Geopolitical Cartoons: President Lincoln and Reconstruction (1865)

This week’s geopolitical cartoon features President Abraham Lincoln (16th President of the United States) and his second-term Vice President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s first Vice was Hannibal Hamlin). The cartoon shows the two friends (referring to each other as Andy and Uncle Abe) attempting to mend a “tear” in the United States with sewing string. Vice President Johnson is showing perched on top of the globe and sewing the rift that runs from Florida through Georgia, through Tennessee (Vice President Johnson’s home state), and to Ohio. I’m not entirely sure what President Lincoln is supposed to be doing (and that’s probably part of the satire), but it appears he might be attempting to balance the globe so that the Vice President can “mend the Union.” The caption reads “The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union”. Vice President Johnson tells President Lincoln, “Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever!!” President Lincoln replies, “A few more stitches Andy and the goold old Union will be mended!” Perhaps he’s removing the rail, quietly, from underneath the globe.

The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union, 1865 (via

First, how do we know its 1865? Well, wikipedia seems to think so. But the characters, their familiarity with each other, and the fact that they’re trying to “mend the Union” all indicates that the Civil War between the northern states and the southern states (1861-1865). Further, Johnson, a Tennessean, watched as Tennessee voted to secede during the Civil War, he fled and remained the state’s senator during the Civil War. The wikipedia article notes that Johnson advised the future President of the Confederate States of America (Senator Jefferson Davis) that if southern senators remained in the Senate (rather than quit, as they threatened to do if their states seceded) their Democratic majority could prevent any infringement upon their perceived states’ rights by President Lincoln (then in his first term). Thus, a southern unionist Senator Johnson was not necessarily pro-Lincoln.

The next interesting tidbit is calling President Lincoln a “rail splitter.” At first, I thought it was a play on his apparent nickname as the “Rail Candidate” during the 1860 Presidential nomination campaign. According to the President’s wikipedia page, his supporters “embellished” stories of his frontier days with his father. The splitter, I had assumed, was due to his perception of having split the union after he won the Presidency. Evidently not, my urban bias didn’t play out in my favor this time! According to a variety of websites, rail splitting is a skill in which one uses an axe, sledgehammer, and wedges to split a log. The “rails” are then used for fencing, this particular author notes that he was able to split a 12-foot log into four rails in 60 seconds.

The Rail Candidate, 1860 (via wikipedia, if it fails to load click here, its big!)

This last picture drives home the perception of some journalists of Lincoln’s supporters claiming him to be a hardy frontiersman. Published in 1860, clearly visible this time, it shows future President Lincoln straddling a rail held aloft by an African-American (who were slaves at the time) and a Lincoln/Republic party supporter. The rail is inscribed “Republican Plat-form”, satirizing the Republican parties focus on the slavery issue and on President Lincoln’s frontiersman credentials. While the African-American is saying something we today would consider wildly inappropriate and racist, it was common-place in the 1860s. Moreover, the sentiment that the slave is carrying President Lincoln on “nothing but [this here] rail” makes wonder if it was some foreshadowing? After the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began, President Lincoln that the U.S. Federal government would have a strong role to play in the education and economic empowerment of the “freedmen” as the freed slaves were called. The compromise result was the Freedmen’s Bureau. Finally, the party supporter’s sentiment that by proving Lincoln’s frontier credentials will ensure him the Presidency strikes a little to close to home.

Though taken after he re-won the Presidency the below picture of President Obama is a bit like the “Rail Candidate.” Perhaps, the “Shotgun President”? But, more seriously, the image of the “frontiersman” is quite clearly still a driving force in American political culture.

The “Shotgun President”, Feb 2013 (via americanglob,


Geopolitical Cartoons: China under Imperialism (early 1900s)

A couple of weeks ago I discussed a geopolitical cartoon of Korea under imperial control of Japan, this week I return to the theme of imperialism with a pair of cartoons (via imperialism-by-brady) on the imperial domination of China in the closing years of the 19th century, that is the late 1800s.

Imperial powers ready to fight a sleeping China, ca. 1900 (via imperialism-by-brady)

The cartoon above is my favorite of the two, in it the imperial powers are represented by common animals associated with the country. We have the American eagle, German vulture, British lion, Austro-Hungarian double-headed eagle, Italian wolf, Japanese leopard, French rooster, and Russian bear. Each is armed, or ready to fight with tooth or claw, and ready to attack a sleeping dragon, representing China. The use of the queue hairstyle on the Chinese dragon is telling for the time period of the cartoon. According to wikipedia, the queue came to predominantly Han (an ethnic group) China via the Qing dynasty of the Jurchen/Manchus in the mid-1600s. Although resisted by most Han the queue, later became a symbol of the Qing dynasty until 1911. It is likely that this cartoon was made around the time of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), as the imperial powers are getting ready to disturb and tussle with the Chinese dragon. Below is a photograph of the troops from most of the states (Russia isn’t shown) that took part in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion:

Alliance troops during Boxer Rebellion, ca. 1900 (via wikipedia)

Imperial powers divide China, ca. 1900 (via imperialism-by-brady)

The second cartoon shows the European and Japanese imperialists literally carving up a king cake representing China. The cartoon is from France, hence China is “Chine”. Rather than using animals commonly associated with the powers, the artist utilized current (at the time) rulers and human symbols. The United Kingdom is represented by Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II represents Germany, Czar Nicholas II represents Russia, “Marianne” is the emblem of France, and a samurai represents Japan. In the background a Qing official futilely tries to get their attention. One wonders if “Marianne” is actively participating in the division of China in the artist’s eyes. According to the wikipedia article, “Marianne” is an allegory for liberty and reason; while, the French government could certainly make a “reasonable” explanation for its imperial activities at the time (safeguarding French economic interests), but the lack of liberty enjoyed by the Chinese would be harder to explain (unless they thought they were saving the Chinese from themselves).

These geopolitical cartoons capture the breadth of foreign involvement in China’s internal affairs at the beginning of last century. The major powers from Europe, the United States, and Japan all sent troops to suppress the Boxer Rebellion and to safeguard their interests in China. What the second cartoon really shows is the inability of the Qing dynasty to protect its own territory and the power of the imperialists to enforce their will, despite Qing protestations. A potent symbol of the imperial era, the second cartoon hints at the eventual collapse of the Qing dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China. The fall of the Qing signified the end of dynastic rule in China, a system of government that had been established with the Xia dynasty around 2,000 BCE.

Geography as (Nationalist) Art

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking some time to visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (its mission is to be the leading voice for contemporary art and culture). Of course, cartography offers plenty of avenues for artistry within the field of Geography. Most recently, Map Monkey at random notes published a post entitled “Maps as Art, Art as Maps.” At Hirshhorn I accidentally stumbled (almost literally) onto geographic art. I had completely forgotten (or was it buried deep in my subconscious map?) that Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is still there. For those not in the known, Ai Weiwei is an artist formerly of the People’s Republic of China. I say “formerly” because sometime last year (or the year before?) he got in trouble with the PRC’s government, escaped house arrest, hid in the United States embassy, and then was brought to the U.S. (presumably as an aslyee). The exhibit is well worth the price of admission (there isn’t any) and all you have to do is get yourself there (easier for my D.C. readers). I did take some photographs of relevant discussion points for this blog post, and yes, my flash was off!

Generally, the exhibit focused around one of the more tired modern artist’s theme of sticking it to the State. There are a couple of amusing photos (which I didn’t take a picture of) showing Ai Weiwei (presumably) giving the bird/flipping off/sticking up his middle finger to the Summer Palace (at Tian’anmen Square) and the U.S. White House. Whether senior Chinese Communists actually live in that palace is another story, but I guess not since there’s a museum attached to it. I suppose there’s a definite safety consideration with finding the Chinese Communist equivalent to the White House and giving it the finger but still its a bit odd.

By way of introducing (what I’m going to call) Ai Weiwei’s nationalist geography, I offer you this quote from the exhibit: “I make the useful become not useful; these objects combine the practical with change and illusion. They open a perspective so that we can have an understanding of the material or an understanding of space. It is a basis for dealing with perception, and when you think about how people use an object, you’re also using so-called knowledge in the sense that “useful” has a meaning. The meaning is the use. And that plays a great role in human understanding and culture.” Here I’m mostly focused on the “understanding of space” as Ai Weiwei is showing us in his art, his perception in other words.

The first picture below introduces the medium. In “Kippe,” “Tieli wood (iron wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars).” In this we see Ai use dismantled temples as art, re-purposing Qing Dynasty spaces for a new artistic space. Using Tieli wood (from the Qing dynasty, the last great dynasty in China) is an important motif.

Kippe, 2006 (via Hirshhorn)

Kippe, 2006. (me, via Hirshhorn)

The second picture below is a “Map of China,” its rather tall and I had to stand on my tippity-toes to take this picture (hence why its at an angle). Its constructed from tieli wood. “The work can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a map of China, it can be understood as symbolizing the political unity of a country made up of many different cultural and historical factors. The monumental scale of the work suggests the long history of the Chinese nation.” Oh boy. First, there’s the island of Taiwan, off the east coast. Of course, that is where the Republic of China is located and which the People’s Republic continues to claim is simply a wayward province. Also present are the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Uighur Autonomous Region (both in the west). I’m not sure I believe “political unity,” under who’s policies? A poor choice of words to be sure, maybe social unity? But even that’s saying quite a bit, I’m not sure if the Uighurs and Tibetans feel socially unified. And then the caption let’s us know: THIS IS CHINA. The nation-state myth continues, and whoever wrote the placard bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Map of China, 2008. (via Hirshhorn)

Map of China, 2008. (me, via Hirshhorn)

The next picture is called “China Log,” again composed of tieli wood, this is the one that a gawking museum-goer (like myself) has the potential for falling over. Here again, Ai Weiwei shows us his perception of what constitutes China’s “space.” The island of Taiwan, Tibet, Uighurstan are all included. Its a bit harder to tell Ai’s potential stance on the disputed areas with India however (see next map). Based on the log, it looks like Ai doesn’t see believe in China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and administration over the Siachen glacier.

China Log, 2005 (me, via Hirshhorn)

China Log, 2005. (me, via Hirshhorn)

India, China Disputed Borders (via Asian Defense)

The last picture is political, but only from a domestic (that is internal China) standpoint. In “Straight” Ai used “rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan following the 2008 earthquake. The work serves as a reminder of the repercussions of the earthquake and expresses the artist’s concern over society’s ability to start afresh ‘almost as if nothing had happened.’ The orderly arrangement of rebar evokes a Minimalist artistic aesthetic, but the large divide in the piece is reminiscent of both a ground fissure and of a gulf between values. It is a massive, physical work, designed to remind audiences of the individuals in danger of being forgotten.” This was 38 tons of steel, laid out on the floor and this picture hardly does it justice. However, we can clearly see the fault in the ground, symbolizing the earthquake. The 2008 Sichuan disaster was a common theme at the exhibit and there was a lot more art that dealt with that tragedy. This is by far my favorite piece, it memorializes the sad tragedy by using pieces from the schools and sits in your mind as a gigantic map of an earthquake and the destruction it wrought. I wonder if this was one of the piece’s that got Ai in trouble with the government? Did the regime interpret it as critical of the response?

Straight, 2008-2012. (me, via Hirshhorn)

Straight, 2008-2012. (me, via Hirshhorn)

Today we critically examined four pieces of geographic art from Ai Weiwei. While there’s nothing wrong nationalism within art, understanding the artist’s potential perspective and biases are always worthwhile. To me, Ai Weiwei may take issue with the government in mainland China and disagree on certain points in its foreign policy, but the vision of a unified China, including Tibet, Uighurstan, and Taiwan, is plain to see.

Geopolitical Cartoons: Mali, France, uranium? (2013)

In this week’s geopolitical cartoon we’re (briefly) leaving the 20th century to take a look at the 21st. More specifically, today’s cartoon is an going issue of which Z Geography has written about previously (see category tag, Mali). The cartoon below reflects a cynical, but perhaps correct, view of France’s intervention in Mali. While some observers celebrate France’s intervention in the beleaguered state to be move to support the Bamako government against separatists and Islamists, the cartoon suggests that France has more selfish motives. In the cartoon, a frustrated militant Tuareg Islamist (or so we assume based on the AK-47 and tagelmust) is attempting to cross from Mali to neighboring Niger but is prevented from doing so by the stomping booted leg of the French military. The goal is a stash of uranium in Niger, implying that French military intervention is meant to prevent violent Islamists from gaining access to radioactive material.

French intervention in Mali, 2013 (via red phoenix)

Based on some cursory research there may be truth to this view. According to analysis at Global Research published late January, France announced that it would deploy its Special Forces to guard the Areva uranium mines near the towns of Arlit and Imouraren, in northern Niger (article calls this “imperialist expansion”). The towns are about to 200 miles from the, probably, porous border with Mali. While I can’t really comment on France’s neocolonial tendencies (ok, I could but this isn’t the space), a brief geologic survey of Niger notes that in 2005 Niger was one of the largest producers of uranium in the world. Further, “Niger’s main uranium resources are all contained in the sediments of the Tim Mersoi sub-basin…of the Iullemmeden basin,” shown in the map below (and taken from that report). Given the proximity of the mines to the Malian border, the likely porousness of that border, and France’s decision to deploy additional military personnel there – it would appear that the French government is at least concerned about the mines. Indeed there are a number of companies operating in this area of Niger mining uranium, as the popup map on this geologic consulting site attests, including the China National Nuclear Corporation, a subsidiary of Ivanhoe Resources (Canada), and other British and South African companies.

Simplified geologic map of Niger

Simplified geologic map of Niger

Despite this, one wonders if the Islamists’ objectives were the uranium mines to begin with, the border has been porous and the Nigerien state just as weak now as it was a decade ago and this is unlikely to change in the future. One could argue that if the violent Islamists sought mined uranium from Niger they would have already been able to acquire it. Ultimately, this continued concern with uranium mines can’t help but to remind me of the Nigerien yellow cake argument put forth by the Bush presidency over a decade ago…