Helen Bannerman

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Helen Bannerman

Helen Brodie Cowan Bannerman (née Watson; 25 February 1862 in Edinburgh – 13 October 1946 in Edinburgh), was a Scottish author of children's books. She is best known for her first book, Little Black Sambo (1899).


Bannerman was born 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 malacologist, and his wife Janet (1831-1912), daughter of Helen Brodie and the papermaker and philanthropist Alexander Cowan.[1]

Because women were not admitted into British universities, she sat external examinations set by the University of St. Andrews, attaining the qualification of Lady Literate in Arts (LLA) in 1887. She then married William Burney Bannerman, a physician and an officer in the Indian Medical Service (IMS). The couple then moved to India, taking up residence in Madras (modern-day Chennai),[2] capital of the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeastern seacoast, populated mostly by the Tamil ethnic group. During their 30 years in India they had four children: daughters Janet (b. 1893) and Day (b. 1896), and sons James "Pat" Patrick (b.1900) and Robert (b. 1902).

She died in Edinburgh in 1946 of cerebral thrombosis.

She was the grandmother of the physicist Tom Kibble, who discovered the Higgs–Kibble mechanism and the Higgs boson.


The illustrations and settings of Bannerman's books are considered by many to be racist depictions of Black people and their cultures. Little Black Sambo has ghee, tigers, and a bazaar, The Story of Little Black Mingo has jungle, a mugger (a kind of crocodile), a dhobi, and a mongoose, Little Black Quasha has a bazaar and tigers, and The Story of Little Black Quibba has mangoes and elephants.


The name Sambo came to be seen as a slur on people of color, causing the books to often be blacklisted or censored. This prompted a new version co-authored by Fred Marcellino called The Story of Little Babaji, with the names of the main characters changed. Earlier, in 1976, Platt & Munk Publishers issued a version of Little Black Sambo with the parents' names identifiably Indian, and the picturesque illustrations altered to indicate decidedly Indian clothing.


  • The Story of Little Babaji (with Fred Marcellino), 1996 (Little Black Sambo with less offensive names), ISBN 0-06-205064-8
  • Sam and the Tigers


  • The Story of Little Black Sambo, 1899[3][4]
  • Story of Little Black Mingo, 1901
  • The Story of Little Black Quibba, 1902[5]
  • Little Degchie-Head: An Awful Warning to Bad Babas, 1903
  • Little Kettle-Head, 1904
  • Pat and the Spider, 1905
  • The Story of the Teasing Monkey, 1907
  • Little Black Quasha, 1908
  • Story of Little Black Bobtail, 1909
  • Sambo and the Twins, 1936
  • Little White Squibba, 1965. (A combination of most of her other stories, with a white girl as heroine who loves to read books about little black children)

(Hay 1981, pp. 152–153)

See also[edit]



  • Hay, Elizabeth (1981), Sambo Sahib: the story of Little Black Sambo and Helen Bannerman (1st ed.), Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing, ISBN 0-904505-91-X

External links[edit]

Media related to Helen Bannerman at Wikimedia Commons