The African Village
by Gemma Ashby, Assistant Keeper of History
Trigger warning: This blog post references overt racism, and British and French colonial exploitation of African people.
If you’ve ever taken a walk through Exhibition Park in Newcastle or visited Wylam Brewery for a drink and marvelled at the building in which it’s housed, then you have experienced some of the legacies of the North East Coast Exhibition of 1929.
The Exhibition has been billed as being a high-point for Tyneside. Designed to showcase the best the region had to offer in science, engineering, art, and design, the Exhibition drew crowds of 4 million visitors between May and October. Many of the items in the museum collections relating to the Exhibition commemorate it.
However, as with many of the deep-rooted legacies of Empire within our country, there are uncomfortable and disturbing facts about this major event in Tyneside’s history that we must acknowledge and be willing to explore. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, in summer 2020 curators at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum began to revisit the museum collections to reconsider Black history on Tyneside. The presence of a replica ‘African Village’ within the Exhibition, filled with individuals brought from Africa to showcase life in their home villages and areas, was well-known but we had not investigated this further until now. Read on to discover some of our findings and some of the questions we are left considering.
This post aims to encourage readers to think about the impact the presence of an African Village may have had on an understanding of race and the experiences of people of African descent on Tyneside. At Discovery Museum we understand the importance of revisiting and encouraging discussion on our collections to ensure that they are relevant in our modern day and are able to tell diverse stories. Please note that some of the information contained in the article will be upsetting or offensive to readers.
What was the African Village?
Using items in our museum collections, we have been able to learn about the African Village and how it was displayed and described at the time. In the official Souvenir Catalogue of the Exhibition, information on the ‘African Village’ can be found in the section outlining the forms of entertainment that were available to visitors:
“There is the Great Himalayan Railway, an attraction which has been erected at enormous expense and provides thrills proportionate to the cost. Travelling on this railway far exceeds all usual speed limits”, “something quite new is the Animal Race, during the course of which numerous gentlemen ‘lose their heads’, and “a fine collection of wild animals from distant lands — elephants, tigers, lions and other denizens of the forest” were shown in Chapman’s Jungle.
“Then there is the African Village, where about 100 natives of West Africa live in a replica of one of their homeland communities and pursue their daily duties and amusements just as though their feet were upon their native heath.”
The programme goes on to give further information on who could be seen within the Village. The individuals had travelled from “the French colony Senegal” and were under the rule of Chief Thian Prosper, “a man of culture and great strength of character” who achieved the Legion of Honour for his services in WWI. The Sengalese people are described as being “expert craftsmen”, making many of the basic items Western audiences would recognise but using only the “most primitive of tools…[and] the crudest of implements and even nails.”
Visitors to the Village could see some of the Sengalese children “going through it” in the Village School as they “are interested in the education of their children.” Native music and dances are described as being a regular feature in the display, though the author of the programme finds it necessary to reiterate that it is “not perhaps up to Chamber Concert standard but music nevertheless.”
The imperial rhetoric utilised in the description of the Village is only increased with the description of the individuals from the Fullah tribe. They are stated as being “practically savages” and the hairstyling of the “married ladies of the tribe is unlikely to be copied by English matrons even as a change from bobs, shingles or Eton crops.”
The programme does state that there has been “great difficulty” in persuading these people to come to England. This raises the question of whether this was a marketing ploy to further other and exoticize the individuals on display, or whether the members of the Fullah tribe who did travel, did so extremely unwillingly.
Copies of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle in the museum collection also show how the Village was described as being hugely entertaining. One article states: “Childhood stories will doubtless recur vividly to the minds of even the older generation by the sight of the dusky hued inhabitants of Africa in their native surroundings. What an appeal to the children is here!” It also states, “the Empire products displayed in all their profusion, will no doubt bring home to the young idea the vast resources of our Empire”, reiterating the imperialist undertones of the North East Coast Exhibition.
Another article groups together the draw of the African Village and the theme park into one headline — “Native Dances and Mountain Railway Thrills’. John Aitchison & Co. Ltd Breweries also utilised a depiction of an ‘African Chief’ in their advertising for Aitchie Beer to be found at the Exhibition.
Did other similar exhibitions take place?
At the time of the North East Coast Exhibition, world fairs had been taking place for around a century. They are thought to have been introduced by the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 and were subsequently copied across many other Western countries. They typically highlighted the subjects of science and art, but also sought to put on display cultures from around the world. Although such displays usually claimed a scientific or anthropological purpose, they often gave a false, dramatized and homogenised view of African life from a Euro-centric lens, by showing Africans as being uncivilised and having a primitive, basic way of life.
Such displays helped to create a common imperial identity, i.e., that the West, especially individuals from the French and British Empires, were superior to African people and cultures. Therefore, the intervention of Britain in other countries and action to help ‘civilise’ such people became justified and needed. Such views helped to reaffirm racist pseudo-scientific studies of the time, including the study of eugenics.
Who lived in the African Village?
The North East Coast Exhibition organisers sourced individuals to live within their mock-village from Sengalese and Dahomeyan villages, who were known to have made appearances at other similar shows across Europe and the United States. It is important to remember that the organisers themselves were a privately-owned company with experience of delivering these events across the world; highlighting that their motives did not come from a genuine desire to educate or pay respect to other cultures, but solely one of entertainment.
It is also known that one of the women who resided within the African Village, Zuza Ben-I-Ford, sadly passed away whilst in Newcastle. She is thought to have died of consumption, aged 28, and was buried with no ceremony in an unmarked grave in St Andrews’ Cemetery, Newcastle on 30 September 1929. Her name was anglicised within the burial records, further taking away her heritage and individuality.
Was there any protest against the African Village?
It is extremely important that we do not excuse the presence of the African Village by saying that it was ‘of its time’ and use this as an excuse to whitewash the racism presented by the display. There is considerable evidence that contemporaries of the Exhibition found the African Village problematic, unethical, and contradictory to their experiences of life in England. Historian Deborah Hughes has undertaken research into the protest and activism that was undertaken against the presence of the Village in 1929.
Ladipo Solanke, writing on behalf of the West African Students’ Union [WASU] in 1929 in London, was a key voice in the fight against the Village being allowed to feature within the Exhibition. He asked the Government to intervene to prevent “exploitation…which contravenes the principles of justice, equity and good conscience, and is diametrically opposed to the present international interracial spirit.”
Students such as Ladipo Solanke and the WASU realised that the representation of African people in village displays such as these would be degrading and could potentially worsen the racism they endured whilst studying in Britain. The WASU had been formed earlier in the 1920s to provide “an activist voice against the exploitation and mistreatment by Europeans of people of African origin…these men were the future leaders of their home communities, but for many of them life in Great Britain was a daily test of personal endurance and loyalty to the British Empire [as] they faced racial discrimination at their universities.”
They also saw the Village as standing against “the effort for the establishment of co-operation as well as the permanent peace towards the whole human race” through its proliferation of racist and imperialist tropes.
The students of the WASU group were not the only ones who opposed the presence of the African Village. The League Against Imperialism [LAI] explained to the Colonial Office that “its members believed the exhibition would be “deeply offensive to the African Peoples and to the Negroes in the West Indies and America” and would “arouse racial antagonism”.”
Shapurji Saklatvala, then MP for Battersea North, also raised such issues in Parliament. He asked the Secretary for Overseas Trade whether he had received any protests against the African Village which “is calculated to bring the Negro population into contempt and/or ridicule” and asked whether “he will take the necessary steps to see that no feature of the exhibition is such as to give legitimate cause for this complaint.”
After being told that as “the natives will live in huts specially built for them…and will carry on native handicrafts…there would seem to be nothing in the proposed arrangements which should bring the natives into contempt or ridicule”, Saklatvala continued to push the question of the need for the Village feature.
He asked: “Does the Hon. Member maintain that making an exhibition of this kind will help British industries in any way? Does he not realise that, though it may not be repugnant to the exhibition authorities here, or to the British visitors, it is very repugnant to the educated section of Africans, and does he not further realise that we are only making an exhibition of the wretched way in which citizens are reared and kept up in the British Empire?”
African Lives in Northern England (ed. Beverley Prevatt Goldstein) references that Dr. Robert Wellesley-Cole provided a local challenge in Tyneside against the presence of the African Village. Dr. Wellesley-Cole, originally from Sierra Leone, travelled to Newcastle in 1928 to study medicine, later setting up a practice and surgery at Denton Burn and Whickham View in Newcastle. We hope to do more research into Dr. Wellesley-Cole and his involvement in protesting the inclusion of the African Village at the North East Coast Exhibition.
Did the protest against the African Village have an impact?
It does not appear that Shapurji Saklatvala received a suitable explanation for the failure of the Government to intervene to prevent the African Village from taking place, nor did the WASU’s protests appear to have any impact either. Rather than see the Village as being an issue of the “humane and just treatment of people of colour and colonial origin”, they simply looked at the issue as a matter of citizenship. They argued that as the individuals featured within the Exhibition were not British citizens there was no need for the Home or Colonial Office to intervene, even if “human rights were at stake.” There was no further investigation into the issue and the African Village went ahead.
Within the minutes of the North East Coast Exhibition Committees, and more specifically its sub-Committee for Amusements, there is no consideration given to the appropriateness of the presence of the African Village.
There is limited reference to the Village itself within the Committee minutes, minus one long discussion of a complaint received about the behaviour of some of the women inhabiting it. The record describes how an individual had complained due to being charged a fee for viewing a dance performed by some of the women.
When the Village was inspected, the Chairman found that “[it] being very cold, the girls were almost completely clothed in knitted jerseys but he had seen them [in] very little clothing and a number of people had complained to him that that style of entertainment was not in keeping with the standard of the Exhibition.”
The account goes on to describe how “after paying sixpence admission to the Village and threepence more to the Harem he was solicited by one of the girls with a tray.” In response, the Committee agree that a “strict watch” must be kept of the Village for this type of behaviour and that if there was a further cause for complaint, “it would be a question of closing down.”
Unfortunately, there is no further discussion of the Village, nor Zuza Ben-I-Ford’s death.
How does the African Village fit into wider history?
It is important to question whether the presence of the African Village helped to fuel and foster racism on Tyneside and did more to undo the positive relationships being created with those migrating to the region, than the supposed educational benefit the Village display organisers claimed.
The British Empire was made up of countries ruled or administered by the United Kingdom, which grew between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. It became the largest empire in history. By the time of the North East Coast Exhibition occurring in 1929, this had begun to change. In 1926, the British government introduced the Balfour Declaration that recognised the countries of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as being independent and self-governing and introduced the concept of the Commonwealth for the first time.
World War I had highlighted that there was more that united people than divided them, with many Empire forces joining the war efforts and fighting for Great Britain. People saw soldiers fighting side by side for the same cause, despite the colour of their skin. However, the presence of the African Village at the North East Coast Exhibition highlights that entrenched racist views of white Western superiority continued to prevail.
As an organisation, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) is dedicated to being an anti-racist organisation — more details can be found in the Anti-Racism Statement here — https://www.twmuseums.org.uk/about/anti-racism-statement .
TWAM aim to do more to uplift the stories of Black people who have shaped the history of Tyneside. Re-assessing the legacy of the North East Coast Exhibition is just one of the ways in which it is beginning to re-visit many areas of its collections and the stories it shares to ensure that it explores a full picture of the region’s history.
It is also important that as a museum service we question how we may have contributed to a narrow view of Tyneside’s history in our collecting practices and the stories and lived experiences have been prioritised.
There is much more work to be done to ensure that TWAM better represents diverse experiences of life on Tyneside, both past and present.