Franco-British Exhibition (1908) – ‘White’ City Indeed…

Postmarked 11.9.1908

I was looking through an attic recently, and I came across this old postcard preserved in a plastic wallet and dated to Edward VII. The buildings remind me of those (similar follies) still visible in Brighton today, although those in the picture (above) are long gone. What was the ‘Franco-British Expedition’ of 1908, and what possessed the usually arrogant and self-assured British Authorities to place the name of ‘France’ first in an exhibition held on British soil?

From 1904 onward, the British and the French (as close geographical neighbours with belligerent histories toward one another) both decided that as two powerful imperialist powers in the world (with perhaps Britain holding the edge in dominance at the time), it might be in the best interests of each country to acknowledge an celebrate the ‘imperialism’ of the other, and in so doing prserve the peace between the two countries, and prove that imperialism worked and that those people subject to it were happy, content and really quite very grateful for the interference into their cultures that Britain and france represented. The buildings were designed to look like ‘mock’ oriental structures – perhaps mosques, and be a dazzling ‘white’ colour to catch the eye. Indeed this part of West London’s Shepherd’s Bussh would be known as ‘White City’ hereafter. Although I cannot be sure, I suspect slum areas were cleared and the poor people thrown-out to make space for a venue which also partly hosted the 1908 London Olympics. (I am currently writing in my parent’s home in Torquay, and am told that certain sailing events of the 1908 London Olympics were held just down the road).

I have no problem with exhibitions – in fact, I encourage them – providing they are culturally uplifting and support art, spirituality and science. What is good about the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 (at least in theory), is that it did bring the British and the French closer together. What bothers me about the Franco-British Exhibition is that it contained the hideous spectre of ‘Human Zoos’… The point was to prove that non-Europeans (which bizarrely included the ‘Irish’) benefitted from having their indigenous cultures and belief systems forcibly ripped from them, and replaced with various types of Euroscepticism and Christianity. Fake villages containing equally fake ethnic people put on a show as millions of White Europeans (mostly middle-class), streamed past all nodding in approval as bibles were read, European clothes worn, and modes of behaviour exhibited that would have been at home in any English village of the time!  It was commented that the Irish were surprisingly ‘clean’, whilst the Senegalese were ‘cleaner’ than they looked! No wonder the Irish took up arms against the British – this kind of treatment is thoroughly disgusting – and I say this as an Englishman with Irish roots! Read (or listen) to the books of James Joyce – Eire is an ancient land! Interestingly, many of my Southern Irish relatives do not consider themselves ‘White’ or even ‘European’. As for the Africans and Asians – is it no wonder that they took to the writings of Marx and Lenin to free themselves of the hated Western colonialism?

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