Prisoners on Tanimbar?

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I got home yesterday to find an exciting package waiting for me: a small parcel from France, inside of which was a copy of a French comic dating from the 1960s. It was a copy of Akim (no. 247, to be precise), which started life in Italy as a knock-off copy of Tarzan. Akim ran from 1950 to 1967 in Italy, and had an afterlife in France where it continued to be published until 1991. Issue no. 247 dates from the French period, and the reason I got hold of it is that I’m currently writing a book on the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia, so when I saw that there was a French comic from the sixties telling an exciting tale of  imprisonment in Tanimbar (‘La Prison de Tanimbar’), as a thorough researcher, I thought I had to get myself a copy. Besides, ‘La Prison de Tanimbar’ had a magnificent cover, which I cannot resist sharing.

Akim No. 247, 1969

Akim No. 247, 1969

It takes a bit of unpicking to work out precisely what is going on here. The two characters on the pyre are Jim and Rita, who have been taken prisoner in Tanimbar in the village of Maladan. Coming over the horizon are some of Akim’s (the Tarzan-like figure in the stories) animal sidekicks. And the people with the nifty orientalist haircuts are the Tanimbarese. Here is the text from the first page, translated in a slightly ad hoc fashion from the French.

“Desiring to reconquer at any price the kingdom of Tanimbar, from where she has been driven, Samara, the cruel queen of the tigers, has struck Akim with an arrow coated with a drug that makes him blindly obey her orders. As a result the animals that could resist Samara’s plans [by way of editorial intervention, I should point out that these are all Akim’s sidekicks] have all been driven out into the forest, and Rita and Jim have been exiled on a lost island in the centre of a volcano… Akim, Samara and an expeditionary force of one hundred elite warriors trained by Akim embark for Tanimbar, just as Jim and Rita manage to escape and also arrive. Rita just has the time to fire in Akim’s direction an arrow which would inject him with a substance that could snatch him from out of Samara’s grip, but then she too is captured, along with Jim, by the Maladan warriors.”

Lying behind this teenage fever-dream that passes for a plot, there is clearly some back-story here that I am missing. Perhaps issue no. 246 has more to say about who Samara is, and what she is up to. Perhaps it provides more information about the island in the middle of the volcano (how does that work, by the way?). Perhaps, for all I know, it has more to say about Tanimbar itself, which looks nothing at all like the real Tanimbar, the small archipelago in south-east Indonesia where I did fieldwork in the 1990s, and where there are found neither sadistic queens, nor tigers, nor elephants (although there was, in the past, imported ivory). In other words, and perhaps inevitably, in the story of Akim, ‘Tanimbar’ is simply a stand-in that just means ‘somewhere exotic’, a place where people called things like Jim and Rita can go rampaging around amongst savages and warrior-queens, thwarting their dastardly native plans.

So Akim issue no. 247 does not have much to add to the research for my Tanimbar book, other than suggesting that by the sixties the name ‘Tanimbar’ had somehow entered the European imagination as a place of primitive Heart-of-Darkness horror. And this is perhaps an opportunity lost, given that there is, in fact, an intriguing and well-documented story about a real prisoner of the real Tanimbar.

This story dates from the early nineteenth century when the young seaman Joseph Forbes, the son of a shoe-maker from London, set sail in 1822 on the schooner Stedcombe. Two years later, after an altercation off the shore of Yamdena, found himself captured as a slave along with one of his companions who died not long after. Forbes was to remain there for another fifteen years, as he said in his later oral account of his captivity, ‘kept by the natives to hard labour such as cutting Timber, cultivating yams, Plantains, Sweet Potatoes etc which from the oppressive heat of the climate has ruined my constitution.’ When he was rescued by the Essington in 1839, captained by Thomas Watson, he was in poor shape: confused, speaking only the most rudimentary and broken English, his body was covered in burns and ulcerated sores. ‘Nor does the Catalogue of this poor fellows misfortunes end here,’ Watson noted in his log, ‘for he was found to have been injured in the Genitals, and on being questioned about it, he said it was caused by the bite of the Native Wild Pig.’ Forbes returned to London but he couldn’t settle; and after more time at sea spent his final days in Williamstown, Australia.

So I think that one day there is an interesting story to be told about Joseph Forbes, the shoe-maker’s son; but readers of Akim will be disappointed to know that it is a story without low-budget Tarzan look-alikes, magic potions, tigers, or sexy but sadistic queens called Samara…


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