

(The following is a post by Angel D. Batiste, Area Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

“King Prempeh of Ashantee.” African-born photographer W.S. Johnson, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hand colored print, circa 1900. African and Middle Eastern Division.

After European powers met at the event called the Berlin Conference in 1884-85 to negotiate and formalize claims to African territory, nations in Africa faced European imperialist conquest and eventual colonization. By 1900 most of the entire African continent, except the independent states of Liberia and Ethiopia, was under European political control. Throughout the period of European colonialism in Africa, postcards played an important role in popularizing the venture of European colonial rule and in perpetuating long-held stereotypes of the vast African continent. Postcards were so widely disseminated that they appear to comprise the majority of 19th-century photographic representations of the African continent.

The African Section of the Library of Congress’ African and Middle Eastern Division has amassed a unique collection of more than 2,000 historical photographic postcards documenting an important visual record of Africa and its people during the historically intensive years of European colonialism, from 1895 to 1960. The “Africana Historic Postcard Collection” has significant value for researchers and students working on sub-Saharan Africa’s colonial life and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to documenting representations of African life from a specific period of time, postcards images also chronicle the transformation of cultural, political and social landscapes in the African continent.

Central African Image. Kamba “Type,” photographer Jean Audema. Published by Imprimeries reunes de Nancy, France, circa 1900. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Most of the postcard imagery from the African colonies was taken by military and colonial officials, missionary workers and professional photographers. Images unique to the collection include the works of Ukrainian-born postcard photographer-producer Casimir Zagourski (1883-1944) and prolific French photographer and ethnographer Francois Edmond Fortier (1862-1928) who disseminated the most comprehensive photographic record of West Africa. African postcard photographers include notable names such as Alphonso Lisk-Carew from Sierra Leone, Demba N’Diaye from Senegal, W.S. Johnston from Ghana or Sierra Leone, F.W.H. Arkurst from Ghana, Fred Grant from Ghana, N. Walhim Holm from Ghana and Alex Agbablo Accolatse from Togo.

Askara Soldiers employed by German colonial armies, German East Africa (no imprint), circa 1914. African and Middle Eastern Division.

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 the “dark continent,” devoid of history or culture. As the antithesis of Western “cultural superiority,” Africans were characterized in postcard representations as “savage and uncivilized people,” an exotic other, with no cultural ownership. This stereotyped visual representation of African peoples played a critical role in Europe’s rationale for its so-called “civilizing mission” in Africa.

In general, postcard production for the African continent focused on indigenous people and the civilizing effect of colonial-missionary systems. In addition to imagery that attempted to define and classify anthropometric profiles of African ethnic “types,” postcard representations depicted dress and adornment, body decoration, indigenous settlements, scenes of daily activities and ceremonies and rituals. Equally important, many postcards featured local chiefs or kings dressed in ceremonial regalia and other elite.

Freetown, Sierra Leone: Grammar School Boys. Gerhardt Ludwig Lutterodt, African-born photographer, Accra, 1895. African and Middle Eastern Division.

One of the most prominent themes of colonial era postcards was 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. Postcard representations also showed 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 was another popular colonial postcard genre.

Missionary postcard publishing during this era provides an interesting glimpse into the culture and impact of the Christian missionary society enterprise in colonial Africa. The images largely capture the influences of medical and evangelistic endeavors, caring for the sick, education, and Western technology and fashions. Missionary postcard imagery also emphasized the subject matter of indigenous African peoples and customs.

An important historical highlight of the collection are the numerous postcard depictions of the Italian colonial ‘scramble for East Africa’ and colonial experience from 1890 to 1941. Images of battalion units of locally recruited soldiers “Ascari” serving in the Italian armies of the East African colonies of Eritrea and Somali are well featured in the collection. Postcards of the German “Askari” fighting in the German East Africa Campaigns of World Wars I and II are also represented.

The African “Coach and Four” Transport System. W.M.M.S. Postcards, Series ‘O’, circa 1920s. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Another stereotyped image of colonial Africa postcards was the pervasive nude or semi-nude depictions of the body of indigenous African people, especially African women and girls. These portrait postcards, typically featuring erotic content and often overtly pornographic content, catered to prevailing Eurocentric male fantasies about the ‘primitive’ sexuality of African women, the Other. This provocative stereotyped imagery was actively used in colonial propaganda campaigns to lure European men to the colonies for work, or to make them enlist in the navy or colonial armies. A large series of semi-nude postcard images featuring “warriors” with weapons were also widely distributed.

The Africana Historic Postcard Collection augments a number of rich and diverse visual resource collections in the Library of Congress, including the archival collections of the “Basel Mission, the Church Missionary Society (CMS),” the “Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Collection,” theFrank and Francis Carpenter Collectionand the “American Colonization Society” photographic collection housed in the Library’s Microform and Prints and Photographs reading rooms.

“Somali Beauty.” Published by Foto Parodi, Mogadiscio, Somalia, Serie D (no imprint). Circa 1900. African and Middle Eastern Division.

As additional postcards are cataloged and digitized they will be added to the collection. Original postcard formats are accessible in the African and Middle Eastern Division reading room (Thomas Jefferson Building, Room 220) during opening hours Monday to Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday and federal holidays. To access the collection the user must agree to the Reading Room’s condition of use. To contact the African and Middle Eastern Division or to make an appointment to visit the Reading Room call (202) 707-4188. For more information on the collection or the project, please email Dr. Angel Batiste [email protected] or call (202) 707-1980.

Special thanks to volunteer interns Danielle Gantt, Joel Horowitz, Dr. Lydia Kakwera Levy and Renee Namakau Ombaba who provided valuable assistance in scanning images and compiling brief item-level bibliographic descriptions for this project.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.