Tintin and the issue of race

Tintin in the Congo is the most difficult of Hergé’s Tintin strips. It first appeared in 1930 in the “Petit Vingtiéme”, the newspaper for which he worked , and in book form during 1931.

His manager, the Abbé Norbert Wallez, was a card carrying fascist supporter, hence the hatchet job on the Communist Revolution in Russia depicted in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Belgium was also the colonial power in the Congo, a régime known for its brutal treatment of its native inhabitants. The Congo strip portrays the fearless white colonial power and the stupid black inhabitants. When Tintin’s car gets trapped on a railway line and is hit by a train. Incredibly it is the train which is damaged and when Tintin says “Are you ashamed to let a dog do all the work?”, the reply from one caricatured black people is “But… me get dirty…” (No page numbers in my edition of Tintin in the Congo).  The Congo is also portrayed as the land of superstition with a corrupt witch doctor who will inevitably be defeated by the  rational, young White reporter.

Both Congo and the Land of the Soviets show Hergé at his worst, having to parrot the Right Wing line, yet he changed this and confronted his own and European prejudices in The Blue Lotus.

After he saves Chang from the Japanese Mitsuhiro’s plots, Chang says, “I thought all white devils were wicked, like those who killed my grandfather and grandmother long ago” (Blue Lotus, p43). Tintin responds “But Chang, all white men all white men aren’t wicked. You see different peoples don’t know enough about each other. Lots of Europeans still believe that all Chinese are cunning and cruel and wear pigtails, are always inventing tortures”(Blue Lotus, p43). Though the conversation covers the Chinese people (the only Japanese person is a caricature – though Hergé was one of the few people to deal with the brutal Japanese invasion of China), his point rings true with the collapse of the European imperial project. Through the death of the imperial certainty of the rightness of their rule, attitudes collided with the realities that the ruled population were people as well.

But that cannot be the only reason why he made the change of mind?  In 1934, Hergé met Tchang Tchong Jan who altered his style into the visually rich one we find from Lotus onwards. In Tintin and the Secret of Literature, Tom McCarthy recounts how the conversations that both had about different people’s of the world “broke apart Hergé’s European absolutism”(Secret of Literature, p48).

The politics of Tintin and its creator are fluid and changing. In these early books, we see Hergé confront himself and his own attitudes. It also mirrors the continuing end of European absolutism and the change of the world, echoing the changes the Kipling’s views had been subjected to earlier in the century with the beginning of the end of British Imperial rule. That Tintin in the Congo still causes issues today shows the depth of the offence that its content can causes but it should be taken as a period piece.

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