Reading Tarzan, part two

by zunguzungu

To get this kicked off, I want to start with the claim that it’s no coincidence that Tarzan of the Apes begins with a crisis of white leadership, or rather several. The crew of the Fuwalda is “composed of unhanged murderers and cutthroats of every race and every nation” and their mutiny is the necessary prologue to set the stage for the novel proper, since they will (after the mutiny) maroon Tarzan’s parents on the coast of Africa to die, where Tarzan will be born. This is one vision of what “civilization” looks like when it moves away from England, the fear that as white people remove themselves from the civilizing influence of English society, they revert to a Hobbesian (dis)order of all against all. There, on this “vessel of the type often seen in coastwise trade in the far southern Atlantic,” we see a battleground of man reduced to his Darwinian essence:

“Her officers were swarthy bullies, hating and hated by their crew. The captain, while a competent seaman, was a brute in his treatment of his men.  He knew, or at least he used, but two arguments in his dealings with them–a belaying pin and a revolver–nor is it likely that the motley aggregation he signed would have understood aught else.”

The mutiny is born of this problem, and therefore so is Tarzan himself. At the same time, Tarzan’s father, the Lord Greystoke (John Clayton), been sent to Africa to investigate a different kind of white mis-leadership, the reports that another European power is luring “black British subjects” out of their (apparently) cushy gig in an unnamed British colony to be exploited in virtual slavery in the other (wither the French of Belgian Congo, most likely). Bad white people, in short, are mistreating our natives.

Here’s the passage:

“John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, was commissioned to make a peculiarly delicate investigation of conditions in a British West Coast African Colony from whose simple native inhabitants another European power was known to be recruiting soldiers for its native army, which it used solely for the forcible collection of rubber and ivory from the savage tribes along the Congo and the Aruwimi. The natives of the British Colony complained that many of their young men were enticed away through the medium of fair and glowing promises, but that few if any ever returned to their families.

“The Englishmen in Africa went even further, saying that these poor blacks were held in virtual slavery, since after their terms of enlistment expired their ignorance was imposed upon by their white officers, and they were told that they had yet several years to serve.  And so the Colonial Office appointed John Clayton to a new post in British West Africa, but his confidential instructions centered on a thorough investigation of the unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power.  Why he was sent, is, however, of little moment to this story, for he never made an investigation, nor, in fact, did he ever reach his destination.”

“Natives,” you will observe, become “black British subjects” only the moment another European power tries to make use of them. I also note the curious fact that these virtual slaves are specifically not laborers but soldiers. This seems plausible enough; the Belgian process of rubber procurement in the Congo was a thoroughly militarized operation, and proceeded more or less by announcing that if a certain amount of rubber wasn’t produced in the next three months, the force publique would come back and cut off everyone’s left hand. But I suspect that what’s important about that detail is the fact of white people being brutal to black people, a use of force deemed to be excessive and illegitimate because it is the use of force. British governance, at least by comparison to Belgian/French, is based in the consent of the governed, who apparently work in this unnamed British colony because of the many splendorous benefits that thereby accrue to them.

While this set up is completely superfluous (as Burroughs courteously points out to us), it nicely rhymes with the more proximate cause of our story, the mutiny itself, which only gets set in motion because of the captain’s excessive brutality, an excessive force (which John Clayton attempts to curb) directed not against black people but against a character named, without explanation, “Black Michael.” Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this?

The short version goes thus: the captain bumps into an elderly sailor and spills water on himself, gets angry, beats the hell out of the old man, which angers another sailor (Black Michael), who punches the captain, who gets even angrier, tries to shoot Black Michael, and is stopped by John Clayton, which, in delaying the inevitable, effectively transforms the confrontation from a spontaneous brawl to a planned (and therefore successful) mutiny.

Here’s the passage in full:

“Two sailors were washing down the decks of the Fuwalda, the first mate was on duty, and the captain had stopped to speak with John Clayton and Lady Alice. The men were working backwards toward the little party who were facing away from the sailors.  Closer and closer they came, until one of them was directly behind the captain. In another moment he would have passed by and this strange narrative would never have been recorded.

“But just that instant the officer turned to leave Lord and Lady Greystoke, and, as he did so, tripped against the sailor and sprawled headlong upon the deck, overturning the water-pail so that he was drenched in its dirty contents. For an instant the scene was ludicrous; but only for an instant. With a volley of awful oaths, his face suffused with the scarlet of mortification and rage, the captain regained his feet, and with a terrific blow felled the sailor to the deck.

“The man was small and rather old, so that the brutality of the act was thus accentuated.  The other seaman, however, was neither old nor small–a huge bear of a man, with fierce black mustachios, and a great bull neck set between massive shoulders. As he saw his mate go down he crouched, and, with a low snarl, sprang upon the captain crushing him to his knees with a single mighty blow.

“From scarlet the officer’s face went white, for this was mutiny; and mutiny he had met and subdued before in his brutal career. Without waiting to rise he whipped a revolver from his pocket, firing point blank at the great mountain of muscle towering before him; but, quick as he was, John Clayton was almost as quick, so that the bullet which was intended for the sailor’s heart lodged in the sailor’s leg instead, for Lord Greystoke had struck down the captain’s arm as he had seen the weapon flash in the sun.

“Words passed between Clayton and the captain, the former making it plain that he was disgusted with the brutality displayed toward the crew, nor would he countenance anything further of the kind while he and Lady Greystoke remained passengers.”

Clayton and his lady will survive the mutiny because (and only because) of his intervention, which causes Black Michael to spare their lives. At the same time, being mutinied in Africa will also be the thing that kills them, something I’m going to look at more closely soon. For the moment, though, I can’t help but note how careful Burroughs can be in noting that if things hadn’t happened just so, “he would have passed by and this strange narrative would never have been recorded.” And I harp on the way these crises of leadership produce not merely the narrative itself but Tarzan himself, because this helps us frame Tarzan of the Apes as a specifically American intervention into the European field of colonial discourse.

After all, if the “unhanged murderers and cutthroats of every race and every nation” are one turn of the century vision of what happens to white people when they get too far from civilization, another vision is the long term American project of arguing that, actually, white creoles living in imperial peripheries are not degenerating or becoming corrupted by savage wilderness but are, contrariwise, being baptized and cleansed by it. This is Jefferson arguing with that French guy that animals are bigger in the new world than the old, or the entire “making the world anew” project of the American revolution  itself, in which a crisis of white leadership (George III’s despotic use of force) was to be met by a return to civilization through primitivity. It’s Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, and Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West, and maybe even the Atlantic Charter and the UN. But it’s also Tarzan of the Apes, the white man whose whiteness shines all the more brightly the deeper he plunges himself into the African jungle, a novel written by an American about the son of British parents who decides to deny his heritage out of the love of a southern heiress in Wisconsin, and which would, as the European empires were replaced by a world order (very differently) centered on Washington and New York, became one of the most dominant popular culture images in the coming American century, the image that would become Superman when America became a superpower.