Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was one of the key events of the century. It demonstrated the immense industrial and technological power of Britain and her Empire. It also brought together people from all around the world as interested sightseers, businessmen, financiers or even as exhibits themselves. In this cartoon, we see what is a very unflattering image of some African tribesman. But remember, before we cast our modern judgements at this scene, these were exceedingly culturally homogenous days when few Britons (inside Britain at least) would ever have seen anyone with a skin complexion different from their own. Stereotyping and caricaturing have long been weapons of the cartoonist: Exaggerated lips and a bone through the nose would have conformed to the average Briton's expectations of what an African tribesman should look like and so would have conveyed the tribal aspect of the joke very convincingly. What is perhaps more interesting is the way the cartoonist is prepared to mock western women in the same way. He is suggesting that they have their own wierd and wonderful 'national' dress and that they seem to be conducting rituals at least as arcane, bizarre and incomprehensible as anything the tribal men in the background are conducting. At another level, this cartoon is also playing on the new anxieties and uncertainties just about to be unleashed by the theories of Charles Darwin. Although this cartoon was originally published in 1855, which was a few years before The origin of Species the ideas themselves were already being discussed in certain circles. This cartoon highlights the uneasy connection made by many between white and black humans. Indeed this image is probably a good early indicator of how Social Darwinism came to be extracted from Darwin's writings as a way of reaffirming racial heirarchy and order.

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by Stephen Luscombe