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The Cultural Project of the Late British Empire in Africa


This dissertation is a study of British theater, publishing, and broadcasting in East and West Africa from the 1930s to the 1970s. Although traditional histories of the British Empire stop in the 1960s I argue that a cultural version of empire gained momentum during colonial independence and persisted for decades after. While historians of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have studied the reinvention of empire after 1919 through international mandates and development regimes, they have ignored the cultural project that was vital in giving new forms of legitimacy to British imperialism. During the 1930s Britain introduced broadcasting services, publication bureaus, and film units into its African colonies under the rubric of colonial development. Over the following decades an increasing number of British organizations became involved in projecting Britain’s influence and the English language through theater, radio, and mass-produced print. The organizations ranged from official institutions, such as the Colonial Office and the British Council, to non-state forms of overseas representation, such as the BBC and Oxford University Press. As the colonies moved closer to independence, British interventions in theater, publishing, and broadcasting collided with anti-colonial pressures abroad and at home; yet, these particular forms of British representation persisted beyond independence into the postcolonial period.

In short, Britain used the domain of culture to maintain its imperial influence after the end of formal political control. My study looks at the cultural work of a variety of forms of mass media, and I use Africa – a central locale of the decolonizing British Empire and the late Cold War – to examine its role. Africa’s postcolonial public sphere was shaped by the cultural project of late empire not least because it engaged a variety of African agents and agencies who in turn sought to make cultural imperialism history. My larger project, therefore, leads to thinking about the cultural politics of the contemporary world and how the West continues to reach global audiences today.

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