The Cadiz Bomb

Contributor: Ian Haywood

Location: Horse Guards, London, United Kingdom

Description: This strange-looking, even kitsch, object stands in a corner of Horse Guards, next to St James’s Park in London. For all its garish and even comic appearance, it is actually Britain’s only public monument to the Peninsular war. It was first unveiled in 1816, but its genesis began in 1812 with the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca. One consequence of this battle was that Napoleonic forces withdrew from the two-year siege of Cadiz, seat of the Spanish Cortes and the new liberal constitution. To celebrate this liberation, the Cortes gave a huge French mortar as a gift to the Prince Regent (later George IV), requesting only that it be displayed in a public place. The Prince duly obliged and commissioned the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich to build a suitable carriage. Four years and an immense expenditure later, the Cadiz ‘bomb’, as it soon became known, was shown to the public on the Prince’s birthday.

Its most eye-catching and puzzling feature was the allegorical carriage: the snarling, Chinese dragon-like creature weighed down by the mortar was supposedly Geryon, a monster subdued by Hercules in ancient Cadiz. Translated into Peninsular war terms, Geryon represented Napoleon while the mortar stood for British military prowess, though this was (and remains) far from obvious, and spectators had to rely on press reports for guidance. The British government’s overblown attempt to elevate a piece of military ordinance had (pun intended) backfired. This miscalculation failed to judge the public mood after Waterloo: as Alison Yarrington, Phil Shaw and Holgar Hoock have shown, there was little appetite for classical and mythical heroic statuary in the wake of over two decades of slaughter. The absurd depiction of Wellington as a giant Achilles figure, erected just a few years later in Hyde Park next to Apsley House, was a further example of this ill-fated pomposity.

But there was further trouble in store for the Cadiz mortar. During the long period of the monument’s construction, the political fortunes of Spain had gone into reverse. The restoration of the Bourbon tyrant Ferdinand VII in 1814 shocked many liberal observers who accused the British government of collusion in returning Spain to the dark ages. Wellington’s victories seemed as hollow and impotent as the huge inert cannon, and the dragon now seemed to represent what Hazlitt called Legitimacy rather than Jacobinism. This ironic reversal was seized on by radical print culture as a way to ridicule and undermine the authority of the Prince Regent. Within days of its unveiling, the monument was transformed into an enduring caricature. The radical publisher William Hone led the way in this offensive, rechristening the mortar the Regent’s ‘bomb’ (bum) and opening the comic floodgates for a spate of scatological and obscene visual and verbal puns. Hone’s partner George Cruikshank and other leading caricaturists such as Charles Williams joined the fray, relishing the opportunity to debunk militarism and monarchism simultaneously. By the time of the 1820 Spanish liberal revolution, the ‘bomb’ had become a visual shorthand for both Spanish and British injustice. This radical appropriation of the monument’s unstable ‘code’ was characteristic of the ideological power of visual satire and radical print culture at this time.

Creator: Earl Mulgrave; Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London.

Date: 1816

Subject: Peninsular War

Image Rights: Author’s photograph

Object Type: public monument

Format: brass, bronze.

Language: not applicable

Publisher: not applicable

Location: Horse Guards, London


Haywood, Ian. ‘The Spanish ‘revolution’ in print and image’. Spain in British Romanticism Ed. Diego Saglia and Ian Haywood. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2018.

Hoock, Holgar. ‘Monumental Memories: State Commemoration of the Napoleonic Wars in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain’. War Memories: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Modern European Culture. Ed. Alan Forrest, Etienne Francois and Karen Hagemann. Basingstoke: Palgrave 2012.

Shaw, Phil. Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.