– “Blacks!”, shouted one of the explorers.
– “Prepare to fight”, Hannon told his men.
Marcel D’Isard, África misteriosa
The quote comes from the novel África misteriosa (Mysterious Africa) written by Marcel D’Isard, the nom de plume of José María Carbonell Barberá, a prolific author who adapted children’s classics. The natural reaction to seeing black people — or Moors — and preparing for battle was a recurring scene, a repetitive rhyme, in such stories.
These lavishly illustrated adventure novels were conceived for a young audience and reached their peak in terms of dissemination and popularity in the ten years between 1957 and 1967. This same period marked a pivotal moment in a process that had started at the end of the Second World War and shared a radical turnaround in the global geopolitical map: the rise of national liberation movements in territories controlled by Europe’s major empires, leading to the emancipation of most former colonies.
These processes were not always pacific and sparked contrary reactions by sectors whose privilege was severely affected by the disappearance of the colonial regime. Europe’s capitals, together with directly political initiatives, witnessed the multiplication of cultural productions aimed at creating public opinion in favour of stopping, hindering, delaying or influencing these dynamics of decolonialisation.
The precise circumstances of Franco’s dictatorship would specifically determine the attitude the Spanish State, a waning colonial power, adopted opposite this phenomenon. At this juncture, the remnants of that empire “where the sun never set” were reduced to the control of a few, fragmented and scattered possessions divided between the Gulf of Guinea, Morocco and Western Sahara. However, Spanish fascism had turned the glorification of Hispanic imperial expression into one of the basic cornerstones of its rhetorical pomp, and the military caste that had materialised and upheld the dictatorship came specifically from the sustained colonial wars in Morocco.
Spain joined the United Nations in 1955, which meant, among other forms of taxation, recognition over the right to self-determination in these territories. The behaviour of the regime was not graceful, to say the least, in accepting independence from its last colonies and the Spanish army would leave Morocco grudgingly: from the northern zone of the Protectorate in 1956, from Cape Juby in 1958 (only after an armed conflict) and from Ifni in 1969. The withdrawal from Guinea would not occur until 1968 and from Western Sahara until 1976, and with such ill temper in the latter that the process of decolonialisation did not take place and remains a pending issue to address.
Morocco’s Independence in 1956 prompted Spain to take measures aligned towards the defence, through pressure from the international community, of the legitimacy of Spain’s colonial presence in Africa. Striking in these manoeuvres was the recognition of these territories as “overseas Spanish territories”, with the subsequent constitution of provincial governments, the issuing of Spanish IDs to inhabitants and, as a last resort, as in the case of Guinea, the proposal of a Statute of Autonomy. Before the inevitability of decolonisation was the last-ditch, and ultimately failed, attempt to prepare a local elite expressly designated to direct formally independent future states, accommodating those who served the interests of the mother country.
The official propaganda of the time would hammer home scenes underscoring the need to act as guardians of the colonised population, the most common trope in the contrast between Spanishness and Africanness, between development and primitivism, between modernity and backwardness, under a focus that frequently used the image of the native merely as an exotic backdrop to highlight the superiority of the coloniser. The photographs of Franco visiting the Country Fair in Madrid, where he inspects, indistinctly, pigs, sheep and Saharan indigenous people — in the tradition of nineteenth-century human zoos — are as revealing as those showing the visit to Circo Price by a Moroccan delegation or the presentation to the press of the albino gorilla Copito de Nieve (Snowflake), or the first black city police officer in Madrid, Jesús Nguema.
Mention must also be made of the role of institutions like the Institute of African Studies (IDEA), from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). The Institute provided “scientific” backing of the civilizing mission of Spanish Afro-Imperialism with the publication of the study on La capacidad mental del negro (The Mental Capacity of the Black Man, 1952). Under IDEA was also the Museo de África, which, from 1951 to 1955, held Exposición de pintores de África (The Exhibition of Painters from Africa) — referring to them not as Africans but because they drew from Africa in their paintings — a late expression of Orientalism in terminal decline.
One of the most interesting manifestations of the image of modernisation and progress late Spanish colonialism sought to show off was in architecture projects designed by Ramón Estalella, in collaboration with other architects in Sidi Ifni, Laâyoune and the continental region of Guinea. The designs were radically modern and, despite referencing local cultures, used a style which underlined, once again, the contrast and superiority over “otherness” and were deployed in a white space. A similar elan was shared in the display of audacious architecture and cars ploughing through avenues on the postcards of Laâyoune at that time, the lyrical scenes of black baptisms in the jungle and collection boxes in the form of the heads of “infidel children”.
Without underestimating the significant role played by schools, the press and news broadcasts/film documentaries — NO-Dos, shown mandatorily in Spanish cinemas from 1942 to 1981 — the greatest defence for maintaining the colonial regime was asserted in an implementation that was more grid-like and vague in the fabric of daily life and the emerging consumer society: in the 1950s and 1960s, the shop signs “foreign and colonial” were still repeated on Spanish streets, upon which the weight of international isolation began to be lifted. Although these shops no longer only stocked foreign products, coffee and sugar remained, their packets adorned with exotic figures, semi-naked farm workers, pages, servants and slaves embellished with silk and turbans. Chocolate, with raw materials produced and imported from Spanish Guinea, offered sticker collections such as A través de África (Through Africa), “tales of the adventures of Mr Batanga and his friends”, “the little Batanga black girl” and “the little Mongo black boy”, for instance. The virtues and flaws in this list constitute a bona fide catalogue of the most classic clichés on the colonised: “faithful, devoted, humble” girls who “like colourful dresses and glass bead necklaces” and who “love Baby Jesus and the Virgin a great deal, always praying to them when danger lurks”; while the “simple and affable” boys “are ungainly” but “know how to climb like an actual monkey” and are “good and loyal”, although “sad to say, don’t like work”. A sharp contrast with the main character in one of the best-known jingles in the history of Spanish advertising: the “little black boy from tropical Africa who farms to the Cola Cao song”.
In the 1950s, the naïve racism in the adventure comics of “master” Morcillón and his servant Babali in the magazine TBO shared space with other more pugnacious publications made for a young/teenage (male by default, of course) reader. The main characters in these comics are Western and Christian, struggling constantly with a relentless Muslim enemy, be it vaguely in medieval times — evoking another costly myth of Francoism: the spirit of the crusades and the Reconquista, as in Capitán Trueno or the Guerreo del Antifaz — or Protectorate Morocco, for instance the heroes of Audaces Legionarios, Capitán Rey and (the deliberately titled) Sargento Matamoros (Sergeant Moorkiller).
The cover of the novella África misteriosa shows, in a dramatic overhead shot, the close-up of an African soldier who, from up in his tree, is primed with his spear to attack the white explorer who, with pith helmet and rifle and accompanied by his native porter, walks oblivious to the imminent danger. A fresco of the colonial company understood as an exercise in the alternation of a firm hand opposite the insubordinate, a paternalism for the tamed; that is, an allegory of the noble and selfless sacrifice of superior races — “the burden of the white man” — and the Franco dictatorship as a colonial regime on European soil.