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Formerly, it had the technical meaning of a person having a mixture of black and white ancestry, more black than white — contrast with mulatto, quadroon, octoroon etc. In modern British English, the term "Sambo" is considered offensive.
The word "sambo" came into the English language from the Latin American Spanish word zambo, the Spanish word in Latin America for a person of mixed African and Native American descent. This in turn may have come from one of three African language sources. Webster's Third International Dictionary holds that it may have come from the Kongo word nzambu (monkey). Note that the z of (Latin American) Spanish is pronounced like the English s rather than as the z in the word nzambu. The Royal Spanish Academy gives the origin from a Latin word, possibly the adjective valgus or another modern Spanish term (patizambo,) both of which translate to "bow-legged".
Examples of "Sambo" as a common name can be found as far back as the 18th century. In Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair (serialised from 1847), the black skinned Indian servant of the Sedley family from Chapter One, is called Sambo. Similarly, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), one of Simon Legree's overseers is named Sambo. Instances of it being used as a stereotypical name for African Americans can be found as early as the Civil War. The name does not seem to have acquired the intentional, open derogatory connotation until the first half of the 20th century.
Sambo's Grave is the 1736 burial site of a young dark-skinned cabin boy or slave, on unconsecrated ground in a field near the small village of Sunderland Point, near Heysham and Overton, Lancashire, England. Sunderland Point used to be a port, serving cotton, sugar and slave ships from the West Indies and North America.
The name became especially associated with the children's book Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, published in 1899. It was the story of a boy named Sambo who outwitted a group of hungry tigers. Bannerman also wrote Little Black Mingo, Little Black Quasha, and Little Black Quibba. In this book, Sambo is the name of a southern Indian boy.
The once-popular "Sambo's" restaurant chain used the Helen Bannerman images to promote and decorate their restaurants although it was named after the chain's co-owners, Samuel Battistone and Newell Bohnett. The word and the choice of racist iconography by the chain had such negative connotations that despite the actual origin of the chain's name, they were contributing factors in the chain's demise in the early 1980s.