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An allegory of the British Empire

Allegoria sull’impero Inglese (An allegory of the English Empire). Colour lithograph print, taken from an edition of 'Le perroquet', the French language supplement of the Italian satirical journal 'Il Papagallo'.
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This map was included as a centrefold in Il Papagallo, issue no. 50 in December 1878. Il Papagallo was a satirical magazine, initiated by cartoonist Augusto Grossi in Bologna, Italy, in 1873. The central pages always featured a colour lithograph, which was usually a satirical cartoon or map. The journal was very popular and obtained a wide circulation of up to 50,000 copies. A French version of the paper, Le Perroquet commenced in 1875 and a British version, The Parrot in 1878. It is possible that this provocative map was published in the centrefold of one of the first British versions of the paper, as it dates from 1878 and focuses on the British Empire. 

Grossi continued to draw and print this satirical paper for 42 years, until 1915 when Italy was drawn into the First World War. He died in 1919.

This map provides a non-Anglo perspective on the power of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, which encompassed Australia and its territories. Allegoria sull’impero Inglese (An allegory of the English Empire) is a fine example of persuasive cartography that adds to and complements the Library’s extensive map collection.

Allegoria sull’impero Inglese depicts the British Empire as a serpent with the head of a lion which is menacingly encircling the globe. It crushes people of different races in its mouth and body. Its tail holds the British flag and is planted in the Transvaal or South Africa. India and Turkey are darker colours on the map, perhaps because the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, ordered the British navy to enter the Dardanelles and sail to Constantinople to ward off a possible attack from Russia in January 1878. In March 1878, British-Indian troops are sent to Malta in anticipation of a war with Russia. 

The words at the base of the map translate as:

“The ghosts of Progress [represented by the devil] and Civilization [represented by the angel on the right] are turning the world. There are many who believe that England is a little beast, and we see that it is a great serpent.” 

The Italian classical poets – Virgil, Dante and Tasso – are in their burial shrouds and look on from the left. Prominent Italian politicians who were instrumental in the unification of Italy – Count Cavour, Adolphe Thiers, Giuseppe Mazzini and Victor Emmanuel II – look on with grave faces from the right. 

Maps used for propaganda became more common and popular throughout the late 19th century as loyalties and boundaries shifted in Europe.

The 1870s were a time of political change and empire building in Europe. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 resulted in the unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck. Italy finished a long period of Risorgimento (literally ‘revival’) in 1871 when the nation-states on the peninsula unified as the Kingdom of Italy with Rome as the capital. Italy agreed to revoke its neutral status and fight in WWI on the side of the Allies in exchange for additional territory to the north and east of Italy. While national borders were being re-drawn across Europe, the British Empire was expanding, and in the opinion of Grossi, crushing and consuming the world.

The Library purchased the map from the Altea Gallery, based in London, in 2017.

Alison Wishart, Curator, Research and Discovery

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