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Performing multiracialism

Companions (young members) of the Royal Commonwealth Society from Ceylon, England and Gambia

Companions (young members) of the Royal Commonwealth Society from Ceylon, England and Gambia, pictured at the Society’s headquarters, on the 19th April 1963  (Crown copyright: COI ref. R13086)
RCS IV (a) 163

As Empire gave way to Commonwealth and the multiracial aspect became increasingly important in narratives of the association, so too did the multiracial aspect of social occasions at the Society. Although relatively few Africans frequented the Society before the end of the 1950s their presence was vital in the performance of the Commonwealth and a commitment to it.

Posed photographs such as the image on the right hand side, showing a mixed group of Companions from Ceylon, England and Gambia worked to show the practice of Commonwealth ideals. Taken as a publicity shot for the Society, the three young members examine an African pot. The image works both to perform a tolerant and multiracial association and a shared interest in other things, people and places, crucial to a Commonwealth outlook from the 1950s onwards. The image also hints at visions for the Commonwealth as a ‘Commonwealth of Friendship’ or a ‘Commonwealth of people’. This theme was reiterated by the introduction of the unofficial title ‘the friendly games’ for the British Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974.

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, the RCS and its calendar of educational and social events worked as occasions for display of the Commonwealth in action. On October 31st 1958 the Companions group put on a ‘Commonwealth concert’ designed to cover all the regions. The Society’s journal noted that ‘the evening was brought to an uproarious climax by the Australian Accordionist, Rolf Harris, well known on television’ (Journal of the Royal Commonwealth Society 1958, p247). According to the review, ‘this really was a Commonwealth affair. Indian girls in Saris danced with Londoners in Lounge Suits, Nigerians with Canadians, South Africans with Jamaicans and so on’ (ibid.). The concert was honoured by the attendance of Princess Alexandra who ‘danced throughout the evening with people from all over the world’ (ibid.).

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