It took the British, with their sophisticated, droll sense of humor to find anything funny about the outbreak of the American Civil War. Yet more than anyone else, Great Britain legitimately could take a small degree of pleasure in Spring 1861 at the mounting misery of their former North American colonies. The Americans had fought them to a costly standstill in two wars, and even in peace never missed an opportunity to twist the lion’s tail. So from the British perspective in the early 1860s, the Americans had it coming.
So it is not surprising that in its May 18, 1861 issue the British satirical magazine, Punch, decided to make fun at the Americans and their civil war. Yet in doing so, and likely intentionally, they provided a bit of perceptive insight about the relationship between the nascent conflict and slavery. The medium of their jab was a cartoon entitled, “‘Caesar Imperator!” or, The American Gladiators” (see the illustration immediately below).
On the left side is a gladiator obviously representing the North, and the southern gladiator on the right bears more than a passing resemblance to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But of greatest interest to Civil War Emancipation is the audience in the cartoon, peopled exclusively by African Americans, presumably slaves. The symbolism of their presence is multifaceted. No doubt, the cartoon’s artist was poking fun at assertions then being made on both sides that the conflict was not about slavery, by having the slaves looming over the gladiatorial combat. The artist clearly suggests the slaves are at the heart of the conflict given their great interest in its result. But that is not the end of the symbolism. One particular slave is seated up high on a throne of cotton bales, much like the emperor once presided over the Roman Coliseum. The artist seems to be suggesting that the slaves held the balance of power in the American Civil War, much as the Roman emperor once could decide the outcome of gladiators’ battles. Hence, Punch seems to be saying that although they were spectators to the developing conflict in Spring 1861, that sooner or later American slaves would decide the war’s outcome. Pretty cheeky but very insightful for Spring 1861–but sometimes it takes an insightful outsider to penetrate camouflaged motives and reveal a truth that insiders for a variety of reasons are not ready to admit. Truly, “‘Caesar Imperator!” or, The American Gladiators” is a picture worth more than a thousand words, as the slave themselves soon would start to demonstrate.