Laughing At the Mahdi: The British Comic Press and Empire, 1882-85 – Victorian Periodicals Review – article

Laughing At the Mahdi: The British Comic Press and Empire, 1882-85

Michael de Nie | Victorian Periodicals Review

2019-10-22

“””Laughing at the Mahdi:The British Comic Press and Empire, 1882–85 Michael de Nie (bio) This essay will explore comic commentary on events in Egypt and the Sudan between 1882 and 1885 in the leading London and Birmingham comic weeklies. In this period Northeast Africa experienced nearly simultaneous outbreaks of political and religious radicalism with far-reaching consequences for both the region and the British Empire. The Arabi Rebellion, which began in Egypt in 1881, was the West’s first encounter with what would later be termed Arab nationalism as Arabi Pasha and his followers demanded “”””Egypt for the Egyptians”””” and an end to European oversight of the country’s finances.1 The British invasion of 1882 and the ensuing occupation placed the Suez Canal firmly under British control, helping spark the scramble for Africa and the New Imperialism. Soon after they established a de facto protectorate in Egypt, the British faced a religious revolt in the Sudan, which had come under Egyptian rule in the early nineteenth century. Led by Muhammad Ahmad, who had declared himself the Mahdi (Guided One), the prophesied redeemer of Islam, the revolt was arguably the first occurrence of militarized Islamic fundamentalism in the modern era.2 Historians tend to study these two events separately, usually in the interest of making the research topic more manageable rather than from a failure to see the connections between them. But in the minds of most contemporaries in Britain and Ireland, these events were regarded as two chapters of a single story: the Egyptian Wars. Debate in the press and Parliament over Egyptian policy and the British interest in Northeast Africa certainly did not dissipate after the victory at Tel-el-Kebir in September 1882. Most viewed the Mahdist rising as a new and increasingly vexing wrinkle in the already difficult question of what to do with Egypt and how best to protect Britain’s imperial interests against European competitors and internal turbulence. The Egyptian Wars were also, of course, interpreted [End Page 437] in the context of other contemporary imperial and domestic concerns, such as the Irish Question, franchise reform, and the state of India. Comic commentary on these and similar subjects shared the pages with discussion of Egypt and the Sudan, sometimes in the same cartoon or joke and especially when remarking on the government’s difficulties.3 Among scholars, British intervention in Northeast Africa is commonly regarded as one of the key events of the New Imperialism, and some have detected an important change in British imperial ideology in this period.4 Scholars such as Jonathan Parry and Karuna Mantena argue that whereas Britons in the early nineteenth century often portrayed imperial expansion in moral terms as a duty undertaken to spread civilization and the gospel, by the closing decades of the century many or most Britons retreated from this ethical approach. Due to hardening racial attitudes and growing concerns over the balance of power in Europe, Britons increasingly referred to British prestige, security, and economic interests as justification for expanding the empire. But in my research on both the comic and mainstream press’s reporting on British intervention in Egypt and the Sudan, I have found that while both prestige and British interests were commonly cited throughout this period, moral language had not entirely disappeared. Indeed, wide sections of the daily and comic press commonly debated the ethics of British intervention in Northeast Africa while also asserting the need for some form of British control or supervision over a region they deemed incapable of self-rule. Scholars of the British and other empires have of course examined the comic press, but their attention has been almost exclusively limited to how the weekly cuts, the full-page cartoons typically placed in the center of each issue, demonstrate European racism, sexism, and other prejudices. This essay explores press opinion on empire and imperial policy through a more thorough examination of the late-Victorian comic weeklies, making full use of the rich collection of jokes, puns, poems, songs, and smaller illustrations found in the pages of Punch, Funny Folks, the Owl, and others during the Egyptian Wars of 1882–85. A study of the comic press…”””

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