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  • "[L]aughing nations of happy children who have never grown up": Race, the Concept of Commonwealth and the 1924–25 British Empire Exhibition
  • David Simonelli

In April 1924, on the verge of the opening of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, a Hammersmith school prepared an exhibit on the nature of the populations who had created the British Empire. It was a sectional model that showed "the races that have contributed to the British breed". Allegedly, the original Britons were full of fervor, the Anglo-Saxons were adventurous lovers of the sea, and the Normans were controlled and refined. These "races" combined in the tableau to trade, build joint stock companies and colonize the planet. The promoters of the Exhibition soon acquired the tableau and put it on display at Wembley.1

The Hammersmith school's tableau revealed many of the beliefs of those people who wanted to see the Empire achieve measures of unity - political, economic, social, and cultural - in the interwar era. The term used to refer to this vague unity was "commonwealth", a term which up to that time had indicated the white-governed dominions, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State.2 Educators, intellectuals, civil servants and other imperialists involved in the British Empire Exhibition as an educational project wanted to phase out use of the word "empire" in favor of "commonwealth", since "commonwealth" sounded more egalitarian, like a free association of peoples rather than a product of conquest.3 Their goal was to imply that the people in the empire were "free" peoples, united in their admiration of British civilization and in their desire to trade with each other.

The British Empire Exhibition that presented this vision ran for two years from 1924 through 1925, and was the most deliberate effort yet made to get the British people to utilize the colonies as cultural and economic assets. The exhibition was a watershed of imperial propaganda, an incredibly popular event that attracted the British public in the millions and left them with a strong impression of the "justice, progress and liberty" that abounded in their nation's empire.4

The tableau, however, represented an out-dated and one-sided vision of the concept of "commonwealth". Its combination of medieval "races" was alleged to have resulted in a long-term connection between Britain and what were now its dominions. By the early 1920s, those dominions were virtually independent. Their military and diplomatic connection to Britain had certainly grown profoundly during the Great War of 1914–1918. The rest of the Empire likewise contributed heavily to the war effort and grew more and more important to the British economy, especially India. The Exhibition was supposed to extend the tableau's vision of commonwealth. As the war ended, imperial-minded intellectuals and politicians began to see a new concept of commonwealth as the future of empire; the colonies would achieve self-government in return for sharing in the burdens of the largest war in world history to that time.5 The Exhibition therefore was seen as an opportunity to extend the idea of commonwealth to all of the Empire's "races", to redefine commonwealth as a combination of all of them in an economically and culturally harmonious unit.

Yet "commonwealth" was also a term used by some intellectuals, politicians and cultural commentators in the 1920s and 1930s to moderate their ideas on race: between segregation and integration, between hierarchy and equality, between cultural superiority and cultural relativism.6 What the tableau really revealed was a slowly changing but common attitude amongst British intellectuals, politicians and the populace in general. Whatever happened in the future, there was no doubt that the British "race" would continue to dominate a united empire-commonwealth. The tableau presented medieval British ethnic groups in then-current anthropological terms to describe the genesis of the empire as a biological necessity. A fluid conception of "race" in Britain in the 1920s found itself pitted against an equally fluid conception of "commonwealth". Rhetorically, the British Empire Exhibition was an effort to change people's conceptions of "race", to recognize the equality of all peoples in the British Empire, as found in their supposedly...