Sunday, September 25, 2011

Race and ethnicity

An international exhibition

The Great Exhibition was, from the start, intended as an international exhibition, bringing all nations together in common industry.  Prince Albert, for example, at a Mansion House meeting in 1850, spoke of "peace, love and ready assistance, not only between individuals, but between the nations of the earth". [1] [Times 22 March 1850].   Many foreigners did indeed come to the Great Exhibition.  In a contemporary account of the Great Exhibition, Henry Birch expressed amazement at the multi-cultural, ethnically diverse crowd he claimed to see at the palace:

"From whence have all these people been gathered?...They include men of every clime and color: - the European, the American, the Indian, the Chinese, the African, the Greenlander, the white, the black, the brown, the red; all the forms and figures, shades and colors of the human family". [2]

Season ticket for the Great Exhibition. Source: the Institution of Engineering and Technology website

Even if somewhat exaggerated in style, the description above illustrates that there was no overt segregation and little or no race based discrimination at the Great Exhibition. There was, however, a marked divide between the Great Exhibition's stated aim of bringing all nations together and Victorian perceptions of the world order.

Victorian perceptions of world order

From around the 1840's, the idea of race as a scientifically based explanation of cultural and/or biological difference was increasingly prominent in Britain, used in a variety of arenas to explain why some civilizations were superior to others and why they were likely to remain so.  Whilst Darwin's Origin of the Species was not published until 1859, the ideas contained within it, as well as nascent ideas of social darwinism, were beginning to be discussed within Victorian elite.  Put simply, theories of social darwinism could justify (and were increasingly used to justify) Britain's rule over inherently "inferior" peoples of her colonies.  These native peoples were variously assumed to be "fixed" in a perpetual childhood or alternatively able to achieve civilized status but only through graduation education and acculturalisation over a long period of time.

Such ideas of the inherent differences between white Europeans and other civilizations were apparent at the Great Exhibition.  Thomas Onwhyn's pamphlet Mr and Mrs Brown's Visit to London to the see the Great Exhibition of All Nations.  How they were astonished at its wonders, inconvenienced by the crowds, and frightened out of their wits, by the Foreigners, provides an illuminating example [3].

Cannibal Islanders: an illustration from Thomas Onwhyn's Mr and Mrs Brown's Visit to London to see the Great Exhibition of all Nations.  Source:

The group of "Cannibal Islanders' are depicted as animal like savages, sitting at an outdoor restaurant, beneath a sign that reads "Soup a la Hottentot".  They have dark skin, bare feet and monkey-like faces and one holds a knife, threatening to eat the Browns' child.

The satirical report Authentic Account of the Chinese Commission, which was sent to report on the Great Exhibition; wherein the opinion of China is shown as not corresponding at all with our own by Henry Sutherland Edwards provides another glimpse of Victorian attitudes [4].  

Frontispiece to Henry Sullivan Edward's An Authentic Account of the Chinese Commission, which was sent to report on the Great Exhibition.  Source: Stanford University -

The Chinese emperor has sent Congou, who has killed his grandmother, mother, wife and daughter, to provide an account of the exhibition.  One stanza of the long, rhyming poem reads:

The opening in short was as dull as could be;
There was no execution whatever to see;
There was no one impaled and the use of the saw 
Is not even mentioned in English law.

Whilst overt racial discrimination was not a feature of the Great Exhibition, racism in the sense of a belief of inherent differences in people's traits and capacities as a result of race certainly was.


[1] The Times 22 March 1850
[2] Young, Paul. Globalisation and the Great Exhibition. Palgrave macmillan, 2009.  Pg 53
[3] Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: a nation on display. Yale University Press, 1999.  Pg 174
[4] Ibid.  Pg 175

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