Gallery 8: Animals and Empire

Welcome to this online exhibition featuring some of the histories of the interactions between humans and other animals in the British Empire.

In the histories of human beings moving beyond their homelands to explore and later colonise and exploit the astonishing diversity of new worlds, the history of the changing global environment, and the non-humans within it, are clearly and indisputably pivotal. Dense forest, vast savannah, urban spaces, farmlands and rolling seas each significantly shaped – and were shaped by – human activities. And, within these landscapes, wild things were everywhere. Non-human animals could of course be encountered in the exotic wilds themselves, but they could also be captured and moved to cities, in the colonies and at home, to be looked at as objects of amusement, to be studied and sometimes sliced open as objects of an intense scientific curiosity, or used as beasts of burden. Animals and empires go hand in hand. Indeed, the image of the lion, so evocative of nature red in tooth and claw, nobility and authority, was often used to symbolise the mission and character of the British Empire. To the right is a World War One recruitment poster from c. 1915, in which the ‘Old Lion’ (Britain), is asking for help from the ‘Young Lions’ of her Empire. The animal is the emblem of the Empire but, more importantly, its image equates that empire with power and nobility of purpose.


Fig. 1  ‘The Empire Needs Men!’, World War One Recruitment Poster (c. 1915).


Fig. 2  Lloyd, Trevor 1863-1937: [Britain defeated by the All Blacks]. 1908. Ref: C-109-020. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22903154

Particular animals were likewise associated with British colonies and dominions. The kangaroo, emu and koala were often emblematic of the Australian colonies, for instance, and the small flightless bird, the kiwi, often represented New Zealand. The kiwi first appeared as a symbol of New Zealand in the late nineteenth century on soldiers’ regimental badges, and by World War One, soldiers from New Zealand were often referred to as ‘Kiwis’. The drawing to the left was designed to reflect the pride of the nation after a New Zealand All Blacks victory over an Anglo-Welsh side in a Rugby test match in 1908, just a year after King Edward VII had proclaimed New Zealand a Dominion of the Empire, thereby awarding it self-governing status. The kiwi slaying the lion, evocative of the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, stood for the emergence of a former colony from the shadows of the mighty British Empire.


This exhibition tells some of the entwined histories of human and non-human animals in the British Empire through text and image, focusing on three broad themes. Firstly, it considers human relationships with three particular species. The tiger as an object of desire, the mule as a hybrid creature emblematic of a variety of social preoccupations, and the snake imbued with Eastern charm represent three particularly evocative creaturely occupants of the lands decreed to be part of the British Empire.  Secondly, the exhibition explores some of the histories of animals as imperial resources of immense value, as beasts of burden, and as producers in and of themselves.  Finally, it examines animals as objects of amusement, in zoos and literature and as ‘celebrities’ in their own right.  And all the while, these histories reveal complex and often contradictory human attitudes toward animal life, and human-animal bonds that looked significantly different in all the diverse environments of the British Empire.

Dr. Andy Flack, Exhibit Curator
Teaching Fellow in Modern History, University of Bristol

 

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