"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


colonialism in children's literature

Judging from the popularity of last week's post on Babar's colonial metaphor, some of you might be interested in another portrayal of the colonial experiment in children's literature: Tintin au Congo. Tintin is a beloved character in Belgium; there's a museum dedicated to his creator in Brussels and it may be the last place on the planet where you can still walk into a store to purchase a copy of Tintin au Congo, a book originally published in 1931 that holds no punches when it comes to portraying the era's ideas about Africa and its relationship to Europe.
There's a good reason that some stores refuse to stock Tintin au Congo. Not only does it uphold the motif of a noble savage being civilized by a white man (or, in this case, a mischievous white boy), but the cartoon Congolese portrayed in the book bear a striking resemblance to gorillas.
What's fascinating about Tintin au Congo is its wholehearted embrace of Belgian policy towards the Congo. Unlike the Babar series, the idea of colonialism here is explicit. This panel, in which Tintin speaks Congolese schoolchildren about "your country: Belgium" is a prime example. Belgian education policy in the Congo was centered around the development of loyalty to the state and obedience to authority. What's laughable here, however, is the idea that any Congolese child could ever hope to grow up to have Belgium as his or her state. While the Belgians did allow some Congolese to become educated evolues (literally, the evolved), they were never afforded the opportunities to assimilate into Belgian culture in the same way that some Senegalese and Ivoirians were. In fact, the vast majority of Congolese were explicitly prohibited from gaining an education past the sixth-grade level. Most primary-level schooling focused on preparing boys to be laborers and girls to be domestic servants.

Another interesting point here is that many Belgians, especially those of the generations that were around during the country's colonization of the Congo, are either unaware of or don't acknowledge the horrors perpetrated by their government in central Africa. You could view Tintin au Congo as part of upholding the myth of the benevolent, civilizing mission in Belgian society. Although the country gives huge sums of money in foreign aid to the DRC each year, there hasn't been a massive mea cupla in Belgium along the lines of Germany's repentance (and reparations) for the Holocaust.

Of course, Congo is not the only place Tintin had adventures in stereotyping.
Tintin au Congo is controversial and offensive, but you can still buy a copy from Amazon if you want to have a look for yourself. And if you happen to find yourself in the eastern Congo, there's a guy in either Bunia or Bukavu who'll paint you an exact replica of the cover that will say "[Your name] au Congo." I'll choose to decline the opportunity.


Blogger (im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

Nice post.

It seems to me that neither huge sums of money nor a mea culpa, per se, is what is needed in the Great Lakes region. Rather, there is an urgent need for skilled diplomacy and an earnest effort to stop the Euro-Western corporate plunder of DRC resources. Equally important, as you imply, is the need to educate Euro-Belgians (and Africans in the region) on colonialism and how the colonial legacy has shaped the current conflict. kzs

Monday, January 25, 2010 5:47:00 AM

Blogger Alexis said...

This book is really interesting. Tintin is maybe is the most famous cartoon in the french speaking world. The other 'Tintin' are not racist neither colonialist.
"Tintin in Teheran" is a fake one made in 2002 by someone who wanted to sell it on ebay. We can see that Milou (the dog) is dead and bleeding which is totally impossible in the Hergé universe.

Recently in France some politics wanted to add to the high school history books "the positive effects" of colonialism. It's very weird because the negative effects are treated very quickly.

Monday, January 25, 2010 6:20:00 AM

Blogger The pale observer said...

I can't believe they get away with (still) selling those TinTin books!

Great blog, by the way - I love your cynisism... I's call it realism :)


Holli in Ghana

Monday, January 25, 2010 8:17:00 AM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

yeah, I immediately noticed Snowy (in the English version) dead in the background, and Captain Haddock and Tintin looking like they've stumbled out of a Dardennes Brothers film...

Reading what little I know about Belgium's history in the Congo makes me simultaneously incredibly angry and incredibly sad.

Monday, January 25, 2010 8:23:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you look closely, Herge isn't so much pushing Belgian colonialism -- the righteousness of that is simply assumed; let's move on -- as he is boosting the utter awesomeness of Belgian Catholic missionaries.

The missionaries are recurring characters in the book, and they're always powerful forces for good -- saving Tintin from lions, helping capture the bad guys, you name it.

IMS Herge had been educated by missionaries. So hearing about the wonders accomplished by the brothers in savage Africa would have literally been daily fare for him as a boy.

Doug M.

Monday, January 25, 2010 10:20:00 AM

Blogger Our Man in Africa said...

Although readers may be able to buy a copy of Tintin in Congo, they'll almost certainly find that the worst elements have been removed. I think the 'your country, Beligum' has become a maths lesson, for example.

Monday, January 25, 2010 10:55:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, all. Alexis, thanks for the heads-up on the Iran one.

Doug, you make a great point that the superiority of the colonial mission was assumed. Of course, as one of the pillars of the colonial trinity, respect for the church/missionaries running the schools and respect for the state were virtually one and the same. The Catholic Church ran more than half of the schools in Congo in the colonial period, and was heavily subsidized by the state in doing so (eg, the salaries of the missionaries were paid by the government). In exchange, they taught loyalty & obedience to the state as supreme values. Wonder if Herge knew that? :)

OMIA, I just looked in my copy and, yeah, it has been replaced with a lesson on addition. Very interesting. The panels on the inferiority of local religious customs are still intact, however. :)

Monday, January 25, 2010 3:22:00 PM

Anonymous de durata said...

many wrongs...but still it increases the pleasure of learning.
althow...some things may misslead one who doesn't know real facts :(

Monday, January 25, 2010 4:55:00 PM

Blogger Tony said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 4:38:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Tony, I delete racist comments or comments that support racism in its many latent forms. Please check out the comment policy if you have questions.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 11:20:00 AM

Blogger Ron Rollins said...

YOu can find the books in Angola, in both French and Portuguese.

Assuming you would want them.

Undedited, along with more TinTin memoriabilia than I ever thought anyone could produce. Kind of strange, really.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 2:07:00 AM

Blogger Tony said...

Dear Texasinafrica,

I see you have removed my comment from your blog. That, of course, is your right, you are free to do as you wish. However I am genuinely interested to know what was racist in my comments. Either I am missing something, or I am just plain stupid. Probably the latter. Nevertheless you could really help me by explaining what I said that upset you so that I will understand your thinking and not make the same mistake again. By the way I have an adopted Congolese daughter, from Bunia. She doesn't understand you either! But she does enjoy TinTin!!!

Kind Regards,

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 3:32:00 AM

Blogger (im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 5:00:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Imperfect, I deleted your comment for the same reason. Personal attacks aren't welcome on this blog.

Tony, you accused me of racism for pointing out obvious and widely accepted racist portrayals in Tintin au Congo. I probably should have called that a personal attack, but the undertones that Tintin couldn't possibly present racist images or ideology struck me as very problematic.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 8:47:00 PM


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