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Ampton Reads: The Red Sea Sharks

The Red Sea Sharks is, in many ways, the zenith of the Tintin universe. Of all of Hergé’s books, it incorporates the most characters, settings, and plotlines from previous stories by far, and is almost retrospective or nostalgic in how strongly it focuses on past Tintin lore. I’ll be going over all the characters that appear in this story later, but it’s safe to say that this Tintin book is the one most heavily entrenched in the Tintin universe. Skut, the Estonian pilot, is the only significant new character in the story given his later appearance in Flight 714.

However, one of the more subtle but important influences is Tintin in the Congo. If you’re familiar with that book (and if you’re not, you should read my review of it here) you’ll know that it was originally commissioned as a piece of pro-colonial propaganda back in the 1930s. It has aged exceptionally poorly, since it attempts to justify one of the cruelest regimes in history by portraying the Congolese people in the worst possible way. Hergé always regarded this book negatively when looking back on his own work and had generally avoided taking Tintin to sub-Saharan Africa in any book for this reason. Finally it seemed that he was willing to have another try at depicting African people.

And let me tell you now, there’s a whole lot of debate over how well he executed this. 

This story was inspired by accounts of the Arabic slave trade that still existed at the time and possibly still exists in the present depending on how you qualify slavery. Tintin plots often deal with serious events, but this is still one of the grimmest conflicts in the series and combined with the complexity of all the callbacks to previous books, becomes one of the least child-friendly of the stories. Through the 20th century, Arabic countries outlawed slavery at various points, Saudi Arabia doing so in 1962, which was a few years after the publishing of this story. The last country to outlaw slavery was Mauritania in 2007, although loopholes are still exploited so that up to 20% of Mauritania’s population are living in slavery-like conditions.

The definition of slavery compared to various forms of servitude means that although slavery is not legal anywhere in the world, a very large number of people are living in conditions akin to slavery. Forced migrant labour is one of the most common forms of modern slavery, especially in wealthy countries, and exploits the shaky legal protection of migrants in order to coerce them into working. In New Zealand, where I hail from, it’s not uncommon for seasonal agricultural workers to be underpaid and overworked due to lack of access to legal resources and poor English language skills. This is common in many countries, especially the USA, which relies heavily on underpaid migrants to produce harvests. Slavery during detention is also common in some countries, notably the USA, China, and North Korea, where prisoners are put to work for a very low amount of pay. Finally, sexual slavery, debt bondage, and government forced labour round out the face of modern slavery. However, Tintin is so hurt and angry to see modern slavery that we’ll have to pretend for his sake that it’s over now.

That plane looks fantastic.

Hergé’s obsessive research topic of choice for this book was the vehicles and vessels depicted within. His research included a trip on the MS Reine Astrid to Sweden with his assistant, Bob de Moor, in order to get a good look at how the boat worked. Other members of the studio were sent on quests to collect photographs and sketches of everything needed for this book. Locations like Petra were drawn using photographs as references. In order to depict the Africans being trafficked in this story as sensitively as he knew how, Hergé consulted a colleague who worked for an African themed magazine, L’Afrique et le Monde, who helped Hergé with his writing and provided the Yoruba translations needed.

This story was published in Tintin magazine from October 1956 to January 1958, and was collected into a volume in 1958. The English translation by Methuen followed shortly afterwards in 1960. However, this English translation underwent revisions later due to criticisms put forward first by an author at the Tunisian-French magazine Jeune Afrique in 1962, which were echoed by other writers. The primary focus of concern was the way Hergé had depicted the intelligence and especially the language skills of the Africans being trafficked in this story; Hergé portrayed the trafficked Africans as speaking in pidgin English. In 1967, for the reprint, Hergé tweaked their dialogue to remove the pidgin style, and also changed the Emir’s letter to Tintin right at the start to have more flowery language, although I have no idea why. If I recall correctly, I must have read the original English translation as a child, since I strongly remember being confused by the pidgin English used by the trafficked Africans. Today I’ll be reading the first English version.

EDIT: Reddit user jm-9 has brought it to my attention that I made a mistake here; while the French version was given a second version that altered the way the trafficked Africans spoke, there was never a second English version, so the pidgin English spoken by the trafficked Africans remains in the most recent version.


The story starts at the end of a movie, in a callback to The Seven Crystal Balls; Tintin and Haddock are watching a show, and think that they identify their old friend General Alcazar as one of the actors in the film.

I like how this story starts with a panel saying ‘THE END’.

Haddock states that Alcazar vanished from their lives several years ago, which raises a few questions. In The Seven Crystal Balls, Haddock met Alcazar briefly to say hi, but had little other engagement, and in Alcazar’s other significant appearance in The Broken Ear, Haddock hadn’t been introduced to the series yet. Due to the order of translation, Tintin claims that Alcazar and Haddock already know each other in The Seven Crystal Balls. This creates a situation where Haddock and Alcazar have never met for the first time. I’m sure this isn’t the case in the original French.

In the background of this image, you can see an imitation of Albert Sisley’s Le Canal du Loing hanging on the wall. Although this simple sketch isn’t too elaborate, it is the first appearance of a recurring background detail in this book; art, and especially modern art. Hergé really liked his modern art, and ended up sneaking quite a bit of it into this book, which I’ll point out as we go along. His interest in art would increase steadily the older he got, and his last, unfinished Tintin story Tintin and Alph-Art was intended to incorporate this interest more fully.

When Tintin and Haddock get home from the movie, they find that Abdullah and an entourage have taken up residence in his house due to his father being in danger. The letter from Ben Kalish Ezab is one of the parts that were modified for the second English release. The current text reads:

“This is to tell you, oh highly esteemed friend, that I entrust to you Abdullah, my adored son. Because here the situation is serious. Should misfortune descend on me like the hawk on an innocent gazelle (for the world is made of life and death) I am sure that Abdullah will find you with warmth and affection, refuge and peace. And in doing this you will be performing a fragrant act before Allah.”

You’ll notice that the newer version is much more poetic than the original. I have no idea why this change was made.

On the trail of Alcazar, and with the Thompson twins’ blessing, Tintin makes this discovery in the newspaper. It strikes me as deeply strange that you could advertise the sale of military machinery in a local newspaper, but perhaps that was just the vibe going around at the time. Haddock’s reaction is pretty similar to my own.

Just a little sneaky bit of modern art…

Finally, Tintin and Haddock hear about the coup d’etat in Wadesdah, and what has become of Ben Kalish Ezab. Tintin, curious about the weapons dealing and what Alcazar has to do with all of this, suggests that they go over to Khemed in order to check things out; Haddock agrees because he’s sick of having Abdullah around the place. The Lofficiers, who are a duo of Tintinologists, point out that Tintin and Haddock’s involvement in Khemed is primarily motivated by a desire to get Abdullah out of their hair, and reflect on how this could be seen as an example of (or perhaps satire of) how Westerners often only get involved in politics in the Middle East for personal benefit (cough, oil, cough).

For my part, as a simple critic of literature, I’m mostly impressed with how Hergé managed to stuff so many different characters and plots into one comic. The Alcazar and Abdullah plots start out separate and neatly converge to take our main characters to the site of the action, where they will encounter plenty more characters and plots, as we shall see. It’s tidy, almost seamless writing, and I respect that.

I’m a simple man, I see one of Hergé’s lovely landscapes, I put it in my review. Although by this point Hergé likely didn’t draw this himself and was instead assisted by multiple people at Studios Hergé.

Tintin and Haddock go to Khemed, the bad guys conspire against them, they leave Khemed again, their plane crashes, and the plane crash allows them to avoid being killed by the time bomb on the plane that goes off later. Travelling economy class is like that. In lieu of first class travel, Tintin and Haddock walk their way to Wadesdah and sneak into the city by night.

When they get there, they go to find Oliveira de Figueira, who has always been helpful and kind towards Tintin. He gets them up to speed and agrees to help them find Ben Kalish Ezab. One thing I’ve noticed a few times about Hergé’s writing is how good he is at clowning his way through exposition or lengthy explanations. I pointed this out in Destination Moon, where the complex scientific research that Hergé put into the book was framed at times by Haddock comically pretending to know what’s happening or Calculus raging.

Tintin and Haddock leave town by donning a burqa and carrying Snowy out to a well in a pitcher, after much practice. The bar is lower than ever, but I do appreciate how Hergé depicts the people of Khemed. This book has issues with depictions of characters of colour, but those issues do not lie with the Arabian characters, whose culture, faith, and daily life is portrayed with a lot of care. I’ve seen much worse works featuring Arabian countries that were written much more recently.

Much credit, also, to this absolutely stunning rendition of Petra.

They meet with Ben Kalish Ezab and learn that he was ousted from power by Arabair, the airline Tintin and Haddock travelled with to Khemed. Ezab was about to expose to the world how Arabair is involved in the because Ezab was going to expose to the world that they involved in the trading of slaves. These slaves were Muslims from Senegal and Sudan who wished to make their pilgrimage to Mecca and were being trafficked on the way. While his actions were noble, his reasoning was not; Abdullah had demanded to see Arabair planes do a loop-de-loop and Ezab had tried to force them to by blackmailing them. All around, very stupid.

At this point, Rastapopoulos’s alter ego, the Marquis di Gorgonzola, is snuck into the story, since he owns Arabair and a whole lot of other businesses. Tintin and Haddock set out to travel to Mecca, which was then and is still now within Saudi Arabia, and is the holiest city in Islam due to it being the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. It’s also the main terminal for Arabair and so a great place to sneak into, since non-Muslims are not permitted to enter. This never ends up being an issue in this story since they never actually make it to Mecca.

In short order, Tintin and Haddock end up on a small raft with few provisions in the middle of the ocean, as a result of their ship to Mecca being destroyed by the very planes they came to Khemed to investigate. They bump into the pilot from one of the enemy planes, an Estonian man named Skut, and are fished out of the ocean by the patrons of a fancy dress party on the Marquis di Gorgonzola’s boat. The boat also contains Bianca Castafiore, neatly bringing her into this story, too, and in a very believable way since she’s a famous opera singer.

Rastapopoulos can only be so surprised that Tintin and Haddock are floating around in the ocean, since he knows they were shot down somewhere in the ship’s vicinity. However, imagining the situation from Castafiore’s perspective is much funnier. Last time she saw Tintin and Haddock, they were playing spies in an opera house in Borduria, and now she’s partying on a boat and they’re getting fished out of the ocean.

The three of them are transferred to another ship, a cargo ship named Ramona, in order to keep them away from the guests and stop them from talking about, you know, the fact their host is involved in the international slave trade. This prompts the return of Allan, Haddock’s old first mate, who immediately imprisons them, and they only manage to escape much later after the ship’s crew abandon the Ramona due to it being on fire.

For me, this is the strongest part of the book, and that’s saying something since each situation has been solid. The rush for Tintin and Haddock to put out the fire, followed by their dawning horror as they speak to the trafficked Africans and realise the danger these people are in.  In the panel above, you can clearly see the pidgin speech that Hergé gave these people in this first version. It should be noted that at the time this translation was made (1960) the word ‘negro’ had not quite taken on its modern negative connotations in Europe, although it’s definitely wince-worthy to me.

Tintin learns that ‘coke’ is slang for slaves, giving the French title of the book, Coke en Stock (Coke on board), and Haddock gets really, really angry at the guy trying to buy said slaves, giving us a colourful plethora of insults:

There’s a series of brilliant, tense scenes as Rastapopoulos attempts to destroy the Ramona and everyone on board. They send a U-Boat, which fires torpedoes that narrowly miss, and then send a diver with a limpet mine, which is swallowed by a shark. Hergé later said he regretted this scene, as at the time he “still believed that sharks were big evil beasts.”

The tense scenes are resolved as a US ship comes to the assistance of the Ramona and beats back the U-Boat using anti-submarine bombs fired from airplanes. Tintin hands over all of his knowledge and the poor bastards being trafficked on the Ramona over to authorities and gets legal justice for everyone involved in the story. Rastapopoulos fakes his own death to avoid arrest, and Tintin and Haddock finally return to Marlinspike for some peace and quiet, only to find that Jolyon Wagg has arranged a car rally there. End scene.

So, at the end of this, let’s do a tally of all the major characters from previous stories who appeared in this one:

  • Dawson, who was selling weapons, who first appeared in The Blue Lotus.
  • Rastapopoulos, who previously appeared in both Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus.
  • Dr Müller, who was the antagonist of both The Black Island and Land of Black Gold. His pseudonym, ‘Mull Pasha’ is a reference to the British soldier Glubb Pasha, 
  • Allan, Haddock’s old first mate.
  • General Alcazar, who at the end of this story ends up overthrowing General Tapioca again and getting back into power.
  • Bianca Castafiore, who is cheerfully minding her own business.
  • Oliveira de Figueira, who had previously appeared in Cigars of the Pharaoh and Land of Black Gold.
  • Bab El Ehr, Ben Kalish Ezab and Abdullah, who first appeared in Land of Black Gold.
  • Thompson and Thomson, who are investigating the trading of military vehicles and General Alcazar.
  • Jolyon Wagg, who shows up at the end for the punchline.

That’s one hell of a lineup! 

Also Calculus, but he spent the whole story working on rocket skates. 

Like a lot of previous Tintin stories, this story incorporates multiple locations, large numbers of characters, and lots of plotlines, but I would argue this story does it best. I never felt, while reading, that I was wasting time or that a scene was being drawn out to unnecessary length. There’s always been a patch in previous books when I’ve felt the story was running out of steam or becoming redundant for a short patch, especially given that the plot tends to be a rolling series of dramatic events and then the recovery from them. To me, each dramatic event and each incorporation of a new character or motivation felt natural. Hergé managed to fit in the antagonists from more than half of his previous books without bulking the story up too much, and I think that’s really impressive. If he’d slipped in Bobby Smiles, a Bordurian, and maybe Sakharine he would have hit a home run.

A Picasso!

The Red Sea Sharks was well-received even by the standards of Tintin books and is usually considered to be one of the best. I’d agree with that, and I’d also like to say that unlike the previous few stories, which delved into science fiction, this story maintains many elements of older Tintin stories, including some pre-war stories, and uses them more effectively than ever before. It has some of the same flavour of Cigars of the Pharaoh and Land of Black Gold, especially with respect to the setting and characters, but it’s a much tighter story than either of those. As you can tell, I really enjoyed the art of it all.

But what did our old buddy Jean-Marie Apostolidès think about it? If I may steal from Wikipedia, “Apostolidès opined that The Red Sea Sharks amplifies “the theme of the general equivalence of everything” that is present in the series, serving as “a kind of retrospective” by introducing old characters and establishing new relationships between them. He believed that the theme of the mirage pervaded the story, appearing repeatedly in such forms as Abdullah’s cuckoo clock which concealed a water squirter and the pseudonyms employed by the various characters throughout the narrative.”

Have I really spent so long reading these Tintin stories that I agree with him? Or is this a relatively normal take on the book for once?

Catch you next time,



One thought on “Ampton Reads: The Red Sea Sharks

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