From dangerous native to amicable cannibal: theatrical representation in the colonial era

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« This anthropophagous king will haunt our children’s imaginations just as the heros of Michel Strogoff and Around the World in 80 Days haunted ours. »
(Comoedia illustré, December 1919)

The theatre has played an indisputable role in creating clichés, and in particular those concerning the representation of the Other. It has to be said that for hundreds of years, the theatre was the only popular art form. Victim to censorship, hijacked by the authorities, and often even a propaganda tool, this representational art has, on the whole, contributed to constructing the images which still haunt the collective conscience at present. That was how the figure of the amicable anthropophagous African king emerged in the Twenties, for example, with Malikoko’s massive success at the Théâtre du Châtelet. And this voracious, but terribly funny black man, who boiled the poor lost explorers in his cooking pot, became an exotic ogre for a whole generation of little Parisians.
The scary black man
As early as the last decades of the nineteenth century, the theatre world gave a resounding echo to colonial expansion by magnifying its conquests in its exotic epic plays. The Théâtre du Châtelet adapted Adolphe Belot’s Vénus noire1 in 1879 and in 1895, the Opéra-comique put on Le Roman d’un Spahi based on Pierre Loti’s novel.2 The French army’s victories over Samory and Behanzin became the object of grand military epics: Cinq mois au Soudan3 at the Arènes du Bois de Boulogne, La Conquête du Dahomey4 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Au Dahomey5 at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, Les Français au Dahomey at the Cirque d’Hiver, Un héros au Dahomey in the main auditorium of the du Tivoli-Wauxhall, etc.
In fact, right from the end of the year 1892, shortly after the French army’s victory at Abomey, most of the theatres in Paris and the provinces put on epic plays portraying Dahomey and its fierce warriors whom the courageous French soldiers had managed to quell.6 The plots of these colonial plays were interchangeable and all followed the same schema: the Whites, who have come on a humanitarian civilizing mission, are faced with the savageness of the cannibalistic peoples, who carry out human sacrifices and still practice slavery.
The performance would revolve entirely around exhibiting Africa and its natives. People loved the grand pantomimes: Le Soudan at the Arènes du Bois de Boulogne, Le Congo at the Hippodrome. Even the music hall put on exotic shows with authentic savages. In 1878, the Folies-Bergère hosted the terrifying Zulus. The Casino de Paris put on a show of one hundred Dahomeans and twenty-five Amazons in 1893.
The theatre world’s image of Africans mirrored the representations concocted by the press to justify the colonial mission: they were savages who knew nothing of the civilized world and proved themselves to be very cruel. Old fears were revived, given a veneer of authenticity by science, and pseudo-ethnographic reconstitutions followed suit.
In 1887, the Jardin d’Acclimatation put an Ashanti tribe on show with warriors, women and children. In 1895, it was the turn of the Somalis. In 1900, an Abyssinian village caused a sensation at the Hippodrome.
Darwinist scientific theories positioned the African as a primitive straight out of prehistory, whose evolution had stopped in the Stone Age. The posters announcing the Zulu or the Ashanti shows depict warriors with convulsed bodies, dressed in feathers or animal skins, shield and assegai in hand, a frightening snarl on their face. The Casino de Paris staged an enraged Amazon, who, bedecked with a sabre and a gun, brandished cut-off heads.
Right from the first act of Au Dahomey, the hardened colonialist Bernier’s words to the young, freshly disembarked Pascal, give a pretty good indication:
BERNIER: You get used to it in time, I assure you!…
PASCAL: To fever, granted; but to the darkies!…
BERNIER: Ah! the darkies aren’t easy to get along with.
(Act 1, scene 11)
These savages, whom the Europeans had come to extricate from barbarity, represent a permanent peril and add to Africa’s threatening climate. They seem all the more dangerous as they are cannibals, for example the « fiercely decked-out Niams-Niams » in La Vénus noire. A columnist in the Moniteur specified that although they did not have « the ape-like tail with which the imaginary accounts adorned their spines », on the other hand, « they are endowed with terribly toothy jaws ».  » Africa », he added, « has no more voracious anthopophagites than these, human flesh is their main course ».7
This suffocating and savage atmosphere played into the hands of the Grand-Guignol, particularly in the plays Charles Dullin directed, for example Terres Chaudes8 by Henri-René Lenormand in 1913, or Le Démon noir9 by André-Paul Antoine in 1922. These shows used the fear surrounding the natives and the strangeness of their bloody customs to scare people. The natives incarnate a permanent, underlying threat. One of the characters in Terres Chaude defines them as « feathered brutes who stab you in the back with poisoned spears » (II, 1).
In these plays, therefore, the natives, not yet touched by the saving grace of civilization, appear as blood-thirsty and incoherent savages, apt to flare up and spill blood. And they first of all have to be stopped from killing one another! Under the sway of evil forces, the Africans in Le Démon noir disembowel the innocent and faithful Diba. We never know, moreover, what drives them to this monstrous act. The unnerving mystery hovers, and in any case, according to one of the characters, « you never know with the blacks » (Act I, p. 7).
The reassuring black man
However, colonial propaganda also needed more serene images. For it was above all anxious to give a positive impression. French intervention had to be seen to be a success. To this end, therefore, the heroic figure of the tirailleur sénégalais conscript was soon upheld as the emblematic figure of the virtues of the « colonial cure ». All traces of the savage had almost disappeared with him. The beast had not only been tamed, but above all admirably trained. Before: a feathered savage racked by hysterical and ape-like convulsions. After: a big, Black man with a haughty bearing, sporting a magnificent red, white and blue uniform and a shining bayonet.10
Whether called a spahi soudanais, a milicien congolais, or a tirailleur sénégalais, the French army’s black conscripts, civilization’s new followers and defenders, represented the great merit of the colonial undertaking. It was possible to tame those African savages, and the outcome was quite convincing. There was no soldier more faithful, obedient, steadfast and cheerful than he!
These black battalions created by Faidherbe in Senegal in 1857 began to gain a certain notoriety in 1879 for having saved captain Galliéni’s life after he adventured into the heart of the bush and got attacked by two thousand pillagers. Red tarboosh, a blue woolen jacket, oriental-style cotton trousers, their colourful allure distinguished them from the army’s other corps and left the Parisians spell-bound when the paraded for the first time on 14 July, 1899.11
At the end of Cinq mois au Soudan, it is the spahis soudanais troops, led by Castagnoul (a White man, if you please!), who turn up like the cavalry to save the Europeans whom Samory is about to torture to death. In the grand finale of the show, they free the town with great pomp. Almost the same image is given with the capture of Abomey, which that shark Béhanzin had burnt down in an ultimate gesture of anger and pride. The proud tarboosh-wearing heroes save the captives from the flames.
Real tirailleurs were soon to feature in military reviews and to become the pride of the nation. These battalions, which Colonel Mangin baptized the « black force »12, soon symbolized the Third Republic’s colonial success. It was at the time of the war in Dahomey that the press began to portray Africa’s black troops as veritable heroes. They were the living proof that not all Africans rejected French colonization. On the contrary, some even came to its assistance and fought at its side. The Petit journal illustrated supplement showed the landing of the Senegalese troops in Kotonou13, come to back the French in the Dahomean conflict, whilst in the columns of the Moniteur, a news item testified to the rectitude and honesty of these black soldiers.14
This moral and dignified image of the tirailleur is found in the opening of the third act of Spahi, in which the colourful and eccentric disorder of the African bacchanalia gives way to the tirailleurs sénégalais‘ perfectly ordered military camp. This game of oppositions already characterized press illustrations. For example, a drawing of the French troops’ entry into Abomey shows assagai-bearing Dahomean savages in the crowd on the one hand, and joyful tirailleurs on the other throwing their tarbooshes in the air, or sitting peacefully on methodically folded and packed kit-bags.15
In the Twenties, after the military exploits which confirmed their glory in the First World War, the tirailleur became the model of the civilized black man, the French nation’s adopted son. Hadn’t he heroically proven his attachment to the mother country by leaping to its assistance?
In 1915, when the Franco-German conflict was becoming bogged down, and doubts were beginning to infiltrate the rear, the propaganda machine made extensive use of the image of the tirailleur. Prince, the black war-time soldier in Bécassine*, can be seen as the prototype of this good tirailleur. Bécassine, who is Prince’s wartime penfriend, sees him as just a cannibalistic savage at first , a « tropophagite » as she puts it, but is soon seduced by his kindness and gentleness. Still, he was brought up by missionaries!16
Symbol of French colonial strength, these black soldiers particularly offended the Germans who considered France to have stooped very low: conscripting savages in its army, what a disgrace for a civilized nation! As he irritated the enemy, his image was used in the caricatures ridiculing « the Krauts ».17 This comical character had something childlike and naive about him, which did not convey a violent image of the war. A solid soldier, well-built, always smiling and fit, ready to seduce his nurses with his arm in a sling or his leg in plaster, he made it possible to play down the horror of the war. With his « Y a bon! »** adapted to suit all circumstances, he incarnated the positive spirit and the hope the French nation was meant to latch onto. The tirailleur thus became a mascot, and all the more amicable given that his presence in the French troops shocked the enemy deeply.
After the armistice, the war hero was soon forgotten, but the mascot remained: everyone knows the success of the Banania posters, which cashed in on the character as early as 1915 to promote their brand, and contributed to perpetuating this representation after 14-18.18 After the war, the grinning tirailleur‘s « Y a bon! » became an indissociable cliché of the African who had been enlightened by civilization, but who had kept his puerile naïvety. It was thus that in the re-run of Terres Chaudes, renamed A l’ombre du mal, at the Studio des Champs-Elysées in 1924, Lenormand added a scene that was not in the 1913 version. Moussa, who blindly obeys Rougé, and who is appointed by him to arrest Maëlik, apparently has no conscience. Unlike all the Whites in the play who try to understand Rougé’s absurd gesture, he hardly questions the fairness of the condemnation and puts himself entirely at his master’s disposal:
ROUGE: Moussa!
THE CONSCRIPT, appearing in the background and saluting: Major?
ROUGE: Your prisoner, here, immediately. And don’t forget your whip.
THE CONSCRIPT, breaking into a big grin: Y a bon, major. (Act II, scene 14)
Compared to that of the savage, what a reassuring image this was of the jovial black man, his face always lit up, « breaking into a big grin », a bit inane, granted, but oh how funny. The tirailleur‘s grin is that of the good black described by R.P. Briault at the end of Sous le zéro équatorial:
« Amar was a good black man tormented by no dream of emancipation. Like the simple-minded, he divided all elements of life into two categories with no intermediary nuances: there were « the things which were y en a bon« , which he laughed at bearing all his teeth, and, on the other hand, « the things which were y en a pas bon« , and to which he contented himself with shaking his head topped with an eternal tarboosh. »19
The balsamic power of civilization, the colonial cure, appeared to have purged the black man of his native savageness. He had become a big child in cahoots with the kiddies, a good genie made out of placid and kindly chocolate.
The black man we love
But, in becoming a friendly figure, the tirailleur had lost his exoticism: military propaganda had practically turned him into a household name. How, then, could Africa’s exotic savageness be reconciled with this brand-new, good-natured drollness which people liked so much in the black man? Of course, the press had been striving to defuse all harrowing images of Africa for a long time by playing on caricature. These cannibalistic kings, such as Samory, or Mounza in La Vénus Noire, who tortured Europeans to death and who, like Béhanzin, had young women abducted, ought to have scared people. Not in the least, however, as people were quick to deride them and to make them the constant object of humour. The stereotype of the sinister-looking and preposterous savage cannibal – rings in his ears, bone in the nose, brandishing an assagai, and feathers fixed to his behind – made people laugh. But he didn’t come over as being kind.
At the height of the colonial war, these caricatures flattered White people’s feeling of superiority. From the height of its military and technological power, France was not going to let itself be impressed by a bunch of « bougnouls »20 hopping around deep down the bush. The patriotic press denounced the French army’s lack of energy as it was put through its paces in Dahomey, and indignantly declared: « a ridiculous negro, surrounded by women, by hags rather, who make up both his guard and his harem, are making fools of us. »21 It advocated immediately teaching « the horrible darkie the lesson he deserves », for, it said, « it is inadmissible that a nation like France be injured, scorned by a savage of Béhanzin’s kind. »22
Colonial propaganda lost no time in ordering images from the Epinal manufactures†, and the press’s caricaturists depicted cannibalism from all angles, whilst the emerging advertising cashed in on the humour which had begun to surround the African.23 Caricatures and Epinal images soon took inspiration from Jim Crow and the minstrels’ ridiculous allure, those black clowns from the United States, who were so easy to make fun of in their opera hats and fitted coats. Wide use was made of American folklore’s comic figures. These illustrations were thus reminiscent of Zip Coon, the black dandy with a pince-nez, and had several of Colored Grandaier’s traits, with his plumed kepi, his enormous epaulettes, and the row of shining buttons on his convex chest. As soon as the black man thought he had a bit of power, he liked to wear the White man’s garb! Like the big black muscle men come from America to box in Paris, and who lead a dandy’s life in the fashionable dance halls. Only, a black man in an alpaca suit was scarcely more elegant than an elephant trying to pass itself off as a ballerina.24
The African king stereotype thus became entrenched at the beginning of the century, as can be seen from advertisements.25 A top hat in guise of a crown, a chic cane for a sceptre, monocle, cigarette holder, classy! But… his big feet are shoeless and he is of course naked, or nearly, under a undersized dinner jacket, the shirt front up round his neck and starched cuffs round his wrists. Add a few military flourishes borrowed from Toussaint-Louverture’s representations, just to recall his tyrannical pretensions and his love of war, and you could not get more ridiculous in the eyes of the French, champions of elegance. A black man who thought himself a man of the world! This satirical representation easily entered the popular imagination. So, when Mouëzy-Eon came up his character Malikoko, he took inspiration from these images and invented a cannibal king who would soon sway the imaginations of hundreds of little French children in the inter-war years: he incarnated the savageness of the anthropopagite, the amicable Y-a-bon smile, and the clown-like ridicule of the black king.
Just after 14-18, Mr Fontanès, the director of Châtelet, commissioned the fashionable vaudeville writer to create a popular show that would offer a change of scenery, entertain, and amuse the audience. So, Mouëzy-Eon more or less restaged La Vénus noire, the play put on forty years earlier, but under a deliberately nutty and humorous angle this time. Malikoko, le roi nègre was born! 26 The play was a huge hit, the most lucrative in the inter-war period. It gave Châtelet its hour of glory, and the theatre re-ran the show in 1925 and 1930.
Malikoko appears on a throne surrounded by his favourites. His costume is a blend of savage’s feathers and fashionable Western accessories. He wears a skirt and hoops in his ears, but also sports a monocle and a plumed military hat, as well as a festooned jacket. He considers himself distinguished, likes European ways, knows how to work a gramophone, « speaks like White people, without abusing infinitives » (act 14, sc. 2).
Playing on preconceived ideas, Mouëzy-Eon had made Malikoko a neurasthenic black man who mopes when he doesn’t get a good slice of White man on his plate. Unfortunately, it is his birthday and there is no white meat on the menu. So, even the music his favourites play him doesn’t cheer him up. However, some faithful subjects, anxious to fête their king properly, capture four very plump White adventurers who have come to visit the African bush. « The black man of the world », as Miss Kitty puts it, proves himself to be full of civilities and highly chivalrous with the young woman, for he doesn’t want to upset this choice game: according to him, a bad mood makes the meat bitter. As for the savages in Malikoko’s village, clad in black trunks, « they are ink-black, have scarlet lips, frizzy hair, rings in their noses, and dance frenetically », as Armory noted in Comoedia.27
According to the press, this amicable cannibal who licks his lips at the very sight of a White person was irresistibly funny. Malikoko was a childhood hero. The Comoedia illustré announced as soon as the play was created in 1991: « This anthropophageous king will haunt our children’s imaginations, just as the heroes of Michel Strogoff and Around the World in 80 Days haunted ours. » 28 All the critics unanimously cited the scene in which the king calls his cook with his cutlasses, his roasting spits and his dripping-pan as the funniest scene in the play. Fernand Gregh noted that it made adults laugh as much as children: « Listen to the puerile laughter when Malikoko talks about putting Miss Kitty and her companions on the spit, and feels them to choose the fattest ».29 This good, amicable, and cheerful African king shared the same carnassial grin with the jolly tirailleur, who sold the good-tasting chocolate to children. The show was fun for children and left them with unforgettable memories. Back home, a critic suggested, « they will be able to go to sleep peacefully and see the terrible smile of the black man and the Whites he wants to eat in their dreams. »30
As is the way with childhood imagery, the good tirailleur genie had found his evil counterpart. The Y-a-bon fairy at last had its witch: an exotic bogey man, an inoffensive cannibal who both scares and amuses young children. « He is the one who makes it feel nice to be scared », 31 Fernand Gregh again wrote.
The inter-war years thus saw an explosion of numerous pastiches of Malikoko, notably Malices, Coco, Jean Bastia’s black joys at the Perchoir, and especially Malin-Kuku, an operetta by Mauprey and Blondhin at the Gaïté Montparnasse in 1921. And when the Châtelet put the play on again in 1925, Mouëzy-Eon completely transformed the plot, but kept the good old Malikoko, who hadn’t aged at all, and who was played by the clown Mylos. This king, into jazz-bands and girls, simply swapped his military hat for a fashionable suit and looked like a black American dandy:
« This new Malikoko is a highly amicable cannibal; he has kept up with his time. He speaks elegantly, dresses, like a good black man, of course, at the right tailor’s. He cooks his white victims using the modern techniques of culinary art. He very strongly feels superior to all the monarches of the earth. In short, he is a fine chap, savage, and a man of the world. »32
Le Soir hailed the stimulating and up-lifting effect the show had on young people’s morals: « Simple emotions, healthy joyfulness and fine images. »33 And thus this dark ogre, who was more famous in his time than Joséphine Baker, help to brainwash a whole generation.

1. Adolphe Belot, La Vénus noire, a five-act play in twelve parts, performed for the first time at the Théâtre du Châtelet, on 7 September 1879.
2. Louis Gallet and André Alexandre, Le Spahi, a lyrical poem in four acts, based on the novel by Pierre Loti, performed for the first time at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique, on 18 October 1897, Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 1897.
3. E.Gugenheim and G.Lefaure, Cinq mois au Soudan, a vast military pantomime in four parts, performed for the first time in the Arènes du Bois de Boulogne, on 13 July 1891, Imp. des Arts et Manufactures et Dubuisson, s.d.
4. Dennery, La Conquête du Dahomey, a military and history play , performed for the first time at the Théâtre du Châtelet.
5. F.Oswald, E.Gugenheim and G.Lefaure, Au Dahomey, five-act play, 10 parts, performed for the first time at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, on 10 December 1892, Paul Ollendorff, Paris, 1893.
6. We can cite, for example: Béhanzin ou la prise de Kana by Garnier and Mihiels, a pantomime performed at the Bataclan in February 1893 ; Patara au Dahomey by Boucart and Marietti, a pantomime performed at the Théâtre des Nouveautés in December 1895 ; La Guerre au Dahomey by Marot, Péricaud and Noellet, a play performed Amiens in December 1892 ; Les Aventures de trois Marseillais au Dahomey by Maunier, Normand and Graffan performed in Marseilles in July 1893.
7. Paul de Saint-Victor, Moniteur universel, 8 September 1879.
8. H.R. Lenormand, Terres chaudes, a two-act play performed for the first time at the Grand-Guignol, on 14 June 1913, in Comoedia 12 January 1914.
9. André-Paul Antoine, Le Démon noir, two-act play in three parts, performed for the first time at the Grand-Guignol, on 25 January, 1922, in the theatre supplement of the journal Le Capitole, Ed. Revue littéraire, théâtrale et biographique, Paris, 1923.
10. Marc Michel, « L’image du soldat noir », in Images et colonies, iconographie et propagande coloniale sur l’Afrique française de 1880 à 1962, ouvrage collectif, BDIC-ACHAC, Paris, 1993, pp.86-90.
11. Hans-Jörgen Lösebrink, « Les troupes coloniales dans la guerre : présences, imaginaires, représentations », in Images et colonies, op.cit., pp.74-85.
12. Charles Mangin, La Force noire, Hachette, Paris 1910.
13. Le Petit Journal, Complément illustré, « Débarquement à Kotonou des troupes sénégalaises », 21 May 1892, p.121
14. Moniteur, 8 October 1892.
15. Le petit Journal, Complément illustré, « Entrée du drapeau français à Abomey », 10 December 1892, p.400.
16. On the question of the exploitation of the image of the tirailleur, see: Laure Barbizet-Namer, « Ombre et lumières portées sur les Africains : peintures, gravures, illustrations, cartes postales », Images et colonies, op.cit., pp.91-93.
17. Janos Riesz et Joachim Schultz, Tirailleurs sénégalais : présentations littéraires et figuratives de soldats africains au service de la France, Nerlay/Peter Lang, Frankfurt, 1989.
18. Jean Garrigues, Banania, histoire d’une passion française, Du May, Paris, 1991.
19. R.P.Maurice Briault, Sous le zéro équatorial, études et scènes africaines, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1926, p.200.
20. It was in about 1890 that the term « bougnoul », which means ‘black’ in Wolof, began to be used by White people in Senegal to designate the Africans. It was not until the twentieth century that the term was used pejoratively to describe Arabs.
21. Petit journal, 20 August 1892.
22. Ibid.
23. Raymond Bachollet, « Humour blanc, humour noir », Le Collectionneur français, nº 242-243, Paris, 1987.
24. « Rois nègres, rois de fête, rois d’opérette », Ibid.
25. Cf. R.Bachollet, Jean-Barthélémi Debost, Anne-Claude Lelieur, Marie-Christine Peyrière, Négripub : L’image des Noirs dans la publicité, Somogy, Paris, 1994,
26. Mouëzy-Eon, Malikoko, roi nègre, four-act play, 29 scenes, performed for the first time at the Théâtre du Châtelet, 9 December 1919. First version published in the Programme du Châtelet, Paris, 1920.
27. Armory, Comoedia, 28 February 1920.
28. Comoedia illustré, December 1919.
29. Fernand Gregh, Comoedia, 11 December 1919.
30. Pierre Wolff, La Semaine dramatique, 13 December 1919.
31. Fernand Gregh, op.cit.
32. Maxime Girard, 16 June 1925.
33. Théodore Honoré, Le Soir, 10 July 1925.
* Translator’s note: Bécassine, the title of a French comic book and the name of its main female character.
** pidgin for ‘that’ or ‘it’s good’, and logo of the Banania chocolate drink whose posters featured a happy-go-lucky tirailleur tasting the drink and declaring « Y a bon ».
† Distinctive prints depicting a variety of scenes in realistic but stereotypical manner were produced in the French town of Epinal in the early nineteenth century. The prints became so popular that the term « image d’Epinal » is now used to refer to any form of stereotypical representation.
///Article N° : 5292


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