Chris Blattman

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Babar: tool of colonialist oppression?


A reader asks what Babar the elephant pictures are doing in my lecture slides on colonialism.

Bill Foltz at Yale used to start his African politics class off by reading–and reinterpreting–the story. Allow me to burst your bubble in the same fashion.

Adam Gopnik says it better than I can in this New Yorker article:

Babar, such interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not.

The true condition of the animals–to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle–is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule. The animals that resist–the rhinoceroses–are defeated.

The Europeanized elephants are, as in the colonial mechanism of indirect rule, then made trustees of the system, consuls for the colonial power. To be made French is to be made human and to be made superior.

Don’t see it? Look at the picture again. Center field is the overweight self-proclaimed supreme ruler of his elephant tribe, surrounded by his cronies. He seems to be grooming his son for power, backed by the military. He has some token minority ethnic representation  and he appears to be negotiating something nefarious with the French Ambassador.

Now, Gopnik actually argues a different interpretation:

Fables for children work not by pointing to a moral but by complicating the moral of a point.

The child does not dutifully take in the lesson that salvation lies in civilization, but, in good Freudian fashion, takes in the lesson that the pleasures of civilization come with discontent at its constraints: you ride the elevator, dress up in the green suit, and go to live in Celesteville, but an animal you remain–the dangerous humans and rhinoceroses are there to remind you of that–and you delight in being so.

…Far more than an allegory of colonialism, the Babar books are a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life.

I don’t know what he’s talking about either. I like the “Babar: poster child of indirect rule” story and I’m sticking to it.

9 Responses

  1. Hi. I recently came revisited Babar and I think I arrived a little late to the discussion. Even though I agree with the idea that Babar is in fact an expresion of the colonization ideal (as in some way is Tin Tin) I disagree in the way you present the topic. I think the content of your explanation is very similar to the method of explanation. (I will try to explain myself, please forgive me but english is not my native language) The way you argue for the colonialist interpretation of Babar seems to me as superficial in the same way you describe the image. Is not an argument of content but of appearance. This is patent in the way you write “He seems to be grooming his son for power”. In the Babar books Arthur/ is not Babar’s son but his brother-in-law. I know that my critique may seem as superficial as the conduct I’m blaming on you but is the expresion of a greater idea. The idea that when facing issues like colonialism or subjacent ideologies hidden in some literary works we don’t start by the source. It seems that part of this discussion is being made from the general idea of Babar rather than the narratives that Babar delivers. So as a fellow in the colonialist argument I humbly recommend you to go to Babar’s books and search there for the clues as I know a researcher like you can do, in the same way you probably do for any other issue. I think the topic is at least a little more complex than naked elephants in the jungle. Greetings and thank you.

  2. Jacob – To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I left Belgium at age 5 so my memory is a bit fuzzy. I think it left me with the feeling that “elephants are friendly and rhinos less so”.

    In all seriousness though, I see it kind of like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox: animals are humanized and made to look cute but still have their animal nature, bruteish. More like Gopnik then, but bourgeois?.

  3. This totally threw me off guard.
    I grew up in Francophone nursery in Belgium and Babar was an almost permanent fixture.
    I see the point. I do, I just don’t want to believe it!

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