Phil May (1864–1903), The Mongolian Octopus—Its Grip on Australia, The Bulletin, 21 August 1886

In the 1880s The Bulletin used cartoons to bolster its editorial commentary. There is no better example of this than The Mongolian Octopus—Its Grip on Australia, which appeared on 21 August 1886. The Bulletin devoted this edition to condemning Chinese migration to Australia. In what reads like a series of xenophobic rants, article after article argues that Chinese migrants suppress workers’ wages, spread disease and promote gambling and corruption, while also encouraging opium use and prostitution. The Bulletin was particularly concerned about the virtue of the colony’s young women who, robbed of all agency, would swoon under the influence of opium. The Mongolian Octopus, which was produced as a supplement which could be removed by the reader and displayed as a poster, captures all of the alleged vices enumerated in the accompanying articles.

The metaphor of the octopus, with its writhing tentacles reaching out to claim its victims, is drawn from Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea (1866). Hugo’s description of the octopus as a ‘Devil-Fish’ reflects the fear of sea monsters which loomed large in the nineteenth-century European imagination. In a chapter entitled ‘The Monster’ Hugo describes their capacity to kill in blood-curdling prose: ‘No grasp is like the sudden strain of the cephaloptera. It is with the sucking apparatus that it attacks. The victim is oppressed by a vacuum drawing at numberless points: it is not a clawing or a biting, but an indescribable scarification.’

The Mongolian Octopus was drawn by Phil May. May, like his fellow cartoonist Livingston Hopkins, was recruited from overseas to ensure The Bulletin had the very best cartooning talent at its disposal. May proved to be an effective propagandist, someone who was able to develop the perfect visual metaphor to drive home the Bulletin’s editorial line. The Bulletin gave him the opportunity to develop his talents, which later allowed him to return to England as a major cartooning talent.

For the rest of the 1890s The Bulletin continued its virulent anti-Chinese policy. As Federation approached, the magazine would be one of the major proponents of the White Australia policy.

The Mongolian Octopus is just one example of the thousands of cartoons kept in the collections of the National Library of Australia. You can see a selection of some of the best cartoons in the Library’s collection in Inked: Australian Cartoons, currently on show until 21 July 2019.