A rhino in the living room: how Empire is coming out of the shadows

By Chris Hastings, Arts and Media Editor


For nearly 50 years, everybody has tiptoed around the subject but hardly dared to mention it by name.

Rupert the rhino, who was rescued from Lake Kariba

Now, the Empire is being brought out of the shadows by the people who were once its subjects.

So great is the interest from Commonwealth subjects keen to know more about their heritage, that the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol is to put the private photographic collections of hundreds of former British colonists on line as part of its new Images of Empire exhibition.

From Thursday, 6,000 never-before-seen images of colonial life, as well as 100 films, will be available online, in a move that — according to the museum's experts — would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.

The first pictures include the incredible scene of the rhino in the living room, an orphan rescued during Operation Noah to save animals stranded as the newly built Kariba Dam flooded the Zambezi valley in the early 1960s. The creature was called Rupert. The name of the boy sharing the lounge is not recorded.

The pictures were taken by administrators, soldiers, teachers, missionaries or engineers, originally as private keepsakes, and detail daily life in far-flung corners of the Empire.

They show a people determined to cling to their sense of Britishness and many of the homes featured could almost be in the Lake District or Home Counties.

But the reality of Empire — and the power that Britain held over its inhabitants — is never far away and can be seen in the images of thousands of servants. While some of the more homely photographs show that relations between rulers and ruled could be cordial, others show rigid social divisions. The museum, which houses more than one million still images and 400 hours of film dating back to 1860, plans to update the site every fortnight.

Gareth Davies, its director, said: "When the subject of Empire came up 10 years ago, it did so in almost always negative terms. In fact, the pendulum is now swinging the other way."

Shirley Simmons, 76, a mother of three, who was born in Belize, the former British Honduras, while her father was serving as the colony's first agricultural officer, has donated his photographic collection to the Empire Museum.

Mrs Simmons, who later lived in Uganda, said: "When you returned to England you found that your service overseas was a taboo subject. You were regarded as a little imperialist."


Photos of the British Empire

The British Empire and Commonwealth museum in Bristol is putting the private photographic collections of hundreds of former colonists online.

The collections contain thousands of images of life in the Empire.

Here Princess Margaret inspects a Guard of Honour outside the Royal Technical College in Nairobi in 1956

From Thursday 6,000 never-before-seen images will be available on the internet.

They depict formal occasions, such as Sir Phillip Mitchell, Govenor of Kenya, greeting African chiefs during Princess Elizabeth's visit to Kenya in 1952...

... And more relaxed moments, like this 1910 photo of The Duchess of Connaught and a male companion a rocky plain near Livingstone, Zambia

The photographs were kept as private keepsakes and serve as a record of daily life in the Empire.

This image shows the Duke and Duchess of Connaught attending the opening ceremony of the new Union Parliament in Cape Town in 1910

Some of the pictures reflect the harsh reality of life in the Empire. Here, Indian servants carry a lounger holding two young British children, circa 1920.

Others paint an bizarre picture of life in the colonies. In this image, circa 1901, Lady Annie Lawley and her daughters play with tiger cubs at Perth Zoo in Western Australia.