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The Strange Career of Tamango: From Prosper Mérimée’s 1829 Novella to its 1958 Film Adaptation

By Raphaël Lambert.

Prosper Mérimée’s 1829 novella Tamango is a simple case of a biter being bit: Tamango, an African slave dealer, is captured along with the people he has just sold to a French captain. Once in the hold of the slave ship with his former victims and now fellow-captives, Tamango organizes a successful revolt in which all the whites onboard are massacred. Unable to stir the ship back to Africa, the insurgents succumb to thirst and starvation except for Tamango who is rescued and goes on to live the forlorn life of an alcoholic cymbalist in the British colony of Jamaica.

Both Prosper Mérimée’s original story and its 1958 screen adaptation by blacklisted Hollywood director John Berry must be understood in their historical context. Set in the 1820s, Mérimée’s Tamango is full of ambiguities as it denounces both the slave trade and the French government’s disingenuous support of it, while also depicting Africans in an unflattering and objectionable light. Berry’s Tamango is less oblique than Mérimée’s but not less complex, and equally influenced by its political environment. The cold war, decolonization, and the American civil rights movement constitute a diffuse but significant backdrop to the film. While remembered as an audacious, even provocative work, Berry’s Tamango promotes values that are very different from Mérimée’s but not necessarily more progressive.

Mérimée’s Ambivalent Plea for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Mérimée published Tamango in the midst of a fierce national debate about the slave trade. On the occasion of the Treaty of Paris (1815), restored Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII had been compelled to sign a treaty with England whereby France forswore slave-trading activities. But many in France believed that England’s efforts to enforce its 1807 ban on the slave trade was in fact a deliberate attempt to stifle an already ailing French economy. In this perspective, violating the ban became not only a necessity but also a patriotic stance. This accounts, early in Mérimée’s story, for the attitude of the French officials who, upon inspecting Captain Ledoux’s brig, turn a blind eye to ‘the obvious objective of the ship’s travels, tacitly support[ing] Ledoux’s illegal money making scheme’ (Cropper 2004: 66). While this is a clear indictment of the French government’s connivance regarding the slave trade, Mérimée still panders to his readership’s proverbial Anglophobia: at the end of the story, when Tamango is rescued by English sailors and brought to Jamaica, the local British governor reasons that since the men Tamango murdered ‘were only Frenchmen’, Tamango will be set free, that is, the narrator hastens to explain, ‘made to work for the government’ (Mérimée 2008: 92). This ending to the story is disconcerting as it tends to dampen the difference between the pathetic life of a destitute musician in a colonial regiment and that of a plantation slave in the Americas.

This way of blowing hot and cold also typifies Mérimée’s way of presenting the slave trade. Mérimée chose to publish Tamango in Revue de Paris, a new literary magazine that published noted abolitionists like Benjamin Constant and Victor Schoelcher, which vouches for Mérimée’s sincerity about ending the slave trade. Not unlike Montesquieu who confronted his contemporaries on slavery by telling them, through a series of outrageous statements, what he would say if he had to justify the right of white people to enslave black people, Mérimée endeavours to infuriate his reader by a series of shocking comments and scenes so as to expose the ignominy of the slave trade and those who profit by it.[i] But Mérimée’s text remains unsettling as the jumbling up of several narrative voices leaves the reader perplexed as to the author’s intended message.

From the onset, Captain Ledoux seems to live up to his name. He comes across as a gentle, bonhomous veteran, a true patriot who lost a hand at Trafalgar and regrets that the war is over. Ledoux is an entrepreneur at heart, and slave trading naturally imposes itself to him as a lucrative venture. The good-natured Ledoux imparts his joie de vivre by naming his brig Espérance (‘Hope’). But hope there will be very little for his human cargo. Ledoux is a tight-packer who leaves only three feet and four inches in height to his human cargo and who questions the need of the slaves to stand up in the hold since, ‘when they arrive in the colonies […] they’ll spend more than enough time on their feet’ (Mérimée 2008: 73). Cynicism peaks when, after he has finally decided against filling the narrow space between rows of slaves with even more slaves, a contended Ledoux declares: ‘You have to be humane and allow a black man at least five feet by two in which to flex his limbs during a voyage lasting six weeks or more’ (Ibid). Beyond the choice, in the original, of the infinitive s’ébattre (‘to flex his limbs’) that connotes the purported puerility of Africans, and the measurements that, incidentally, are a bit less than the room left for a man in his coffin, a feeling of uneasiness arises from narratorial entanglements as the voice of the narrator merges with the voice of the unsavoury Ledoux character.[ii] The quote above is in free indirect speech, but it forms a complete statement once paired with Ledoux’s exact words, now reported with conventional quotation marks: ‘After all’, a deceptively philanthropic Ledoux points out to the shipbuilder, ‘these blacks are human beings, just as much as white men’ (Ibid). The impression relayed by such a narrative play is one of implicit endorsement as the narrator’s and Ledoux’s words, enclosed in the same sentence, complement each other.

This pattern is recurrent throughout the text and becomes particularly prevalent in the part of the story where the treatment of the human cargo is concerned. Ledoux, whose principal interest lies in profit, considers the loss of ‘only’ twelve Negroes by heat stroke a trifling matter. Hence the following comment by the narrator is troubling: ‘To ensure that his human cargo suffered as little as possible from the hardships of the crossing, he considerately allowed his slaves up on deck once a day’ (Mérimée 2008: 79). The suggested benevolence contrasts with Ledoux’s real motivation, stated just earlier in the paragraph, which is to keep his cargo in the best possible shape for the best possible sell in the New World. The narrator, with the same tone of empathy, continues: ‘Taking turns, a third of them at a time, these wretched creatures had an hour in which to lay in a full day’s supply of air’ (Ibid: 79-80). It is then, as if irritated or mortified by his/her own outpouring of humanity, that the narrator reverts to crass stereotyping by sharing with the reader what can only be his/her (not Ledoux’s) take on the scene in which a fiddler is hired to make the captives dance: ‘On these occasions it was remarkable to see them all turn their black faces towards the musician, gradually lose their expression of abject despair, laugh loudly, and even applaud when not prevented from doing so by their chains’ (Ibid: 80). While it is difficult to identify the precise nature of the narrator throughout the text as it wavers between a variety of points of view (sometimes detached, sometimes not; sometimes omniscient and sometimes limited, depending on the situation), the decision to use the myth of the ‘happy darkie’ in this instance is the narrator’s own. It is gratuitous and goes against the tone of the preceding sentence, as if the narrator was trying to satisfy readers with opposite sensibilities.

Occasionally, this constant repositioning of the narrator occurs within the same sentence:

Exercise is essential to good health. Consequently, one of the captain’s salutary practices was to get his slaves to dance frequently, as horses are made to prance on deck during a long sea crossing. ‘Come on now, boys and girls, enjoy yourselves!’ the captain bellowed, cracking an enormous coaching whip. And at once the poor blacks would leap and dance. (Mérimée 2008: 80)

The shortcut from health concern for the captives to the equine simile can be read as ironic. However, the change of punctuation indicates that the narrator’s comparison of blacks to horses is inspired by Ledoux’s cracking a horsewhip while supervising the dancing on the deck. The continuity between the narrator’s account and Ledoux’s cruelty undermines the alleged intention of the narrator whose description of the captives as ‘poor blacks’ to punctuate the scene comes across as sheer contempt rather than genuine compassion.

The confusion generated by the corroding of the boundary between narrator and protagonist grows further with the use of a first person narrator of which occasional intrusions (six in total) are delivered in the casual tone of the conversationalist. The initial intervention by the first person narrator occurs in a comment about leg-iron bars – ‘those irons that for some reason are called barres de justice’ (Mérimée 2008: 73). The eagerness to show the absurdity of the expression participates of the overall irony of the text, but the use of the first person remains superfluous. Strikingly, this ‘I’ never takes part in the action and seems to make a point of being detached and ill informed. For example, the name of the African river where Ledoux’s brig drops anchor is followed by a pointless ‘I believe’ (Ibid: 74), and when a compassionate ship translator bends over a badly beaten Tamango, the narrator comments: ‘What he said I don’t know’ (Ibid: 79). A similar lack of information is displayed one last time at the end of the story by the first person narrator who tells he doesn’t know how long it was before an English frigate finally spotted the dismasted ship.[iii]

This apparently unnecessary presence of the first person cannot be completely fortuitous and should perhaps be interpreted as an authorial interference whereby Mérimée, doing what Jonathan Swift once did with A Modest Proposal, fashions an implied author unaware of the outrageous ideas the text promotes. At first glance, Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck’s contention that the implied author, ‘constitutes the source for the aggregate of norms and opinions that makes up the ideology of the text’ (2001: 16) does not seem to correspond to the rather non-committal ‘I’ of Tamango except perhaps in that it never disagrees with the narrator whose voice, as shown earlier, is often mixed up with Ledoux’s. There is one instance, however, where the first person seems to betray its opinion, if not of the slave trade, at least of its victims. It is at the moment when Tamango and his fellow rebels, starving on the stranded boat, are fated to a certain death: ‘Why should I inflict on the reader a harrowing description of the torments of hunger’ (Mérimée 2008: 90). The first person, by engaging the reader, identifies itself explicitly with the author of the text, and the reluctance to describe the suffering and horrors of starvation is rather startling since earlier in the text the narrator spared the reader no detail about the slaughtering of the crew and captain by Tamango and his men. Such narrative choices are off-putting: starvation, perhaps because it is all too common and familiar to the whole of humanity, does not need to be described: it bores the reader. Conversely, the savagery of the black insurgents as well as Ledoux’s ill treatment of Africans, are worthy of long, detailed descriptions. This direct address to the reader by the first person narrator does not clear up the question of whether that first person stands for an implied author or for Mérimée himself. The constant blurring of the line between these various narrative voices suggests that Mérimée, willingly or not, could not help but be ambiguous as to his exact position on the slave trade.

Less puzzling, however, is Mérimée’s straightforward and biased representation of African characters, leaving little doubt as to his condescending and low opinion of them. The title character Tamango is first depicted in a very negative light. The mismatched, ill-fitting military attire Tamango wears when he meets Ledoux is ridiculous; his skin is compared to leather, as if to underline some animality that will resurface later when Tamango kills the captain during the insurrection; during negotiations with Ledoux, a little alcohol makes Tamango emotional and irrational (he gives his favourite wife Ayché to the Captain in a fit of rage); he is easy to manipulate and bargains his slaves away. Tamango’s hubris and imbecility, however, only rival with his barbarity: when Ledoux refuses to buy the mother of the children he has just acquired for a glass of brandy, Tamango shoots the mother dead in front of her children. Stupor sets in the mind of the reader. In 1829, when the story comes out, the French still have in mind what Doris Kadish calls the ‘Black terror’ of the Haitian revolution and even if Mérimée, according to Kadish, refuses to ‘acknowledge Saint Domingue as a historical subtext,’ (1995: 674), there is no doubt that this barbaric Tamango is patterned after the stereotype of the mean, dangerous, and brutal black rebel who had succeeded the romanticized, heroic one of popular literature prior to the slave revolution of 1791.[iv] But Mérimée’s narrator has kept to his ambivalence and Tamango’s ferocity is mirrored by the narrator’s sardonic comments that, by comparison to the long wooden forks secured around the necks of the captives in Africa, the iron fetters the French sailors put on the captives are a clear example of ‘the manifest superiority of our European civilization’ (Mérimée 2008: 76). In the end, most readers of Tamango concur with G. Hainsworth’s conclusion that, ‘the sum of the tale, clearly, sets in parallel savagery and civilization, to the greatest glory of neither’ (1967: 82).

But Tamango, it can be argued, can lead to a reflection beyond Hainsworth’s idea that the slave trade is degrading to all parties involved. The latter part of the story presents a very different Tamango. Although still a selfish individual who does not hesitate to lie to his fellow captives so as to gain their confidence or aggrandize himself, Tamango is also the one who exhorts them to take action to recover their freedom. Displaying acumen and leadership, Tamango masterminds a perfect insurrection on the occasion of which the animality and savagery of the blacks is largely emphasized. Tamango, who is, ‘as agile as the panthers of his homeland’, fatally bites Ledoux at the throat while all the other whites are ‘pitilessly slaughtered’ and their corpses ‘dismembered, chopped up, and thrown into the sea’ (Mérimée 2008: 86).

The aftermath of the bloodshed brings a new dimension to the story. Tamango, if he is not as dull and gullible as his African brethrens, soon reveals his limitations when it comes to mastering white technology. Positioning himself at the helm as he has seen the Captain do, he suddenly yanks the wheel, almost capsizing the boat and breaking both masts, ruining any chance of ever returning to Africa. The angry, superstitious blacks immediately blame Tamango for offending ‘the white men’s fetish’ (Mérimée 2008: 88), and instead of looking for a solution to their desperate situation, they prefer to abandon themselves to a drinking orgy with the brandy they have just discovered onboard. It is this image of a childlike, irresponsible people that lingers after the reading. Blacks are not ready for freedom and need the guidance of whites. The example of Haiti, in a state of complete chaos since its independence in 1804, may have been in the back of Mérimée’s mind; but more important, this allusion to the incapacity of black people to rule themselves prefigures France’s colonial campaigns in Africa, which really took off in 1830, just a year after Tamango was published, with the invasion of Algeria. The germs of the French colonial enterprise and its pet dream of mission civilisatrice is an underlying theme in the text of Tamango. And in fact, there is no incompatibility between Mérimée’s abolitionist sympathies and the idea that Africans cannot manage their own destiny. The abolitionists denounced the violence and the torture characterizing the slave trade. They did not necessarily object to the white tutelage of Africa. As Victor Hugo, a paragon of human rights activism, famously declared in 1879 in a banquet organized to commemorate the second abolition of slavery: ‘God offers Africa to Europe. Take it!’ (Hoffmann 1996: 82, my translation)

John Berry’s Tamango: The Insatiable Desire to Be Avant-Garde

John Berry’s Tamango bears little resemblance to its nineteenth century literary source. Aiché, the favourite Tamango had given to the captain in the original, has become the captain’s long-standing mulatto girlfriend. As for the obnoxious, vain, heartless slave trader Tamango, he has been replaced by a principled, fearless lion hunter who refuses to obey his cruel oppressors, and convinces his fellow captives that it is better to lose one’s life in a righteous fight than being sold by the white man into slavery. It is not that Hugo’s well-intentioned racial anthropology has disappeared at the end of the 1950s, but such theories were seriously questioned after they became linked with Nazi ideology and exactions. At the level of world politics, the 1955 Afro-Asian conference of Bandung in Indonesia not only opposed both European colonialism and neo-colonialism by the USA and the USSR, but also aimed at promoting the ‘Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations large and small.’[v] As for France, the Algerian war of independence had started in 1956, and respected intellectuals from the colonies such as Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Léopold Sédar Senghor had been debunking Negrophobe stereotypes and celebrating Africanness. In the United States, African American civil rights activists had been fighting for social, political, and racial equality bringing to the attention of the world the pitiable spectacle of lynching and institutional racism. In this context, in which white injustice is brought to the fore all over the world, it is hard to imagine how John Berry could have created a faithful version of Mérimée’s African protagonist who sells his own people and seems to corroborate all too well pervading notions of black inherent inferiority and savagery.

The release of Tamango in France did not go without its share of troubles. Tamango was censored in French colonies and overseas territories. American columnists naturally offered an American interpretation of the ban. Tamango was banned in the French colonies, a New York Times columnist explained, ‘as being too inflammatory, since it has romantic scenes between a Negro woman and a white man’ (Weiler 1959: 9). It is very unlikely that miscegenophobia was the reason for censorship in the colonies.[vi] More likely, the story of fearless, rebellious slaves silenced to death by the canon of a brutal white master might have come across as a rather undesirable candidate for screenings in African theatres. In 1956, France was facing growing resentment in its African empire and decided to grant the inhabitants of its African colonies full status as citizens with the hope that such measures would stave off nationalist movements and appease a climate of violence. 1956 is also the beginning of the Algerian war of independence.[vii] John Berry, an American director exiled in Paris, must have been conscious of the French susceptibilities as Ledoux, the French captain, has become Reinker, a Dutch captain (Borde 1958: 1904).

Although dealing with an insurrection on a European slave ship in the early nineteenth century, John Berry’s Tamango is entrenched in the African American politics of the time. Eager to champion the black cause, Berry has transformed Tamango the victimizer into Tamango the heroic victim. A man of principles, Tamango prefers physical punishment to eating swill served by his white oppressors. ‘They will never make me a slave!’ he warns his fellow captives in the hold; and when they turn against him for getting one of them hanged, he reminds them that everything he does is to free them from their chains. A charismatic leader, Tamango teaches his followers resilience and solidarity: ‘Brothers in life. Brothers in death’ becomes their motto when they exchange blood before the uprising. Later, after a half-successful fight and retreat in the hold with Aiché as a hostage and bargaining chip, a magnanimous Tamango pushes the men’s newfound sense of community to its limits: ‘We can stay and fight and even if we die, we’ll win, because you can sell living men but you can’t sell dead ones. Me, they won’t sell me.’ None of the men – we may as well call them ‘Freedom Fighters’ – will fail their leader, and they choose to sacrifice themselves for their ideals. The communal feeling of the black captives in the hold is all the more important that it is contrasted with the self-serving mentality of the white man. As Captain Reinker tries to convince a distrustful Aiché of staying with him, he argues: ‘you and I, we want the same thing. Those people out there, they’d die for their tribe. We don’t want to die for anything. We want to live for ourselves. Maybe it’s not very great or noble, but that’s the way we are, both of us.’ While a reminder that historically slave ship captains were driven not by ideology but by greed, this exchange between the captain and Aiché is pivotal as the captain’s open confession about his love and ethics backfires and helps Aiché solve her dilemma. Between a free, comfortable life with the captain and racial solidarity, Aiché will finally choose the latter and irrevocably embrace the cause. Once released by Tamango at the end of the story, Aiché chooses to stay in the hold and sacrifice herself: she dies with the others.

The fact that Aiché is played by African American actress Dorothy Dandridge is no coincidence.[viii] Aiché is a ‘tragic mulatto’, a role Dandridge would often come to be associated with, on and off screen. Like many African Americans of the 1950s, Aiché has internalized the racist precept of the one-drop rule. Initially conceived by Southern segregationists to preserve white purity, the one-drop rule has entered the rhetoric of the black militancy in the 1950s: the slightest trace of African ancestry inexorably makes one African American, and in these times of racially polarized politics, it should be a source of pride. It is this ideology Tamango advocates when he calls Aiché ‘white man’s trash’ at the beginning of the film. And the story of Aiché, which is central to the film, is really about a psychological journey from subservience to resistance to the white master with racial loyalty as a corollary.

At the beginning of the movie the surgeon, upset at Aiché for rejecting his advances, humiliates her thus: ‘You may be quite clear skin, but you are still a black slave.’ Much later, Aiché has turned her supposed liability into a forceful argument. To the captain who begs her to stay with him instead of returning to the hold with the other slaves, she retorts: ‘but I can’t stay with you. I don’t belong to you. I belong with them.’ Aiché’s transformation into a black militant also reflects the hardening political stance of the time. Early in the story, Aiché displays the worst kind of accommodationism. Commenting Tamango’s refusal to be servile, she tells the other women: ‘He’s a fool. Any man who tries to disobey his master is a fool.’ Aiché’s brainwashed attitude is also emphasized by her cultural isolation. She cannot identify the necklace of one of the African woman as a wedding necklace. Defeatist but also rational, Aiché warns the young bride in tears that she is not only separated from her fiancé for good, but also will very likely fall prey to the lust of sailors. Although she is not conscious of it, Aiché tries to help her fellow Africans and by and by, she will come around and understand that not only she ought to help her own people, but also that race loyalty is a natural calling, something that she has in her. In this perspective, race is the ruling factor in her life. Her identity is racial before anything else.

Although hailed as daring and groundbreaking in the United States for featuring a few kisses and embraces between a white man and a coloured woman, Berry’s Tamango suffers from a lack of credibility when it doesn’t relay rather conventional ideas. There is very little chance that the captain of a slaver at the beginning of the nineteenth century would take a coloured mistress onboard and let her strut around the deck in strapless dresses in front of slaves and sailors. But more disturbing is the fact that the plot really hinges on this romance, making the dénouement depend on whether the captain will be strong enough to sacrifice the love of his life in order to salvage his boat and crew.

In other words, the captain is a slave to love, as if that kind of bondage could be paralleled with the fate of the human cargo in the hold. In ‘Mérimée’s Tamango: Texts, Contexts, Intertexts’, Doris Kadish argues that, ‘Berry glorifies [the] revolt, allowing [the insurgents] to die with dignity as martyrs and to stand as models of hope in the future for other oppressed blacks.’ No doubt, this is what Berry intended. But in the end, the killing of all the blacks by the captain verifies Aiché’s initial viewpoint that, ‘the slave can never fight back’. As Raymond Borde has argued, the dénouement ‘lends the slave traders an aura of complexity that makes them less unlikable’. And Borde continues: ‘the social system that spawn the slave trade is pushed into the background’ (1958: 1905). Borde, then, takes his analysis a bit too far by interpreting the plot as a defence of colonialism, as it presents the white colonizer in a compassionate light. It is true that the last shot features the captain alone on deck. The poor man has just lost two essential ingredients for happiness in our modern world: money (his valuable cargo is lost), and love (the woman of his life is dead). But it is an overstatement to interpret such sentimentality as a plea for the colonial enterprise.

Berry’s endeavour to address altogether colonialism, racism, and racial solidarity backfires in that it results in an improbable, if not absurd, romance. Besides, Berry’s allegorization of a nascent Black Power movement comes across as ingratiating and proves to be both counter-productive (since neither the blacks nor the whites are triumphant) and reactionary as the promotion of race allegiance inadvertently supports anti-miscegenation values (Aiché and the Captain’s affair is doomed). It also furthers racial antagonism since both races are shown as irreconcilable, distinguished by endogenous, and therefore immutable, attributes. Ironically, Mérimée and pro-abolition contemporaries may have embraced such a view: after all, it is in the name of fundamental racial differences that the colonization of Africa was carried out. Hence Berry, as he tries to reconcile his support of decolonization with his sympathy for the African American cause ends up caught in a discourse of race essentialism that might have been legitimate at the dawn of the civil rights movement but would prove indefensible in its aftermath as the discourse of race in America started to shift toward the celebration of racial integration, cultural cross-pollination, and inter-ethnic hybridization.

Raphaël Lambert is Associate Professor of American culture in the Faculty of Letters at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan.

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References

Bogle, D. (2001), Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American FilmsNew York: Continuum.

Borde, Raymond (1958), ‘Tamango’ in Les Temps Modernes 146 (April): pp. 1904-1905.

Cropper, Corry (2004), ‘Prosper Mérimée and the Subversive “Historical” Short Story’, Nineteenth Century French Studies 33, no.1-2 (Fall-Winter), pp. 57-74.

Hainsworth, G. (1967), ‘West African Local Color in Tamango’ in French Studies 21, no.1, pp. 16-23.

Herman, L., and B. Vervaeck (2001), Handbook of Narrative AnalysisLincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hoffmann, Léon-François (1996), ‘Victor Hugo, les noirs et l’esclavage’ in Françofonia 16, no.31, pp. 47-90.

Kadish, Doris Y. (1995), ‘The Black Terror: Women’s Responses to Slave Revolts in Haiti’ in The French Review 68, no. 4 (March), pp. 668-680.

(2003), ‘Mérimée’s Tamango: Texts, Contexts, Intertexts’, paper presented at theNineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium, University of Arizona.

Leavy, Walter (1993), ‘The Mystery and Real-life Tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge’ in Ebony 49, no. 2, (December), pp. 36-41.

Mérimée, P. (2008), ‘Tamango’ in Carmen and Other StoriesNew York: Oxford University Press.

(1967), ‘Tamango’ in Romans et nouvelles, Paris: Garnier.

Montesquieu, Charles de (1956) ‘De l’esclavage des nègres’, Livre XV, Chapter V, De l’esprit des lois, Paris: Garnier.

Smallwood, S. E. (2007), Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American DiasporaCambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sollors, W., ed. (2000), Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and LawOxford: Oxford University Press.

Weiler, A. H. (1959), ‘By Way of Report’, New York Times, September 13, X9.


[i] The connection between Mérimée’s prose and Montesquieu’s provocative statement in the essay ‘Of the Slavery of the Negroes’, originally published in 1748, is hinted at in Gonzague Truc’s notes for the Garnier edition of The Spirit of Laws. Of black people, Montesquieu famously wrote: ‘We cannot assume that those people are men, for if we assumed that they were men, we would start believing that we ourselves are not Christians’ (Montesquieu 1956: 620, my translation).

[ii] This comparison between coffins and individual space in the hold is established in the endnote to the 1967 Garnier edition of Tamango. The preceding endnote in that same edition also suggests that Mérimée was probably familiar with the report by Auguste de Staël, of Société de la morale chrétienne (‘Society for Christian Morality’), about torture in the slave trade. The death metaphor that envelops the slave trade is nothing original at the time of Mérimée. Stephanie E. Smallwood reports that, ‘Slave ships were called tumbeiros in the eighteenth-century Angolan trade […] a term historians have translated as “floating tombs” or “undertakers”’ (2007: 137).

[iii] The original reads: ‘Je ne sais combien de temps après une frégate anglaise […] aperçut un bâtiment démâté…’ (Mérimée 1967: 306). Jochtam, however, chose to take the first person off his translation: ‘Some time afterwards a British frigate […] sighted a ship with her mast down…’ (Mérimée 2008: 92).

[iv] In her analysis of Victor Hugo’s second version of Bug-Jargal (1826), Yvette Parent alludes to this new, negative image of the black protagonist. Parent argues that in his fictionalization of the Haitian revolution, Hugo omits whites’ exactions while emphasizing blacks’ responsibility and cruelty, and ignoring the social sources of the slave uprising.

[v] This is the third of the 10 principles of the Asian-African conference held in Bandung, Indonesia, on 18-24 April 1955.

[vi] About a decade prior to Tamango, African American jazzman Miles Davis had almost married French singer Juliette Greco, and although interracial relationships weren’t the norm, Greco and Davis weren’t treated as pariahs either. And a couple of years after Tamango, in 1960, film director Claude Bernard-Aubert made My Baby is Black (Les lâches vivent d’espoir). This is a rather daring interracial romance between a white French woman and an African student. It focuses on people’s hostility toward their relationship that, in consequence, starts to falter. Such candidness was unthinkable in 1958 America. Incidentally, 1958 is the year Richard and Mildred Loving, a Virginia mixed couple with three children, were charged by a Court in Virginia with the crime of marrying each other. They were sentenced to one year in prison – a sentence that could be suspended provided instead that they leave Virginia ‘at once and do not return together or at the same time’ for 25 years. The Lovings took their case to the Supreme Court of America and finally won in 1967 (Sollors 2000: 28).

[vii] In a 1958 radio show, critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, although dismissive of Tamango’s scenario as flat, acknowledged that the film is courageous and meaningful in such a historical context and that, as a matter of fact, ‘the censorship made no mistake about it’ [‘la censure ne s’y est pas trompée’]. The show was Le Masque et la Plume RTF, hosted by Michel Polac, February 6, 1958.

[viii] Of Dandridge, African American scholar Donald Bogle wrote: ‘Onscreen and off, in the mass imagination, the tragic flaw was her color’ (2001: 174). Although a civil rights activist, Dandridge had been accused by some Blacks ‘of having gone on the other side’ because of her relationship with white men (Leavy 1993: 37).

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