In January 1850, under the heading 'A Curious Contribution to the Great Exhibition of 1851,' a letter appeared in The Times from a Mr Issac Ironside. Ironside expressed concern that the British public was not generally acquainted 'with the discovery of a race of men, in the interior of Africa, having tails.' Citing the French explorer who had discovered these peoples, Ironside furnished readers with a description of one such:
His skin was black-bronzed and shining, and soft to the touch like velvet […]. His face was repulsively ugly; his mouth was enormous, his lips thick, his teeth strong, sharp and very white; his nose broad and flat, his ears long and deformed, his forehead low and very receding, his hair not very woolly or thick, but nevertheless curly. […] His tail was more than three inches long, and almost as flexible as that of a monkey.
Adding more than a little frisson to the portrait was the added information that this bestial race 'ate with delight raw flesh, as bloody as possible,' and that 'they loved human flesh above all things.' Ironside's object in 'introducing these facts' was to urge the French Government to exhibit a male and female of the species as part of their contribution to the Great Exhibition, the world's first display of international industry, to be housed in the purpose-built Crystal Palace. Ironside's request did not meet with a positive response. But the monkey man did not go away; other commentators also expected 'his' display, and visitors to the Crystal Palace may well have fancied - or feared - their chances of encountering such a cannibalistic creature that summer.
The interest aroused in this gruesomely barbaric 'race' typifies Victorian preoccupations with human difference. However, what is so significant about such interest is that it can be understood to run counter to the official story which the Crystal Palace sought to tell about the world and its inhabitants. The story, a version of which is currently being re-told by George Bush and Tony Blair, revolved around the conviction that all nations could be united in peace and progress through free trade capitalism.
That Ironside's request was not met was not surprising. Unlike the international expositions and world's fairs which followed the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace did not include provision for the display of supposedly 'primitive' peoples. That said, the monkey man phenomenon can be understood in terms of a far broader excitement which was prompted by the display. The build-up to the event saw many observers maintaining that London in 1851 would showcase humanity in all its different and, to the Victorian sensibility at least, disturbing forms. An illustration from one popular novel about the Great Exhibition, Henry Mayhew's 1851, depicted a globe crowned by the Crystal Palace and swarming with a mass of peoples making their way to the display. Beneath the picture was the caption 'All the World Going to See the Great Exhibition of 1851.' The inscription only told part of the story; the alien, exotic and distinctly non-white nature of the crowd reflected a Victorian desire to lay eyes upon such 'savage' peoples. The widespread notion that the Exhibition would furnish such an opportunity was reflected by the novel's prose, which eagerly anticipated the arrival of 'colourful guests' such as the curvaceous Hottentot Venus from South Africa, the South East Asian 'polished up like a boot', the Native American complete with hatchet and war-paint, and the New Zealand cannibal along with his dinner of baked missionary. However, at the same time as the (terrified) inhabitants of London were expecting the arrival of these guests, other commentators inspired by the Great Exhibition were holding forth upon 'the brotherhood of man,' and demanding that the peoples of the world constituted a single economic community.
There were other factors involved, but a prime reason for Britain becoming the world's first nation to host an international exhibition was that in 1846 it had declared itself the world's first nation to adopt free trade. Many Victorians felt that it was in everyone's interest that the rest of the world followed suit, overthrowing protectionist trade barriers and entering into genuinely global networks of exchange. Particularly given that transportation and communication developments such as the railway, steamship and electric telegraph allowed, in the popular phrase of the day, for the annihilation of space and time, it made perfect sense for the world to work together. And the prudence of this move towards free trade globalisation was something on which, according to Exhibition commentators, all peoples would agree.
In February 1850, a mere three weeks after it had published Ironside's account of flesh-eating monkey men, The Times congratulated the Exhibition's organisers for having realised that, when it came down to it, people were essentially the same the world over. It was, the paper proudly proclaimed, 'an idea as new as it was felicitous to consider all mankind as one, and to transform the metropolis of Britain into the hospitable rendezvous of the world.' The notion that humanity could be considered in terms of fundamental similitude was premised upon the conviction that a capitalist propensity to exchange was natural and common to all peoples and nations. This celebration of a capitalist consensus gentium, an idea held true by all peoples at all times, served as the foundation upon which the Victorians would announce a new world order. .
The logic behind this order ran thus: the notion that humanity, in all its various types, was constitutionally inclined to exchange was conflated with the idea that diverse peoples would exchange, which in turn led to the conviction that they would exchange, in mutually beneficial interactions, a body of goods which were relevant to their everyday lives.
In contrast to the xenophobic representations of foreigners which were being circulated at the time, Exhibition commentators would acclaim, in the words of one such, the capacity of a globalised economic system to unite in peace and harmony 'all the forms and figures, shades and colours of the human family,' from the Indian to the Greenlander
For a great body of Victorian observers then, the Great Exhibition's value lay in its capacity to co-ordinate the inauguration of globalisation. According to the idealised and reductive understanding of the world with which the Exhibition became associated, individual nations were better suited to fulfil particular industrial roles as a result of their peculiar climatic conditions and their differently talented populations. So whilst everyone was held to be essentially the same, in that they all wanted to trade, the fact they lived in different parts of the world meant that they trade to one another's mutual benefit. One way of understanding such an international division of labour was dreamt up by Punch in the build-up to the display. With the global scope of the event in mind, the satirical journal proposed to the Exhibition organisers that they put on show 'The Cookery of All Nations': India would serve up curry; Spain sent spicy stew; Russia offered caviar; Turkey gave her kebabs; France would send countless dishes; Italy forwarded cream; Ireland, Scotland, and Wales cooked stew, haggis and rabbit; whilst England presented roast beef to the world. It was a mouth-watering proposition, and one which perfectly encapsulated the vision of a world growing richer (and fatter) together through free trade interdependency. It was also a gross misrepresentation of the way in which industrial capitalist powers seized hold of global resources, shaping the world's productive powers in order that they met their own ends.
The story of capitalist globalisation which underpinned the Great Exhibition was essentially the same narrative that a whole host of international trade fairs throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries told about the world. But it is, nevertheless, just a story, albeit one which has lost none of its currency today. And it is a story which concealed two crucial characteristics of capitalism: first, that capitalism makes some people richer at the expense of others; second, that the spread of capitalism is not necessarily characterised by consensus, but often demands the exertion of power and the infliction of violence.
In 1851, it should not be forgotten, Britain stood out as the world's superpower, its manufacturing capacity unrivalled as a result of early industrialisation, and its naval supremacy furnishing relative control of the world's shipping routes. When the Victorians looked at the world in the mid-nineteenth century then, what they were looking for were places which would supply their manufacturers with raw materials at the same time as furnishing a market for their manufactured goods. Whilst it was nice to imagine that the peoples who inhabited these terrains were all incredibly interested in such trading relationships it was, in effect, beside the point whether they were or not. Writing on industrial capitalist expansion at the same time as the Great Exhibition was held, Karl Marx noted that the European powers which sucked economically and militarily weaker nations into unequal trading relationships did so 'on pain of extinction' (The Communist Manifesto ). It was not an idle threat.
In his recent book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), the historian and imperial apologist Niall Ferguson declares that imperialism was not just about 'racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.' It was also, he congratulates himself and the American neo-conservatives for whom he writes, about the 'triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organization'. But Ferguson is absolutely wrong to suggest this opposition between capitalism and racism. Britain made the world over in its own image to make itself richer and more powerful, not as some gesture of cosmopolitan philanthropy. As it did so it deployed racist ideology as a means of legitimising the exploitation, suffering and violence which accompanied its growth. Thus Britain's lack of effective intervention to aid Ireland's famine-starved population should not be detached from the racist stereotyping of the Irish of which many Victorians were so fond (despite Punch's polite request, it is unlikely that many of Ireland's decimated population were either able or inclined to send over Irish stew in 1851). And in the same way, those depictions of 'colourful' savages with which I have been concerned should not be separated off from the way in which Britain, through formal annexation or other coercive measures, forced non-Western terrains into an Anglocentric global economy which aimed to work in favour of the British metropolis and cared little for the fate of their inhabitants. Making the racist logic of this process abundantly and chillingly clear, an article from The Economist entitled 'Some Moral Aspects of the Great Exhibition' announced to its readers: 'When we have savages for our neighbours as in Caffreland [South Africa], we seem to have no other alternative than to keep them at bay or to exterminate them. They have nothing to give us in exchange for our commodities, and we can get nothing from them.' The 'moral' of the Great Exhibition, and Ferguson would do well to remember this, is that in making the modern world, Britain was led to exterminate many of its inhabitants.