Reverse Ethnology in Punch

Jane Goodall


The craze for natural history in the Victorian era was accompanied by widespread interest in questions about the status of human beings as a species amongst others. Punch, which began publication in 1841, introduced the species question as an essential component of its comic philosophy and directed its satirical antennae towards intellectual movements and associations that purported to specialise in this question. One of these was the Ethnological Society of London, founded in 1843 with the declared purpose of 'inquiring into the distinguishing characteristics, physical and moral, of the varieties of Mankind.’

Through the editorial persona of Mr.Punch the showman, early issues of the magazine made a target of English habits, fashions and customs in ways that directly parodied the earnest analytical approach of ethnologists towards supposedly inferior races from remote parts of the globe. At the same time, the writers and illustrators of Punch were concerned with the wider cultural implications of racial taxonomy as it might apply within the social worlds of London. In this insistence on the reversibility of ethnological scrutiny, their provocations foreshadow the kinds of critique we now associate with post-colonial perspectives.

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