Name: Helen Brodie Cowan WATSON
Given Name: Helen Brodie Cowan
Birth: 25 FEB 1862
Helen BANNERMAN authoress
Change Date: 25 JAN 2011 at 01:18:39
BANNERMAN [née WATSON], Helen Brodie Cowan (1862-1946), children's writer, was born on 25 February 1862 at 35 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh. She was the eldest daughter and fourth child of seven children of Robert Boog Watson (1823–1910), minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and his wife Janet (1831–1912), daughter of Alexander Cowan and Helen Brodie. Both Helen Watson's parents were Scots, as was her husband William Burney Bannerman (1858–1924), a physician, the son of James Bannerman (1807-1868) and David Ann Douglas (1819–1879). Between the ages of two and twelve. Helen grew up in Madeira, where her father was minister at the Scottish church. She was educated by her father until age ten. When the family returned to Edinburgh she was educated at Miss Oliphant's school. She later studied French and German. At a time when women were not admitted to Scottish universities she sat external examinations and was made an LLA (lady literate in arts) by St Andrews University in 1887.
After her marriage on 26 June 1889, Helen Bannerman went with her husband to India and lived there in the Madras presidency as the wife of an officer in the Indian Medical Service (IMS) until he retired as a surgeon-general in 1918. They had four children in India: Janet Cowan Watson (1893–1976), Davie Anne Douglas (Day; 1896–1976) , James Patrick (Pat; 1900–1955) , and Robert Boog Watson (1902–1988).
The couple lived in the city of Madras, in hot south east India. With the incidence of plague and other tropical diseases, low-lying Madras was not considered ideal for children, and the Bannerman girls and boys spent a season each year with their nanny in the healthier hill town of Kodaikanal. Unwilling to leave her husband for an entire season each year, Helen Bannerman lived in Madras but would make the two-day rail journey to Kodaikanal when she could.
The book for which Helen Bannerman is best known, The Story of Little Black Sambo, was written to amuse her daughters them during a journey from Kodaikanal to Madras. This involved being carried on a chair down the steep hillside, then travelling in a bullock cart, and finally going by train, with stops at rest houses and for meals along the way. It took two days and two nights—time to refine the story of the adventures of a little black boy who outwits several tigers until it became a classic of economy and drama. She illustrated the book herself in watercolour and bound it into a small volume, with a picture facing every page:
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The Story of Little Black Sambo.
Once upon a time there was a little black boy, and his name was Little Black Sambo. And his mother was called Black Mumbo. And his father was called Black Jumbo. And Black Mumbo made him a beautiful little Red Coat, and a pair of beautiful little blue trousers. And Black Jumbo went to the Bazaar, and bought him a beautiful Green Umbrella, and a lovely little Pair of Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings. And then wasn't Little Black Sambo grand?
So he put on all his Fine Clothes, and went out for a walk in the Jungle. And by and by he met a Tiger. And the Tiger said to him, "Little Black Sambo, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Black Sambo said, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful little Red Coat." So the Tiger said, "Very well, I won't eat you this time, but you must give me your beautiful little Red Coat." So the Tiger got poor Little Black Sambo's beautiful little Red Coat, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest Tiger in the Jungle."
And Little Black Sambo went on, and by and by he met another Tiger, and it said to him, "Little Black Sambo, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Black Sambo said, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful little Blue Trousers." So the Tiger said, "Very well, I won't eat you this time, but you must give me your beautiful little Blue Trousers." So the Tiger got poor Little Black Sambo's beautiful little Blue Trousers, and went away saying, "Now I'M the grandest Tiger in the Jungle."
And Little Black Sambo went on, and by and by he met another Tiger, and it said to him, "Little Black Sambo, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Black Sambo said, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful little Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings. "But", the Tiger said, "What use would your shoes be to me? I've got four feet, and you've got only two; you haven't got enough shoes for me. "But Little Black Sambo said, "You could wear them on your ears." "So I could," said the Tiger: "that's a very good idea. Give them to me, and I won't eat you this time."
So the Tiger got poor Little Black Sambo's beautiful little Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings, and went away saying, "Now I'M the grandest Tiger in the Jungle."
And by and by Little Black Sambo met another Tiger, and it said to him, "Little Black Sambo, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Black Sambo said, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful Green Umbrella." But the Tiger said, "How can I carry an umbrella, when I need all my paws for walking with?" "You could tie a knot on your tail and carry it that way," said Little Black Sambo. "So I could, "said the Tiger. "Give it to me, and I won't eat you this time." So he got poor Little Black Sambo's beautiful Green Umbrella, and went away saying, "Now I'M the grandest Tiger in the Jungle."
And poor Little Black Sambo went away crying, because the cruel Tigers had taken all his fine clothes.
Presently he heard a horrible noise that sounded like ""Gr-r-r-r-rrrrrr,"," and it got louder and louder. "Oh! dear!" said Little Black Sambo, "there are all the Tigers coming back to eat me up! What shall I do?" So he ran quickly to a palm-tree, and peeped round it to see what the matter was. And there he saw all the Tigers fighting, and disputing which of them was the grandest. And at last they all got so angry that they jumped up and took off all the fine clothes, and began to tear each other with their claws, and bite each other with their great big white teeth. And they came, rolling and tumbling right to the foot of the very tree where Little Black Sambo was hiding, but he jumped quickly in behind the umbrella. And the Tigers all caught hold of each other's tails, as they wrangled and scrambled, and so they found themselves in a ring round the tree.
Then, when the Tigers were very wee and very far away, Little Black Sambo jumped up, and called out, "Oh! Tigers! why have you taken off all your nice clothes? Don't you want them any more?" But the Tigers only answered, ""Gr-r-rrrr!"!"
Then Little Black Sambo said, "If you want them, say so, or I'll take them away." But the Tigers would not let go of each other's tails, and so they could only say ""Gr-r-r-rrrrrr!"!"
So Little Black Sambo put on all his fine clothes again and walked off.
And the Tigers were very, very angry, but still they would not let go of each other's tails. And they were so angry, that they ran round the tree, trying to eat each other up, and they ran faster and faster, till they were whirling round so fast that you couldn't see their legs at all.
And they still ran faster and faster and faster, till they all just melted away, and there was nothing left but a great big pool of melted butter or "ghi," as it is called in India round the foot of the tree.
Now Black Jumbo was just coming home from his work, with a great big brass pot in his arms, and when he saw what was left of all the Tigers he said, "Oh! what lovely melted butter! I'll take that home to Black Mumbo for her to cook with". "So he put it all into the great big brass pot, and took it home to Black Mumbo to cook with. When Black Mumbo saw the melted butter, wasn't she pleased! "Now," said she, "we'll all have pancakes for supper!"
So she got flour and eggs and milk and sugar and butter, and she made a huge big plate of most lovely pancakes. And she fried them in the melted butter which the Tigers had made, and they were just as yellow and brown as little Tigers.
And then they all sat down to supper. And Black Mumbo ate Twenty-seven pancakes, and Black Jumbo ate Fifty-five but Little Black Sambo ate a Hundred and Sixty-nine, because he was so hungry.
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The girls were thrilled with the little book. Alice Bond, a friend of Bannerman's, was also impressed and suggested that the book be published. Although she had not written it with publication in mind, Bannerman agreed to let Bond take the book to publishers in London, requesting only that she be allowed to retain the copyright. Bond showed Bannerman's picture book to publisher Grant Richards, who immediately offered to buy the copyright for five British pounds. Lacking the time to write Bannerman for approval, and not wanting to jeopardize the publication of the book, Bond reluctantly agreed.
Little Black Sambo was published by Grant Richards in London in 1899 and became a runaway best-seller. Helen Bannerman was recognised as an innovator in picture books. At that time her bright, unrefined illustrations, suspenseful narrative, and rhythmic, repetitive sentences were unique. The small size of the book, also a new feature, made it easy for children to hold in their hands.
The book was published in the USA in 1900. American publishers rushed out copies of the book with, in later years, illustrations by a variety of artists, many of whom set their pictures in the deep south of the USA, associating the book with the American experience of slavery, and sowing the seeds for hatred of the book by black Americans in the years ahead.
Having effectively lost the copyright—though she had never agreed to its sale—Helen Bannerman made nothing more than the original £5 from her best-seller. She did, however, publish subsequent books, though none was such a success as her first. They were The Story of Little Black Mingo (1902), The Story of Little Black Quibba (1903), The Story of Little Degchiehead (1904), Pat and the Spider (1905), The Story of the Teasing Monkey (1906), The Story of Little Black Quasha (1908), The Story of Little Black Bobtail (1909), and The Story of Sambo and the Twins (1937). After her death her daughter Day gathered together some unfinished text and pictures, and completed them, and published The Story of Little White Squibba in 1966 under her mother's name.
Little Black Sambo achieved a popularity not matched by Bannerman's later work. Critics have praised the book as entertaining and humorous; Elizabeth Gard commented in Suitable for Children? that "it's not difficult to see why Little Black Sambo has always been the favourite.... Each picture exactly illustrates a moment in the story.... The simple words, and the highly effective repetition ... rivet the attention of both reader and listener. Mrs. Bannerman seems to have fallen completely instinctively into just the right style for children." Critics have also observed that Bannerman presents one of the first black heroes in children's literature. Little Black Sambo was initially regarded as a book that positively portrayed black characters, especially in comparison to the more negative books of the time that depicted blacks as simple and uncivilized. As racial consciousness grew in America and Great Britain in the mid-twentieth century, however, Little Black Sambo became an object of harsh criticism and heated debate. Charging that Bannerman presents a patronizing view of blacks, some educators recommended that the book be removed from library shelves; others defended the book as a harmless product of a bygone era.
Helen Bannerman was a small, neat figure, with her fair hair in a bun, and blue eyes. She had a quick intelligence and enjoyed puns and verbal wit. She was no housekeeper but very much the intellectual. And she was deeply Christian in her attitudes. At the end of her life Helen Bannerman was knew that her book Little Black Sambo was seen by some as racist and found this hard to understand -the child is the hero of the story and in her pictures he and his parents are lovingly drawn. In her picture of the closing scene (used in subsequent British reprints), where Sambo and his parents celebrate his escape from the tigers by eating pancakes, she shows the family sitting at a table with a clean white cloth, using plates and forks. In the American Stoll and Edwards edition a debased Sambo, sitting by himself, shovels the food into his mouth off the bare wooden table. The various American versions of Little Black Sambo published in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s certainly fuelled the criticism. Since neither Bannerman nor Richards retained the copyright, the story often appeared with illustrations other than the author's own, pictures that are generally considered stereotypical in their portrayal of blacks in jungle or plantation settings. But Helen Bannerman's own illustrations also came under fire. Some thought the caricatures in Little Black Sambo and the other works demeaning. In 1947 a critic asserted that "the original illustrations use all the usual stereotypes found in malicious cartoons of Negroes... the thick lips, the rolling eyes, the bony knees, the fuzzy hair." And some critics claimed that the names of Sambo's parents, Mumbo and Jumbo, made the characters objects of ridicule. Yet these are possibly little different from affectionate names for parents and grandparents in Helen's own childhood. As her son Robert put it in a letter to The Times on 1 May 1972 when the book was under attack: ‘My mother would not have published the book had she dreamt for a moment that even one small boy would have been made unhappy thereby’.
Helen and William Bannerman had retired to Edinburgh in 1918; he died there in 1924. She suffered a stroke in 1939, after which she was bedridden. She lived with her daughter Day in her home at 11 Strathearn Place, Edinburgh, and died there of a fractured femur and cerebral thrombosis on 13 October 1946; she was cremated.
drawn from the DNB entry by Elizabeth Hay and from the excellent illustrated material on the website of Australia's Pancake Parlour restaurants:
DNB cites as Sources H. Bannerman and W. Bannerman, letters to their children, 1902–17, NL Scot. [17 vols.] · E. Hay, Sambo sahib: the story of Helen Bannerman, author of Little black Sambo (1981) · P. Yuill, Little black Sambo: a closer look (1976) · P. Yuill, ‘Little black Sambo: the continuing controversy’, School Library Journal (March 1976) · S. G. Lanes, Down the rabbit hole (1972) · b. cert. · d. cert. · private information (2004)
Archives NL Scot., letters [incl. watercolour illustrations]
SOUND BBC, Radio Four feature (6 April 1971) ‘Far away, far away over the sea’ (produced Elizabeth Smith) [includes interviews with Helen Bannerman's children and much original material]
Likenesses photograph, NL Scot. · portrait, repro. in Hay, Sambo sahib; priv. coll.
Father: Robert Boog WATSON b: 26 SEP 1823 in Burntisland (Fife) Scotland
Mother: Janet COWAN b: 9 JUN 1831 in Moray House,Canongate,Edinburgh
William Burney BANNERMAN b: 6 JUL 1858 in Edinburgh
- Janet Cowan Watson BANNERMAN b: 1893
- Davie Anne Douglas "Day" BANNERMAN
- James Patrick BANNERMAN
- Robert Boog Watson BANNERMAN