Fiji before Civilization … Dawn of Civilization … Advance of Civilization … Glorious Result of Civilization
[Crystal Palace, London : Machinery Department, c.1879]. Cotton handkerchief, 570 x 580 mm, lithograph printed in brown and red; old fold lines and some insignificant toning and spotting; a very well preserved example.
These satirical cotton handkerchiefs lampooning the effects of the introduction of Western civilisation into a “primitive” society in the South Seas were printed in colour in the machinery department of Crystal Palace in 1879 and sold as novelty souvenirs to visitors. Other examples are known which have a panoramic view of the Crystal Palace as the central image.
“A number of printing presses were in operation in the machinery department, striking off impressions of newspapers, and novelty items such as the present handkerchief, which no doubt belonged to a visitor who paid for the privilege to have his own printed souvenir, and witness at first hand the advances in printing on display.” (Yale Center for British Art, catalogue entry for a handkerchief with a variant motif).
The Fiji Islands had become a British crown colony in October 1874, and at each corner of the handkerchief is a stylised Union Jack. The friezes of humorous illustrations along each of the four sides represent the four different stages of the “civilising” process: ‘Fiji before Civilization’ is dominated by a terrifying horned cannibal giant rising from the sea and devouring humans; ‘Dawn of Civilization’ depicts Britannia dispensing articles of Western clothing, utilitarian objects and books; ‘Advance of Civilization’ shows the natives competing to own all of the newly available apparel and accessories, such as top hats and umbrellas; and ‘Glorious Result of Civilization’ presents a parade of outlandishly dressed native dandies, a little match-seller and a child pickpocket – stereotypes imported straight from the streets of nineteenth century London. Although it has been suggested that the design and printing of these “Fiji” handkerchiefs was sponsored by a missionary society, we believe this not to be the case: the illustrations and humour are far too impious, and aside from the cannibal’s Satanic horns, there is no religious iconography, nor any chapel, Bible or depiction of the destruction of native idols to be seen. The illustrations are purely satirical, and would in no way have helped to promote the work of a missionary society.