Tag Archives: Empire and Race

The Wild Kind: Non-White People in Magazines for the Very Young

This week’s blog comes once again out of my work in the Seven Stories Archive in Newcastle. Their book collection includes a wide-ranging and invariably random (as it relies on donations) collection of children’s magazines, from the traditional Boys’ Own Annual and some missionary magazines from the 19th century, to Dandy and The Beano from the 20th century. Although I’ll undoubtedly go back to these magazines at a later point, I spent my research time paging through magazines for younger readers. This is a genre that, even in the mostly-ignored area of children’s magazine studies, is generally left unconsidered. I am guessing this is from a combination of two factors—one, generally magazines for young readers are considered to be too simple and/or bland to be of much research use; and two, unlike their counterparts for older readers, magazines for younger readers are generally colored, cut up for scraps, or torn out of use to the researcher. However, Seven Stories has managed to preserve some of these magazines (not all of them, mind you, without some coloring or missing pictures here and there) and I’m going to look at two British magazines, about forty years apart, designed for the 5-9 age range, Fairyland Tales from the 1920s and Pippin from the 1960s.

Fairyland Tales goes non-stop into the future--with Golly in the most precarious of positions . . .

Fairyland Tales goes non-stop into the future–with Golly in the most precarious of positions . . .

Fairyland Tales, despite its name, did not rely on fairy stories for its content; instead, it was a fairly standard (for the 1920s) mix of short stories, puzzles, poetry and regularly-featured comic strips. Most of the stories were domestic (magazines since the 19th century Chatterbox used stories based in the home, and less often school, for younger readers), but one of the stories, in the 21st February 1925 edition, takes children to colonial Africa. “Jungle Chums” has twins visiting their photographer father who “took pictures of the wild people of the jungle and sent them home” (the pictures, presumably, not the wild people) and the twins are very excited to see, as Bobby the boy twin puts it, “real negroes—the wild kind, I mean; not like the ones we saw at Mombasa dressed in white people’s clothes, and they’ve got great big spears.”

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“Jungle Chums” aligns ideologically with two of the regularly-featured comics in Fairyland Tales that also took children beyond the borders of the home, and indeed beyond the borders of the nation. “Jenny and Jimmy’s Jolly Adventures” detail the travails of two pith-helmeted white English children who are connected with a circus that travels the world. Circus life in and of itself allows the children to encounter the “Other”; their “trainer” (presumably for the animals, rather than Jenny and Jimmy) is an African or Afro-Caribbean named Rastus.

Jenny and Jimmy look on while Rastus and some "Arabs" do the heavy lifting.

Jenny and Jimmy look on while Rastus and some “Arabs” do the heavy lifting.

However, in addition to their own internal Other, Jenny and Jimmy’s travels take them all over the world. They must run from most of these encounters; Chinese sailors try to mutiny Jenny and Jimmy’s ship, and an enraged Sultan imprisons the children when they show the wrong film (the film they showed made fun of the Sultan). Ultimately, the world outside England is full of slightly mad people, but they make life for Jenny and Jimmy jolly, rather than dangerous. The other regular comic feature in Fairyland Tales is the ironically named “Sammy Snowball’s Funny Tricks”—ironic because Sammy Snowball is a black caricature, and also because there are few tricks and they are rarely funny. Given how the white authors treat Sammy Snowball, it is no wonder he complains, in one episode, of being turned a “beastly white”.

No mimic man: Sammy Snowball doesn't like his "beastly white face".

No mimic man: Sammy Snowball doesn’t like his “beastly white face”.

It is surprising, given the imperialistic attitudes of Fairyland Tales, to see how much had changed in just 40 years. Pippin, the other magazine for young readers that I examined, existed in an entirely different world from Fairyland Tales. For one thing, it was a magazine subtitled “the Coloured Picture Weekly for the Very Young Viewer” and published by TV publications limited. Many of the features (I couldn’t tell whether ALL of them) were based around television shows such as Camberwick Green and Trumpton. Like its earlier predecessor, Pippin is largely domestic in its setting, but British life had changed dramatically since the 1920s. An influx of migrants from the Caribbean after World War II had literally changed the face of the UK, and this is reflected in one of the features in Pippin, the serial story of a little boy called “Joe”, the first episode of which I found in the 3rd June 1967 Pippin. Joe’s parents run a truck-stop café, and one of their employees (seemingly their only employee) is a Black British teenager named Abel. Abel is pleasant, enjoys playing with and helping Joe when he’s not acting as grill cook, and drives a motorbike.

Never too busy to help: Joe and Abel have a friendly relationship.

Never too busy to help: Joe and Abel have a friendly relationship.

“Joe” is a generally lovely comic, especially given the dearth of British depictions of Black Britain in white-authored literature for small children at the time. But it is not entirely free from stereotypes either. Abel prefaces nearly every speech he makes with the exclamation, “Man,” as in, “Man, it’s hot.” Nobody else in the comic has a similar verbal tic, suggesting that it is an attempt by the author (who, by the way, is never listed) to mark Abel out as different. It’s not necessarily a bad difference, but it is noticeable. Worse, though, is the “Topsy” episode, where Joe’s mother comes in from a windy day outside with crazy-looking hair, and Joe compares her hair to that of his golliwog doll named Topsy while Abel looks on in the background.

Gone with the Wind: Even progressive comics can slip back into stereotype.

Gone with the Wind: Even progressive comics can slip back into stereotype.

Joe’s mother is “offended” by Joe’s comment, and ties a scarf around her head until she can get to the hairdresser’s. I guess that, even in the more progressive 1960s, white Britons didn’t want to be too closely associated with the “wild kind” of the Other.

Victoria in Black: “Race” and Queen Victoria

Today is Victoria Day, a curiously antiquated holiday to celebrate, in Canada, a queen of England who has been dead for over a hundred years. (In Quebec, they tried to change the name to honor a Frenchman who died battling the Iroquois near what is now Montréal; now the holiday is called National Patriot’s Day in Quebec, to celebrate the struggle for freedom from British rule in the year that Victoria came to power, 1837.) The reason for this continuing praise of the deceased monarch is that Victoria is seen as the “Mother of Confederation” in Canada. The image of Victoria as mother, and Victoria’s own emphasis on family and motherhood, extended to the empire in places other than Canada. In fact, it was during the Victorian period that the British Empire became known as a family of nations rather than simply a collection of production sites for empire goods. Queen Victoria had a great deal to do with this herself, and not just in the “white” colonies such as Canada or Australia. She was godmother to several imperial subjects, providing education and economic support for her godchildren (and her godchildren’s children) from Africa and India. Some of these were royals of their own country, including Duleep Singh and Princess Gouramma of India, and Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia.

Myers' book leaves questions unanswered.

Myers’ book leaves questions unanswered.

One of the earliest of Victoria’s imperial godchildren may or may not have been a princess, but she certainly was of good (though massacred) family, as she was presented to the queen in 1850 as a gift from the notorious slave-trading King Gezo of Dahomey. The girl, Sarah (or Sally) Bonetta Forbes, had been named after the captain (Forbes) who represented the queen’s wish that the king cease his slaving activities, and the captain’s ship (the Bonetta)—like Paddington Bear, her birth name is lost to history, replaced by an English one at the whim of her rescuers. She was brought to Britain, but the British climate was seen as potentially fatal to Africans (much as the tropical climates were seen as potentially fatal to Europeans), so the young girl was sent back to Africa (to the Sierra Leone colony, where ironically the British had tried to send indigent Black Londoners in the 18th century—most of whom had died). She was sent there to be educated as part of Victoria’s Christianizing mission of Africa; it was felt that Forbes would be an excellent voice for Christianity in Africa, someone who would be listened to more readily than white missionaries. Forbes did not like Sierra Leone, and returned to England until her marriage to an African businessman. Following a short time living in Bristol, the couple returned to Sierra Leone, but Forbes visited the queen a number of times, and her own daughter—named Victoria after the queen—continued to do so after her mother’s death. Forbes’s story, which is highlighted in Walter Dean Myers’ biography At Her Majesty’s Service (1999), raises a number of unanswered questions about the peculiar “empire family” relationship between Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes. Myers concludes the book with an afterword in which he asks several of them, including wondering about her birth name and her relationship with Africa. The questions remain unanswered, but Forbes’ story (and Myers’ account of it) keenly highlights the way that the British saw themselves as head of the imperial family, caretakers of the “childlike” races.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain's National Curriculum--but now there is controversy about including her.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain’s National Curriculum–but now there is controversy about including her.

Another Victorian troubled this image of the Great White Mother, even as she clearly longed to embrace her Mother Country. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican “doctress” (a common figure in the West Indies, who healed the sick through herbal remedies) came to Britain in 1854 to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing staff headed to the Crimean battlefields. Nightingale rejected her help, but Seacole went anyway, and by attending to soldiers on the battlefield (Nightingale and her nurses were positioned some distance away) and opening up The British Hotel, a hospital and recreational club (card games and alcohol—both disdained by Nightingale—were available for the soldiers), nearby, Seacole earned a nickname she coveted and promoted in her autobiography (The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857): that of Mother Seacole. In an era when many women of African descent were not considered by British people as anything more than heathens to be converted or servants to be ordered about, Seacole earned the highest honor possible for any (especially childless) Victorian woman, white or black. She was allied through her name to Queen Victoria, the mother of the nation and the empire, through this nickname. But although this was a link that Nightingale herself never achieved, Seacole wanted to be recognized as a capable, useful, even heroic human being by the queen herself. Several reports offer connections between Seacole and the Royal Family, and though they are all unsubstantiated, it is of some significance that children’s versions of Seacole’s life continue to introduce this idea of Seacole on familiar terms with the queen. John Malam’s Tell me About Mary Seacole (2006) argues that “when the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, was ill, it was Mary who made him better” (20). And Paul Harrison’s Who was . . . Mary Seacole? (2007) said that “Mary would often meet with the Queen and Prince Albert” (18). True or not, it is the image that matters. A poor Jamaican nurse rejected by Florence Nightingale becomes accepted by two great symbols of imperial power: the British soldier who enforces empire, and the “ruling mother” of the Mother Country, Queen Victoria.

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn't mentioned.  From Paul Harrison's Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn’t mentioned. From Paul Harrison’s Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Queen Victoria ruled over the largest empire ever to have existed, with dominion over people of many different nations. For a few of empire’s subjects, the queen herself played an intimate role as a mother figure to be honored or emulated. Both Sarah Bonetta Forbes and Mary Seacole were placed in the impossible position of having to reject their birth homes and pasts in order to be recognized as worthy of (white) Victorian England’s notice. Even then, Seacole and Forbes were often treated as curiosities or second-class citizens. In children’s books, the women are treated as heroes; but the underlying message of all of the books is that true power lay with a woman who, by virtue of her birth, could accept people as gifts and bring her version of civilization to a large portion of the world, whether they liked it or not. After all, Mother knows best!