Portraits as propaganda: Africa and empire
- Explore the purpose of imperial propaganda through the portrait, ‘The Secret of England's Greatness’.
- Examine how the portrait represents attitudes towards ‘race’ in Victorian Britain.
- Examine how the portrait represents Victorian attitudes towards gender roles and femininity.
- Explore the role of religion in the expansion of and justification for the British Empire.
During the Victorian period Connected with the time 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria was queen of the United Kingdom. , Britain’s growing Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. was the largest in the world. Its wealth and military power were unmatched by its rivals. What was the ‘secret’ to this success?
Propaganda Ideas or statements used to gain support for an idea or a political party. They may be false or present only one side of an argument. was a powerful tool used to communicate Britain’s wealth and influence as a global power. Portraits and other images were particularly effective. They could be easily understood, and people often responded to them on an emotional level.
This resource explores the idea of propaganda, how portraits were used to present the British Empire as a force for good in the world, and what portraits can also reveal about some of its realities.
Encountering such portraits from this period can be a difficult or uncomfortable experience for us today. They can often jar with modern values or be considered offensive. But they can also be an important tool for learning about this period in history, and Britain’s role within it.
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by Thomas Jones Barker
oil on canvas, circa 1862-1863
66 in. x 84 1/8 in. (1676 mm x 2138 mm)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
This portrait is called The Secret of England’s Greatness. It shows Queen Victoria handing a Bible to a kneeling man.
Look carefully at the portrait. Look at the people, their poses, the clothes they are wearing, the background and the objects.
Describe what you can see.
- What are your first impressions of this portrait?
- What do you think the artist is suggesting about the relationship between the two main figures?
Look closer at the portrait
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- The Bible is at the centre of this painting.
- The name of the painting is The Secret of England’s Greatness. The artist wants us, the viewer, to know that the secret is contained in the Bible that Queen Victoria is giving to the man bowing before her.
- Queen Victoria is shown here receiving an African Ambassador An official who lives in a foreign country as the senior representative there of their own country. .
- British monarchs are the Supreme Governors of the Church of England. Queen Victoria is shown giving the ambassador a Bible.
- In this portrait the queen represents Britain, its growing power and influence around the world. She also represents Britain’s religious and moral values at the time.
- The artist has painted him wearing clothes that make him appear ‘ Exotic other Someone who appears exciting or unusual to a western viewpoint because they look different or have a different culture. ’ and somehow out of place.
- The African Ambassador An official who lives in a foreign country as the senior representative there of their own country. is the only unnamed person in the portrait.
- The ambassador’s ‘blackness’ contrasts with Victoria’s ‘whiteness’.
- The portrait was painted at a time when racist attitudes were common. Although slavery had been abolished in Britain, it was designed to reflect traditional representations of enslaved Africans being racially inferior to their white masters.
- The artist reinforces the sense of inferiority by showing the Ambassador An official who lives in a foreign country as the senior representative there of their own country. kneeling before the queen.
- The positioning of the African ambassador reinforces a negative stereotype of African people as being inferior.
- The man directly behind Queen Victoria is her husband, Prince Albert. When this painting was revealed to the public, Albert had been dead for over a year.
- Although Victoria is the largest figure in the painting, she is shown below her husband and framed by his arms. This reinforces Victorian ideas about the relationship between husbands and wives.
- Prince Albert’s hand rests on his sword. This might have reminded some viewers of the military force that lay behind Britain’s promotion of Christianity in Africa.
- Behind the African Ambassador An official who lives in a foreign country as the senior representative there of their own country. stands Lord John Russell, the Foreign Minister (on the left) and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister (on the right). Palmerston was especially in favour of using military force against nations and peoples that resisted British influence.
- The woman partially hidden behind the curtain is the Duchess of Wellington, a personal assistant to the queen. She held a senior position in the royal household and would have attended state meetings like this, but she is not given a prominent position in the painting.
- Why do you think this portrait was made?
- Who was the intended audience?
- What impression might people have taken from the portrait?
Message, purpose and context
The scene represented in this painting did not take place. It is what some people describe as an ‘ Imperial fantasy Perceived advantages or benefits for all of having an empire. ’. It represents what the artist and many people in Britain at the time wanted to believe about their own country and the benefits they felt Britain could bring to the people in its Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. .
The painting combines different stories and images that people in Victorian Britain would have understood. It creates a powerful piece of Propaganda Ideas or statements used to gain support for an idea or a political party. They may be false or present only one side of an argument. , designed to make people in Britain feel proud about possessing an enormous empire. The artist makes it clear that the purpose of this empire, its ‘secret’, was that it was based on Christianity, rather than money and war.
Although this painting is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, it was toured around the United Kingdom for many years. Prints were made which people bought and displayed in their homes. They could feel proud of the empire if they believed it was a force for good in the world.
- This painting is very large. It is almost 2 m tall and 2 m wide. Clear some space and mark out these dimensions with tape.
- What message do you think showing such a large painting around the country gave people about Britain and its empire?
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. She became a powerful symbol of British authority around the world as the Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. she ruled over grew throughout her reign.
- Queen Victoria was a symbol of the ideal British woman in the 1800s. She was a devoted wife and mother and very religious.
- Her position as head of the vast British Empire was something she cherished, but she was not in control of how she was represented.
- Her image appeared widely throughout the empire and many statues showed her as a gentle, motherly figure.
Portrait of an African leader
Look at this photograph of Cetshwayo ka Mpande, from 1882.
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by Alexander Bassano
bromide print, 1882
6 in. x 4 in. (153 mm x 102 mm) image size
© National Portrait Gallery, London
- What can you see?
- How would you describe the person in this portrait?
Cetshwayo ka Mpande was the king of the Zulu kingdom in southern Africa. In 1879, the British Army started a war with the Zulu people, so they could expand the territory they had already taken in Africa. Cetshwayo’s army won a surprising victory over the British army, but in the coming months the British recovered and defeated them.
In August 1882, Cetshwayo spent a month in London trying to persuade the British authorities to restore him to the Zulu throne. He met with Queen Victoria, who was most impressed with him and had his portrait painted. The British government decided to support Cetshwayo.
Cetshwayo had much support from sections of British society. A British journalist, Lady Florence Dixie, interviewed Cetshwayo while he was being held prisoner by the British Army. Lady Dixie presented him as a noble and honourable man who was unfairly treated by British forces in southern Africa. Despite her positive portrayals of Cetshwayo, Lady Dixie was, like most people in Britain at the time, in favour of Britain expanding its territories in Africa – a contradictory view that was common at the time.
Compare these two images. They both show African men of high status and were made at a similar time. One is a photograph and one is a painting. Look closely at the two African men. Notice their poses, expressions, clothes and the Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. of the portraits.
- How would you describe the differences between the way these two African leaders have been represented?
- Why do you think this might be?
Missionaries and empire
- What do you think is happening in these portraits?
- How do you think they relate to messages in the Secret of England’s Greatness portrait?
The British Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. , like every empire before it, grew through the use of force. Britain hoped to become wealthy from the places they Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and send people from your own country to live there. by exploiting the land and Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples.
They also thought Indigenous peoples needed to be ‘ Civilise (somebody or something) To educate and improve a person or a society; to make somebody’s behaviour or manners better. ’. As part of this, British missionaries travelled around the empire to try and convert people to Christianity.
The most famous Victorian Missionary A person who goes to a foreign country to teach a religion, especially Christianity, to the people who live there. was David Livingstone. He was regarded as a hero in Britain for his work in Africa, but his successes were greatly exaggerated. In fact, he only managed to convert one person in Africa to Christianity. He had much more success as an explorer and a campaigner against the slave trade in East Africa.
Missionaries and Christian churches brought some positive development to many parts of Africa. But their work was also used for Propaganda Ideas or statements used to gain support for an idea or a political party. They may be false or present only one side of an argument. and hid wider, less positive aspects of British Imperialism A system in which one country controls other countries, often after defeating them in a war. and colonialism.
Cecil Rhodes and the British Empire in southern Africa
About thirty years after The Secret of England’s Greatness was painted, the actions of a successful British businessman in Africa were showing a different side to British Imperialism A system in which one country controls other countries, often after defeating them in a war. . His name was Cecil Rhodes. He wanted to exploit the vast riches of the lands of southern Africa, particularly diamonds and gold.
Rhodes believed that the English-speaking nations of the world, such as Great Britain and the United States of America, were superior to other peoples, especially Africans. This crude, racist idea was the justification for Britain taking over vast areas of Africa and using its resources.
Rhodes had a plan to build a railway, from the top of Africa (Cairo in Egypt) to the southern tip (Cape Town in what is now South Africa), to help with this exploitation of resources.
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This image is the front cover of the Sheet music Printed music published on separate sheets of paper that are not fastened together. for a popular British tune. It was written in the 1890s to celebrate Rhodes’s ideas. It shows him in the bottom corner. The areas shaded red or pink on the map show lands where the British had control as part of its Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. .
- The image gives the impression that Cecil Rhodes was responsible for taking control of large parts of Africa.
- At the time, Cecil Rhodes was the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. (the large territory at the southern tip of Africa). This is shown in the image through his title next to his portrait (the Right Honourable Cecil Rhodes).
- His clothes and hat look expensive and fashionable for the time. Rhodes was one of the wealthiest people in the world.
- The map shows how much of Africa Britain controlled.
- Britain wasn’t the only European nation Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and send people from your own country to live there. Africa at this time. France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy were also trying to establish or grow their Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. in Africa. But by the mid-1800s Britain’s Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. had become the largest in Africa, and the world.
- The map shows that Britain was very close to having control across the length of the continent, from Cairo in the north to the Cape Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. in the south.
- The modern countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe were once called Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes played a big part in conquering these lands and he named them after himself.
- It reminds us that Britain and British people took great areas of land by force. It exploited these lands and the people who lived there, becoming powerful and wealthy.
- It does not suggest the ‘secret’ has anything to do with the Bible or Christianity. In fact, the ‘secret’ seems to go against Christian teachings and values.
In 1895, Cecil Rhodes was involved in a plot to grab more power for himself and Britain in southern Africa. The Dutch heritage Boers South Africans of Dutch heritage. had found masses of gold in the lands they had Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and send people from your own country to live there. in southern Africa, an area they called the Transvaal.
The Transvaal was next to the
A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country.
that were part of the British
A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government.
. Rhodes wanted more power over that resource. But he was challenged by certain politicians in Britain, who saw Rhodes as a selfish, greedy businessperson who was interested in his own greatness, not Britain’s. The government set up a committee to investigate Rhodes.
‘Empire Makers and Breakers’
This image is an imagined portrait of some of the leading British politicians of 1897 who were interested in Rhodes’s business.
Look closely at what each man is doing.
- The man at the centre of all the controversy about the British Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. in southern Africa.
- The politician in charge of the British government’s policy on Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. .
- Chamberlain was almost certainly involved in Rhodes’s plans for southern Africa, but he tried to cover it up. He believed strongly in increasing British power overseas, but he had to be careful not to be seen as starting wars because this would make him unpopular at home and with other countries.
- The Attorney General in the government (the nation’s leading lawyer).
- The Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. for Northampton. He was well known as an opponent of British Imperialism A system in which one country controls other countries, often after defeating them in a war. .
- The leader of the Liberal Party in 1897, which was the main opposition to the Conservative government.
- The ambitions of Rhodes led to wars of conquest against Africans who lived on the borders of Britain’s Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. . When he took over land from the Matabele people, the new Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. was named after him: Rhodesia.
- How would you describe the attitude of Cecil Rhodes to the people around him in the picture?
- How would you describe Chamberlain’s body language in the picture?
- What is Richard Webster doing? What does this suggest about his attitude to Rhodes and British imperialism?
- How might the artist be showing that Henry Labouchere was against Rhodes’s ideas and ambition?
- How do you think the artist has shown William Harcourt’s attitude to Rhodes?
- What do you think the image is saying about Cecil Rhodes?
The artist is critical of Cecil Rhodes. He is shown sitting on the table, with his foot on a chair. He appears confident and self-important. The map shows the large territory that he has already named after himself, but Rhodes still appears to be thinking of ways to expand his power and influence.
- What do you think this portrait is saying about the ‘real’ secret of England’s greatness.
- Why do you think that?
Resistance in Britain
People living in Britain’s Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. fiercely resisted and fought against British rule and oppression in many different ways. As reports of this resistance reached Britain, anti-colonial movements and networks began to emerge here too, standing against colonial activity in Africa, India and other British colonies.
Anti-colonial activists in Britain were diverse. They included politicians, social reformers, writers, artists and musicians from different classes and cultural backgrounds. Yet all of them actively stood against the British Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. , raising awareness and revealing injustices to the wider British public.
Look at these portraits of anti-colonialists. Click on the portraits to find out more.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer. He became famous at a time when Britain was expanding its Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. in Africa. He was deeply interested in his West African heritage and the inequalities faced by Black people in Britain. He expressed this in the music he composed.
He joined a group of Black activists, known as Pan-Africanists. This was a widespread movement of solidarity among people of African heritage. Their campaigns influenced later civil rights movements. Coleridge-Taylor composed the music for their first international conference in London in 1900. Through his music and activism, Coleridge-Taylor became an international symbol of hope and Black power.
Celestine Edwards was a Methodist preacher, a medical student, and Britain’s first Black newspaper editor. In the 1890s, he edited the weekly Christian newspaper Lux and the anti-racist magazine Fraternity.
Edwards used his writings and public speaking to challenge the British Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. . He attracted huge audiences and inspired a younger cohort of Black Britons, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, to challenge colonialism.
Annie Besant was a women’s rights activist who publicly supported self-rule in both Ireland and India. These countries were under direct British control and paid taxes to the government.
As a privileged British woman, Besant was able to emigrate to India in 1898. Here she became a well-respected champion of Indian rights and independence.
In 1916, she co-established the Indian Home Rule League. Her arrest for publicly demonstrating against British rule caused an outcry in India.
- Choose someone from the portraits above to research further. What can you find out about their anti-colonial activity and its impact?
- What else can you discover about anti-colonialists in Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s?
- Why might people today consider images like The Secret of England’s Greatness to be offensive?
- How might they help us to understand our lives and the world we live in?
- You have focused on a complex and brutal part of our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions. How are you feeling?
- Do you have any questions? You could discuss them with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to.
- You could use the links in this resource to find out more or explore more portraits that link to this history from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.