Tonight Father Christmas visited our street. He was on a motorised vehicle as a change from the usual sleigh, and he had elves with him collecting money for St John's Ambulance...which seems a good excuse to write a blog on the origin of the story of the Inky Boys in Heinrich Hoffmann's STRUWWELPETER which in the German version features St Nicholas, the predecessor of Father Christmas.
This rhyme is the most contentious in the book and has led to the book being banned in some libraries in the UK. The story goes like this: three boys laugh at the 'Black-a Moor' because he is 'as black as ink'. They are reprimanded by a man in bishop's regalia in the German version (St Nicholas, perhaps) or by a scribe in the English version and it is this man who utters the objectionable lines: 'Boys leave the black-a-moor alone! For if he tries with all his might, He cannot change from black to white.' Which of course implies that to have black skin is inherently less desirable than white - hence the reason for the banning of the book in libraries. The tale ends with the scribe (or St Nicholas) dipping the three disobedient boys into his ink as punishment for continuing with their tirade.
The story has several interesting features. Hoffmann would have been familiar with the legend of St Nicholas the patron saint of children. St Nicholas was a bishop who was supposed to have brought back to life and rescued three boys who had been salted for meat. There are many representations of this story in various European churches and the similarity between these religious images and the illustration in Hoffmann's book is striking. Since St Nicholas was not as well known in the UK maybe he was converted to Agrippa the scribe with his great pot of ink for the English version.
Hoffmann may also have had a piece of German folklore in the back of his mind too - the idea of the 'der Kinderfresser' or child-eater. This is a mythological man who, like Father Christmas, went around with a sack. However instead of giving out presents to children who had been good he collected in children who had been badly behaved, then carried them home in his sack for a nourishing and succulent meal.
In comparison with this the tales in Hoffmann's STRUWWELPETER are quite mild.
Hoffmann himself is unlikely to have ever seen a 'Black-a-Moor' except as exhibits in a fair. He was however a champion for another race which he could see were being unfairly treated in nineteenth century Frankfurt - the Jews - and fought for their emancipation. Within the confines of his time and position in life Hoffmann did what he could for the inequalities he saw around him and these are represented in this story of the Inky Boys.
There is more information on this in the Heinrich Hoffmann Museum in Frankfurt.