Bad boy Brits in the Sultan's harem

An 18th century cartoon satirizes English imperialism, bare breasts and all.


Andrew Leonard
March 8, 2007 12:43AM (UTC)

Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, was defeated and killed by the British on May 4, 1799. By October of that same year, Samuel Fores, a British printer, had published a lurid caricature linked to the event depicting British soldiers frolicking with the defeated Sultan's harem.

The group blog Turbanhead is featuring the caricature today, titled "The Death of Tippoo or Besieging the Haram." It is an astonishing cultural artifact, strikingly rude and gross in its portraiture of lecherous Brits having their way with bare-breasted brown women. One soldier is shown lifting a compliant woman on high and shouting, "Harrah my Honey now for the Black Joke." Another says, "Cheer up my Girls, we'll supply his Place well."

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Turbanhead presents it without comment and without attribution, leaving viewers to make of it what they will. I confess myself baffled. What little I've been able to learn of late Georgian-era caricature indicates prints such as these were generally intended as satire. We can think of them as the political cartoons of the day, or, as one more recent commentator suggests, as the visual blogs of their time. Printmakers like Fores (a Scotsman who seems to have been considered a relatively low-class operator) would display their newest offerings in their shop windows, hoping to lure passersby into purchases, or just renting them out for an evening's entertainment. Frequent topics for caricature around the time of this print included Napoleon -- the ever-popular "Little Boney," and various takes on John Bull.

But if "The Death of Tippoo" is satire, what exactly is being mocked in this exceedingly self-conscious display of Orientalism? The low moral fiber of British soldiers? The decadent East? Could it possibly be meant as a critique of foreign military adventurism? Can we take it as an implied slam of the damage wrought upon India by putting imperial might in the service of the commercial aggrandisement of the British East India Company?

Maybe not. Maybe it's only about the cheap thrills. It certainly wouldn't be the first time someone has flaunted some bare breasts in the hopes of generating ready cash. But whatever the original intent, one certainly can't look at the caricature now without thinking about how deeply race and the historical exercise of power inform the contemporary relationship between the developed and the developing world.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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