After reading Wilfrid Lupano and Jérémie Moreau’s The Hartlepool Monkey, I began to prepare myself for giving, at best, a lukewarm review for the book. At face value, I found the monkey trial of espionage on behalf France and consequent hanging by a group of townies in Hartlepool to be a bit of a heavy handed metaphor in combination with the final discourse and cautionary message about the effects of severe xenophobia. In fact, immediately after my first read, I felt that The Hartlepool Monkey possessed the satire sensibilities of Voltaire’s Candide but diluted with a few buckets of distilled water.
But, everything changed when I delved into the cultural history of the legend of the Hartlepool monkey. Sure, the back cover alluded to the inspiration from the legend, but prior to reading the book, I had not realized the influence of the monkey across the course of time.
So at this point, you must be asking, what is the Hartlepool monkey legend? And what about it caused you to reverse your perspective of the work?
The legend/myth/tale of the Hartlepool monkey claims that during the Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon attempted to extend his ruling domain across Europe, a French commercial ship crashed off the coast of Hartlepool, a small city on the eastern coast of England. It is believed that the only survivor was a monkey, most likely some type of chimpanzee, and given that the denizens of the town had never interacted with any citizen of France, they believed that the monkey was in fact a spy for France. The legend then claims that the town gave the monkey a trial, and as expected , they found the creature guilty of espionage and lynched it on the beach (how could a monkey proclaim its innocence in the first place?).
Though the exact origins and the truth of the tale remain somewhat contentious, Hartlepool has continued to embrace the story, so much so that the city’s soccer club’s mascot is H’Angus the Monkey. And as if the impact of the tale could not get more absurd, the man who dressed up as H’Angus for Hartlepool F.C. became the mayor of Hartlepool in 2002, serving the town for ten years until the city decided to eliminate the role of mayor in favor of a ruling local committee. With absurd and macabre origins, the legacy of the Hartlepool monkey got even more bizarre in modern times.
Given the generally positive perspective of the myth of the monkey hanging in Hartlepool, it makes sense that Moreau and Lupano would want to revitalize the story with a focus on its outrageousness and absurdity. The skeleton of the story focuses on the Hartlepool monkey, and the flesh focuses on building the mannerisms and cultural practices of the people of the setting. Unlike in the original myth and the song popularized by Ned Corvan in the 1800s, The Hartlepool Monkey contains a voice of reason whose thoughts weave through the tragedy of the monkey. A doctor, whose carriage fails on a trip, stops into Hartlepool and offers a more modern perspective on human brutality and xenophobia. However, it becomes clear that his perspective is out of place, and as thus, the course of events of the legend will have to occur.
While most of the narrative focuses on Hartlepool’s rogues, who Moreau illustrates to their utmost grisliness, Lupano prefaces all of the events in Hartlepool with a sequence that casts light on the overall ugliness of the people of the time. The Hartlepool Monkey opens up on the decks of the French vessel that crashed, where the captain himself proves to be as ignorant and vulgar as the Hartlepudlians to come. As a former slave trader turned navy man, the captain reigns over his ship with a reverse direction xenophobic severity as the Hartlepool yokels. In foreshadowing the idiocy ahead, the captain sentences a French servant boy to death when he sings a sea shanty and mentions that his nanny was English. Though the tale of the Hartlepool monkey certainly exposes a dark truth about the town, the actions of the French navy on the ships do not make the French citizens more sympathetic than the Hartlepudlians. In this period, France hates England; England hates France, and both act stupidly and violently out of their hatred.
With the contrasting settings on the boat and in Hartlepool, Lupano conveys the overall heinousness committed by humans, regardless of nationality, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, which is by far the strongest part of the novel. Sadly, it stands in the shadow of the doctor’s more philosophical statements and eventual closing speech on the brutality of man in the name of patriotism, which the book could do without, for we as readers should be able to infer such a message from the story. But, I’ll pardon these more dogmatic and heavy-handed panels, since after all, perhaps we need a more explicit reiteration of the learnings from the tale of the Hartlepool monkey, since a slightly disconcerting pride in the tale continues to exists nearly two centuries later.
The Hartlepool Monkey is written by Wilfrid Lupano and illustrated by Jérémie Moreau. The English edition is available via Knockabout.