“One family, the wide world o’er” | On this day

A century ago, the United Kingdom staged a massive colonial exhibition, aimed at being a lavish demonstration of imperial grandeur, might, and “family unity”. But, writes James Ferguson, none of it would turn out quite as organisers hoped

  • One of the posters advertising the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Photo by Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo

On 23 April 1924 — 100 years ago — King George V officially opened the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, London. A shortened version of his speech travelled around the world by telegram to every part of the empire, and was returned to him within 80 seconds by a messenger boy. It was considered a triumph of modern communications technology.

The exhibition itself was intended as a demonstration of imperial grandeur. Covering 216 acres, the site had been under construction since January 1922, when work began on Wembley Stadium — a massive sports arena that could accommodate 125,000 spectators. The ground was finished in time to host the FA Cup final in April 1923 between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham, and the king was present to award the trophy to the winning team.

The rest of the exhibition was clustered around the stadium, and comprised buildings intended to house the exhibits of the individual colonies and dominions that made up the empire. The government had settled on the opening date back in 1919 when funding was secured, and a large building site began to take shape as the deadline approached.

Wembley was seen as the ideal venue, as parts of the suburb were still undeveloped, and it was close to central London with good transport links. There had been previous such events at White City and Crystal Palace, but these were not considered big enough. Size was important, as the exhibition was meant to project Britain’s role in the world, its “family” of colonies and dependencies, and its economic might.

There was a competitive edge as well. France and Germany were colonial rivals that had organised similar exhibitions, and Britain — exhausted and almost bankrupted by the Great War (World War I), which had ended only five years previously — wanted to boost domestic morale and make a spectacular statement about its global future.

In fact, the future of the empire looked far from secure. India was pressing for self-government; Canada was looking to increase its autonomy; and there were increasingly militant anti-colonial movements around the world. Many colonies had sacrificed huge numbers of men during the war, creating deep-seated resentment, while revolution in Russia seemed to offer an alternative to the old world order.

The Caribbean colonies shared this general sense of restlessness. Political leaders such as Jamaica’s Norman Manley served in the British Army during the Great War, and were aware of the racism that many West Indian volunteers experienced. A new generation of political activists including the Trinidadian CLR James were inspired by events in Russia and by the anti-colonial revolution in Haiti.

A long period of imperial neglect and economic decline had blighted the British-ruled islands and mainland territories, and this would get worse with the impending Depression and turbulence of the 1930s.

But if enthusiasm for the “motherland” and the exhibition was muted among some colonial subjects, it was embraced by the vested interests in the region. The West India Committee, a body representing British economic interests that had evolved out of the old slave-owning plantocracy, was keen to raise the Caribbean’s profile at the event. Its officers worked hard with colonial authorities, local businesses, and British-based companies to arrange the participation of every territory.

The exhibition’s prospectus made clear that its purpose was above all an exercise in marketing:

It will be in effect an imperial stocktaking and a vast window display. Those who doubt the empire’s potentialities, and those who simply do not consider them, will be confronted with a clear sight of what this great community of free nations can produce.

The “vast window display” took the form of Wembley Park, a specially designed conglomeration of buildings meant to reflect the architecture of the cultures represented. Alongside “palaces” devoted to engineering, industry, and the arts were “pavilions” containing the exhibits of different territories — a huge Indian Taj Mahal-inspired edifice of domes and minarets; a Burmese temple; and a Maltese castle with an imitation Mdina Gate, all made with reinforced concrete.

Visitors were amazed by the profusion of goods and cultures on show and were encouraged to buy colonial produce, invest in colonial businesses, and even migrate to the vast and fertile lands of British Guiana

The West Indies and British Guiana had a strange cohabitee in the shape of the Falkland Islands, and were housed in a pseudo-Georgian building that had nothing to do with Indigenous architectural traditions. According to Tom August, its “restrained facade with green shuttered windows and covered with a red tiled roof surmounted by a clock tower with an illuminated dial signified only a British aesthetic”.

Visitors to the large exhibition space passed statues of Columbus and Admiral Rodney before walking around gangways that linked the different Caribbean exhibitors.

Paying a fee according to the size of their stand (Jamaica’s was the largest), the colonies showcased their commodities: bananas, sugar and rum (Jamaica), limes (Dominica), spices (Grenada). Only Barbados emphasised its tourist industry, while Trinidad & Tobago prioritised Angostura Bitters over its booming oil industry. Its refreshment room, serving hot chocolate, was one of the exhibition’s successes, as was Jamaica’s Planters’ Punch Bar, admired by visitors such as Ian Fleming and PG Wodehouse.

In his article “The West Indies Play at Wembley”, Tom August remarks:

Trapped in images created by empire, the West Indies exhibit tantalised Bertie Wooster and the rest of the metropole with the prospect of playing planter in an Anglo-Saxon tropicana.

Images of the various Caribbean exhibitions have been collected in the Brent Archives, and they look like a collection of boutique delicatessen counters, all tastefully decorated with tropical plants and colourful handicrafts. In one photograph, the king and his entourage stroll through a crowded hall, with palm trees evoking the attractions of Tobago.

One interesting image is a group photo of “the people who ran the West Indian Pavilion”. Of 50 or so smartly dressed individuals, there are maybe five who are not white. The apparent exclusion of the Caribbean’s more mixed cultural heritage stood in contrast to some of the African colonial exhibitions, where people were brought to London as human exhibits demonstrating crafts and dancing — a feature criticised by West African students in London as perpetuating primitive stereotypes.

Although the exhibition attracted 25 million visitors in total, it was a financial flop and it was decided to extend the event between May and October 1925 to reduce its losses. Grenada and St Lucia decided to close their stands, but the other exhibitors remained in place until the official closure, when the pavilions and palaces were dismantled and demolished. Only Wembley Stadium, with its iconic pseudo-Moghul twin towers, was preserved — only to be demolished in 2003 in a radical reconstruction of the stadium.

The British Empire Exhibition was intended to stress the unlimited economic power of a vibrant imperial network, with Britain at its centre. Visitors were amazed by the profusion of goods and cultures on show and were encouraged to buy colonial produce, invest in colonial businesses, and even migrate to the vast and fertile lands of British Guiana.

But impressive though it was as a logistical exercise, it was ironically significant as one of the empire’s last hurrahs. Financial crisis and another global war fanned the flames of anti-colonial feeling, and what Harold Macmillan (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1957–1963) would later call the “wind of change” became an unstoppable force.

Within three decades, the ideas celebrated in Wembley’s mishmash of exotic exhibits already seemed irrelevant. All the more so a century later now that India’s economy has overtaken Britain’s and the proudly independent nations of the Caribbean reassess their relationship with the former colonial power.

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