Though Herge’s famous comics about the adventures of Tintin have been a favourite of mine and millions of others worldwide, racist undertones in most of these comics can be detected when read closely. Here I chronicle the racist implications that I observed and which distressed me as a reader. Though I believe that Herge was never intentionally racist, it cannot be ignored that many prejudices of his own, and those of the European world in general, can be seen in these comics. It is a sad truth that these prejudices existed, and some still do, and comics based on these prejudices, helped in fostering their growth even further.
In ‘Tintin in the Congo’ the racial references are intricately woven into the storyline even if unconsciously so. And so there have been attempts to pretend it does not exist. The well-meaning attempts to ignore Congo are wrong; a denial of history and an attempt to pretend Western Europe was never fundamentally racist. The racism in the books seems to me, to come from ignorance rather than hate. To us, the strip is crude, full of racist caricatures. More than 40 years later, Hergé called this book, along with the Soviets, a “sin of youth”. About Congo he said, “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time: ‘Negroes are big children. Happily for them we are there!’ And I drew them in the spirit of the pure paternalism which reigned at the time in Belgium. I am not trying to excuse myself. I admit that my early books were typical of the Belgian bourgeois mentality of the time.”
There is a significant change in Herge’s later comics. The Blue Lotus, a story based in China, begins with a scene portraying Tintin defending a rickshaw driver who has had an accident with a westerner. The latter beats the diver, shouting, “Dirty little Chinaman! To barge into a white man!” Later, the white man complains to his friends, “What’s the world coming to? Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilize the savages!” The story has Tintin evading the Japanese and, when he sees a boy drowning in a river, jumping in to save him. “I am Chang Chong-Chen,” says the startled boy. “But why did you save my life? I thought all white devils were wicked, like those who killed my grandfather and grandmother long ago.” Tintin replies, “But Chang, all white men aren’t wicked. You see different people 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 and eating rotten eggs and swallows’ nests.” Together, the two of them laugh.
Despite the change, Herge continued to write in a racist undertone, whether consciously or not is a matter of speculation. The Red Sea Sharks has been criticised for its stereotypical portrayal of Africans, both in appearance and behavior. Although obviously good-hearted, the black characters are shown as being somewhat childish and simple. At one point Captain Haddock rails at their obduracy, calling them “addle-pated lumps of anthracite”, although he is arguably being his colorful self rather than exhibiting deep-seated racism.
In ‘Tintin in America’, Tintin says, “Look Snowy… A real Red Indian” and clicks a picture. He goes to buy an “outfit”, almost as if he were in a fancy dress party. While he is inside a shop, Snowy sits in an extremely superior pose, and is shown to say, very haughtily, “Redskin dogs! Ok, so I’m a paleface… Haven’t you red skins ever seen one before?”
When the Red Indians want to declare a battle, they are shown to be unable to find the Mohawk that was buried the last time they had a battle. They are apparently disorganized and superstitious. This portrayal ridicules and trivializes the Red Indians and their customs. When Tintin is captured by them, he creates a fight between the Red Indians by cleverly throwing bits of resin at them, such that they suspect each other. They are shown stupid and easily fooled by any white man; first Bobby Smiles, and then Tintin. When an oil well is discovered, the Americans are ready to pay a hundred thousand dollars to Tintin for the rights of the well, but the minute they realize it is the Red Indians who own the land, the latter are given twenty five dollars and gotten rid of. This may also be read as an exposé of the way Americans took advantage of the Red Indians.
In ‘Cigars of the Pharaoh’, the native “flashes the signal” for the ships carrying smuggled cargo and helps in smuggling, for money it gets him. The African men on board the ship are mostly shown as slaves heaving objects around for their white masters. They all have a slightly stupid expression on their faces, wear only a scrap of cloth around their waists and are mute. Oliveira da Figueria orders them around. They are invariably chocolate coloured half-naked humans with swollen white or red lips. In another sequence, an Arab eats a ‘cake’ of soap as he thinks it to be edible ‘cake’. He hurtles abuses at Oliveira, the salesman, and creates a hullabaloo. Apparently, an Arab cannot distinguish between a cake of soap and a baked cake. A sheikh shouts at Tintin, “We can do without the worthless clutter of your so-called civilization.” The next moment, when Tintin tells the sheikh his name, the latter embraces him, for he has read about Tintin. The guards are shown generally as cowards, for they run away if they see a mad dog. Indians are shown as superstitious; an Indian servant says, “Oh Sahib! Sahib! … The spirits have come for us! I saw one… All in white … running into the jungle!” on seeing Sacrophagus wearing a white sheet around his shoulders. The Indians are all servants, or Rajahs, or Fakirs, in Herge’s books. They are usually barefoot with stick-like physiques. The ‘tantric’ hypnotises Tintin, all Indians wear turbans without exception, and Snowy is almost sacrificed to Siva for attacking a sacred cow. When Tintin meets a Maharaja of Gaipajama, he misses a shot and is almost killed by a tiger, but Tintin, with his bare hands, manages to wrestle the tiger into a straitjacket. The tantric is shown to have a white ‘master’.
In The Black Island, when a man hits Tintin and says, “That’s a little jujitsu, my friend.” Tintin displaying a callous disrespect for ancient martial art forms, replies by knocking him out cold with his foot and says, “And that’s a straight left on the jaw”.
In ‘The Broken Ear’, Tintin is shown to refer to AJ Walker’s Travels in the America, where he reads out a portion to Snowy which says, “Today we met our first Arumbayas. Long black, oily hair framed their coffee coloured faces. They were armed with long blow pipes which they employ to shoot darts poisoned with curare.” Tintin literally ‘buys’ an Indian named Caraco to row him to the Arumbayas. However, Caraco is shown to be cowardly and cunning who abandons Tintin whilst the latter is asleep.
In The Seven Crystal Balls, while in a show, an Indian woman, Madame Yamilah is shown to predict everything accurately as if she has supernatural powers.
In the sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, two white men are shown to tease a poor Indian orange seller. Tintin comes to his rescue and the orange seller says to him, “You are good… You are brave.” and speaks broken English and helps Tintin. He says to him, “If Indians see me speak to you, they kill me at once.” Tintin is shown to save this young Indian’s (Zorrino’s) life throughout the story. At one point, when Tintin saves him from some kidnappers, he says, “You see, Zorrino, we didn’t abandon you.” Tintin saves him from a huge snake soon afterwards and also gives him a talisman that would save the bearer’s life when they are caught by the Incas. He is the big kind hearted white man who takes care of the dark Indian as is his duty. It is Crusoe’s white man’s burden replayed. Tintin fools the Incas, like he has fooled the Red Indians, and others, by acting as if he controls the sun, when it is actually a solar eclipse. The Incas are portrayed as ignorant and foolish, and they are unaware of solar eclipses.
All the coloured people so encountered by Tintin are shown to be generally nice people, but slow-witted and superstitious. Even though Herge was probably more ignorant than racist the fact remains that he had a responsibility towards his readers, which consisted mainly of children; young minds that carried impressions of their early images of ‘coloured people’; impressions that would remain strongly rooted in them unless taught otherwise. Though Herge definitely shows greater sensitivity in his later comics, especially The Blue Lotus, where he is more informed and thus more correct in his portrayals, unwittingly, most of his works starring Tintin are marred by a racist tendency born out of ignorance.