Tintin: Heroic Boy Reporter or Sinister Racist?

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Virginia Mayo / AP

Lawyer Ahmed L'Hedim, center, at the Palace of Justice in Brussels. Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, right, wants the controversial book Tintin in the Congo to be banned in Belgium

As an explorer, crime fighter and all-around hero, comic-strip icon Tintin has been an inspiration for generations. But his status as a paragon of wholesome adventure is under threat, thanks to a court bid to ban one of his books, Tintin in the Congo, for its racist portrayal of Africans.

The trial, which will begin on Wednesday in Brussels, the city where Tintin's creator, Hergé, lived, is reviving memories of an era that Belgium would rather forget: its brutal colonial empire in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The case was lodged by a Brussels-based Congolese former accountant, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, 42, who says the book — first published in 1930 — is racist, colonial propaganda. "It shows the Africans as childish imbeciles," he tells TIME. "It suggests blacks have not evolved." Indeed, to today's reader, many of the scenes range from politically incorrect to hideously offensive, including one in which a black woman bows before Tintin exclaiming, "White man very great. White mister is big juju man!"

Hergé, who had never visited Congo, was just 23 when he wrote the book, which he was persuaded to do as part of a government-led initiative to encourage Belgians to take up commissions in Congo. But Mbutu Mondondo says it served — and still serves — to prop up a sanitized account of Belgium's colonialism. "It twists history to suggest that everything was happy and fun," he says. "In reality, it was a tragic, hurtful time."

Belgian Congo was one of the most bloody and cruel colonial regimes in Africa. The original inspiration for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it was claimed for King Leopold II in 1885 by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. For 23 years, the area — the size of France, Germany, Norway, Spain and Sweden combined — was the King's personal possession. Leopold's agents pioneered a ruthless forced-labor system for gathering wild rubber: villages that failed to meet the rubber-collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in amputated hands. Some estimates say Congo's population fell by 10 million during that time.

The colony was handed over to the Belgian state in 1908, but there was no thought of granting Congo independence until the late 1950s, and then it happened very suddenly in 1960. "All countries prefer to see any conquests they took part in as something noble, whether [it be] manifest destiny, bringing civilization and Christianity to the savages or whatever," says Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost, the 1998 best seller that explores Belgium's savage colonial history in Congo. "For decades, the Belgians who lived in Congo have been a powerful lobby for maintaining a very rosy view of the colonial era — in the Africa Museum outside Brussels, in school textbooks and elsewhere — and for shunning scholars, many of them Belgians, who portray something darker."

In some ways, Tintin in the Congo was mild for its time. Hergé's ideas about the colony were entirely in tune with the age, when Africans were considered to be primitives. Until 1960, Belgian schoolbooks would contain phrases like "The intellectual development of the black child stops very early" and "Negroes are indolent, lazy by nature, lacking in foresight." As odious as it sounds today, Africans were considered eternal children who needed to be groomed for adulthood.

In June, the former colony celebrates 50 years of independence, and Belgium's King Albert II will attend the festivities in Kinshasa. But feelings between the two countries are still raw, with Belgium regularly grumbling about Congo's human-rights record, and Congo accusing the Belgians of paternalism. During a diplomatic spat in 2004, Congolese Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi charged the Belgian government with "racism and nostalgia for colonialism," adding, "It's Tintin in the Congo all over again."

But should Tintin pay for the sins of Belgium's past? Hergé himself later expressed remorse over the book. "I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved," he said in the 1970s, and he made many changes for the color version of Tintin in the Congo, which was published in 1946. For example, a scene in which Tintin teaches a class of Congolese people about Belgian geography — saying, "Let's talk about your country, Belgium!" — was later changed to a math class.

Nonetheless, the book remains controversial, even outside Belgium. In 2007, Britain's Commission for Racial Equality said the book contains imagery and words of "hideous racial prejudice." The book's British editions carry a foreword explaining that Hergé's depiction reflected the colonial attitudes of the time, and Mbutu Mondondo says he would be satisfied with a similar measure in Belgium.

Moulinsart, the organization that runs Hergé's estate, accepts that the book reflects colonial clichés but warns against moves to censor Tintin. "Obviously, if someone showed Tintin in the Congo to an editor now, it would not get published," says Moulinsart communications director Alain de Kuyssche. "But you can't judge Tintin or Hergé solely by today's standards and attitudes. If you don't take account of the historical context, you would have to put a warning on every book over 50 years old."

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