Racist caricature in a children's alphabet book: 'Z is for Zouave'


The ‘King’ who was militarily defeated was Kofi Karikari – known as ‘King Coffee’ by the British’ – ruler of the Ashanti. ‘State gingham’ is probably a reference to Kente cloth, a type of fabric made of interwoven silk and cotton strips. Associated with power and wealth in parts of West Africa, it was the traditional garment worn by Ashanti royalty. The text is making an unflattering comparison between Kente cloth and the much cheaper striped and checked gingham.

The independence of Ashanti was ended in February 1874 by a British expeditionary force that included 2nd West India Regiment soldiers. Some of the items seized were auctioned back in Britain, leading to their acquisition by the Victoria & Albert Museum (which had been founded in 1852) in South Kensington, London. Here, they could be viewed by members of the British public. Many items taken from the Ashanti capital of Kumasi (in present-day Ghana), especially items made of gold, are still held in the Museum today.

While the text that accompanies the image compliments the soldiers of the 2nd West India Regiment for their actions during the 1873–74 Anglo-Ashanti War, the visual image is quite different. The huge, baggy pants and the thin, stick-like legs make the two figures look ridiculous, while the portrayal of the main soldier’s face indicates that this is a racist caricature. That the image comes from a book for British children just shows how common these kinds of views were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The complete text (only partially pictured) reads: 

Z, the Zouave costume with its colours so bright
Which bold Negro Infantry sport with delight. 
In this style were dressed 
The bold Second West, 
Who fought on the Gold Coast so well with the rest,
Where King Coffee Calcali came off second best, 
And lost his state gingham, which now, by the way, 
Can be seen at South Kensington any fine day, 
Where the Great Unwashed stare at it just as they please, 
Or sit 'neath its shadow and eat bread and cheese; 
Which shows us how vain is the glory of kings 
And the pomp of umbrellas and similar things.

Full title:
Racist caricature (c. 1900) of West India Regiment soldier in Zouave uniform for a children’s book of the alphabet
c. 1900
Image / Illustration / Children's book
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