This unsigned print, published by S.W. Fores on October 8th 1799, has the dubious distinction of being one of the few surviving contemporary caricatures relating to Britain’s victory in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War.
The British fought a series of sporadic conflicts against the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore between the late 1760s and 1790s. The immediate causes of the wars differed, but at their heart lay a long-term struggle for supremacy over the coastal provinces of southeastern India and the wider geopolitical rivalry between Britain and France. The impetus for the fourth war came with Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt. This raised the possibility of a French descent on India through the Levant and in turn prompted the East India Company to launch a pre-emptive strike against the French-backed state of Mysore.
Three previous wars against Britain had already reduced Mysore to a shadow of its former self by 1798 and fourth war was concluded in short order. The British dispatched a force of 25,000 men from Madras to take the Mysorean capital at Seringatapatam in March 1799, the city was subjected to a month long siege in April and then finally stormed on the 4th May. Tipu Sultan, the Mysorean king whose fearsome reputation had already made him a household name in England, was killed leading his troops in the defence of the city and a British-back puppet was installed in his place.
The conventions of eighteenth-century warfare legitimated the plunder of a city in cases where the garrison had refused to surrender and the fall of Seringatapatam was duly followed by a 48 hour orgy of officially-licensed mayhem. The intensity of the violence reaching a crescendo when news of the discovery of British soldiers executed in cold blood by Tipu’s forces was circulated among the rampaging troops.
The print depicts a party of British soldiers who have broken into Tipu’s harm and who are poised on the verge of ravishing the dead king’s wives and mistresses. The image is dominated by the figures of a leering officer, who hoists a young concubine up in a pose reminiscent of Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina (1621-2). The man, whose face resembles that of a leering satyr, exclaims “Hurrah my Honey, now for the Black Joke” (contemporary slang for the female genitalia). His equally unappealing colleague kneels to right and rubs his hands in furtive contemplation at the distressed young woman before him. Mayhem erupts to the left as one courtesan apparently tries to throttle her attacker, while another British soldier assures his victim that he and his mate will “supply his [Tipu’s] place well” as he rips apart her clothing.
Sean Willcock uses this print as an example of domestic opposition to British imperialism in India; arguing that it aims to debunk the paternalist view of empire that was often presented in officially-commissioned art and present the conquest of Mysore as the replacement of one brutal patriarchy with another. This may be so but I still find this caricature makes for uncomfortable viewing, not least because it hovers ambiguously between condemnation and titillation. With the exception of the two courtesans located on either side of the foreground, none of the women appear particularly phased by their predicament. Some of the figures in the background are even shown smiling and embracing their attackers. The copious amounts of flesh on display also make one wonder whether the print was genuinely intended as an expression of anti-imperialist sentiment, or simply as a titillating distraction for the worldly Georgian gentleman? Vic Gatrell’s observation about the creative and commercial links between caricature and pornography in this period would certainly suggest that there is a case for the latter.
Although a number of authors have attributed this print to Rowlandson, the florid style of the engraving used on the text and the mixture of bold and light lettering indicates it is in fact the work of John Cawse. Cawse was one of a number of aspiring young artists to have cut their teeth in the satirical print trade of Georgian London. S.W. Fores drafted a number of such men into his stable of caricaturists during the late 1790s, following an apparent break with Isaac Cruikshank.