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The word "sambo" came into the English language from the Latin American Spanish word zambo, which 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. Another source holds that it is a variant of a Foulah word meaning "uncle", or a Hausa word for "second son". 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". Zambo is the Spanish word in Latin America for a person of mixed African and Native American descent.
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 controversial 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 racist connotation until the first half of the 20th century — possibly in defiance of protests made by African Americans.
In modern British English, the term "Sambo" is considered offensive. 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.
"Sambo" is a very common name (used both as a family name and as a first name) in Madagascar and is also the Malagasy word for "boat", used only for larger boats rather than canoes which are known as lakana.
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 word gained prominence through the children's book Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, 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. One recent edition has renamed the book The Story of Little Babaji. 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 had such negative connotations by itself that despite the actual origin of the chain's name, it was a real contributing factor in the chain's demise in the early 1980s.