The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Voracious Albion" (1884)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Voracious Albion” (original: “La Vorace Albion”) was written by Albert Robida and first appeared in La Caricature no. 255 (Nov. 15, 1884). Robida (1848-1926) was a French illustrator and writer. Robida was popular and respected during his life, and critical esteem for him has grown since his death, as his predictions of the future, both in print and in his art, remain amusing, inventive, and occasionally surprisingly accurate.
There was a historical Nana Sahib. Dandhu Panth (1825?-1860?) was the adopted son of the last Maratha peshwa (prime minister). When the British deposed Panth’s father and did not give Panth a pension, Panth became embittered toward the British, and when the Indian Mutiny began in 1857 Panth assumed the leadership of the rebels at Cawnpore. During the siege of the British encampment at Cawnpore, Panth offered safe conduct to the British if they surrendered. When they did, the Indians attacked them, killing the men, women, and children. Panth’s forces suffered several defeats and in 1859 he was driven into the jungles of Nepal, where he is assumed to have perished.
"Voracious Albion” is the story of the collapse of the British Empire. The narrator begins by describing the history and character of the English, stressing that they were a people of the water and the sea. The narrator also says that the expression that England is one big factory is true; it is a factory for producing English, for “as soon as, in any corner of the Earth, something can be bought, sold, eaten, exploited, taken or indoctrinated, an Englishman could be found to buy, sell, eat, exploit, take or indoctrinate it.” In April 189- the power of England is at its peak. New English colonies are continually being founded, and England spares nothing to impede or prevent its European neighbors’ attempts at colonization. England gives rifles, cannons and torpedoes to those about to be colonized by the other European countries. Under the pretense of protecting China from the Russians and French England put garrisons in Peking, Nanking, and the other major cities and put cannons on the Great Wall. All adult Chinese were forced by law to consume four opium pipes a day. 600,000 sepoys and 300 Afghan cavalry regiments patrolled the borders of India, protecting it from Russia. “The Suez Canal was English and was closed on Sundays¼English vessels passed for free and foreigners paid double.” The British had conquered the European colonies of Central Africa with the help of “300,000 Zulus and Malagasy.” The English had flooded Papua with Maori and put a stop to “New Calédonie.”
But at this time Pasha Gordon, in Khartoum, is told by his Bedouin spies that four men, three presumed dead, have been seen in conference on the Red Sea coast: Nana Sahib; the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmed (1848-1885), the Sudanese Muslim leader who in the early 1880s led a revolt against the Egyptian and British governments occupying Sudan, and who took the city of Khartoum in January, 1885, killing Major General Charles “Chinese” Gordon; Colonel Ahmad Urabi (1839-1911), an Egyptian army officer who in 1882 led a nationalist revolt against the foreigners (primarily British and French) who controlled Egypt; and Cetewayo (1827?-1884), the Zulu chief who fought the British in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War and dealt the British one of their most devastating military defeats at the Battle of Isandhlwana. Gordon warns the Foreign Office, but Gladstone, newly created Lord Zanzibar, scoffs at the report. However, Gordon’s spies are correct. The four mortal enemies of England meet daily in Abyssinia along with Arab leaders, Hindu, Afghani, Baluchistani, Rajput, Chinese, Zulu, Papuan, and Maori chiefs. All of these men have disguised themselves as European merchants on business trips in order to attend the meeting. And all are animated by a hatred of the English. They had recognized that their previous tactics had failed, so they enrolled themselves in the best English military schools under names like “Smith, Gibbs, Snuffs and Patterson.” They graduated at the top of their classes. None of the professors recognized that “Smith” was Nana-Sahib, or that the “Gibbs” who created an advanced artillery shell was the Mahdi, or that Snuffs was the Egyptian Arabi or that Patterson was Cetewayo. Now together, they create a detailed and specific war plan.
Thanks to the blindness of Gladstone foreign auxiliaries are allowed to guard Britain and watch over British coastal fortifications. Then, suddenly, 20,000 troops from Scotland and Somerset are killed in four great explosions and the foreign troops in London rise up, slaughter their English officers, and raise a black flag over the city. Afghani and Maori troops throw bombs across the city. Efforts by the British government to summon the militia are useless, as there are none left in England. But Lord Gladstone, certain that the troops at Portsmouth can crush the rebellion, is too proud to summon the garrisons of Gibraltar, Malta, or Cyprus. However, on April 3, the day of the London uprising, the Mahdi wipes out English troops in the Sudan, there are uprisings in India and Zululand, there is an insurrection in the Congo, rumors spread about the return of Nana Sahib, the Mahdi, Cetewayo, and Arabi, and many warships flying the black flag are on their way to England. Thirty-one warships bombard the forts at Portsmouth. Telegraph cables are cut. And the Times of London prints a proclamation from the four leaders of the rebellion telling the English that England has for too long sucked the blood of other countries, and it is now England’s turn to perish.
The invasion of England begins. Tens of thousands of Asians and African land in England, defeat the English troops in the plain of Surrey, and then conquer Portsmouth and London. Gibraltar, Cyprus, and Malta are destroyed, the Suez Canal is taken—everywhere the English troops are defeated and their fortresses destroyed, thanks to the overwhelming forces of the enemy and their advanced technology. England becomes the first Asian-African colony, and Nana-Sahib becomes the new King of India. Cetewayo becomes Lord Mayor of London. Queen Victoria and the surviving nobles are sent to the Isle of Jersey.
“Voracious Albion” is a version of the type of Yellow Peril story (see: The Yellow Peril) which would become popular in French magazines in the early part of the twentieth century (see: “The Yellow Napoleon”). A common fear in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century was that booming Asian populations would inevitably lead to a race war between Asians and Europeans (see: The Yellow Danger), with Asians emerging triumphant. European popular fiction did not have a specific Yellow Peril character at the end of the nineteenth century; that archetype did not truly emerge until Sax Rohmer began writing his Doctor Fu Manchu stories in 1912. The more common Yellow Peril in European fiction was the faceless hordes of Asians who, it was presumed, would overwhelm Europeans by sheer numbers if not military skill.
So Robida, in “Voracious Albion,” is combining the Yellow Peril story with the Future War story (see: Future War) to create in fictional form what was a common fear. But the obvious absurdities of “Voracious Albion” (the Indian Nana Sahib and the Zulu Cetewayo getting away with pretending to be English at an English military school?), and the anti-English sentiment of the story, are missing from other Yellow Peril stories, like the more straightforwardly racist “Yellow Napoleon.” These elements, and Robida’s style, which verges from a Vernean weakness for long lists to schadenfreude, make “Voracious Albion” less successful than many similar stories.
Interestingly, “Voracious Albion” includes a fear of England conquering China under the guise of “protecting” it from the Russians and French. Edgar J. Murray, in his first Ferrers Lord story (see: The Ferrers Lord Adventures), expresses an approval of the same action. This is a reference to the friction between Russia and Great Britain over China. In the 1850s Russia had attempted to match European colonial expansion in Asia by annexing parts of China. The Chinese government, overwhelmed by the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and Tungan Revolt (1855-1878), had no choice but to accept three treaties, signed between 1858 and 1860, which gave Russia control of the Amur and Primor’e (Primorski Krai) regions. In 1871, when the Muslim country of Ili (northeast of modern Sinkiang) revolted against Chinese rule and declared itself independent, a Russian army invaded Ili and occupied it. The Chinese government expected that the Russians would withdraw once the rebellion was crushed, but the Russians stayed there until 1878, when the Chinese general Tso Tsung-t’ang destroyed the last Tungan rebel stronghold and turned his attentions to Ili and the Russians. The Chinese threatened war against Russia unless they left Ili, and Russia mobilized its troops along the eastern Russian-Chinese border. The Treaty of St. Petersburg (1881) settled the issue, and the Russians returned most of the occupied territory. However, relations between Russia and China remained extremely tense throughout the 1880s, and during that decade the Russian General Staff, assuming that China rather than Japan was its primary rival for Asian supremacy, drew up plans for war with China.
The English public was of course not aware of Russian military planning, but they were aware of Russian actions in China and Russia’s desire to create an empire to match or exceed that of Great Britain. Although Russia was not seen as quite the threat to the Empire as Germany, Russian imperialist desires in China added to British insecurity about the future of the Empire (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease). While British story paper writers dealt with this concern in their traditional manner, by defeating it in adventure fiction, non-British writers like Robida used it for their own ideological and anti-British purposes.
Print: Albert Robida, La Caricature. Bruxelles, BE: 1998. (There is no English-language translation available).