King Leopold’s Specter
“With his modern sense of public relations, King Leopold understood brilliantly that what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it. If you control the perception, you control the event” (Hochschild 251)
One of my goals during my time in Belgium was to explore the colonial legacy of the Congo in Belgian culture as a way of getting at the context in which Tintin In The Congo was created. I will get to the comic specifically in a bit, but first I should explain the preconceptions I arrived in Belgium with about their colonial history.
Early on in my academic career I read the book King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which meticulously catalogues how the Congo (then the Congo Free State) was made into King Leopold II’s private property and outlines the scores of atrocities he sanctioned there in the name of personal profit. As memory serves, Leopold gathered up all the European powers at the time to Belgium where — at an actual table — they drew borders all throughout Africa dividing up who would own what piece of land; during this process he carved off the Congo for himself, like a perverse brokerage fee. Even though it has been almost four years since I’ve read that book, the horrific things Leopold did have stuck with me and he easily earned himself a spot in my list of “All Time Greatest Evil Geniuses.”* It is filled with this general contempt towards Leopold that I was dumb-founded to find a statue of him prominently displayed in Brussels, across the street from a predominantly Congolese neighborhood no less.
“I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.” (Leopold to Stinglhamber, emphasis mine, Hochschild 294)
For my first two months, I would walk past this statue daily and confusedly marveled as tourists took snap shots with the valiant looking European figure. The more of these loaded photos I saw taken, the more it became clear to me that parsing the colonial history of Belgium would be murkier business than I had anticipated. Indeed, in contemporary Belgian culture there is no clear line (pun intended) on how to think of the Congo under Leopold and the fifty years afterwards it remained under direct control of Belgium until achieving “independence” in 1960. In some conversations I would be indulged with some cathartic sounding Leopold-bashing, the kind I was expecting to hear from the vantage of my U.S. classrooms (way up in the Maxey Hall of the ivory tower). In other conversations I would be challenged about my “overly harsh” perspective of Leopold, wherein the fact that he brought great prosperity to Belgium and funded major beautifying projects such as the many luscious public parks in Brussels (that I would myself enjoy with a Tintin album) was often brought up. In others I was met with a shrug or a “we are over that” or more radical proposals of reparations. In short, the opinions about Leopold II and what he did in his Congo are diverse; this is a emotionally-laden cultural history that becomes no easier to sort out when one mixes in a figure as nationally significant as a boy reporter named Tintin.
Tintin in the Congo is a hot topic issue world wide, but nowhere more so than in Belgium. I have mentioned the ongoing lawsuit facing Moulinsart on this blog before and I would further like to point you to a great summary of the specific racial problems in the comic that Alex Buchet outlines in the first of his fantastic “Tintin in the Otherland" series from this past Summer. In sum, Tintin in the Congo is this really undeniably colonial text which uniformly portrays Congolese as crudely drawn two-dimensional children who are so blessed by Tintin and Snowy’s presence they end up building fetish statues of them for worshiping. To be clear, this crudeness is something that Hergé himself acknowledges, and while he took the time to edit out racially problematic material from future Tintin adventures (as I will illustrate shortly), he mostly left the unsalvageable Tintin In The Congo alone throughout his revisionist heavy 40-60s. Tellingly, one of the few edits he made to Tintin in the Congo was changing the following lesson about how Congo belonged to Belgium in to a simple math lesson:"In a nutshell, Soviets and Congo were ‘sins of my youth.’ That’s not to say that I disown them, but in the end, if I had to do them again, I would do everything differently for sure, and then all my sins would be forgiven!” (Hergé in a 1975 Interview, from Hergé in His Own Words, 25).
As we can see from the way Hergé defends himself (rather sarcastically) nearing the end of his life in this quote, he chalks up the problematic representations of Africans to “sins of my youth.” Two years later in a reflective letter to a reader, he additionally concludes that the Congo was also a product of the times: “It was an era when the whole world found it normal that countries had colonies. In Belgium, there was the colonial lottery; a little animated black man who announced advertisements on cinema screens; streets like La Rue des Colonies: pubs that were called, for example, Le Colonial; hotel bellboys were mainly colored people; there was a brand of polish called Négrita" (Hergé in His Own Words, 25). This justification, which has become very popular when discussing the current Congo court case, absolves Hergé’s sins of his youth, because moreover those were sins of the time.**
While I will never contest this point, I think it is also dangerous one to make because it easily dismisses the systemic problems that made Tintin in the Congo a cultural product in the first place. Put differently, very few people in Belgium that I talked to believed the book should be banned or a warning explaining the context of the time should be added, and when I pushed for specifically why I would hear the identical piece of script as if I were an audience member of the same play for four months: “because it was a product of the time.” This line was presented as a way to end the conversation, as if acknowledging that there was a time when such illustrations were culturally okay precluded the responsibility to critically analyze what that time actually meant. Now, the problem with regulating Tintin in The Congo, Leopold’s atrocities, and colonialism to remnants of a distant past, is that the influence of these bits of history extend well beyond the time in which they were produced. It takes a very messy history that didn’t have a clearly demarcated end point and compartmentalizes it within two sets of years; in very much the same way European rulers created clear cut borders for Africa. I think the best example of how actually messy this history was is evidenced in the fact that Hergé’s crude portrayal of black characters in his comics extended well-beyond the 1930s.
I put together these edits to challenge the notion that Hergé only did racism in black and white and/or that his racist tendencies were confined to the pages of Tintin in The Congo.*** These edits plainly illustrate that, contrary to popular opinion, Hergé — and the culture at large he belonged to — did not stop thinking of Africans paternalistically as soon as the Congo achieved independence. Furthermore, the impetus to make these edits wasn’t the product of recognizing his own “sins of youth” either, they were only made at the insistence of his new publisher Simon and Schuster. As he sarcastically (again) said about the request to redraw and de-colour his crude caricatures of black people for the impending release of Tintin in the USA: “Everyone knows that there are no blacks in America” (Source).
Now does all this mean I think Tintin should be forever damned as racist and that there is a giant Moulinsart conspiracy at hand to keep these drawings buried? Mostly no. What I do believe is it shows how the legacy of the Congo in Belgium is much more convoluted and connected to contemporary times than most people are willing to acknowledge. Not to sound like I’m exclusively taking a place I just had a marvelous start to my fellowship year to task, I contest this problem persists in the way most colonizers think (or rather fail to think) of their former colonies; whether it is France and Algeria, the UK and India, or the United States and Iraq. If we don’t engage with how invading these places and supporting the imperial involvement there became a cultural mindset, from comics to brands of polish, than we we fail to stop from repeating the mistakes of history. While, for the sake of length, I should probably end here, I want to tie all of this in to the very strange specter of Leopold’s that manifests itself in the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa.
From my first day in Brussels taking a trip to the Royal Museum for Central Africa was on the top of my to-do list, so this meant in typical Nadim fashion I didn’t get around to going until my last week there. I went with my two very good friends Nil and Kaija-Luisa (actually I’d like to direct you to Nil’s riveting account of the day over at his blog), and was really amazed at how the museum itself captures the multi-faceted and thorny legacy of the Congo in Belgian culture. The museum is currently celebrating its 100th year anniversary, which if you do the math means that it has been around since the debt-riddled Congo was handed over from King Leopold’s private possession to the Belgian state. The museum emits a remarkably pronounced colonial vibe from the minute you approach: it is a behemoth structure with high ceilings and (to borrow Nil’s apt analogy) a Varseilles-like garden manicured at its front entrance. Once inside the museum itself it feels like stepping off of a DeLorean whose destination was set to colonial Belgium, complete with signs boasting that some of the exhibits have remained on display since 1910. I was immediately struck at how scientific it all was: from the ivory tusks, to the painstakingly labeled insect species, to the the giant replicas of exotic animals.
Among these relics it is not hard to imagine that (allegedly) once caged Africans were presented for the public’s pleasure, considered yet another specimen to study under the sterile “objective” microscope of Science. But, when you least expect it, midway through the museum it shifts from a colonial time capsule into a very salient history of the colonialism that made the museum possible. It is truly like nothing I’ve ever seen before; the second half of the museum sharply criticizes and condemns the first half! Here the scope of Leopold’s atrocities are examined, with the very point of transition marked by a dimly lit hallway where countless (well I was trying to count, but stopped at 20) eery statues of Leopold are on display.
There are also perverse gems like this rock, which literally marked the border between Belgian and German controlled territory in Africa.
The second half of the museum is a fantastic critical examination of what the messy end of colonization was actually like in Belgian culture, effectively sprinkled with testimony of Congolese who lived through that highly segregated period of Belgian history. The exhibit ends with an exploration of what exactly Congolese independence meant in 1960, the struggle to achieve it and the continued difficulty of defining a national identity in the wake of such brutal exploitation of a people and a land. In all, the museum itself exemplifies the difficulty of understanding colonialism today: here is a monument to colonialism’s grandeur that is now being subverted to critique colonialism itself. To extend the analogy, the world we live in today is very much the same house that colonialism built, and it is up to us if we will continue to think of the world in the same way that lead to stuffing elephants for the sake of science and reducing Africans with clear lines, or if we commit instead to challenging the “products of our time.”
And speaking of products, I will end with the most fittingly ironic thing you can buy from the gift shop at the Royal Museum for Central Africa:
*I really did not do the beyond cruel atrocities which Leopold committed in the Congo justice, which included liberal hand hacking, frequent rape, and an roughly estimated death toll of 10 Million Congolese under King Leopold’s private rule. For more on the subject I highly recommend reading Hoschild’s book, or, at very least, a thorough read of Leopold’s Wikipedia page.
** This is very much the stance taken by Moulinsart on this issue, most recently in the collector’s edition book Tintin Au Congo De Papa released to commemorate the 50 years of Congo’s independence. The book contains the party line on Tintin in The Congo, which is pretty much that Hergé was creating a product of the time.
*** I was able to make these illustrations with the help of http://homepages.cwi.nl/~dik/english/TINTIN.html#america. Unfortunately most of these old panels have been removed, but I have them all if you want to see any. As I intend to explore later, there were more edits than just Tintin in America.