Of course we’re all familiar with the postcard as a small souvenir we send to friends and family from faraway vacations, or as something we buy to decorate our walls.
But are you familiar with the postcard as a form of European colonial propaganda?
Postcards were invented around 1860 (at a time when European countries were starting to frantically compete with each other for the best and furthest African and Asian colonies). The relatively cheap picture cards quickly became the most popular form of communication of the previous century. Between 1907 and 1915 – also known as the Golden Age of postcards – the development of cheap color printing and photography methods led to a doubling of postcard production every six months, and billions of postcards were sent each year (with some people sending up to 50 a day!).
Although making up just a small portion of the postcard market, colony-themed postcards provided a pretty crafty way for countries to market and advertise their colonies as well as justify the practice of colonialism itself.
Propaganda packaged in a 6 by 4 inch format, these niche postcards colorfully illustrate the ideologies that were used to justify European colonialism almost a century ago.
These cards are now odd and at times shocking reminders of how Europeans viewed the world and the colonial “other” during the final decades of European colonialism– and they are riddled with ethnic and cultural stereotypes.
European colonialism relied on the idea that cultures and ethnicities could be hierarchically categorized, with white Westerners at the top. This belief justified the eradication of “inferior” peoples for the greater good of European evolvement, but also ushered the belief that it was the moral duty of colonists to educate or “uplift” the cultures that already lived in newly conquered colonies, much like a parent would a child.
Belgian postcard of a missionary orphanage in Congo
The supposed parental relationship between colonizers and colonized was a popular theme for colonial postcards. Many of these postcards are drawn in an almost eerily childish way – a style that was popular for all genres of postcards. If it wasn’t for the horribly racist imagery or subject matter, you’d almost expect these drawings to come straight from a children’s book.
Since conquering colonies was one of the ways in which European countries could display their national power and superiority, postcards were also used to brag about the specific colonies they “owned”. These postcards often included maps and images unique to the colonies.
Reminiscent of the typical tourist cards we send today, they were carefully drawn collages of scenery, people and maps of the colony in question.
Some colonies also used postcards to brag about the strength and bravery of their colonial subjects by showing them in heroic scenes and poses.
Eritreans for example, who were colonized by Italy from 1889 to 1941, served in Italian army forces during battles to expand the Italian colonial empire throughout surrounding African countries. In Italian postcards from these times, Eritreans are regularly depicted in the midst of battle scenes, easily recognizable by their red and green hats.
(c) Martin Plaut
Battle scenes in themselves were popular postcard-material as they showed the European population back home that European conquest was prosperous (when the battle in question was won). They were also used to illustrate the alleged savage nature of the natives that they “bravely” went up against, and who were unwilling to bow to colonial rule.
The German postcards above and below, for example, are titled the “Herero-rebellion in German-Southwest-Africa.” During a genocidal war against the Herero and Nama people of what is now Namibia – which lasted from 1904 to 1907 – between 50,000 and 100,000 natives were killed by German colonists. But that’s not something Germany would put on a postcard: instead, the postcards below depict the war as one where the Herero are ruthless looters and the German’s are determined generals, taking down the unruly native population.
In the postcard below, the Herero Rebellion is casually combined with advertising for coffee.
Another popular trend in colonial postcards was anthropological photography. Postcard photographers took cues from this increasingly popular field of science that was devoted to explaining and categorising foreign cultures and ethnicities. Serving a Western fascination with foreign customs and lifestyles, these postcards showed native people making art, working or doing each other’s hair.
Bark Cloth Beating in Uganda (c) UPenn University
Nubian women pounding rice (c) UPenn University
East-African women doing each other’s hair (c) UPenn University
Colonial postcard photographers often tried to portray colonial cultures in their natural state. This included many pictures of people posing with “native” paraphernalia, in front of houses, and – most of the time – (half) naked.
(c) Eugen Klein “Young folk” from Dutch Suriname “naturally” posing with some bananas and pots on their heads
Postcards displaying indigenous forms of body decoration were also popular. (Above, German postcards from Papua New Guinnea).
(c) Monika Ettlin
(c) Ces Heredia
Both men and women were frequently portrayed naked on colonial picture postcards, which was a degrading practice in itself. But when it came to the nude portrayal of colonised women, the story is especially complex.
Although some postcards tried to pass as subjective photographs of native women as they “could be found in the colonies”, these images were typically saturated with the stereotype of women from African and Asian cultures as highly sexual and exotic.
French Postcard of an Algerian girl.
Many of these postcards are clearly pornographic, and quite a few are obviously posed to be explicitly sensual – and very similar to pin-up photos.
These nude postcards (many of them exchanged by hand due to their explicit content) allowed male colonialists to gaze at and exoticize “native” females to their heart’s content.
But even when they were not portrayed naked, women from the colonies were still frequently eroticised for their exotic beauty.
(c) Ponijem Thomassen – Dutch postcard of a Javanese beauty
(c) Kathy Lee French – postcard of “The beautiful Fatma in female costume of the Arabian Rich”
The sexual stereotype of women in the colonies was also actively used in propaganda campaigns to lure European men to the colonies for work, or to make them enlist in the navy or colonial armies. Shocking in their degrading stereotypical imagery and accompanying messages, many of these postcards practically prostituted native women as a form of colonial propaganda.
A German postcard, reading: Another city, another girl!
German postcard saying: Our Navy, row me to the other side, handsome shipper!
The French in particular are known to have purposefully printed sensual and sexual images on postcards as part of their campaign to colonise Algeria. In many French-Algerian postcards, both the women’s way of dress and the women themselves are sexualised.
But it gets even more shocking: I stumbled upon some postcards depicting women from other French colonies, which openly suggest that these women are easy, flirtatious and ready to serve any colonial man’s needs.
This French postcard reads: you can look, but you can’t touch.
This French postcard reads: “It’s all the same, with a little negress taking care of your needs and showing you favor, it doesn’t matter what people say, these are good times in Madagaskar.”
A Senegalese “Flirt”
“Leisurely hours in the Colonies.”
As they are nowadays, postcards were also sent to the occasion of special holidays and events during colonialism. At times, the colonial and holiday theme were combined, resulting in some very questionable imagery, as you can see below.
“Happy New Year from Freetown”
“Happy Easter from the German colonies”.
If you’d like to know more about this topic, I’d suggest digging around on the internet for a while. Due to the collectability of postcards, there is still an incredible amount of colonial and other types of postcards available, as well as some very interesting research about this topic.
Sources: Metro Postcard, Pennymead, Picasa, DelCampe, Ebay.
About this Contributor
Inge Oosterhoff is a Dutch graduate of North American Studies, currently living in the Netherlands. With a love for the odd and the unexpected she is on a never-ending search for new stories, new people and the very best coffee in the world.