Not Amused

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That’s not a misprint – but, as we shall see, it is certainly a pun.

Dum Dum in Bengal was the site of a British Indian Army arsenal whose superintendent, in 1896, developed the soft-pointed ‘dum dum’ bullet, which expanded inside the human body on impact, and so gave rifle-fire more ‘stopping power’. Internationally, they were widely condemned as a barbarous weapon; even the British initially restricted them to use against non-white colonial enemies, then considered to be nothing but worthless ‘fuzzie-wuzzies’. Eventually they were banned by the Hague Convention of 1899, in the face of dissent from both Britain and the USA. Britain did eventually ratify the prohibition (the US did not), but that set the country up for trouble later in the year when the Boer War broke out and rumors began to circulate that the army had been issued with dum dums, to be used for the first time against a European enemy, the Dutch Boers of the South African Republic. And that brings us to the controversial cartoon from which a detail appears at the head of the article.

It was published on the front cover of the French satirical paper La Caricature, and quickly provoked an extreme reaction: it was said to be ‘indecent’, ‘grossly obscene’, ‘an illustrated abomination’. ‘It is impossible even to hint in decent language at its more revolting details,’ declared the Pall Mall Gazette in London. And that wasn’t simply because of the nudity. Look who’s in the cartoon – and in particular, who’s being spanked!

Giving: the Boer leader President Paul Kruger. Receiving: Queen Victoria!

(The caption reads, in French, ‘And to think she calls herself Victoria!’)

Queen Victoria

The Queen-Empress was unpopular in France at the time, partly because she had recently decided to cancel her customary spring visit to the Riviera and go to Italy instead next year, and partly just because French public opinion was more on the side of the Boers. Several other insulting caricatures of her had appeared in the French ‘yellow press’ that fall, but this one was so far beyond the pale that the British Embassy immediately lodged an official protest and the authorities felt they had no choice but to take action.

The magazine caused a sensation when it appeared on Parisian newsstands on the morning of November 25: men gawped and women blushed. By the end of the day, the police had seized the copies and what would have cost you 40 centimes at 9 a.m. was, by dusk, retailing for 10 francs on the black market. Moreover, orders were given for the printer’s plates to be destroyed, but that didn’t stop the repercussions and scandal.

Four days later, on November 29, the British Cabinet minister Joseph Chamberlain alluded to the affair in a speech, with a bombastic hint that Britain would be going to war with France once the Boers were defeated. In December, an Irish soldier named Captain O’Neill Murphy challenged the editor of La Caricature, M. Marcel, to a duel and shot him in the shoulder; he received the thanks of a grateful Prince of Wales for so chivalrously defending his mother. The Prince also canceled his plans to open the Paris Exhibition the following May.

The scandal caused significant problems for one exiled Frenchman, too. Philippe, Duke of Orleans, was a claimant to the French throne whose lifetime (1869-1926) was almost entirely during the Third Republic, making it impossible for him to be resident in France; in 1899, he was living in England. But after he injudiciously wrote a letter of congratulation to the artist, and it became public, he was blackballed by his London clubs and ultimately had to find a new adoptive home in Belgium.

One contributory factor in his downfall may have been the fact that he stupidly sent his compliments to Adolphe Willette, the celebrated cartoonist, even though both the heading and the signature clearly identify the artist as Crispim do Amaral (1858-1911). Though he was then resident in Paris, Amaral was Brazilian, so his first language was Portuguese, in which a colloquial term for the bottom is bumbum – hence the punning ‘dum dum’ on Her Majesty’s bumbum.

Amaral and the injured Marcel eventually appeared in court on January 10, 1900, to answer charges of offending public decency. The prosecution obviously thought it was itself being jolly decent in asking that the tribunal should not punish them too severely. The tribunal thought otherwise: it ruled that political satire did not come under the scope of the decency laws and awarded an acquittal. Balked at law, the government then deployed an alternative reprisal and had Amaral deported.

There was also a grimmer sequel. On November 28, three days after the cartoon was published and suppressed, the war saw the toughest engagement so far, the Battle of Modder River. The British were defeated with heavy casualties (444 killed or wounded, as against 75 on the Boer side), and the propaganda afterwards featured claim and counter-claim that each side had been armed with the illegal dum dums. In Amsterdam, a picture postcard was issued purporting to depict the battle:

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The Anglo-French efforts to censor the cartoon into oblivion evidently didn’t succeed!

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