To celebrate the opening of our new Frank Oates Gallery, historians Dr John McAleer and Dr Chris Prior from the University of Southampton will be giving an exciting talk.
Frank Oates’s travels in nineteenth-century Southern Africa made him an eyewitness to a period of momentous change in the region. European imperial involvement rose dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century, and missionaries and traders, as well as explorers such as Oates, were the eyes and ears on the ground. The British public, as well as politicians and esteemed bodies such as the Royal Geographical Society, became fascinated with a continent about which they had known so little. Individuals came for a variety of reasons, one of which was the exotic spectacle Africa was felt to offer. For Oates, and many of his contemporaries, no journey in Southern Africa was complete without seeing the Victoria Falls. When David Livingstone became the first European to reach the Falls in 1855, he was awestruck. ‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’, he famously declared. British travellers like Oates who followed in Livingstone’s footsteps were equally enthralled by Mosi-oa-tunya, or ‘the smoke that thunders’. For Thomas Baines, an itinerant artist who visited the Falls in 1862, the panorama before him presented ‘the most lovely coup d’oeuil the soul of the artist could imagine’. The responses of British explorers and travellers to this extraordinary natural phenomenon in the heart of Africa – over 5 million cubic metres of water cascade over the Falls every minute in the wet season – tell us much about British attitudes to the continent. This talk will place Oates in the context of this surge in exploration, assess what he and his peers felt about the places they visited, and consider what impact this exploration had on the British Empire.