Colonialism and the expansion of empires

Engraved nautilus shell

Made by Mr CH Wood, about 1855
Nautilus shell, with engraved decoration

Object number 1908/1
Given by John Radcliffe, 1908

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Engraved nautilus shell

This shell is one of two engraved with the figure of Britannia in 1855 by the engraver CH Wood; the other was given to Queen Victoria. Britannia is the Latin name for Britain, but in Roman times became personified as a goddess. By the time of Victoria's reign, the figure of Britannia had become a potent symbol of the British Empire, depicted as a young woman in white robes and helmet, carrying a shield and three-pronged trident. She is often shown striding across the ocean, representing British naval power, accompanied by the British Lion.

One of the ironies of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was that it stimulated the growth of the British Empire and development of other trade links. The British lead in abolishing the slave trade provided a sense of moral superiority over other nations, justifying the expansion of the British Empire through the civilising influence it could bring to the rest of the world. In particular, British missionaries believed they were bringing the salvation of Christianity to African societies that had been irreparably damaged by the institution of slavery.

This information was provided by curators from Gallery Oldham.