King Leopold II of the Belgians appropriated the Congo basin as his own private property and exploited it for ivory and then rubber. Between 1885 and 1908, this vast region of Africa (77 times the size of Belgium) became killing fields while turning a profit for the king, conservatively estimated at 220 million francs of the time, or 1.1 billion in 1998 dollars.*
The terror he instituted (copied by other European powers in Africa) was based on forced labor. Native-born people were conscripted into a local army called “Force Publique,” run by white leaders using brutal treatment and terror. Garrisons of this army were marched from village to village with demands for “volunteers” (to work as porters, frequently in chains) and later for quotas of rubber. If they met resistance, they killed entire villages outright, or held women, elder leaders and children as hostages. The Force Publique conscripts were issued bullets, but were not permitted to hunt with them. They could only be used to kill people. So for each bullet issued, conscripts had to deliver a severed hand (usually smoked, to preserve it) to prove that it had been used for its intended purpose.
With a novel-like ear for storytelling, the book talks about the rise and end of Leopold’s rule, the many people involved in the fight against his brutality, and the experience of the Congolese people.
The colony was turned over to Belgium in 1908, but the story did not end there. Eventually, although not immediately, the Belgian colony became less brutal. But only marginally so, since until the 1950s its principal goal was to exploit the region’s riches, and it continued to use forced labor to do so. As late as the 1920s, missionaries reported continued depopulation and low birth rates as a result of the conscription of miners, the continued appropriation of land by colonists and companies, and the requirement that villagers plant specific, exportable, cash crops which never benefited the Congolese.**
So let’s talk about Tintin.
Hergé wrote Tintin in the Congo in 1931. It was reissued with new art and some editing in 1946. (Which is the version I read, in French, as a child.) In later years, Hergé would disavow the book as being an immature work of someone taught the racist and paternalistic view that Africans were like uncivilized children, and who lived at a time when big game hunting was popular.
The popularity of Tintin has been hard to resist, however. And eventually, publishers have reissued Tintin in the Congo, even over justified protests about its racism. Most recently they have put a sleeve on it explaining the times in which it was written, and have placed the volume in the adult graphic novel section.
But racism is only a part of the book’s problem. What Tintin in the Congo does is more insidious. It takes the view that Belgian colonialism was beneficial for the Congolese, and that white rulers were there to “civilize,” by word and action. Tintin (when not killing off animals) stops warring chiefs (with great derring-do) and shows the way for peace between the two villages. (He also stops an American gangster from stealing the diamonds from a mine, which, of course, belong to the white authorities.)
This paean to Belgian colonialism is galling. Later in Congo’s colonial history, Belgium would build more schools and work to improve health care (having marked success in dealing with sleeping sickness). It realized, belatedly, that the Congolese never benefitted from the colony’s vast riches, but the improvements were much too little, way too late. In 1960, after a rising tide of protests and unrest, Belgium officially ceded the colony to its people.
Tintin admirers will say that despite its flaws, the book still represents a work of Hergé’s genius, and it should be admired for its artistry, if not for its racist and colonialist content.
I cringe at this argument. It’s the one used for Birth of a Nation, a movie used by the Ku Klux Klan as a recruitment vehicle into the 1970s. It is a way of placing form over content, as if one were divorced from the other. If there is anything that a lifetime of reading comics has taught me, it is that the art and the text are inextricably linked. The content cannot be removed from the art.
King Leopold II was a master of deception and redirection. Tintin in the Congo would have served him well.
* The exact figure is unknown. When the international outcry at King Leopold II’s administration forced him to turn the Congo over to Belgium, he destroyed all the state records of his rule. The effort kept furnaces burning in Brussels for eight days. The monetary estimate is based on the deflated reports he made to the Belgian government; those shipping records that were not destroyed; and the Congo profits he used to build a large number of public buildings, monuments, personal villas and castles, to finance his lavish lifestyle, and to pay retainers and bribes both in Belgium and abroad.
** Ironically, the Great Depression had a beneficial effect for Congo’s people: with oversupply and the precipitous drop in commodity prices, labor demands dropped, and many Congolese were allowed to return to their homes.
[Thanks to Mitali Perkins for noting the re-issuance of Tintin in the Congo.]