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Reflecting on the Jubilee: West African Portrait Figures of Queen Victoria

1 June 2012 by Lisa

Did you know that we have quite a few regal objects at World Museum? We started thinking about our royalty-related artefacts this week in the run up to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and we thought we’d share a couple of them with you.

Both these carvings are on display in the World Cultures gallery in the World Museum, so why not come along and see them this weekend as an alternative to all that bunting!

Here’s our Curator of African Collections, Zachary Kingdon to tell us more about them…


Wooden carving

West African carving, donated by Mrs W. E. Johnson, 1908.

Jubilees may be occasions for celebration but they also invite reflection, so I have chosen to reflect on two carved wooden portrait figures of Queen Victoria from Nigeria in the World Museum’s African collection. At least twelve other similar figures can be found at other museums in Europe and America. I’ve been tracking them down over the last few months and I plan to publish something about them soon. 

The figures would probably have been copied from photographs of Victoria distributed at the time of her Golden or Diamond Jubilees, which she celebrated in 1887 and 1897. 

British colonial officers in West Africa during the late nineteenth century spared no effort to promote the idea of a benevolent British monarch. They made sure that images of Queen Victoria were displayed at her birthdays and jubilees, which were celebrated with public holidays, parades and festivals. 

Under certain colonial administrators this led to the invention of a sort of ‘cult’ in which the British monarch was represented as an almost divine being. Such inventions were necessary in order to try and justify British rule through a shared ideology of Empire.  

The first of these figures (top left) was donated to the museum in 1908 by Mrs W. E. Johnson, a Sierra Leonean Krio trader in Gambia. She had acquired it from the Yoruba town of Abeokuta in Nigeria, where she would have had commercial and family connections. 

A great many Sierra Leonean Krio were descended from captive Yoruba who had been released at Freetown in the nineteenth century off illegal slave ships intercepted by British naval cruisers after abolition of the slave trade in 1807. After being educated by missionaries in Sierra Leone, some of them chose to return to their homeland, where they kept up their new-found Christian identity, wore European clothes and formed a prominent community in Abeokuta with their churches, schools and other institutions. 

Unlike other West Africans, many Krio did not view the British

Wooden carvingDonated by Arnold Ridyard, 1910.

Queen as their conqueror. In fact her popular name in Freetown was We Mammy, ‘Our Mother’. Given Mrs. Johnson’s background, I can understand why she might have had a figure of Queen Victoria carved for her in Abeokuta to show her loyalty and ‘civilized’ identity as a Krio. 

But I find it curious that no similar portrait figures of King Edward VII, who succeeded Queen Victoria in 1901, can be found in museum collections? Perhaps that’s because Queen Victoria portrait figures like these were mainly owned by elite women like Mrs Johnson who gave them further, more personal, meanings. 

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