“Happy New Year”. Freetown.

By the 1890s postcards were widely available throughout continental Europe. The postcards appealed to tourists looking for a souvenir of their travels abroad. Although travel was still largely limited to elites, it was becoming more accessible to the middle classes. Postcards gave these new travelers a means to share their journeys with their friends and family at home. Postcards became such a popular commodity that the period from 1895 to the end of the Great War is now considered the golden age of the postcard.

The popularity of postcards extended to postcards depicting images from European colonial possessions as well. While postcards from Africa served to reinforce stereotypes about the colonies they also served a larger purpose. This purpose was educational in nature and showed colonial West Africa as more than a place that confirmed the stereotypes the Europeans held about the region. These images delivered to their audience the possibilities and economic potential of the colonies.

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 culture. 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.

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.

One 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.

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

Colonial photography was an integral part of European representation. Like guns and rifles, the camera was another equally prominent weapon, used for the perpetuation of racial discrimination and colonial governance. By distorting social ideas, promoting empire, justifying colonialism, and misrepresenting indigenous peoples and cultures, colonial photography nurtured the belief of European superiority.

 Belgian postcard of a missionary orphanage in Congo.

Belgian postcard of a missionary orphanage in Congo.

Italian postcard.

Italian postcard.

Postcards displaying indigenous forms of body decoration were also popular.

Postcards displaying indigenous forms of body decoration were also popular.

Italy’s homage to its Eritrean troops. (Eritrean troops attacking Ethiopians).

Italy’s homage to its Eritrean troops. (Eritrean troops attacking Ethiopians).

“Friends in Senegal”.

“The French Colonies: Chad”.

The German postcard titled the “Herero-rebellion in German-Southwest-Africa.”

The German postcard titled the “Herero-rebellion in German-Southwest-Africa.”

Native African from Bangala.

Native African from Bangala.

“Young women from Suriname”.

“A souvenir from the Colonial Fair”.

“The beautiful Fatma.”

“Happy New Year 1904”. Belgian Congo.

“It’s all the same, with a little Black woman taking care of your needs and showing you favor, it doesn’t matter what people say, these are good times in Madagaskar.” French postcard.

“It’s all the same, with a little Black woman taking care of your needs and showing you favor, it doesn’t matter what people say, these are good times in Madagaskar.” French postcard.

A Senegalese flirt.

A Senegalese flirt.

Dutch postcard of a Javanese beauty.

Dutch postcard of a Javanese beauty.

“Happy Easter from the German colonies”.

“Happy Easter from the German colonies”.

German postcard from Papua Guinea.

German postcard from Papua Guinea.

Another postcard from the “Herero-rebellion in German-Southwest-Africa.”

Another postcard from the “Herero-rebellion in German-Southwest-Africa.”

“Leisurely hours in the Colonies.”

“Leisurely hours in the Colonies.”

“Another city, another girl!”. German postcard.

“Our Navy, row me to the other side, handsome shipper!”.

“The French Colonies: Niger”.

“The French Colonies: Tunisia”.

Graphic representations of Eritrean askaris

Graphic representations of Eritrean askaris

In this postcard, the Herero Rebellion is casually combined with advertising for coffee.

In this postcard, the Herero Rebellion is casually combined with advertising for coffee.

Natives dressing hair. Zanzibar, British East Africa (Tanzania), probably 1890s.

Natives dressing hair. Zanzibar, British East Africa (Tanzania), probably 1890s.

Postcard from the French Congo.

Postcard from the French Congo.

Singing class in Africa.

Singing class in Africa.

Nandi type. Uganda Protectorate (Uganda).

Nandi type. Uganda Protectorate (Uganda).

Girls from Sierra Leone.

Girls from Sierra Leone.

Greetings from Casablanca.

Greetings from Casablanca.

(Photo credit: Library of Congress).