Colonial India in Cartoons

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The Indian Mutiny - Political Cartoon

Sir Colin Campbell offers India to Lord Palmerston, who shelters behind a chair. Hulton Archive/Print Collectors/Getty Images

This cartoon appeared in Punch in 1858, at the end of the Indian Mutiny (also called the Sepoy Rebellion).  Sir Colin Campbell, the 1st Baron Clyde, had been appointed Commander in Chief of British forces in India.  He lifted a siege on foreigners in Lucknow and evacuated the survivors, and brought in British troops to quell the uprising among Indian sepoys in the British East India Company's army. 

Here, Sir Campbell presents a cowed but not necessarily tamed Indian tiger to Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, who hesitates to accept the gift.  This is a reference to some official skepticism in London about the wisdom of the British government stepping in to take direct control over India after the British East India Company failed to resolve the uprising.  In the end, of course, the government did step in and take power, holding on to India until 1947.

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The US Civil War Forces Britain to Buy Indian Cotton

The northern and southern US are in a fist-fight, so John Bull buys his cotton from India. Hulton Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

The US Civil War (1861-65) disrupted flows of raw cotton from the southern US to Britain's busy textile mills.  Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Britain got more than three-quarters of its cotton from the US - and Britain was the largest consumer of cotton in the world, buying 800 million pounds of the stuff in 1860.  As a result of the Civil War, and a northern naval blockade that made it impossible for the South to export its goods, the British began to buy their cotton from British India instead (as well as Egypt, not shown here).

In this cartoon, somewhat unrecognizable representations of President Abraham Lincoln of the United States and President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States are so involved in a brawl that they don't notice John Bull, who wants to buy cotton.  Bull decides to take his business elsewhere, to the Indian Cotton Depot "over the way."

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"Persia Won!" Political Cartoon of Britain Negotiating Protection for India

Britannia seeks the Shah of Persia's protection for her "daughter," India. Britain feared Russian expansionism. Hulton Archive/PrintCollector/GettyImages

This 1873 cartoon shows Britannia negotiating with the Shah of Persia (Iran) for protection of her "child" India.  It is an interesting conceit, given the relative ages of the British and Indian cultures! 

The occasion for this cartoon was a visit by Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848 - 1896) to London.  The British sought and won assurances from the Persian shah that he would not allow any Russian advances toward British India across Persian lands.  This is an early move in what became known as the "Great Game" - a contest for land and influence in Central Asia between Russia and the U.K.

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"New Crowns for Old" - Political Cartoon on British Imperialism in India

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pursuades Queen Victoria to trade her crown for that of Empress of India. Hulton Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli offers to trade Queen Victoria a new, imperial crown for her old, royal crown.  Victoria, already the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, officially became "Empress of the Indies" in 1876. 

This cartoon is a play on the story of "Aladdin" from the 1001 Arabian Nights.  In that tale, a magician walks up and down the streets offering to trade new lamps for old ones, hoping that some foolish person will trade in the magic (old) lamp containing a genie or djinn in exchange for a nice, shiny new lamp.  The implication, of course, is that this exchange of crowns is a trick that the Prime Minister is playing on the Queen.

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The Panjdeh Incident - Diplomatic Crisis for British India

The Russian bear attacks the Afghan wolf, to the dismay of the British lion and Indian tiger. Hulton Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

In 1885, Britain's fears about Russian expansion seemed to be realized, when Russia attacked Afghanistan, killing more than 500 Afghan fighters and seizing territory in what is now southern Turkmenistan.  This skirmish, called the Panjdeh Incident, came shortly after the Battle of Geok Tepe (1881), in which the Russians defeated the Tekke Turkmen, and the 1884 annexation of the great Silk Road oasis at Merv. 

With each of these victories, the Russian army moved south and east, closer to Afghanistan proper, which Britain considered its buffer between Russian-occupied lands in Central Asia, and the British Empire's "crown jewel" - India.

In this cartoon, the British lion and the Indian tiger look on in alarm as the Russian bear attacks the Afghan wolf.  Although the Afghan government actually viewed this event as a mere border skirmish, British PM Gladstone saw it as something more sinister.  In the end, the Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission was established, by mutual agreement, to delineate the border between the two powers' spheres of influence.  The Panjdeh Incident marked the end of Russian expansion into Afghanistan - at least, until the Soviet Invasion in 1979.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Colonial India in Cartoons." ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2015, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2015, May 17). Colonial India in Cartoons. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Colonial India in Cartoons." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).