Notes on Tintin in the Congo

Gouche Cover, Tintin in the CongoI usually baulk at the idea of banning books, but I do find myself in favour of the CRE’s suggestion that Borders bookstores ban Tintin in the Congo.

Now I do consider myself something of a Tintin expert. A few years ago I was even an avid contributor and fact checker on the Cult of Tintin website, now defunct, but partially resurrected at Tintinologist.org. I’ve read Tintin in the Congo, and it is indeed appalling. In addition to the obvious racism, it is also distinctly environmentally unfriendly. Tintin blows up a rhino with a stick of dynamite, shoots an entire herd of impala by accident, makes a snake gobble its own tail, performs a summary execution of a chimpanze, attempts to shoot a crocodile in the face, and poaches an elephant for its tusks.

Where to begin with the racism in the book? Throughout, the Africans are portrayed as simpletons, who idolise Tintin and Snowy and fetishize anything western they can get their hands on. The chief of one tribe has a rolling pin for a sceptre.

The book’s only redeeming feature, and the only possible argument for it being on my shelf, is that it clearly demonstrates the change and improvement that Herge and Tintin underwent in the years following its publication. Congo is a meandering, incoherent story, where the latter books have carefully plotted story arc. Congo is dull and flat, where the latter books are rich and detailed. Congo is a stereotype, whereas the latter books were carefully researched, with artists from Herge’s studio sent all over the world to make sketches that could serve as a primary source. And the character of Tintin himself morphs from a patronising colonialist in Tintin in the Congo, to a character with much more empathy later on. In the early books he is an agent of governments. By the later books, he is a revolutionary, a subversive. In the early books, he desecrates tombs and customs with impunity, whereas the later books warn against such disrespect for other cultures.

Also interesting is the comparison with Herge’s next book in the series, Tintin in America. This volume carries many of the same errors as Tintin in the Congo. The tone towards the bungling Americans is patronising. Their are either hapless cops, drunk cowboys, corrupt businessmen, or outright evil gangsters. Again, the scenery is flat and under-researched, and the Native Americans are barbaric simpletons. Only after Tintin in America, with stories like Cigars of the Pharoah and The Blue Lotus, is research rewarded… and only because they were heavily revised between their original black-and-white forms, and the full colour albums.

Anyone with a collection of Tintin books on their shelves might like to browse through The Red Sea Sharks, published in French as Coke En Stock. This deals with modern slave trading between Africa and the Middle-East. The Arabic locales are rendered quite respectfully… but once again it is the Africans who are portrayed in a negative light. There is a scene (page 50) where Captain Haddock tries to explain to the men he has freed that he cannot take them to Mecca, because they will be imprisoned by a slave trader who awaits them there. The men do not understand, and keep repeating their desire to go to Mecca. Its hard not to smile at Haddock, who gets predictably irate at the failure to communicate… but to the modern reader he sails far too close to the wind:

– You’ll be slaves for ever! That’s what you’re in for, you dunderheaded coconuts, you!

– We not coconuts, Effendi. We good black men. We good Muslims. We want to go to Mecca.

Eventually, some of the men do indeed comprehend their fate, and the tragedy is averted. I think the exchange could probably be justified because its part of the slap-stick of Captain Haddock… but it is still a gag at the expense of African stupidity, and seems gratuitous.

Re-assessing the books in this light is difficult for a Tintin fan. In much the same way as admirers of T.S. Eliot are required to take into account his apparent anti-semitism, those who enjoy Herge cannot avoid the problem of Tintin in the Congo. As mentioned above, I think the later books more than mitigate the earlier mistakes, because the messages undergo a 180 degree reversal. However, unless one is actually writing an article or book on Herge, I don’t think that one can justify keeping a copy of Tintin in the Congo by claiming some kind of academic interest and detachment. Nor is the notion of “having the full set” particularly tasteful, when “the full set” is actually inferior to a collection of selected albums. I shall throw my copy into the recycling bin.

15 thoughts on “Notes on Tintin in the Congo”

  1. Come on! The Blue Lotus less racist? All of the Orientals are portrayed as dishonest, scheming toturers! The ones who aren’t are odium-addled idiots. At best.

    Personally, I look on the books as a product of their times.

    DK

  2. True, I was thinking more about the design/illustrations with regards to the Blue Lous. But it still pales in comparison compared to Congo. True, some of the central characters are indeed schemers, but its not like the passers-by are depicted as a bunch of idiots, as they are in Congo. And characters like Chang an Mr Wang-Chen-Yee are very positive.

  3. Absurd!!! We can not like our lives censoring, where does it stop!!!!!!!!
    P.S. this book can be bought in any book store and is now in the top 25 on Amazon. Not the way it was planned eh?

  4. I don’t believe it should be banned. I agree that is a product of its time. There should perhaps be warnings on the packaging that it contains offensive material that may cause distress to some people. The reader must be able to make the choice to read it or throw it into the recycling bin. It is by viewing and studying the attitudes and prejudices of the past that we learn to be more tolerant and forgiving today.

  5. I suppose there’s banning and there’s banning. On the one hand, the government could force shops to stop selling it. Or the shops could make the decision themselves not to stock it. I think that is what the CRE spokesperson was suggesting. As I say, I don’t think there’s any value on it being on my bookshelf. I’ve learnt all I can from it about the time that it was a product of…

  6. Seems to me that the issue is more to do with the impact that these books can have on children. Were they to be a contemporary resource for teaching then I would have more of a concern. I doubt that they would have a very telling impact on this generation of adults. I would keep it as a fond memory of a time when this kind of thinking pervaded our world view.

  7. I don’t beleive in airbrushing history. Just because an aspect of historic culture does not accord with current sensibilities it does not follow that it should be erased. If that attitude had been adopted towards the holocaust of WW2, it would be called denial, a criminal offence in most europoean countries.
    I could go into a long rant here about the Ministry of Truth and recount how Winston Smith’s job in 1984 was to airbrush printed news stories, such that the parties version of history was always conistent with the present, but I won’t.
    Airstrip 1 is multicultural, airsptrip 1 has always been multicultural, airstrip 1 will always be multicultural……..

  8. I hardly think that it is the purveyors of multiculturalism who are guilty of airbrishing history. Indeed, a central objection to multiculturalists is that they bang on about the evils of colonialism ad nauseum.

    Either way, choosing not to sell or buy a book, or choosing to remove a book from your own shelf, is not the same as a government censoring/banning/changing a book.

  9. “I hardly think that it is the purveyors of multiculturalism who are guilty of airbrishing history. Indeed, a central objection to multiculturalists is that they bang on about the evils of colonialism ad nauseum.”

    Indeed they do – but they also seek to avoid any reference to it in current culture. Here in Bristol there was a major kerfuffle over the naming of a new shopping centre. The original intention was to call it “Merchants Quarter” which seemed an apt decription, encapusalting both the nature of the place, and the historic use of the land where it is built (adjacent to the old trading quarter next to the docks). However, the ubiqitous “community leaders” decided that was too reminiscent of the City’s slave past (Bristol was built on the back of 18th and 19thC maritime trade, in part the slave trade) and kicked up a fuss. This forced the council and the developers to rethink and following a public consultation it reverted to its old 1970s name.
    There have been similar rumblings over the planned redevelopment of a 1950s concert hall (Colston Hall) named after a prominent merchant and city benefactor, who almost certainly prospered, in part, from slavery. Local band, Massive Attack, who you may have heard of, have always refused to play there for that reason alone. The idea being mooted is that on redeveopment it also be renamed something less contentious. I’m digressing into local history.
    Anyway my point is how is applying social pressure on an organisation to refuse to stock legal cultural artefacts any different to airbrushing, when the outcome is the same ? And how does that square with multiculturalism, which is basically applied cultural relativism ?

  10. But the examples you mention do have some positive traits for society as a whole. The arguments for and against are therefore complex, and to deny the history, and/or willfully ignore postive aspects of it, might be called airbrushing.

    I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in Tinin Au Congo, however.

  11. Tintin in the Congo is racist but that isn’t a reason to throw it out.

    Pretty much all the Tintin books are sexist (e.g. name two strong female characters) so should we throw the rest of the books out as well?

    Owning books or art or anything that is offensive and doesn’t fit in with what is currently acceptable doesn’t make you a bad person as long as understand why its offensive. Having a copy of Tintin in the Congo isn’t the act of a racist if you know that its racist and use it appropriately. e.g. don’t give it your children until they are old enough to understand.

    Self-censorship is just as bad as any other form of censorship.

    Chris

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