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Africana Historic Postcard Collection

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 nineteenth century photographic representations of the African continent. (Click on any of the images below to enlarge and view a description of the image.)

image The African Coach and Four Transport System.  W.M.M.S. Postcards, Series, circa 1920s.The African Section of the Library of Congress’ African and Middle Eastern Division has amassed a unique collection of more than 2000 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.

image: Westmoreland Street, Freetown,  Sierra Leone.  Published by Lisk-Carew Brothers. (?).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 Gold Coast (now Ghana) or Sierra Leone, F.W.H. Arkurst from Gold Coast, Frederick Grant from Gold Coast, N. Walwin Holm from Gold Coast and Alex Agbablo Accolatse from Togo.

image: A Dancing Devil.  Mende Secret Poro Society of Sierra Leone. Published by Ralph Tuck & Sons (?).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 cultre. 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.

image: War Drums of Ashanti Tribesman, Gold Coast, West Africa, Ghana.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.

image: Italian Occupation of Eritrea during the 1930sOne 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.

image: Jan Beyzym, Polish Jesuit missionary in Madgascar among children with leprosy, (1902?).  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.

image: “Somali Beauty”. Published by Foto Parodi, Mogadiscio, Somalia, Serie D (no imprint).Circa 1900.Another stereotyped image of colonial Africa postcards were 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 male “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, the Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection and the American Colonization Society photographic collection housed in the Library’s Microform and Prints and Photographs reading rooms.

As additional postcards are cataloged and digitized they will be added to the collection.  Original postcard formats are available to the research community 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 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.

View collection of postcards in PDF files by region as indicated below:

Central Africa

East Africa

West Africa

Islam In sub-Saharan Africa

  Home >> Africana Section >> Postcards
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  April 21, 2021
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