Posted by: deannakk | October 8, 2018

Parallels between Victorian Irish and Jim Crow Caricature

US Serena Showing Emotion

On Monday, September 10 Mark Knight, a cartoonist for Herald Sun, unveiled his cartoon reacting to the US Open Women’s Final on Saturday. This image, harkening back to “the dehumanizing Jim Crow caricatures common in the 19th and 20th centuries” prompted immediate, global outrage (Cavna 2018). While it is true that Knight borrowed the exaggerated expression; large, gaping mouth; and broad nose with which he rendered Serena from Jim Crow caricatures, political cartoonists also used these simian characteristics in their cartoons about the Irish in the Victorian era.

In Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature, L. Perry Curtis Jr. explores the scientific, political, and cultural circumstances which led to the portrayal of the Irish as ape-like. Curtis writes,

The increasing reliance of European and British anthropologists on…distinguishing as well as ranking the races of the world on the basis of cephalic, facial, and chromatic indexes had the predictable effect of relegating Negroes, Chinese, Indians, and other non-Caucasians to the lower limbs of the proverbial tree of human civilizations. Given the amount of prejudice in England and Scotland against the Irish…it is hardly surprising that Celtic Irishmen should have found themselves occupying a branch which was closer in some respects to the Negro limb than the the Anglo-Saxon crown of that tree. (Curtis 21)

Thus, the Irish were considered biologically closer to African ethnic groups because the inhabitants of Great Britain saw them as intrinsically lower, just like they saw other “non-Caucasians”, and not because the Irish actually possessed similar physical characteristics to African populations. After all, Celtic nations such as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales produce the vast majority of the world’s redheads; Ireland leads the way with 10% of its population being redheads, while Scotland’s population is only 5-6% ginger (Smith 2017). This fact alone demonstrates that the Irish have as strong a proclivity for fair hair and skin as the British, Scottish, and Welsh.

Although the Irish demonstrate a variety of physical attributes, as most ethnic groups do, it is not scientifically sound or even believable to compare the appearance of the Irish to Africans, as Dr. John Beddoe did in his “Index of Nigrescence.” Beddoe’s index “was a carefully contrived formula for measuring the ratio of black, brown and red, as well as fair-haired persons in any given region,” which found that “the Celtic portions of the population in Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland were considerably darker…than those descended from Saxon and Scandinavian forebears” ( Curtis 20). These results ascribed fairer skin and hair to the upper classes of the British Isles, which necessarily descended from the same stock which produced the English. However, H. Winlow of Bath Spa University remarks that “[t]he division of the population on the basis of hair and eye color was an artificial construct. Other formulas could be, and were, used to produce widely varying results, depending on the values given to each characteristic” (Winlow 8). British cartoonists thus needed to alter the appearance of Irishmen to fit into their preconceived notions, and the medium of cartoon/caricature provided the perfect means to accomplish this.

Sir John Tenniel, senior cartoonist for Punch from 1864-1901, Judy‘s principal cartoonists John Proctor (1867-1880), and later William Boucher, were just some of the cartoonists responsible for propagating the caricatured simian stereotype of Irishmen in the new weekly penny comics (Curtis 26). Tenniel’s “The Fenian Pest” is a perfect example of Victorian Irish caricature:


In this image, Great Britain as embodied by the Roman-esque figure of Brittania stands stalwart against a mob Irish Fenians, while Hibernia, the classical personification of Ireland, clutches her arm for protection. Fenians were a 19th century revolutionary organization among the Irish and Irish diaspora, devoted to establishing an independent Irish Republic. Tenniel renders the central Fenian in the manner typical of his Irish caricatures: he has a broad, short nose; huge, slack jaw; and a frenzied expression. His anger and ferocity are palpable. Brittania and Hibernia stand in stark opposition to this sinister, hulking character. Tenniel depicts the two women in classical fashion, adopting the Ancient Greek and Roman style. Brittania even wears a military helmet, asserting her role as the protectress of Ireland. Through connecting Brittania and Hibernia to classical antiquity, Tenniel gives Great Britain and Ireland legitimacy as situated in the ancient and “cultured” classical past, a past in which the Roman Empire battled and attempted to subjugate the Celts with varying levels of success.

Although it initially seems peculiar to portray Ireland as the “chaste” figure of Hibernia (Curtis 25), since Tenniel is trying to characterize the Irish as diametrically opposed to British values, the maneuver makes sense upon closer inspection. In order to establish the validity of Irish colonial rule, Tenniel represents Ireland as a beautiful, innocent maiden subjugated by brutal inhabitants, from whom Ireland must be rescued. Great Britain postures itself as Ireland’s savior, preserving the land and “civilizing” its people. The Irish caricature compounds this narrative, as it offers a visual representation of who exactly is putting Ireland at risk. The simian features of the Fenian also serve as a justification for British imperialism. Who could sensibly trust a people who look and act like beasts to govern?

The Jim Crow era began in 1877, and thus Jim Crow and Victorian Irish caricature occurred at the same time, although derogatory depictions of African Americans in media had existed for decades previously. This 1866 political campaign advertisement illustrates typical Jim Crow era caricature, although it predates the Jim Crow era by a decade:


Hiester Clymer, the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, used this poster to attack the policies of James White Geary, his Republican opponent. Geary supported African American suffrage. The figure on the right, representing the “White Man,” embodies features similar to those of Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo: he possesses a strong chin, chiseled jaw, straight nose, and emotionless countenance. The figure on the left, representing the “Negro,” could not be more different: he has a receding chin; bulbous nose; large, drooping mouth; and a silly expression. These simian features are similar to those ascribed to depictions of the Irish in British cartoons, and they serve a similar purpose. Clymer’s “White Man,” like Tenniel’s Britannia and Hibernia, gestures to the classical past and thus imputes the qualities of civilization and law to the “White Man” and white Americans who happen to examine the poster. By portraying African Americans as unintelligent and animalistic, Clymer and others justify their racism and their belief that white men should dominate government and society in general.

Instead of portraying the African American as fierce in this image, as the Fenian appeared in “The Fenian Pest,” Clymer renders the African American as unintelligent. This difference in technique produces the same result; it makes the African American appear unintelligent, lacking the ingenuity of humankind, just as the Fenian’s ferocity ascribes an animalistic lack of control to the Irishman. When passersby look at this poster, they are forced to reckon whether one lacking in human intelligence should morally be allowed to participate in government, prompting the same kinds of questions Tenniel’s caricatures provoked. Jim Crow era caricatures and Victorian Irish caricatures legitimize the dominant party’s misuse of power by other-ing their respective victims and striking fear into the hearts of the masses.

Today, remnants of Victorian Irish and Jim Crow era caricature persist, as Mark Knight’s offensive cartoon illustrates. Although I do compare the depictions of the Irish and African Americans in art during this period, I do not equate their situations. African Americans and the Irish underwent unique persecutions and struggles, at the hands of two very different nations; it would be irresponsible to assert that the two groups shared the same experience, or the same severity of treatment. The study of these caricatures indicate more about those who created them, not the subjects themselves. Both Great Britain and the United States used the medium of cartoon to demonize what they considered “other” and justify their oppression. Although it is detestable that some still participate in this form of caricature today, one can rest assured that now, unlike then,  the public will greet insensitive caricatures with righteous indignation.


Cavna, Michael. “Cartoon of Serena Williams Condemned as Racist.” The Mercury News,    The Mercury News, 12 Sept. 2018,          artists-cartoon-of-serena-williams-cartoon-swiftly-condemned-as-racist/.
Curtis, L. Perry. Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature. Smithsonian            Institution Press, 1997.
Origin of Jim Crow.
Smith, Oliver. “Mapped: Which Countries Have the Most Redheads?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 12 Jan. 2017,                        graphics/country-with-the-most-redheads-gingers/.
“The Fenian-Pest.” 1896: Trusts and Anti-Trust,                                                                    
Winlow, H. Mapping Race and Ethnicity. Elsevier Ltd., 2009,                                                                          Ethnicity.pdf.


  1. This post so interestingly tied Curtis’ Apes and Angels reading together with recent and historical instances of racist cartoon imagery. Your post reiterated that these images convey the fear of those producing the image of a racialized ‘others’ disrupting their power. Knight’s cartoon of Williams operates similarly from fear — what could be more frightening in the case of the cartoon of Williams, than a woman at the top of her field calling out the systemic sexism of a powerful organization? Your provide a striking comparison of the Fenian cartoons to Hiester Clymer’s use of racist cartoons to take down his political opponent, James White Geary, a supporter of African American suffrage,in an 1866 campaign advertisement.

    The parties creating the cartoons expose the danger of the “other” through the use of derisive, racist imagery. To sublimate any threat to the established order, these cartoons dehumanize their subjects. You reference that artists achieved dehumanization by depicting the target of their caricature as incapable of self-governance by different means: images of the Irish are depicted as simian-like, fearsome and wild, while the “Jim Crow era caricature” presents African Americans as “unintelligent, lacking the ingenuity of humankind.” The oppressive force uses these characterizations as justification for their control.

    It is not enough, however, for these cartoons to dehumanize the enemy, they simultaneously need to elevate the rightful authorities. The use of images associated with classical antiquity to characterize the ‘civilized savior’ figure was interesting to me. As you mention in your post, both historical cartoons associate “the classical past” to a notion of civilization. In Tenniel’s “Fenian Pest” cartoon, the “civilizing” force of Great Britain depicts itself as Britannia. As you write, the evocation of classical antiquity telegraphs a historical right for Britain to rule over Ireland as it connects Britain to the Roman Empire and its track record of domination. The image of whiteness in the Clymer “White Man” cartoon uses classical features similar to Michelangelo’s David, to use your example. Just as the creators of the cartoons separate their targets from humanity, so too do they separate the ‘heroes’ of the image from human images. In the case of Great Britain as Britannia or the Clymer’s “White Man,” the artist uses idealized images, an art historical Classical ideal of features. The insidious matching of external appearance to a perception of internal qualities goes both ways. Knight also uses an idealized image of beauty in the form of the victimized player opposite Williams in his cartoon. The image of the thin, blonde tennis (sexualized to look like a Barbie), player may not draw upon a classical ideal, but a more updated social notion of beauty. Also of note is that in the actual match Williams’ opponent was Naomi Osaka, who is Japanese. Knight goes to lengths to recreate the match but substitutes Osaka with this fictitious player. The narrative Knight constructs in the cartoon is that the victim of Williams’ tantrum needs to be a Hibernia-like image of notion of feminine, white, beauty. This is another layer to how these racist cartoons need to balance their depictions of the monstrous “other” with the rightful holder of order and supremacy.

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