Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tamango (1829)

“Tamango”, a short story by Prosper Mérimée is a big surprise. This narrative of a rebellion on a slave ship doesn’t preach – it simply presents a powerful, simple narrative of what happened on the ironically named L'Espérance, captained by the also ironically named Ledoux. What's striking is not the criticism of the hypocrisy, venality, and cruelty of the white slave trader, but the equally critical portrait of Tamango, the leaser of the slave rebellion.

Tamango is no noble savage. He is himself as “a famous warrior and seller of slaves”, the deliverer of other Africans to the white slave ships from his West African fortress. In the midst of a drunken negotiation with Ledoux, he starts killing slaves with a pistol and even sells one of his wives. He ends by being tricked on the ship as it is leaving and us put in chains, Ledoux thinking that such a strong powerful slave could be sold for a thousand crowns.

All the horrors of the slave ships, now familiar to us, but at that time certainly little known, are revealed: the crowded below-decks, the manacles and chains, the liberal use of the whip, the sexual exploitation and humiliation of the slaves. The slaves finally manage to steal a small file, and, lead by Tamango, plot their move. They rise as one and slaughter the much smaller white crew and have a wild celebration, only to realize that they are on a ship on the middle of the ocean with no knowledge of how to steer it anywhere, let along return home.

They drift, the sun beats down, they run out food and water, and all die but Tamango, who is about to breathe his last just as an English frigate happens across the devastated ship. Tamango is brought to Kingston where, although the plantation owners want him hung as a rebel, the Governor of Jamaica frees him, and gives him a job in a regimental band (as a cymbalist). He soon drinks himself to death.

What's amazing about this story is its lack of authorial moralizing, its matter-of-factness in the face of such horrors. What a contrast with the stories popular at the time: tales of horror, Romantic historical tales, and moral fairy tales. Even Balzac cannot keep himself from moralizing, especially in his earlier writings.

Curiosly, Tamango was made into a film in 1958 in France, starring Dorithy Dandridge and Curt Jurgens. It was filmed simultaneously with French and English, but given its interracial sex, it had a hard tiem getting shown in the US. It remains, as I’ve read, a cult classic. One strange hange – the made the French Ledoux into a Dutch captain.

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