Ampton Reads: Tintin in the Congo

“Basically, it’s all to do with rubbery lips and heaps of dead animals,” – Sue Buswell, editor of Tintin at Methuen, 1988. She’s not wrong.

After the events of Land of the Soviets, Hergé wanted to send Tintin to America, but his boss wasn’t having it. He was to go to the Belgian Congo to promote the colony as a wondrous place to the children of Belgium.

Not sure what you know about history, so a quick refresher: back in the 19th century, the king of Belgium, Leopold II, had put together the beginnings of the Belgian Congo in an attempt to spread Belgium influence into the world of colonisation. By the time Tintin in the Congo was serialised, from 1930 to 1931, the Belgian Congo had been the site of countless crimes against the Congolese population by their Belgian colonisers. For context, the Congo was considered horrifying even by the standards of African colonies, which was, you know, the source of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, not short on atrocities either. We don’t know how many Congolese people died as a result of Belgium’s occupancy, but people are guessing from a million (a very conservative estimate) to fifteen million by 1908, when the Belgian Congo itself was established. This doesn’t technically fit the requirements for a genocide, but it was basically a genocide of the Congolese people by the Belgian colonisers.

I say this because these events had already occurred decades ago when Tintin in the Congo was published. They were already written in blood, not that many of the Belgian people were aware of it. At the actual time of publication, the worst of the human rights violations had been curbed and the Belgian Congo was experiencing an economic boom. Abbot Wallez, Hergé’s boss, wanted him to write about the place in the wake of a Belgian royal visit to the colony to impress upon the people of Belgium exactly how delightful their colony was nowadays. Hergé himself was still fixed on wanting to write about America and wrote Tintin in the Congo with a palpable lack of both enthusiasm and research.

The majority of his research came from reading the works of missionaries, who probably were not hugely reliable, and from visiting museums to examine the artefacts that Belgium had claimed from their colony. This is almost certainly why the Congolese people presented in Tintin in the Congo are lacking in any distinctive culture: Hergé was presented with a mishmash of cultures in his research, and knew too little about the actual place to put together a coherent fictional or real people. They’re just generic colonised African people, rich with the stereotypes present at the time.

The intention of TIntin in the Congo, just like Land of the Soviets, was propaganda, and the magazine knew this. Instead of convincing people against the USSR, this one was supposed to portray the Congo as a fun, friendly place where white people were doing the Congolese a favour by civilising them. It’s for this reason that people argue against republishing Tintin in the Congo, and especially against giving it to children. I did read The Colonial Heritage of French Comics by Mark McKinney, which makes the argument that Tintin in the Congo still functions as specific pro-colony and anti-black propaganda today, and that children reading it are more likely to internalise the story than they are to internalise a short foreword before the story that says it is outdated and racist. When put like that, I’m inclined to agree.

Also, I don’t personally feel like Tintin in the Congo has the artistic and cultural merit necessary to justify redistribution of this book to children. It’s arguably lower in quality that Land of the Soviets, with none of the positive features of other Tintin books. That didn’t stop people from loving the book. When it was published, Belgians loved it, and it has bizarrely seen great popularity in Africa despite the colonialist intentions of the book. Apparently the kids in question are just happy to be included in a Tintin story, even if it’s not one that treats them very well. Fair enough, I suppose.

Today, some countries ban publishing of the book due to its content, although it’s actually the brutal depictions of big game hunting that are often cited as the main issue.

Made me think of this image.

It’s true that animals are treated very poorly in the book, so heads-up for that, too, although if seeing animals get hurt squicks you more that thinking about the Belgian Congo, I don’t know what to say to you.

The version I’m reading is actually the black and white version, before Hergé had the chance to tidy and colour the art, and correct for the worst of the animal cruelty and human injustice. I haven’t read this version before. Should be fun.

AMPTON READS:

Tintin gets on a ship in Antwerp, bound for Africa. He’s said to be going to do some reporting, although on exactly what I’m not sure. Tintin may be a cool dude but he’s a subpar journalist.

We get our first appearance of a African man, waiting on Tintin on the ship. Tintin leaves Snowy in his room, where the trusty dog goes through Tintin’s equipment to introduce it to the reader, including guns and mosquito nets. He also gets into misadventures, breaking a mirror and starting a fight with a chatty parrot. Hergé would reuse the annoying talking parrot concept later, in The Broken Ear. His misadventures spiral far enough out of control that he ends up in the ocean, drowning, and Tintin must dive in and rescue him. In the process, we learn that there is a shitty-looking European stowaway on board.

Tintin arrives in the Congo and is greeted by a collection of racial stereotypes who have heard of his adventures and gleefully welcome him to their country.

There is also a missionary among them. The idea that the Congolese people are highly welcoming to Belgians and revere them for their whiteness is an important part of the propaganda aspect of this story, showing Belgian people that if they move to the Congo, they will live large.

Tintin gets to his accommodation and is offered piles of money from other newspapers for whatever reporting he does here in the Congo. He declines, saying that he is being paid brilliantly by Le Petit Vingtième. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this sequence is. Perhaps it’s to establish that Tintin really is great and beloved without needing to show him actually doing his job.

Tintin picks up Coco, the first child companion in the series, and the most forgotten. He would later be joined by Zorrino, Abdullah, and Chang, as it seems that Hergé enjoyed pairing Tintin with a younger friend. This was probably for the purpose of making the child readers feel more involved and included. It is interesting to me that all four children are children of colour, quite unlike the intended reader in Belgium, and at least in the case of Zorrino and Chang, they are portrayed with cultural sensitivity and respect.

Coco does not get that luxury. He is Tintin’s ‘boy’, essentially a child servant, and his intelligence is immediately insulted by Snowy on their first meeting. I doubt Hergé intended Coco as a reader stand-in, and his purpose is probably more to show that if you travel to the Congo, local children will wait on you hand and foot. Coco’s first two lines of dialogue are “Yes, master,” and he speaks in broken English.

Tintin goes big-game hunting and Snowy encounters a crocodile while going for a swim, so Tintin immediately endeavours to kill it. Throughout this book Tintin tries to kill almost every animal he sees. This book is funnier if you imagine that Tintin sees an African animal and Kill Bill sirens start blaring.

He returns to his vehicle to find Coco waiting for him, crying, and Tintin and Snowy comfort him in much the same way as my parents did when I was a toddler and had just seen a yeti. Coco speaks in exaggerated broken English, in a way that actual non-native English speakers literally never do. It’s propaganda, too, portraying African people as big children who so desperately need their colonisers to run their lives.

It’s strange that this view persisted when Europeans were also gleefully filling their museums with intricate historical artefacts that they had liberated from their home country. Did they think that the locals had created these amazing cultural pieces and then regressed somehow? Of course not. The doublethink was necessary to justify seizing control of these people.

The stowaway from the ship reappears as the thief of their car, and Tintin knocks him out with the help of some monkeys and ties him up. This is the first time that Hergé has used proper storytelling technique in setting up the existence of a character and utilising them sometime later.

There’s a comic sequence where Tintin accidentally shoots a dozen antelope in pursuit of dinner, and another in which a monkey decides to abduct Snowy. The monkeys speaks with better English than Coco does, right up until Tintin shoots one and wears his skin as a monkey suit so he can infiltrate the monkey society at the deepest levels to regain his dog.

Imagine wearing the freshly harvested skin of a monkey.

So that’s a thing that happened.

Coco, being just a simple boy, thinks Tintin is a talking monkey instead of the adult man he’s spent the last day with. In the night, their stowaway escapes, and the party just decides to live with it. They set off on their adventures and Tintin gets the car stuck on some train tracks with a train heading right his way. The train is filled with Congolese people and is so poorly made that it derails instead of damaging Tintin’s car. We get a horrifically paternalistic sequence of Tintin convincing the passengers to get to work fixing the train. They just hate hard work so much, it’s a wonder anyone could be bothered colonising them.

Tintin uses his car to tow the train to the next town. This minor effort is so amazing to the locals that they carry him to the king as a guest of honour, and the king describes him as an all-powerful white man. Do you, humble reader, have any idea how difficult it is for me to not describe the events of this book using heaviest, most syrupy coating of sarcasm I can muster?

Hergé felt much the same way, for the record. He describes Abbot Wallez’s proposal for the Tintin in the Congo project as being about “our beautiful colony which has such great need of us, tarantara, tarantaboom,” and that attitude shows through.

Tintin goes and hunts a lion with the king, and gets his ass handed to him by the big cat, only being saved from death by Snowy biting off the lion’s tail. The lion is so awed by Snowy’s big dick energy that the locals can tie it up and take it home. Everyone loves Tintin, which makes the local ‘top juju man’ jealous.

Really, it’s a wonder that the local Congolese insist in talking in broken English/French instead of their own language. Just another tool of propaganda, I suppose. If you want to get heavy-handed with your literary devices, Tintin being able to subjugate the African lion, wowing actual African people, probably means something.

The stowaway turns up and offers to team up with this guy in order to squish Tintin. Their first attempt at defeating him involves misplacing the sacred fetish of the tribe and blaming it on him, then stashing the damaged fetish in his belongings. If I were a lewder man I’d figure out how to make some horrible joke out of the following panel:

But I won’t do that. I’ll leave that up to your mind.

Coco turns up to rescue them and Tintin is immediately racist towards him.

In a more realistic world, Coco would have turned on his heel and left them there, but this takes in a fantasy universe where racism is good, so instead this is treated like a friendly greeting.

Tintin’s method of foiling the enemy plans is to retrieve a film camera and a phonograph so he can record their conversation. He apparently had both of these items with him the whole time, which is neat. I’m just laughing because of how inconvenient it is. In exchange for this expose, Tintin becomes the new leader of this local tribe, and starts dispensing judgement.

I feel like you can add in your own punchline for this. It’s just so fucking awful.

The next tactic to discredit Tintin is to start a war with an opposing tribe. This works perfectly, but Tintin defuses the situation by doing whatever this is:

Which turns out to be an electromagnet behind the tree, to attract their weapons and make it appear as though Tintin has magical powers. Not sure what he would have done if their weapons weren’t made of magnetic metal, or if any of them had guns. Tintin really brought an entire electromagnet to the rural Congo, huh? Also, he gets made the chief of this opposing tribe, too.

The discredited ‘top juju man’ talks about how there is a guerrilla group of Congolese people who kill white people and the black chiefs who support them, in order to reject Belgian rule. Not going to lie, that actually sounds pretty good after everything I’ve seen here. They are portrayed in this book as explicitly evil but I’m rooting for them anyway.

Top juju man decides to impersonate a member of this guerrilla group and assassinate Tintin, but he is attacked by a boa constrictor, an animal native to the Americas. This might be a translation error or just a research failure. Or, alternatively, Tintin is bad at identifying snakes. This is improbably, as he’s clearly a man who knows his great snakes.

Bad joke, but worth it.

The stowaway captures Tintin and leaves him to die hanging above crocodiles, which is more labour-intensive than choking him out, but who am I to judge? He’s rescued by a white missionary and Coco. Coco really goes above and beyond the call of duty. Tintin doesn’t deserve him.

Tintin returns to the mission and teaches a class for the local Congolese kids. I feel like none of these kids feel like Belgium is their country. In the redrawn and coloured version, Tintin is instead asking the kids if anyone of them know how to add 2 + 2, which I would argue is actually worse than this.

The stowaway dresses as a missionary and tries to kill Tintin again, and Tintin learns that the stowaway was sent to Africa specifically to kill him off by a mysterious ‘A.C’. They fight and fall off a cliff, the stowaway landing in the water and Tintin landing on a hippo. Considering how belligerent hippos are, I would barely regard this is an improvement to drowning. Then the stowaway is killed by crocodiles. Rest in pieces.

Tintin escapes and is apprehended by a group of pygmies who have seen him in Le Petit Vingtième and think he’s neat, although he initially thinks they are attacking him.

The message here isn’t great, but ‘sell your life dearly’ is a badass quote. We start to see Tintin’s personality develop more here; he is resolute, determined to survive against the odds or at least die as inconveniently as possible. A good boy scout attitude, which makes sense as his author adored the boy scouts group of Belgium.

Tintin then gets more information about the man sent here to kill him: AC stands for Al Capone, who was a real-life gangster who was well-known in the Chicago mafia during the 1920s and 1930s. I’m surprised Hergé picked a real-life person to make the antagonist, and I’m equally surprised that Al Capone didn’t kill him for it, but Al Capone was actually tangled up with the law during the publication of both Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America, so it may be that he never even knew he had appeared in Tintin comics. He’s the only real-life person to ever make an appearance in a Tintin comic. Al Capone wanted Tintin dead because he thought Tintin had come to the Congo to expose his diamond-smuggling racket. I’m not actually sure that Al Capone had much to do crimes outside of the USA, so Hergé is actually hyping him here. Tintin then captures the rest of Al Capone’s goons in Africa.

Tintin then ends up in the papers. He’s more of a journalist people talk about, than a journalist who talks about stuff, I suppose. With all the drama sorted out, he heads off to kill a few more now-endangered animals before he leaves the continent. The version I’m reading does contain the infamous scene where he drills a hole in a rhinoceros, implants dynamite, and blows it up. To which I say, what the fuck.

And having killed these animals for no perceivable reason, he gets on a plane to Europe, vowing to head to America and face up to Al Capone himself, at least in the colour version. In the original he just wonders where he’s going next, because Hergé didn’t have the creative control necessary to know.

And that’s Tintin in the Congo. It’s hard to decide which of this and Land of the Soviets was less developed; the art in the Congo episode is tidier, but it’s obvious that Hergé doesn’t want to be writing it, and I would argue that the storytelling is worse. Definitely, Tintin in America was a significant improvement on both, and that’s what I’ll be getting to next time.

Please let me know if I’ve made any historical or factual errors, or if there’s any points you’d like me to clarify, and again, thank you for reading.

– Aмртоп

2 thoughts on “Ampton Reads: Tintin in the Congo

Add yours

  1. I pretty much agree with your assessment, Ampton – I’d be hard pushed to say which I like the least, this or “Pays des Soviets”…the artwork of “Congo” was improved in the re-write, but it’s just so offensive.
    I first acquired this book in it’s revised, coloured version on holiday to France, aged about 10 or 11. The plot and dialogue were so basic my limited French didn’t stop me from understanding it. Initially excited to get one of the few Tintin books not available in English at the time (Le Lotus Bleu was the other), my excitement turned to disappointment as I started reading it. The rather drawn-out ocean voyage at the beginning turned out to be the best part of the book. Even at age 11, when I tended to be very accepting of things, I was shocked by the way Herge had drawn Africans to look barely human, more like monkeys with enormous lips. As for the wildlife “japes”…well, they just weren’t funny.

    Like

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