Representations of French Colonialism in The Story of Babar the Little Elephant

The inside cover of Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 Histoire de Babar le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar the Little Elephant), Accessed 16 Apr. 2021.

By Nathan Englehart

Babar the elephant is one of the most widely recognized characters in children’s literature. In the early 2000s my parents read The Story of Babar the Little Elephant to me, using my mother’s worn copy from the late 1960s. Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 tale continues to reach children worldwide through numerous sequels available in 17 languages, not to mention a television show on CBC/HBO available in 30 languages across 150 countries.[1] 

Babar the Little Elephant is beautifully illustrated and charming. Babar is raised in the city to become the king of the forest—one who gets into mischief thanks to his insatiable curiosity. Yet there is more to Babar than a little elephant’s antics. A closer look reveals that Babar the Little Elephant was undoubtedly written as an endorsement of French colonialism—a message that probably escapes the average pre-schooler. 

Brunhoff wrote Babar the Little Elephant at a time when France’s understanding of colonialism was in flux. Assimilationist colonial policy was giving way to a hybrid assimilationist-associationist policy. The publication of Babar the Little Elephant occurred at a time of policy transition, but the work is ultimately a celebration of assimilationism-associationism. 

Before World War I, assimilationists believed La Mission Civilisatrice (the civilizing mission) was paramount for French colonialists. Assimilationists thought France had not just the right, but the “benevolent” duty to spread French republicanism and culture around the globe. Colonial natives were considered French citizens upon adoption of French culture and customs. This gave natives the same political rights as mainland French citizens. 

Assimilationist policy proved problematic for the French on two fronts. First, assimilationism entailed replacing centuries-old governing structures. In late 19th century French West Africa, influential colonial official and ethnographer Maurice Delafosse argued that “liberating” Africans by removing their traditional tribal leaders from power was a mistake.[2] It both displeased influential natives elite and stirred unrest in whole colonies. Second, popular opinion in France opposed native peoples enjoying the same political rights as mainland French citizens. Even well-respected French thinkers such as polymath and sociologist Gustav Le Bon insisted that nations and races were linked.[3] They argued that native people living in the French empire could never be fully “French” and thus shouldn’t have the same political rights as full French citizens. Associationists, on the other hand, believed that natives were not and could not be French and thus should not be treated as such. They believed natives should retain a degree of autonomy and self-governance, and not enjoy the rights of full French citizens. Thus, by the onset of World War I, France began to meld La Mission Civilisatrice and the ideas of thinkers such as Delafosse and Le Bon into a unique hybrid assimilationist-associationist colonial policy. 

Public opinion of the empire became especially important in the early 20th century. In 1899, English-Polish author Joseph Conrad published Heart of Darkness, a novella depicting the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo Free State’s rubber trade.[4] Conrad’s novella was instrumental in sparking the widespread disapproval and condemnation of Belgian King Leopold II’s colonial policy. French colonialists emphasized that their form of colonialism was better than others, unethical empires, such as the Belgian Congo. 

French romanticization of their unique form of “ethical” colonialism is embodied in Brunhoff’s Babar the Little Elephant. The story opens with little Babar and his mother living in the forest in ignorant bliss. Their peaceful life together is brought to an end by a European hunter who shoots Babar’s mother for her tusks, terrorizing Babar and the animals around him. Through the killing of Babar’s mother, Brunhoff contrasts extraction-oriented colonialism with benevolent and morally-upright French colonialism. 

After the death of Babar’s mother, Babar wanders for several days before discovering a distinctively French town. Babar is enchanted by its broad streets, cars, and buses, as well as the western-style suits worn by men. Babar’s interest in the “Frenchness” of the town reinforced the narrative that colonialism benefited both parties. Notably, Babar meets a kind old woman who lends him her purse so he can buy a suit. Brunhoff uses the kindly, generous old woman to symbolize France. Like French colonialists, she goes out of her way to help Babar become more “civilized,” or, in other words, more French. The kind old woman is a device representing “good colonialists” focused on uplifting colonial subjects. 

The story of Babar also exemplifies associationist beliefs, which held that native peoples were distinctly different from the French. At the department store, Babar gets sidetracked playing with the elevator, riding up and down over and over. On first glance, Babar is an adorably curious elephant. On second glance, this passage arguably infantilizes native populations. Brunhoff portrays them as both ignorant and insatiably curious about French technology, just as French colonialists thought of natives at the time. Both Babar playing with the elevator and his purchase of a Western-style green suit signify the difference between French and native peoples. Green was not a suit color popular among Frenchmen at the time. Because the suit is green rather than grey or blue, Babar has not fully assimilated. His new look is thus consistent with the views of hybrid assimilation-associationism. In his new suit, Babar has attained his own good-looking, but unique, Frenchness. When Babar returns to the old woman, she comments over dinner that Babar “looks very smart in his new suit.”[5] 

While Brunhoff depicts Babar as partially assimilating to French culture, it is also clear that Babar is a creature of the great forest. He is not quite happy living in town with the kindly woman. His ambivalence is evident upon a visit from his cousins, Arthur and Celeste. Babar promptly outfits them in French attire and feeds them pastries. Yet when Arthur and Celeste’s mothers arrive worried about them, Babar is so homesick that he decides to return to the forest. Here Brunhoff gives voice to the widely-held opinion in interwar France that native peoples were distinctly different and should be treated as such. Special natives—like Babar—nevertheless made suitable leaders of native populations once assimilated into French culture. Notably, Babar brings a decided “Frenchness” with him on his return to the jungle. 

After his return to the jungle, Babar’s newly acquired Frenchness qualifies him to lead the great forest, which is consistent with a change in French colonial policy from educating commoners to educating elites. Prior to the 20th century, French education in the colonies created unrest among an emerging class of middle-wealth, well-educated commoners who sought equal political rights called évolués. To combat this unrest, French colonialists began to limit education to the elites. Thus assimilated, these native elites could then serve in colonial governments and represent French interests. This prevented the évolués from further challenging the French. For example, after World War I, the governor-general of French West Africa, Martial Merlin, implemented policies that empowered local leaders, instead of commoners through education.[6] By becoming more French through programs like education, chiefs could retain their power over the impatient évolués and thus prevent the évolués from challenging the French. 

The choice of a green-suited, automobile-driving Babar as king is consistent with this shift in colonial policy, from one of educating commoners to a policy of educating elites. In Brunhoff’s story, Babar not only learns French culture from the kindly woman, but is taught arithmetic from the professor and makes “rapid progress”.[7] Clever readers of Babar the Little Elephant will also note Brunhoff’s portrayal of Babar as special from the outset of the tale. Babar is the only elephant using a tool in an early scene depicting the elephants playing in the great forest. Babar thus symbolizes those local elites French colonialists routinely chose for assimilation. 

Babar happens to return to the great forest just as the king of the elephants has fallen ill. As the three oldest elephants meet to name the next ruler of the great forest, Babar arrives home driving an automobile with Arthur and Celeste. Cornelius, the eldest elephant, asks “Why not choose Babar? He just returned from the big city, he has learned so much living among men, let us crown him king”.[8] In Brunhoff’s telling, Babar’s Frenchness and associated modernity qualify him to lead. 

Brunhoff’s Babar the Little Elephant sold empire to French young people. The story contrasts “bad colonialists” focused on resource extraction with “good” French colonialists. These French colonialists focused on the assimilationist-associationist practice of grooming of certain native elites, represented through Babar, in French ways so they can eventually rule their native land. Thus did French children—and their parents—learn of the benevolence of the French empire, all while enjoying the adventures of a mischievous little elephant. 

[1] “Babar and the Adventures of Badou,” Treehouse TV. Retrieved 23 February 2013. 

[2] Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford University Press, 2015). 

[3] Tyler Stovall, Transnational France: the Modern History of a Universal Nation (Routledge, 2019), 192. 

[4] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Blackwood’s Magazine, 1902.

[5] Jean de Brunhoff, The Story of Babar the Little Elephant (Random House, 1931), 18. 

[6]Conklin, A Mission to Civilize, 193. 

[7] Brunhoff, The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, 22. 

[8] Ibid., 22.

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