Harold Behr
Harold Behr

‘Peoples of the World in Pictures’ – Education or Distortion?

Who would have thought that a children’s encyclopaedia could provide a rich source of offensive material? Yet that is what I found when I rediscovered an ancient volume titled ‘Peoples of the World in Pictures’, which I had lovingly looked through as a child. Beautifully bound and containing some 500 glossy pages of black-and-white photos interspersed with text, it is a book which must have delighted thousands of young people in its day and not a few older ones.

I searched in vain for a date of publication. The only information about the book’s provenance is that the General Editor is one Harold Wheeler, Hon. D. Litt., F.R. Hist. S., and that the publishers were Odhams Press Ltd., Long Acre, London. However, from the obsolete names given to the various regions and countries of the world covered, I would guess at its publication date as being in the 1930’s.

The editor certainly means well. The closing paragraph of his introductory section reads, ‘PEOPLES OF THE WORLD IN PICTURES’ will enable the reader to gain a better perspective of life and to appreciate his newspaper as never before. Above all, it will enlarge his sympathies, without which there can be no understanding and no solution to the manifold problems that confront the [human] race in the complex world of today.’

However, there is hardly a page in this book which would not give offence to the modern reader endowed with a modicum of empathy for the struggles and upheavals undergone by the ‘peoples of the world’ as depicted in the book. Many of the photos are of men, women and children in folk costumes. Bare-breasted women abound, as do ornately decorated tribesmen with painted faces and fantastic headgear. There are also numerous pictures of men and women in folk costumes performing ceremonial dances or engaged in primitive rituals.

The photos have evidently been chosen to introduce the young reader to a range of the many different ethnic groups portrayed, a laudable aim. However, it is the language of the editorial commentary prefacing each section, not to mention the text accompanying many of the photos, which must raise eyebrows.

My first shock came on the opening page, where I read that ‘ “Perms” [i.e. hair-dos]ranging from the oiled and buttered plaits of the Tigre region of Ethiopia to the gummed hair of the Fuzzy Wuzzies are variations of women’s eternal search for beauty.’ As someone who used to chuckle at the goings-on in the sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, in which the doddering Corporal Jones reminisces about his days in the Sudan fighting the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’, I had assumed that the term was British Army slang as well as being a vile insult to the indigenous peoples of Sudan. A quick search on google tells me that it was all of that and more, having found its way into the English language as a legitimate term, thanks to Kipling, who wrote a poem in one of his ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ (1892) including the lines:

‘So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air –
You big black boundin’ beggar – for you broke a British square!’

I was naturally keen to see how this encyclopaedia portrayed peoples from those regions which were familiar to me through personal experience, – South Africa and Israel – albeit a couple of decades after Dr Wheeler would have assembled his collection.

I turned first to the section titled ‘Humanity in South Africa: The Union of South Africa – Bechuanaland Protectorate – Rhodesia’. Here, the reader is informed that ‘The Union of South Africa is well named. It is not merely a union of provinces, but a union also of two white peoples, Boer and British….The root problem in South Africa is the presence of a black population greatly outnumbering the white.’ The introduction then continues with a narrative which will be familiar to white children who were taught from the history books of the time. There are short paragraphs with the headings, ‘The Great Trek Northward’, ‘Bushmen of the Desert’ and ‘Bravery of the Matabele’, followed by several pages of photos captioned (for instance) ‘Zulu maids at the village pond’, ‘Zulu chief in full regalia’, ‘Witch-Doctor makes his diagnosis’, ‘Zulu Amazons in ceremonial war dance’, ‘Swazi matron with fashionable coiffure’ and ‘Ricksha boy performs his antics’. Each photo is accompanied by two or three lines of text. Those for the ‘Ricksha boy’ photo, for instance, read, ‘A familiar sight in Durban is the Zulu Ricksha boy, a human horse who loves to race his fellows and leaps high into the air in exultation when he outruns them – a somewhat startling procedure for riders unaccustomed to his pranks. His prowess is denoted by the number of feathers he wears.’

Next, to a chapter headed ‘Eastern States in the Making: Turkey in Asia – Syria – Cyprus – Palestine – Arabia – Transjordan – Aden – Iraq – Persia.’ My interest focused on Palestine, where I read that ‘The religious difficulty is even more prominent in Palestine, but here it is of political origin. The famous Balfour Declaration of November, 1917, proclaimed the British Government in favour of “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People.” This policy has been actively furthered, but not without considerable friction between the Jewish settlers and the Arab population.’

This is followed by a paragraph headed, Developing the Resources of Palestine’, which begins, ‘The Jewish immigrants are rapidly developing the resources of Palestine. They have set up profitable agricultural colonies, built at Tel Aviv, near Jaffa, a modern city of 50,000 inhabitants, erected electric turbines on the Jordan, and are exploiting commercially the potash of the Dead Sea. Whether eventually they will possess the whole country, or whether the two races, nearly related originally, will compose their differences, only the future can reveal.’

There are five photos devoted to Palestine, headed, ‘Christian maid from the Saviour’s birthplace’, ‘Oriental market-place in prosperous Haifa’, ‘Mary’s well in Nazareth in Galilee’, ‘As it was in the beginning’, (showing a boy wearing a keffiyeh tending a goat, for which the text reads, ‘A picture reminiscent of any time during the past three thousand years. The rocky slabs are typical of the stony hills of central Palestine, where flocks tended by Arabs who know each sheep, goat and kid individually have roamed since time immemorial. Christ’s story of the “nine and ninety” was from personal observation’), and a photo captioned ‘Is it not written in the Law and the Prophets?’ with the text, ‘Every type of Jew is to be found in Jerusalem, where the Children of Israel number over half the population. Here is an Orthodox Jew arrayed for prayer, wearing a phylactery on his forehead and reading from a scroll of the law. Some of the Jewish sects in Jerusalem have settled there for generations.’

It would be easy for me to turn this piece into a prolonged sneer at the crassness and prejudice of a scholar from another generation. I remember paging through the book as a child and marvelling at its portrayal of the diverse customs, fashions and lifestyles of the human species. Never for a moment did I question the veracity of the compilation. Nor could I discern a racist or colonialist subtext. To my innocent mind, the book was simply educative.

As I see it now, Dr Wheeler was a scholar of his time and a person with a strong sense of pride in his own cultural heritage, but limited by his prejudices. Seen through the eyes of the modern reader, the entire volume amounts to an unbalanced representation of the ‘peoples of the world’. For many, it is merely a hurtful reminder of the wounds inflicted during centuries of oppression.

I could not advocate the book’s removal from the public eye any more than I could support the censorship of some of the classic works of children’s fiction simply because of their outmoded and by now horribly pejorative language. ‘Peoples of the World in Pictures’ is happily out of print and it no longer graces the lists of books recommended for educational purposes. But I can see a future for it in museums which tell the story of how educational material can sometimes perpetuate human conflict instead of contributing to its resolution.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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