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Africa through a lens: The Colonial Office photo collection

Thousands of rare images of Africa have been made available online by The National Archives showing 100 years of British involvement in Africa.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The photographs come from the former Colonial Office Library Collection and date from 1860 to 1960.

The Colonial Office was created to oversee the administration of Britain’s growing list of territories in the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific.

The duty of imperial administrators was to oversee the security and prosperity of these territories which they did through varying degrees of formal and informal rule. They operated a system of trusteeship, driven in the early Victorian period by anti-slavery sentiments and evangelical missionary zeal, and latterly by a sense of protective paternalism, sometimes liberal and at others authoritarian. Self-government was envisaged as a long term outcome of trusteeship, following an unspecified period of economic and social development.

The Colonial Office oversaw the work of the Colonial Service which administered Britain’s colonies and protectorates on the ground. By the 20th century the Service was largely made up of publicly educated men from the upper-middle and professional classes. They often administered huge districts and were responsible for areas as diverse as agriculture, customs, education, law, health, police and postal services. The colonial administration was headed by a Governor who represented the British Government in the territory.

The photo albums arrived at The National Archives in 2005. While some of the images have accompanying background information to give them context, many do not. British diplomats, visiting dignitaries and colonial staff are meticulously named but with the exception of chiefs and rulers, Africans featured in the photos are often described simply as ‘natives’ or ‘people’.

In order to fill the gaps in our knowledge of these images The National Archives has uploaded several thousand pictures to Flickr and is inviting visitors to tag and contribute comments and suggestions to help us improve our descriptions of these extraordinary images.

Updates to this page

Published 10 February 2011