Friday, 3 July 2009

Rare Photos of Colonial East Africa Online

by Kathryn Hadley

An online collection of thousands of rare photographs chronicling Europe’s colonisation of East Africa went live last week, on June 25th, on the website of the Library of Northwestern University (Illinois). The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960 includes approximately 7,610 photographs. It was assembled by the British collector Winterton over about 30 years and organised in 76 separate albums, scrapbooks or loose collections. The collection was acquired by Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies in 2002.

The photographs were mostly taken by explorers, military officers, colonial officials, settlers, missionaries, travellers and early commercial photographers and depict the breadth of African life during the colonial era. They include formal and informal portraits of Africans and their colonisers, photos of slaves and slave traders, of the British bombardment of Zanzibar in 1896, as well as images depicting the building of the east African railway and daily life in Africa. One of the oldest photographs in the collection shows a Zanzibar slave market in approximately 1860.

According to Jonathon Glassman, a Northwestern University associate professor of history and specialist in 19th- and 20th-century East Africa and comparative race and slavery the collection’s particular value lies in its unusual subject matter:
‘The most familiar photographs from this era tend to dwell on what photographers
considered East Africa’s glamorous aspects - its spectacular wildlife,
landscapes, settler life or the occasional posed portrait of an African sultan
or Maasai warrior […] What stands out about the collection is the large number
of items that document prosaic matters - matters that are precisely the most
difficult for the student of African history to get a handle on.’

It is possible to search for photographs by subject, keyword, people, place or time or to browse the entire collection in a way that simulates flipping through a photo album. In its pilot stage the collection was notably used to research the lineage of President Barack Obama. 31 photos of people and places were found including images of Kavirondo warriors in western Kenya from whom his father is believed to have descended.

The Winterton Collection is now the third Herskovits Library collection available online. The two others are a collection of 113 antique African maps dating from the 16th to the early 20th century and a collection of 590 posters reflecting the culture and politics of contemporary African nations. It is available on the website of the website of Northwestern University Library.

For further information on various aspects of African history, visit our Africa focus page.


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