Daily Archives: January 22, 2013

Teaching with Tentacles

I’m back at school for the Spring semester with the typical four-course teaching load, including a modern world history course that I have not taught for some time. So it is time to refresh my arsenal of Powerpoint presentations and maps. An interesting map can quickly catch a college student’s attention as easily as it does a blog reader, and after perusing my various digital collections a bit, I realized that I might be able to teach world history almost exclusively through octopus maps! Or at least nineteenth- and twentieth-century history: the creature does not seem to have been used as a metaphorical device before 1870. I searched in vain for a map or caricature depicting Napoleon as an octopus but could not find one, which is incredulous:  few rulers deserve an octopus map to represent their regimes more than the little Corsican!  There’s nothing too terribly original about this post: octopus maps have captured the attention of several bloggers before me (also see here), but I can’t resist putting my own take out there.

1870 marks a turning point in European and world history with the unification of Germany (as well as Italy):  Europe was now “filled out” and further territorial ambitions could only be satisfied by global imperialism and/or war.  The maps from this time forward reflect this jingoism and fear, but anthropomorphic satire dulls the edge. One of the first major octopus maps, Fred Rose’s “Serio-Comic War Map For The Year 1877″ shows Russia as the octopus-aggressor rather than Germany, even though the Crimean War had revealed the severe weaknesses of the Russian Empire (this is reflected on the map below by wound on one of the octopus’ tentacles–that which is located in the proximity of the Crimea). From the British perspective that this map represents, it’s a bit early to portray Germany as the aggressor, and so Russia becomes either the ferocious bear or the reaching octopus.

Octopus Map 1877

F.W. Rose, “A Serio-Comic Map of the Year 1877″, London:  G.W. Bacon & Co., British Library; (an earlier Dutch map at the University of Amsterdam upon which this map is based is identical except for the wounded tentacle).

A later Rose map, even more obviously depicting the British perspective, is “John Bull and his Friends” from 1900 in which John Bull (Great Britain) faces a continent full of hostile, disinterested, or preoccupied “friends” and an even more threatening octopus-Russia, reaching out in all directions. On the eve of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), a Japanese take on the Serio-Comic map shifts the focus decidedly eastward and portrays Russia as the “black octopus”. And for a completely contrary view, a Japanese print self-identifies with the octopus after the war commenced with the Battle of Port Arthur.

Octopus Map 1900

japan propaganda map 1904

Octopus Japan 1904 Port Arthur

F.W. Rose, “John Bull and his Friends:  a Serio-Comic Map of Europe”, London: G.W. Bacon & Co., 1900; K. Ohara, “A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas of Europe and Asia”, 1904; “Tako no asirai”, The Japanese Octopus of Port Arthur, 1904,  Library of Congress.

In addition to aggression and domination, whether threatened or realized, the octopus is just the perfect symbol, visual metaphor, avatar of imperialism, and the period between 1870 and 1914 was the golden age of the “new” imperialism, in which Europeans divided up the world, eager to get their piece before Britain gobbled it all up. Consequently there are probably more images portraying John Bull as the octopus rather than John Bull confronting the octopus, like this famous American cartoon, which was published in Punch in 1882.

Devilfish map

Anonymous American cartoon, “The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters”, 1882:  John Bull makes a grab for Egypt, initiating the “Scramble for Africa”.

The octopus was not just used externally to criticize an opposing or competitive nation’s policies but also internally on a partisan basis, particularly in America and Britain. This particular sea creature can symbolize greed just as well as territorial expansion, and this was a gilded age as well as an age of imperialism. Consequently we see octopuses portraying greedy capitalistic monopolists  and associated special interests, on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, Puck magazine illustrator Udo Keppler used the octopus to characterize Standard Oil in 1904 and President Wilson’s fight for “business freedom” a decade later, while in Britain its use was more literally land-based:  as a Socialist critique of urban “landlordism” around London just prior to World War I, and to depict urban sprawl from a traditional planning perspective.

Octopus Keppler Puck 1904

Octopus Keppler Puck 1914

Octopus Landlordism

Octopus and England 1928

Udo Keppler octopus illustrations for Puck magazine, 1904 & 1914, Library of Congress; W. B. Northrup’s “Landlordism” postcard and book cover of Clough Williams-Ellis’s England and the Octopus (1928), British Library.

As the octopus was a well-recognized symbol of aggression by the time that World War I broke out, it was only natural that it would appear on several anti-Germany maps.  The English and French maps below, from 1915 and 1917 respectively, both single out Prussian aggression, an indication that the militaristic reputation of the new Germany’s northernmost region was still relevant, and the second one (“war is the national industry of Prussia”) is explicitly racist, with its German “hun” looming very large indeed.

Octopus Map 1915 University of Toronto

Octopus Map French 1917

The “Prussian Octopus” (1915; University of Toronto) and “La Guerre est l’industrie Nationale de la Prusse” (1917; Library of Congress).

There’s an easy transition to the propaganda maps of World War II,when both sides used octopuses to put forward their points of view. Hitler is obviously an easy octopus, as the title and cover of a prescient book published by a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly  in 1938–just before the Germans moved into Czechoslovakia–boldly asserted.  Henry C. Wolfe was trying to wake up the west and he used the octopus to do it.

Octopus German Wolfe

Once the war began, the very clever German propaganda machine issued an anti-British poster from the perspective of France, which they had occupied:  Winston Churchill as octopus reaches out toward French colonial possessions in Africa and the Middle East, echoing the imperial competition of the later nineteenth century. The bleeding tentacles–the amputations– indicate that Germany is preventing an English takeover of the French empire, even as it occupies France itself!

Octopus Map Churchill 1942 Vichy France

“Have Faith”: German anti-British propaganda poster, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

As you can imagine, when the real war is over and the Cold War commences, the octopus continues to flourish as a symbol of rampant (anti-American) capitalism and rampant (anti-Soviet) communism, as well as rampant consumerism, evangelical Christianity and Islam, and a host of other perceived threats. However, cephapodal cartography is not subtle, and I think it lost much of its resonance in the later twentieth-century world, after the very literal 1950s.

Octopus Red 1950

British Economic League anti-Communist pamphlet, Archives of the Trades Union Congress and Warwick University Cold War Archive.

Now octopuses are rather whimsical, rather than threatening. I superimposed one on a cropped frame of a beautiful 1771 map of Salem and its vicinity and found it charming rather than ominous:  what would they have been afraid of then?  Definitely redcoats and tax collectors.  What are we afraid of now?

Map of Salem enlarged


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