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Political Cartoons: Attitudes towards British Imperialism

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With the rise of modern newspapers and magazines, political cartoons became more popular as a form of criticism and satire. Through the use of caricaturization and jokes artists commented on political issues in a satirical or humorous way. Political cartoons can also be a tool of propaganda, portraying a nation in a glorified light while portraying their enemies and subjects as irrational, inferior, or, in some cases, dehumanized. This exhibit focuses on British political cartoons that glorified British imperialism, promoted an unequal social order, and argued for the subjugation of colonized peoples.

Two pieces that highlight the exhibit’s aim are John Tenniel’s “Two Forces” and Edward Linley Sambourne’s “The Rhodes Colossus.” The former highlights the insidious ways in which British imperial subjects were depicted by pro-imperial cartoonists; the piece features an Irish man, rebelling against British rule, as an ape-like monster attacking and harming his own homeland. Tenniel argues that British rule over Ireland is necessary, and that Irish people are unable to rule themselves, through the dehumanization of their depiction. Sambourne’s Colossus illustration depicts British mining magnate and imperial governor of South Africa Cecil Rhodes standing over the African continent, holding the telegram line that he had proposed building. This piece reflects how British imperial rulers saw Africa as a resource to be exploited, showing it as quite literally propping up men in power like Rhodes. It also displays Britain as a benevolent savior, bringing the telegram and other technology to Africa; it reflects white savior attitudes of Britain as “civilizing” Africa rather than subjugating them.

Another theme of the exhibition is in the depiction of Britain as under threat, and needing protection in order to stop from being destroyed or degrading, as can be seen from James Gillray’s “Britania’s Assassination” and Michael Cummings’ illustration of Winston Churchill. Gillray criticizes progressive reformers of the time as destroying Britain, showing them destroying a statue of Britannia; meanwhile, two more conservative politicians are shown trying to pull the statue away and save it, while Britain’s foreign enemies–America and France–run away with the pieces. Cummings’ illustration of Churchill criticizes the compromise he made with Egypt regarding control over the Suez canal, arguing that Churchill was meant to be a man who preserved British imperial power. The piece reflects anxieties over Britain's declining power in the 20th century.

Political cartoons reflect the creator’s views, and how they wish to share them with the world. Through this exhibition, we hope to show how pro-imperial British cartoonists sought to glorify Britain, put down its enemies, and further pro-imperial thought among the general public.

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