Whittington and His Cat: The Encounter Between Cultures Illustrated

There’s no magic in the rags-to-riches story of  Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London, shown at the left at the height of his fame from a chapbook ca. 1808 published by T. Sabine and son (Cotsen 154124).  The orphan owes his fortune to a cat whose special power is the ability to slaughter enormous numbers of mice and rats in short order.  The scene, which realigns the boy’s stars, is set in a faraway land with there are no felines, but many of us probably don’t remember it is somewhere in the East. The history of its illustration is interesting for a twist that seems to have gone unnoticed.

Here’s a summary of the events leading up to the scene. Dick was a scullion employed by Mr. Fitzwarren, a wealthy merchant.  His life was made miserable by the tyrannical cook and the vermin overunning his attic room. With a penny received for an errand, he purchased a cat, who eradicated them  When Fitzwarren had a ship ready to depart to foreign lands, he always invited every member of the household to invest.  As capital, Dick put in  the cat, being his only piece of property (illustrated to the left from The famous and remarkable history of Sir Richard Whittingon (1656). The master’s ship was driven ashore on a part of the Barbary Coast where no Englishmen had landed.  The resident Moors received the British graciously and the King was so pleased by the goods he was shown that the captain and the factor were invited back to the palace.  A sumptuous feast was laid out, but no one could enjoy a bite because a torrent of rats and mice befouled and devoured everything.  The king vowed it would be worth half his treasury to control the beasts, so the factor had the brilliant idea of bringing Dick’s cat to the palace.   Puss was expecting kittens very soon, but in spite of her condition, she was so efficient that a  king’s ransom was given for her and her litter in order to decimate the country’s population of rats and mice.

How has this scene showing an exchange between two cultures, religions and races been depicted over time?  Given the outline of the story, it lends itself to dramatic treatment rather than cultural commentary and that is how it was presented in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chapbooks.  The first one comes from The famous and remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington (1656), the second from The Children in the Wood, to which is added The History of R. Whittington (London: Sabine and Son, ca. 1810) The one on top ignores the text and does not darken the King of Barbary’s skin–it’s his headware and slippers with the pointed toes that mark him as an exotic foreigner.  In the second cut, turbans capped with crowns and skin color distinguish the King and Queen from the European visitor, but all the figures have been cut in such a rudimentary fashion that it would be difficult to see in them reflections of actual attitudes towards the other.

Although smaller than the first two examples, these blocks from an early nineteenth provincial chapbook, Whittington and his Cat (Otley, York: W. Walker, ca. 1820: Cotsen 150398)  are by two hands.  But even the less accomplished of the two represents the European as more noble and civilized than his Black Moorish hosts, whose features look as if they have been gouged into the block.  Neither the king nor queen wear the flowing robes associated with Moors and it’s hard to say if they are supposed to wearing the native dress of a particular country or if they came out of the cutter’s imagination.

The hand-colored engraved frontispiece of The History of Whittington and his Cat (London: Orlando Hodgson, 1833: Cotsen 95990) above  transformed the King of Barbary into the Emperor of Morocco, who seems to be wearing vaguely Chinese finery and forsaken a turban.   What has precipitated this change?   Perhaps that this illustration was influenced by a popular stage production. While the publisher Hodgson, is best known for his satirical political prints, he also issued toy theaters, many of whose scripts were based on the best known contemporary plays, and versions of fairy tales not taken from the originals, but from the versions that held the stage for some time.

December 26th 1815, the pantomime Harlequin Whittington premiered at  Covent Garden Theater, praised by the European Magazine for the beautiful scenery and well-staged stunts, which included a balloon ascent and a final production number punctuated by fireworks.    In the cast was the beloved clown Joey Grimaldi who delivered the showstopping number, “All the World’s in Paris.”    There was no  Emperor of Morocco listed as a character in the early playbills I could access, but it may have been better for business to emphasize the spectacular effects and Grimaldi’s hit song.

But the subsequent history of Whittington on the stage suggests that the scene where the foreign king is astounded by a cat would continue to change. The folk tale quickly became established in the nineteenth century as among the most popular subjects for pantomime productions. While the Emperor of Morocco can be found in the programs’ dramatic personae, it is clear that the character no longer owed much to the traditional chapbook. Late in the Victorian period, the role was assigned to the First Boy,  a charming young actress whose legs could be shown to advantage by the costume designer (this drawing is reproduced from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum).  And a highly unscientific search for pictures of the Emperor in contemporary productions did not (unsurprisingly) turn up Black actors or white men in black face playing the part.

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