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On Negro kings and Hottentots

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

The word neger (negro) remains a common word in the Norwegian language. People who suggest replacing it with words such as ‘Ghanaian’, ‘student’, ‘girl’ or ‘black’ (applied wherever relevant), are routinely denounced as ‘politically correct’ and liberal hypocrites. My colleague Marianne Gullestad has written about this in her Norwegian book Det norske sett med nye øyne (‘Norwegianness from a new point of view’) and in a journal article in English. What follows are some reflections on the most recent (December 2006) public controversy around terms deemed by some as racist.

This is how the controversy was sparked: Astrid Lindgren, the world-famous Swedish author of children's stories, used the term ‘negro king’ to designate Pippi Longstocking's father (who had, in fact, been appointed chief among the Kurrekurredutt islanders in the Pacific following a shipwreck). The main children's programme on Norwegian public radio decided to replace the word with ‘south sea king’ (sydhavskonge) because of the pejorative connotations of the word ‘negro’. Around the same time, a leading publishing house, Cappelen, decided to remove an item from a reprint of a classic collection of children's songs written by Thorbjørn Egner, a beloved Norwegian author of children's books whose heyday was in the 1950s. The song in question was ‘Hoa Hottentott’, a catchy little tune describing little Hoa's heroic endeavours in rescuing his tribe from the nasty ‘Babu tribe’, as well as providing some folklore about the endearing customs of the Hottentots. By autumn 2006, the publisher felt that the song was dated and had little to offer to contemporary children growing up in a polyethnic society and a globalised environment where Southern Africa is suddenly a part of the real world, not a fairytale dreamland. Cappelen decided to remove the song lyrics from subsequent editions of Egner's selected children's songs.

(I was just alerted to an American 1920s song called ‘Happy Hottentot’ (thanks, Ann Hernandez!). Its message is similar to Hoa's: Hottentots are really cute, strange people who live somewhere in Africa. However, these Hottentots, unlike Hoa and his friends, are cannibals. The lyrics are here.)

The outrage was immediate and passionate. Many cried out about censorship, historical revisionism and thought police. I think the reactions were misguided.

What follows is a translation of a short article I wrote as a comment on the debate in mid-December. I eventually decided not to publish it in one of our newspapers. This is such a small country; everybody knows my views anyway, and reactions to the article would have been predictable (accusations of ‘political correctness’ etc.).


THE, 10 January 2007

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The ‘negro debate’ is on again, this time sparked by a controversy over Scandinavian children’s literature. When we last discussed the word ‘negro’ in Norway, just after the turn of the century, the public debate indicated that most ethnic Norwegians who took part, perceived neger (‘negro’) as a perfectly reasonable term for designating persons of African origin. The people thus described were nonetheless, with a few exceptions, less enthusiastic. However, many ‘real’ Norwegians felt it was unnecessary to bother with their wounded pride. Among them was language professor Finn-Erik Vinje, who claimed, somewhat surprisingly, that neger was a non-pejorative, neutral word. (Well, maybe to him, who has never been called a neger!)

In the intervening years , public debate on difference, culture and identity has become a tad more aggressive, and in newspaper columns, blogs and chatrooms on the Web, parallels are now being drawn between linguistic sensitivity of this kind and Orwell's 1984. The Ministry of Truth is now, according to this perspective, weeding out words and expressions that might be used subversively. Some even claim that the suggestion to amend Lindgren's text proves that Western liberal democracy is about to submit to the pressure from totalitarian forces. (If this is true, liberal democracy in the US, where sensitivity to discriminating language is way above that in Scandinavia, has been a dead duck for years.)

But suppose then, that the majority of the population felt that ‘cripple’ was a useful and neutral designation for people who were dependent on crutches, or that it was perfectly OK and neutral to describe overweight people as ‘fat slobs’? If the people in question were to protest, the majority could just, with or without the support of Prof. Vinje, confirm that the words in question had a long an honourable history in our language and were quite neutral. In a word, the cripples and fat bastards had no reason to object.

Not to mention vulgar designations for the female sexual organ, which are occasionally used metonymically to describe the entire woman: Suppose that a fairly large proportion of the male population, including active bloggers and newspaper debaters, held the view that the word ‘c***’ was a useful synonym for ‘woman’ – and if certain women disagreed, truth-seekers and men concerned with the freedom of expression were obliged to indicate the parallels with Orwell's dystopias, if necessary supplemented with a worried facial expression and a leaden voice.

Why do such comparisons seem so contrived in this country? Surely, it can't be because black people are less deserving of respect than others?

The word neger (negro) carries with it several problems. First, it suggests that skin colour is of paramount importance among black persons. The rest of us [paleskinned people] are not obliged to spend our lives as whites – we are allowed to be men, students, Arsenal supporters etc. – but blacks (as in negroes) are first black, then human. The noun designating the human being is a skin colour. In Spanish, the problem does not exist, since negro/negra refers to a colour, not an entire person. In French, English, German, Dutch and Scandinavian, the situation is different, and in most of these language areas, the word negro and its equivalents are regarded as offensive.

Secondly, the word neger conveys little relevant information. It says nothing about a person's nationality, language, religion. cultural background, gender, age or education. It insinuates that a Kenyan and a New Yorker have something fundamental in common because they share a skin colour.

Thirdly, the word neger or negro is inextricably connected to a historical situation where Africans and persons of African origin were considered to be racially inferior, and where millions lived in slavery for centuries.

Confronted with arguments of this kind, many may react with accusations of ‘political correctness’, that is an exaggerated linguistic sensitivity aimed to avoid offending people. Well, it was probably considered ‘PC’ when words like ‘savages’ went into disuse as well, or when the cephalic index (dividing populations into ‘long-headed’ and ‘short-headed’) was abandoned. Yet, such linguistic changes heightened the level of precision in the language. Whenever it is necessary to describe a person's skin colour, which obviously happens occasionally, Norwegians can use readily available words like brown, black or pink, without thereby designating entire persons.

Let us briefly consider the texts in question. When ‘Hoa Hottentott’ was last discussed in the newspapers, a few years ago, some reacted with a stance best described as incredulous aggression. Couldn't the PC leftist moralisers get it into their thick heads that this was an innocent children's song!? Yes, the song is doubtless innocent enough, and it is a useful source documenting widespread views of faraway peoples in the Norway of the 1950s.

Yet the song about Hoa is embarrassing, largely because Egner had no knowledge whatsoever about his subject-matter. If ‘Hoa Hottentott’ is all right, then it must also be all right to sing songs about Norwegians who live in igloos, fight polar bears, dance to the sensuous rhythm of their tribal drums and beat their bellies when they are happy.

Hottentot was the Afrikaans word for the khoikhoi, a segment of the indigenous hunters and gatherers of South Africa and Namibia. The word means ‘stutterer’ and went into disuse some years ago. In Egner's song, the impression is given that the khoikhoi are Bantu speakers. Egner mentions that Hoa ‘lived in a negro kraal/'cause that's what Hottentots do’. A kraal is an enclosure for cattle (corral), and the term was sometimes used by white South Africans to designate entire villages. Zulu villages, that is. Besides, Hoa was not a ‘negro’. The Khoikhoi have a light skin colour, and do not look like most Africans.

One might go through the song verse by verse. Hoa wears feathers on his head and a ring on his big toe. Khoikhoi don't. In the village, there is a king. The Khoikhoi never had kings nor even chiefs. And so on.

In other words, if you really have to write a song about the cute and weird customs of foreign peoples, by all means do it, but read a book about them first – or at least a magazine article. Egner had clearly done neither. That was his choice, but then it must also be up to the publisher to decide whether or not to continue reprinting the song lyrics in every new edition of the book until the end of time.

Now to Lindgren and Pippi's father Ephraim Longstocking, traditionally described as a ‘negro king’, recently renamed a ‘South Sea king’ (sydhavskonge) in Norway. As usual, those who claim to represent the suppressed voice of the people (as if ‘the people’ were by definition always disrespectful and inconsiderate), issue warnings against censorship and historical revisionism. (Strange use of terminology, this: In my book, historical revisionism amounts to conscious efforts to erase past events from the historical record – in this case, that would mean denying that the book/song had ever existed.)

The problems with Lindgren's story are of a different kind compared with Egner. The description of Pippi and her friends' trip with the Hoptoad clearly reveals that Kurrekurredutt Island, where her father is king, is located to the Pacific, either Melanesia or Polynesia. But if this is the case, Ephraim cannot be a negro king, whether one approves of the word negro or not. Neither Polynesians nor Melanesians are of African origin, and the racist anthropology of a bygone era classified them as belonging to the Mongoloid and Australoid races, respectively, not the Negroid race.

It may not be a major issue, it's just harmless fun, right? Well, possibly, but in that case, we must also endorse children's books which depict Scandinavians as Arabs. Good gracious, everybody, we're talking about innocent children's books! (To some of us, that's exactly the problem. Unlike the rest of us, children don't historicise texts. We grown-ups are perfectly happy reading anti-Semitic and racist literature from the past -- or the present for that matter -- knowing about the context in which they were written. Children are um, less mature than adults in this respect.)

To some of us, the least appealing aspect of Lindgren's book has been the implicit ideological message about natives being unable to govern themselves and, accordingly, eagerly installing the first visiting white man as their chief. Reading about Ephraim Longstocking and the Kurrekurredutts conveys some of the same feelings as the story about Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Before meeting Robinson, Friday neither has a name, a language nor a culture of his own.

In spite of a generally higher sensitivity in matters of offensive language, Sweden does not have a parallel debate about Lindgren and the Kurrekurredutts, presumably because of her status as a national icon above criticism. However, a few years ago, a book published in Sweden offered an interesting new interpretation of the Ephraim Longstocking case. He turns out to be based on a historical case, namely King Kalle of Tabar!

In 2002, Joakim Langer and Helena Regius published Kung Kalle av Kurrekurreduttön (King Kalle of Kurrekurredutt Isle), a study of the sailor Carl I. Pettersson and his life as chief in an island in the Bismarck Archipelago. Like Pippi's father, he was shipwreched and drifted ashore on a coral island where he married the chief's daughter and ended up inheriting the small chiefdom. King Kalle lived in the island from 1904 to 1935, he was known to the Swedish media, and Lindgren was doubtless familiar with his story.

It must be admitted that this new information sheds new light on Lindgren's book. She wrote on the basis of a scenario which was not merely possible or likely, but which had already been realised! Ephraim Longstocking has lived, and he was chief on a South Sea island. One-nil to Lindgren!

Still, it remains to be concluded that there are several reasons why it is unfortunate to claim that he ruled over negroes.