The Empire Strikes Back

Posted 17 December, 2009 13:04 by Karla Baker

As 2009 draws to its inevitable conclusion it seems appropriate to mark the occasion by saving, in my opinion, the best ’till last. To stumble across something of interest in the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record is, in all honesty, almost inevitable. Items printed by Bartholomew can have a genuine cartographic value, they can have great social value, and they can transpire to have interesting stories behind them but the item which has inspired this entry is rare because it manages to satisfy all of these. This is Sir Harry H. Johnston’s map of Black, White & Yellow British Africa

As someone who sees a fair number of Printing Record items this one initially stood out for its striking and bold aesthetic. In the scheme of things it is relatively small, measuring only 23cm by 16cm (in the context of an Archive with items well over a square metre in size) but its impact belies this. There is an almost enigmatic quality to this map as it manages to look incredibly simple and yet at the same time conveys a wealth of information. The bold colour scheme, so unlike other items which Bartholomew were printing at this time, coupled with the social and commercial undertones demanded further examination.

Pivotal to the story of this map is the figure of Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston (1858-1927), or Harry as he preferred.

By the time this map was printed, in October 1890, Johnston was a renowned, highly flamboyant and talented British consular official in Africa. In his youth he had dreamed of becoming an artist and worked simultaneously at the Zoological Gardens in London and as a painter of anatomical curiosities at the Royal College of Surgeons. He eventually secured a place at the Royal Academy but by then he was plagued by the realisation that, as an artist, he would never be anything more than competent. This was to be the major turning point in his life. Johnston instead turned to travel and in the process showed an innate aptitude for language which proved so useful in his later Foreign Office career.

The map itself was presented to members of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and graphically proposed an imaginary and enlarged British Empire in Africa. It accompanied a speech given by Johnston entitled ‘The development of tropical Africa under British auspices’. The speech touched upon such disparate themes as domesticating elephant, the right type of person for life in Africa, namely no gluttons or drinkers, the fundamental wealth of African products and the profit to be obtained by working with the native populations. Ultimately however his purpose was singular, to make a clear case for the benefits of colonial expansion in Africa through increased funding from the British Parliament, as well as through chartered companies. His main ally in Liverpool was the colonial magnate Sir Alfred Jones (1845-1909) at this time head of shipping firm Elder Dempster & Co. By 1890, Jones had built up a predominant control over the entire merchant shipping trade from Africa to Liverpool, and had considerable related colonial and commercial interests in West Africa.

Socially, this came at a time when major international agreements on African partition were being negotiated. Johnston had huge ambitions for an expanded British Empire and in fact it was Johnston who coined the term ‘From Cape to Cairo’. By this time he had established his reputation and wielded the power of several influential allies including the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury as well as substantial financial support, to the tune of £10,000 per annum, from Cecil Rhodes. Johnston vigorously supported the signing of an Anglo-German Agreement in July 1890, and the signing of an Anglo-Portuguese Agreement in June 1891. This effectively brought the Lakes Region of Africa under the control of Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. From February 1891, Johnston was appointed consul-general for these territories north of the Zambesi (including Nyasaland, now part of Zambia). He recruited Sikhs from the Punjab as a fighting force, necessary given the armed resistance to his attempts to assert British sovereign rights over the area.

It is easy to think of these times and those involved with scornful disdain, and there is unquestionably justification there. But, when seen in context, although the motivations may now seem abhorrent, to people like Johnston there was utter conviction in the right and good of their cause. His Black, White & Yellow theme is a highly visual encapsulation of that. For Johnston it was a reflection of the potential strength which could come from Black Africans, Yellow Arabs, and White Europeans working together. So ardently did he believe this that he wore a straw hat with ribbons of these colours, his staff were asked to wear yellow waistcoats with their black and white suits, and he wrote letters on special writing paper edged with these colours. He designed flags, coats of arms, and even postage stamps for his proposed British Protectorate with these colours, and his soldiers wore a specially designed black, white and yellow uniform.

As history has revealed however these plans were never to come to fruition. A series of misfortunes at a time of incredible political complexity, of which it is not possible to do any justice to here, effectively quashed Johnston’s hopes. He himself fell out with Rhodes, lost the goodwill and respect of his Foreign Office colleagues and finally lost his health after suffering a succession of episodes of Blackwater Fever (an infinitely terrifying illness which is no exaggeration to say was usually fatal). He would never see his ambitions realised and returned to Britain more or less a pariah who stood for the colonial aspirations that some were already beginning to see as an embarrassment. However, Johnston did make a genuine contribution to linguistics via his seminal Comparative Study of the Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages (1919) and enjoyed moderate success as an author and lecturer, touring the United States, Germany and ultimately the front line of First World War France.

Johnston has revealed himself to be an intensely likable, interesting and engaging man. His life had of course far more depth than it is possible to convey here and if you are interested I recommend his autobiography, The Story of My Life (1922). He writes exceedingly engagingly but perhaps most of all it is fascinating to hear a personal account of life at the height of the age of Empire.

Lastly, I would just like to thank Chris Fleet on whose research much of this entry relies.

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