Le répertoire et les actus de la bande dessinée africaine



Comic books, politics and manipulation

The case of Repiblik zanimo, the first comic strip and book in Creole

Is it possible to separate art and politics? Is it possible to put aside the environment and the political events surrounding an artist's career or work?

Robert Furlong / Christophe Cassiau-Haurie

In terms of comic strips and books, it seems obvious that the answer is negative. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the policy of " Zaïrianization " and the setting up of a dictatorial regime with all its consequences (censorship and control of the press amongst others) led to the ending of the magazine Jeunes pour jeunes (literally: the youth for the youth, renamed meanwhile Kake so as to abide by the authenticity campaign supported by the regime). In Madagascar, the political crisis and the economic collapse that followed have put an end to a rich period in terms of comic publishing. The 1989 events and the Algerian army's take-over of the country totally killed an original national 9th art. Sometimes a difficult political situation can be a real blessing for cartoonists: this was the case with Gbich which found an endless source of inspiration in the Ivory Coast crisis, to the great pleasure of its more and more numerous readers. This relationship between art and politics is still more obvious with the 1975 publication first in strips, then in book form of Repiblik zanimo, a book which was at the same time the first comic strip and book in the history of the Creole language and the first Mauritian album.
This Repiblik Zabimo is a real mystery for all amateurs and, clearly, has not yet revealed all its secrets. Launched suddenly and out of the blue in a country without any comic book tradition, it didn't foster any specific interest for the development of that art (the next comic book did not appear till 10 years later). Being the only book of that category for the whole decade of the 1970s, Repiblik zanimo looks like a meteorite in the history of Mauritian publishing. Even the author is a mystery. He is not even mentioned on the title page where only one name is written, that of Zorze Orwell (written on a wooden signpost knocked in the ground in the first panel), the creolized name of the English writer and journalist Georges Orwell, born in 1903 at Motihari in the present state of Bihar (India) and deceased in 1950. There isn't, also, a title page giving any identification elements. The only mention is the one at the bottom of the first panel on the first page mentioning: " Tradiction : Rafik Gulbul ". We find, in the same panel, a sub-title: " Dictatire Napoleon Cosson, " or the dictatorship of Pig Napoleon… This album forms part of the history of publishing in Mauritius and was legally deposited at the National Library as Repiblik zanimo by Rafik Gulbul. But the whole thing is rather mysterious. Rafick (the official name, the book one having been creolized) Gulbul, who worked in the law office of his brother, wasn't a cartoonist and never published anything else after that. The fact that no name is quoted for the drawings makes the whole thing still more difficult to understand.
It's important to recall at this stage that George Orwell is known as the author of the famous animal story Animal Farm - published in London in 1945, then translated into French in 1947 - and through which the author indulges in an explicit and severe criticism of totalitarianism, notably Stalinist. By the 1970s, Orwell was quite well known to Mauritian intellectuals, in particular those who chose the " classics " option at the end of their secondary education: the original English version of that book formed part of the prescribed texts in English Literature at baccalaureate level, managed by the official examiner appointed by Mauritius, the English University of Cambridge.
The political situation in Mauritius at that time may throw some light on this question. The independence of Mauritius dates back to the 12th of March 1968. It followed the legislative elections held on the 7 August 1967 at which the pro-independence Labour Party, within an alliance called the Independence Party, had won the majority of seats in Parliament. Eighteen months later (October 1969), an alliance with the formerly anti-independence party (Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate) led by the flamboyant Gaëtan Duval, was signed while a new left opposition embodied by the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien) was progressively organising itself on revolutionary ideals close to Marxism and preparing for the necessary fight to be led against neo-colonialism, under-development and poverty, making an impact on political arena through its positions on leading questions of the day and its growing influence with the unions. The political legitimacy of that new party, until then extra-parliamentary, was confirmed with the victory at the Triolet by-election in September 1970 (stronghold of the labour power), of the MMM candidate Dev Virahsawmy [1]. A troubled period followed with a state of urgency proclaimed, the imprisonment without trial of the MMM leaders and censorship of the press forced to submit its daily prints to a preliminary agreement. Furthermore, the legislative elections, to be held in 1972, were postponed sine die. At that time Mauritius was the only democratic independent country of the sub region. Madagascar has just become a military regime; apartheid was in force in South Africa and Rhodesia; Namibia, Comoros and Seychelles were still colonies and La Réunion, already a French department.
Gaëtan Duval, minister of Foreign Affairs and leader of the PMSD, had a leadership style that upset quite a number of his party colleagues who decided to create a new party, the Union Démocratique Mauricienne (UDM) at the end of 1970. Among the illustrious members of UDM were the lawyer Guy Ollivry, Maurice Lesage, the teacher Raymond Rivet, the trade unionist Karl Offmann (future President of the Republic), Clément Roussety from Rodrigues island, the industrialist/businessman Gaëtan de Chazal (author of L'histoire maritime des Mascareignes), and the journalist and writer André Masson who, as former editor-in-chief of Le Mauricien and impressive political scientist, took charge of the party's newspaper, Libération, with an edition of 500 copies at most. The UDM would become the main parliamentary opposition party with 11 deputies on 62 [2] to face the leading alliance [3]. Analysts have contended that the UDM received financial help from abroad to consolidate its roots and become a credible alternative to a politically weakened Gaëtan Duval.
One of the supporters and activists of the UDM was Rafick Gulbul, who died in 1999 at the age of 65. What was his objective in becoming the translator of the comic strips of Repiblik Zanimo in Creole? Was it an artistic or a political enterprise? What was he looking for in becoming the adapter of Orwell's Animal Farm? Why did he use creole at a time when this language was precisely being politically invested as the language of left wing militancy and in which politically engaged poems and plays as well as novels were being published? As evoked, the comic book Repiblik zanimo started out as a comic strip and was published from November 1974 to the 1st of April 1975 in the daily newspaper Libération, organ of the UDM. And the very next day following the issue of the last page (the one numbered 90), an advertisement was published in the same daily stating that the comic book was available at " Rs 3,90 the copy, on sale at Libération between 11 am and 4 pm from Monday to Friday. " At least 5 000 copies of Repiblik zanimo were published in book form. One thousand were sold; the rest were distributed at political meetings. For Mauritian readers, some could see in it a denunciation of corruption, of favouritism, of communalism through the various characters presented: the thief, the bon-vivant, the lazy, etc. in a rather caricatured style. One of the co-authors of this article thought that Rafick Gulbul's book was " a parody of the Mauritian political environment " in a recently published book [4]. In 2000, the magazine Notre Librairie related Repiblik zanimo to British colonisation and to the early days of democracy in Mauritius.
In fact, for anybody reading Creole and able to interpret the leader of the animals in revolt, Napoleon the pig with his big walrus moustache, one could understand that the book's barbed remarks were mainly oriented towards one party, the MMM, and one personality, its historical leader, Paul Bérenger, who could be recognized through the said moustache. The whole book was thus intended as a stark caricature of that party which, at that time, represented the most leftwing political party on Mauritius and enjoying, at the same time a marked rise in popularity. The historical context partly explains this head-on attack against the MMM. Even if the date of the first elections to be held since independence [5] were not known, the situation for a centrist party like the UDM was quite worrying with the growth of the MMM inspiring a surge in support throughout the country. For the UDM, the party to be knocked down was definitely the MMM with its whiffs of Marxism. The UDM newspaper clearly and proudly displayed ever since its creation its leitmotiv unveiled at the 1976 electoral campaign: freedom must be freed. The Repiblik Zanimo enterprise must then be placed back in that particular context and considered as a political tool oriented towards an opponent presumed to be communist, therefore an enemy of freedom and democracy. This was far from an artistic endeavour.
But who drew that comic strip? From where does this project originate? Who had the idea to adapt Animal Farm, this anti-Stalinist diatribe by the very socialist Georges Orwell, author of the even more famous 1984? At the risk of destroying the legend, the origin of Repiblik Zanimo lies with the CIA and the IRD, the American and British intelligence units. Following the fierce attack signed by George Orwell in 1945 and which skilfully puts Stalinism on trial through a fable (though Orwell was all his life a leftist activist), the American and British intelligence units decide to exploit the book in different ways to build up a scarecrow that might reduce the expansion of communism. Each service will have its goal to achieve.
The mission of the Americans was to organise the production and distribution of an animated film. In 1951, the CIA bought the rights for screen adaptation and, through go-betweens, gave the American Louis de Rochemont the responsibility of producing a cartoon [6] to be realized by John Halas and his wife Joy Batchelor [7]. The film appeared in 1954, becoming the first animated British movie. Though for John Halas, " this is not communist or anti-communist ; it is a fable for all time ; it is anti-totalitarian and it has a humanist message [8] ", the result considered as too overtly anti-communist, wasn't screened in France until 1990 [9] … A cartoon like those accompanying the Disney films was inspired by the film and distributed simultaneously... But this was not our comic strip!
The mission of the British intelligence unit, as revealed in documents declassified in 1996, was to realise a comic strip " free of rights " and to propose it to different countries of their zone of influence where the rise of communism was deemed a threat. As John Jenks points out [10], " By July 1951, the strip was being published in India, Burma, Thailand, Venezuela and Erythrea; many others were planned … " Andrew Defty [11] gives, in turn, precisions concerning the distributed product: " The strip cartoon - which consisted of 90 four-framed strips - was widely published in newspapers across the Far East, Middle East, Latin America, Ceylon, Africa, the West Indies and Iceland."
Repiblik Zanimo corresponds exactly to that last description: 90 four-framed strips. One of the informers was able to peruse the Eritrean version. The clothes of the farmer are just like those worn in England in the 1950s and are very far from those one could find in Mauritius at that time. The interior design of the farm is much more like English cottages with mills and poplar trees in the background than resembling the shacks and houses covered with iron sheets that were prevalent in the Mauritian countryside. The rare human characters are very British, in particular the ‘negotiator' with his bowler hat (Mr. Pilkington), his butler-like trousers, his starched turtleneck collar and thin black tie; the same applies to his friends, true gentlemen-farmers. Even the pub and club have nothing to do with any Mauritian context. Finally, the graphic style close to a stylized animal register has nothing to do with the 1970s style, but dates back twenty years at least. Everything fits: this famous " first Mauritian comic strip " is but a simple destabilization tool coming from abroad and reinvested locally as it had been in the other countries already named. According to the information and crosschecking conducted by the authors of this article, it is not surprising that the driving forces of the UDM newspaper Libération -Maurice Lesage, the ideologist and André Masson, the political scientist, both now deceased -accepted as a gift this comic strip free of rights to assist their fight against the communist sympathising MMM and on which they just had to fill in the balloons with texts translated or adapted from a pre-existing script. The work of Rafick Gulbul, with the help of the two main political leaders of the UDM quoted before, was then to fill in the balloons: he used a simple orthography, very traditional and close to French since, of course, he would not have wanted to employ Dev Virahsawmy's militant style of writing Creole as used by activists and intellectuals of the left. His version of Creole was designed to have mass appeal, neither pedantic nor vulgar.
The first Mauritian comic production then brings up a whole range of questions and there must still be a lot of things to say even if those can be quite unflattering facts. Did this comic strip have any impact on the population and did it achieve the goals of its creators, i.e. scare away eventual communist sympathisers? Evidence is still missing on that point and it is difficult to imagine a mode of analysis which can help us to determine any eventual influence of this publication on the political choices of Mauritians. It certainly did not prevent the UDM from being swept away by the 1976 elections during which the left-wing MMM won, if not in terms of seats in Parliament, at least in number of votes, a considerable audience. The scarecrow has thus left its promoters in the lurch leaving behind just one thing: a 40 page comic book…
Robert Furlong / Christophe Cassiau-Haurie

Translation Robert Furlong, revised by Marina Carter

[1] Dev Virahsawmy is one of the most important writers in Mauritian Creole.
[2] Up to the 1976 elections when UDM lost all its seats and disappeared from the political scene.
[3] Duval, the Mauritian Foreign affairs minister and leader of the PMSD, nicknamed the UDM the ‘Union of Mosquitoes' or, even, the ‘Union of Mulattoes ", nicknames which the Mauritians fully understand.
[4] Christophe Cassiau-Haurie, Îles en bulles la bande dessinée dans l'océan Indien, CDM édition, 2009. ISBN2-912013-23-1, p. 27.
[5] They would finally be held in 1976.
[6] This story is pretty well known today. It has been described by Frances Stonor Saunders in Who paid the piper? The CIA and the cultural cold war.
[7] The choice of British producers can be easily explained since at that time the United States were fully involved in the McCarthyism period and the loyalty of several American filmmakers was being questioned (cf. Tony Shaw's British Cinema and the cold war : the state, propaganda and the consensus.) Hallas was a Hungarian anticommunist refugee. But it is not sure that Batchelor and Hallas ever knew the origin of the funds…
[8] The cartoon that came in from the cold, The Guardian, 7 March 2003
[9] That didn't prevent the communist Aubervilliers municipality from showing the film since, according to the mayor, it was a homage to communists!
[10] British propaganda and news media in the cold war, John Jenks, 2006, Edinburgh University Press International Communications, London, 2006.
[11] British and American cooperation 1950-51; Britain, America and Anti-Communist : The Information Research Department, Andrew Defty, Rootledge, USA, 2007.

Translation Robert Furlong, revised by Marina Carter

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