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The term "noble savage" expresses the concept of the natural man, unencumbered by the decadence of civilization. Although the phrase noble savage first appeared in the seventeenth century in Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672), it became identified with the idealized picture of "nature's gentleman", which was an aspect of eighteenth-century sentimentalism. As a derogatory rhetorical device, it only achieved prominence in 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, who wished to disassociate himself from eighteenth- (and early nineteenth-) century romantic primitivism.

The idea that in a state of nature humans are essentially good is often attributed to the Earl of Shaftesbury, a whig supporter of constitutional monarchy (such as England possessed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688). In his Inquiry concerning Virtue (1699), Shaftesbury had postulated that the moral sense in humans is natural and innate and based on feelings rather than resulting from the indoctrination of a particular religion. Like many of his contemporaries, Shaftesbury was reacting to Hobbes's famous formulation (in justification of royal absolutism), that in a state of nature men are depraved and their lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". The notion of the state of nature itself derives from the republican writings of Cicero and of Lucretius, both of whom enjoyed great vogue in the eighteenth century, after having been revived amid the optimistic atmosphere of Renaissance humanism.

Pre-history of the noble savage

During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the figure of the indigene or "savage", and later, increasingly, the "good savage", was held up as a reproach to European civilization, then in the throes of the wars of religion. During one event, the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew (1572), some ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children were massacred by Catholic mobs, chiefly in Paris, but also throughout France. This horrifying breakdown of civil control was deeply disturbing to thoughtful people on both sides of the religious divide.
"Foremost among the atrocities connected with the religious conflict was the St. Batholomew's massacre (August 224, 1572) . . . The Parisian populace [was] inflamed by anti-Protestant preaching, and a general massacre ensued, devastating the Huguenot community of Paris. Bodies were stripped naked, mutilated, and thrown into the Seine. The massacres spread throughout France into the fall of 1572, spreading as far as Bordeaux [home of Montaigne]. . . . Estimates of the total number of deaths vary widely, modern historians tend to accept the approximate number of ten thousand.... Huguenots were not entirely innocent of massacres themselves", Ullrich Langer, "Montaigne's political and religious context" in The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne (Cambridge, 2005), p. 14 (cf. also Tom Conley, "The Essays and the New World" p. 80 in the same volume.)
In his famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1587), Michel de Montaigne, himself a Catholic, reported that the Tupinamba people of Brazil ceremoniously eat the bodies of their dead enemies as a matter of honor, but he reminded his readers that Europeans behave even more barbarously when they burn each other alive for disagreeing about religion (he implies): "One calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to." In "Of Cannibals" Montaigne uses cultural (but not moral) relativism for the purpose of satire. His cannibals are neither noble nor especially good, but not worse than sixteenth-century Europeans. In this classical humanist view, customs differ but people everywhere are prone to cruelty, a quality that Montaigne detested.
In his Essais . . . Montaigne discussed the first three wars of religion (1562-63; 1567-68; 1568-70) quite specifically; he had personally participated in them, on the side of the royal army, in southwestern France. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre led him to retire to his lands in the Périgord region, and remain silent on all public affairs until the 1580s. Thus, it seems that he was traumatized by the massacre. To him, cruelty was a criterion that differentiated the Wars of Religion from previous conflicts, which he idealized. Montaigne considered that three factors accounted for the shift from regular war to the carnage of civil war: popular intervention, religious demagogy and the never-ending aspect of the conflict..... He chose to depict cruelty through the image of hunting, which fitted with the tradition of condemning hunting for its association with blood and death, but it was still quite surprising, to the extent that this practice was part of the aristocratic way of life. Montaigne reviled hunting by describing it as an urban massacre scene. In addition, the man-animal relationship allowed him to define virtue, which he presented as the opposite of cruelty. … [as] a sort of natural benevolence based on ... personal feelings. … Montaigne associated the propensity to cruelty toward animals, with that exercised toward men. After all, following the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the invented image of Charles IX shooting Huguenots from the Louvre palace window did combine the established reputation of the king as a hunter, with a stigmatization of hunting, a cruel and perverted custom, did it not? -- David El Kenz,"Massacres During the Wars of Religion", 2008.

The treatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish Conquistadors also produced a great deal of bad conscience and recriminations. The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who witnessed it, may have been the first to idealize the simple life of the indigenous Americans. He and other observers praised their simple manners and reported that they were incapable of lying.

European angst over colonialism, with its use of recently-invented guns on people who didn't have them, inspired fictional treatments such as Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688), about a slave revolt in Surinammarker in the West Indiesmarker. Behn's story was not primarily a protest against slavery but was written for money; and it met readers' expectations by following the conventions of the European romance novella. The leader of the revolt, Oroonoko, is truly noble in that he is a hereditary African prince, and he laments his lost African homeland in the traditional terms of a classical Golden Age. He is not a savage but dresses and behaves like a European aristocrat. Behn's story was adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Thomas Southerne, who stressed its sentimental aspects, and as time went on, it came to be seen as addressing the issues of slavery and colonialism, remaining very popular throughout the eighteenth century.

Origin of term

In English, the phrase Noble Savage first appeared in poet Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672):I am as free as nature first made man,Ere the base laws of servitude began,When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

The hero who speaks these words in Dryden's play is a Spanish Muslim, who, at the end of the play, in keeping with the requirements of a heroic drama, is revealed to have been, unbeknownst to himself, the son of a Christian prince (since heroic plays by definition had noble and exemplary protagonists).

Ethnomusicologist Ter Ellingson believes that Dryden had picked up the expression "noble savage" from a 1609 travelogue about Canada by the French explorer Marc Lescarbot in which there was a chapter with the ironic heading: "The Savages are Truly Noble", meaning simply that they enjoyed the right to hunt game, a privilege in France granted only to hereditary aristocrats.

Dryden's use of the phrase is a striking oxymoron. However, in his day it would have been less so, for in English the word "savage" did not necessarily have the connotations of cruelty we now associate with it, but only gradually acquired them. Instead it could as easily mean "wild", as in a wild flower, as it still does in its French and Italian cognates, for example.

In France the stock figure that in English is called the "noble savage" has always been simply "le bon sauvage", "the good wild man", a term without the any of the paradoxical frisson of the English one. This character, an idealized portrayal of "Nature's Gentleman", was an aspect of eighteenth-century sentimentalism, along with other stock characters such as, the Virtuous Milkmaid, the Servant-More-Clever-than-the-Master (such as Sancho Panza and Figaro, among countless others), and the general theme of virtue in the lowly born. Nature's Gentleman, whether European-born or exotic, takes his place in this cast of characters, along with the Wise Egyptian, Persian, and Chinaman. He had always existed, from the time of the epic of Gilgamesh, where he appears as Enkiddu, the wild-but-good man who lives with animals; another instance is the untutored-but-noble medieval knight, Parsifal. Even the Biblical David the shepherd boy, falls into this category. Indeed, that virtue and lowly birth can coexist is a time-honored tenet of Abrahamic religion, most conspicuously so in Christianity. Likewise, the idea that withdrawal from society — and specifically from cities — is associated with virtue is originally a religious one.

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan an Islamic philosophical tale (or thought experiment) by Ibn Tufail from twelfth-century Andalusia, straddles the divide between the religious and the secular. The tale is of interest because it was known to the New England Puritan divine, Cotton Mather. Translated in to English (from Latin) in 1686 and 1708, it tells the story of Hayy, a wild child, raised by a gazelle, without human contact, on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean. Purely through the use of his reason, Hayy goes through all the gradations of knowledge before emerging into human society, where he revealed to be a believer of Natural religion, which Cotton Mather, as a Christian Divine, identified with Primitive Christianity. The figure of Hayy is both a Natural man and a Wise Persian, but not a Noble Savage.

The locus classicus of the eighteenth-century portrayal of the American Indian is in Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" (1734):Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mindSees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;His soul proud Science never taught to strayFar as the solar walk or milky way;Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,Where slaves once more their native land behold,No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!To be, contents his natural desire;He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,His faithful dog shall bear him company.

Pope's poem expresses the typical Age of Reason belief that men are everywhere and in all times the same, which was also Christian doctrine. Pope portrays his "poor Indian" as a victim, who, although less learned and with less aspirations than his European counterpart, is morally as good or better, and hence equally worthy of salvation. He is a "bon sauvage", but not a noble one.

Attributes of Romantic Primitivism

In the first century AD, sterling qualities such as those enumerated above by Fénelon (excepting perhaps belief in the brotherhood of man) had been attributed by Tacitus in his Germania to the German barbarians, in pointed contrast to the softened, Romanized Gauls. By inference Tacitu was criticizing his own Roman culture for getting away from its roots — which was the perennial function of such comparisons. Tacitus's Germans did not inhabit a "Golden Age" of ease but were tough and inured to hardship, qualities which he saw as preferable to the decadent softness of civilized life. In antiquity this form of "hard primitivism", whether admired or deplored (both attitudes were common), co-existed in rhetorical opposition to the "soft primitivism" of visions of a lost Golden Age of ease and plenty.

As art historian Erwin Panofsky explains:
There had been, from the beginning of classical speculation, two contrasting opinions about the natural state of man, each of them, of course, a "Gegen-Konstruktion" to the conditions under which it was formed.
One view, termed "soft" primitivism in an illuminating book by Lovejoy and Boas conceives of primitive life as a golden age of plenty, innocence, and happiness -- in other words, as civilized life purged of its vices.
The other, "hard" form of primitivism conceives of primitive life as an almost subhuman existence full of terrible hardships and devoid of all comforts -- in other words, as civilized life stripped of its virtues.

In the eighteenth century the debates about primitivism centered around the examples of the people of Scotland as often as the American Indians. The rude ways of the Highlanders were often scorned, but their toughness also called forth a degree of admiration among "hard" primitivists, just that of the Spartansmarker and the Germans had done in antiquity. One Scottish writer described his Highland countrymen this way:
They greatly excel the Lowlanders in all the exercises that require agility; they are incredibly abstemious, and patient of hunger and fatigue; so steeled against the weather, that in traveling, even when the ground is covered with snow, they never look for a house, or any other shelter but their plaid, in which they wrap themselves up, and go to sleep under the cope of heaven.
Such people, in quality of soldiers, must be invincible .

The reaction to Hobbes

Debates about "soft" and "hard" primitivism intensified with the publication in 1651 of Hobbes's Leviathan (or Commonwealth), a justification of absolute monarchy. Hobbes, a "hard Primitivist", flatly asserted that life in a state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" -- a "war of all against all". Reacting to the wars of religion of his own time and the previous century, he maintained that the absolute rule of a king was the only possible alternative to the otherwise inevitable violence and anarchy of civil war. Hobbes' hard primitivism may have been as venerable as the tradition of soft primitivism, but his use of it was new. He used it to argue that the state was founded on a Social Contract in which men voluntarily gave up their liberty in return for the peace and security provided by total surrender to an absolute ruler, whose legitimacy stemmed from the Social Contract and not from God.

Hobbes' vision of the natural depravity of man inspired fervent disagreement among those who opposed absolute government. His most influential and effective opponent in the last decade of the seventeenth century was Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury countered that, contrary to Hobbes, humans in a state of nature were neither good nor bad, but that they possessed a moral sense based on the emotion of sympathy, and that this emotion was the source and foundation of human goodness and benevolence. Like his contemporaries (all of whom who were educated by reading classical authors such as Livy, Cicero, and Horace), Shaftesbury admired the simplicity of life of classical antiquity. He urged a would-be author “to search for that simplicity of manners, and innocence of behavior, which has been often known among mere savages; ere they were corrupted by our commerce” (Advice to an Author, Part III.iii). Shaftesbury's denial of the innate depravity of man was taken up by contemporaries such as the popular Irish essayist Richard Steele (1672-1729), who attributed the corruption of contemporary manners to false education. Influenced by Shaftesbury and his followers, eighteenth-century readers, particularly in England, were swept up by the cult of Sensibility that grew up around Shaftesbury's concepts of sympathy and benevolence.

Meanwhile, in France, where those who criticized government or Church authority could be imprisoned without trial or hope of appeal, primitivism was used primarily as a way to protest the repressive rule of Louis XIV and XV, while avoiding censorship. Thus, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, a French travel writer, the Baron de Lahontan, who had actually lived among the Huron Indians, put potentially dangerously radical Deist and egalitarian arguments in the mouth of a Canadian Indian, Adario, who was perhaps the most strikng and significant figure of the "good" (or "noble") savage, as we understand it now, to make his appearance on the historical stage:
Adario sings the praises of Natural Religion.
As against society he puts forward a sort of primitive Communism, of which the certain fruits are Justice and a happy life.
He looks with compassion on poor civilized man -- no courage, no strength, incapable of providing himself with food and shelter: a degenerate, a moral cretin, a figure of fun in his blue coat, his red hose, his black hat, his white plume and his green ribands.
He never really lives because he is always torturing the life out of himself to clutch at wealth and honors which, even if he wins them, will prove to be but glittering illusions.
For science and the arts are but the parents of corruption.
The Savage obeys the will of Nature, his kindly mother, therefore he is happy.
It is civilized folk who are the real barbarians.
Published in Holland, Lahonton's writings, with their controversial attacks on established religion and social customs, were immensely popular. Over twenty editions were issued between 1703 and 1741, including editions in French, English, Dutch and German.
Interest in the remote peoples of the earth, in the unfamiliar civilizations of the East, in the untutored races of America and Africa, was vivid in France in the eighteenth century. Everyone knows how Voltaire and Montesquieu used Hurons or Persians to hold up the glass to Western manners and morals, as Tacitus used the Germans to criticize the society of Rome. But very few ever look into the seven volumes of the Abbé Raynal’s History of the Two Indies, which appeared in 1772. It is however one of the most remarkable books of the century. Its immediate practical importance lay in the array of facts which it furnished to the friends of humanity in the movement against negro slavery. But it was also an effective attack on the Church and the sacerdotal system. . . . Raynal brought home to the conscience of Europeans the miseries which had befallen the natives of the New World through the Christian conquerors and their priests. He was not indeed an enthusiastic preacher of Progress. He was unable to decide between the comparative advantages of the savage state of nature and the most highly cultivated society. But he observes that “the human race is what we wish to make it", that the felicity of man depends entirely on the improvement of legislation, and . . . his view is generally optimistic. --J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth ([1920] reprint New York: Cosimo Press, 2008), p. 111.

In the later eighteenth century, the published voyages of Captain James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville seemed to open a glimpse into an unspoiled Edenic culture that still existed in the un-Christianized South Seasmarker. Their popularity inspired Diderot's Supplement to the Voyages of Bougainville (1772), a scathing critique of European sexual hypocrisy and colonial exploitation.

By the end of the century, Benjamin Franklin was poking fun at the fashionable craze for sentimentalized primitives in his Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (1784), but the issue of colonialism did not go away, and the device continued to be used to inspire compassion and to make philosophical and political points.

Two polemical French novels that heralded the start of Romanticism in literature, promoting revolutionary liberal ideals along with new rebirth of religious enthusiasm, were Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1787), which takes place in Mauritiusmarker and criticizes slavery; and Chateaubriand's Atala (1807), in which saintly Nachez Indians of Mississippi are depicted as practicing a purified version of Christianity.

Erroneous identification of Rousseau with the noble savage

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Shaftesbury, also insisted that man was born good, or rather, with the potential for goodness; and he, too, argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. However Rousseau never used the term "noble savage" and was not a primitivist.
The notion that Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality was essentially a glorification of the State of Nature, and that its influence tended to wholly or chiefly to promote "Primitivism" is one of the most persistent historical errors.
Lovejoy, “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality” (1923).
Rousseau argued that in a state of nature men are essentially animals, and that only by acting together in civil society and binding themselves to its laws do they become men. For Rousseau only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make men good. His fellow philosophe, Voltaire, who did not believe in equality, accused Rousseau of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours.

Because Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the "noble savage", especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the nineteenth century. What most upset traditionalists and defenders of social hierarchy was Rousseau's "romantic" belief in equality.

The Nineteeth-century: belief in Progress and the fall of the Natural Man

During the nineteenth century the idea that men were everywhere and always the same that had characterized both classical antiquity and the Enlightenment was exchanged for a more organic and dynamic evolutionary concept of human history. Advances in technology now made the indigenous man and his simpler way of life appear, not only inferior, but, even his defenders agreed, also foredoomed by the inexorable advance of progress to inevitable extinction. The sentimentalized "primitive" ceased to figure as a moral reproach to the decadence of the effete European, as in previous centuries. Instead, the argument shifted to a discussion of whether his demise should be considered a desirable or regrettable eventuality. As the century progressed, native peoples and their traditions increasingly became a foil serving to highlight the accomplishments of Europe and the expansion of the European Imperial powers, who justified their policies on the basis of a presumed racial and cultural superiority.

Charles Dickens 1851 article on "The Noble Savage" in Household Words

In 1851 Charles Dickens wrote a scathingly sarcastic review in his weekly magazine Household Words of painter George Catlin's show of American Indians when it visited England. In his essay, entitled "The Noble Savage", Dickens expressed repugnance for Indians and their way of life in no uncertain terms, recommending that they ought to be "civilized out of existence". (Interestingly, Dickens's essay refers back to Dryden's well-known use of the term, not to Rousseau.) Dickens's scorn for those unnamed individuals, who, like Catlin, he alleged, misguidedly exalted the so-called "noble savage", was limitless. In reality, Dickens maintained, Indians were dirty, cruel, and constantly fighting among themselves. Dickens's satire on Catlin and others like him who might find something to admire in the American Indians or African bushmen is a notable turning point in the history of the use of the phrase.

Like others who would henceforth write about the topic, Dickens begins by disclaiming a belief in the "noble savage":
To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage.
I consider him a prodigious nuisance and an enormous superstition.
I don't care what he calls me.
I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth....
The noble savage sets a king to reign over him, to whom he submits his life and limbs without a murmur or question and whose whole life is passed chin deep in a lake of blood; but who, after killing incessantly, is in his turn killed by his relations and friends the moment a gray hair appears on his head.
All the noble savage's wars with his fellow-savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination – which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him.
He has no moral feelings of any kind, sort, or description; and his "mission" may be summed up as simply diabolical.
Dickens' essay was arguably a pose of manly, no-nonsense realism and a defense of Christianity. At the end of it his tone becomes more recognizably humanitarian, as he maintains that, although the virtues of the savage are mythical and his way of life inferior and doomed, he still deserves to be treated no differently than if he were an Englishman of genius, such as Newton or Shakespeare:
To conclude as I began.
My position is, that if we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid.
His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense.
We have no greater justification for being cruel to the miserable object, than for being cruel to a WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE or an ISAAC NEWTON; but he passes away before an immeasurably better and higher power [i.e., that of Christianity] than ever ran wild in any earthly woods, and the world will be all the better when this place knows him no more.

Scapegoating the Eskimos: Cannibalism and the Franklin Expedition

Although Charles Dickens had ridiculed positive depictions of Native Americans as portrayals of so-called "noble" savages, he made an exception (at least initially) in the case of Eskimos, whom he called “loving children of the north”, “forever happy with their lot,” “whether they are hungry or full”, and “gentle loving savages”, who, despite a tendency to steal, have a “quiet, aimiable character” ("Our Phantom Ship on an Antediluvian Cruise", Household Words, April 16, 1851). However he soon reversed this rosy assessment, when on October 23, 1854, The Times of London published a report by explorer-physician John Rae of the discovery by Eskimos of the remains of the lost Franklin expedition along with unmistakable evidence of cannibalism among members of the party: From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource -- cannibalism -- as a means of prolonging existence. Franklin's widow and other surviving relatives and indeed the nation as a whole were shocked to the core and refused to accept these reports, which appeared to undermine the whole assumption of the cultural superiority of the heroic white explorer-scientist and the imperial project generally. Instead, they attacked the reliability of the Eskimos who had made the gruesome discovery and called them liars. An editorial in The Times called for further investigation:to arrive at a more satisfactory conclusion with regard to the fate of poor Franklin and his friends . . . . Is the story told by the Esquimaux the true one? Like all savages they are liars, and certainly would not scruple at the utterance of any falsehood which might, in their opinion, shield them from the vengeance of the white man."This line was energetically taken up by Dickens's, who wrote in his weekly magazine:
It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any race of savages from their deferential behavior to the white man while he is strong.
The mistake has been made again and again; and the moment the white man has appeared in the new aspect of being weaker than the savage, the savage has changed and sprung upon him.
There are pious persons who, in their practice, with a strange inconsistency, claim for every child born to civilization all innate depravity, and for every child born to the woods and wilds all innate virtue.
We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man – lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race, plainly famine-stricken, weak frozen, helpless, and dying – has of the gentleness of the Esquimaux nature.
--"The Lost Arctic Voyagers”, Household Words, December 2; 1854.

Dr. John Rae rebutted Dickens in two articles in Household Words: “The Lost Arctic Voyagers”, Household Words, No. 248 (December 23, 1854), and "Dr. Rae’s Report to the Secretary of the Admiralty", Household Words, No. 249 (December 30, 1854). Though he did not call them noble, Dr. Rae, who had lived among the Inuit, defended them as “dutiful” and “a bright example to the most civilized people”, comparing them favorably with the undisciplined crew of the Franklin expedition, whom he suggested were ill treated and "would have mutinied under privation", and moreover with the lower classes in England or Scotland generally.See Lillian Nayder (1991), p. 3. Nadyer notes:
"In their order of appearance, Dickens’s articles are: 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers,' (December 2, 1854); 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers' (December 9, 1854); 'The Lost English Sailors' (February 14, 1857); and 'Official Patriotism' (April 25, 1857). Dr. Rae’s articles are 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers' (December 23, 1854); 'Dr. Rae’s Report to the Secretary of the Admiralty' (December 30, 1854); and 'Sir John Franklin and His Crews' (February 3, 1855)".
Dickens and Wilkie Collins subsequently collaborated on a melodramatic play, "The Frozen Deep", about the menace of cannibalism in the far north, in which "the villainous role assigned to the Eskimos in Household Words is assumed by a working class Scotswoman" (Nayder [1991], p. 7). The Frozen Deep was performed as a benefit organized by Dickens and attended by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and Emperor Leopold II of Belgium, among others, to fund a memorial to the Franklin Expedition. (Dr. Rae himself was Scots).

Rae's respect for the Inuit and his refusal to scapegoat them in the Franklin affair arguably harmed his career. Lady Franklin's campaign to glorify the dead of her husband's expedition, aided and abetted by Dickens, resulted in his being more or less shunned by the British establishment. Although it was not Franklin but Rae who in 1848 discovered the last link in the much-sought-after Northwest Passage, Rae was never awarded a knighthood and died in obscurity in London. (In comparison fellow Scot and contemporary explorer David Livingstone was knighted and buried with full imperial honors in Westminster Abbey). However, historians have since studied Rae's expeditions and confirmed his role in finding the Northwest Passage and the accuracy of his report on the fate of Franklin's crew. Authors such as Ken McGoogan note that Rae was willing to learn and adopt the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples, which made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. His respect for Inuit customs, traditions, and skills went against the prejudiced belief of many nineteenth-century Europeans that native peoples had no valuable technical knowledge or information to impart.

Dickens's racism, like that of many Englishmen, became markedly worse after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in India. This event, and the virtually contemporaneous occurrence of the American Civil War (1861-64), which threatened to, and then did, put an end to slavery, coincided with a polarization of attitudes exemplified by the phenomenon of scientific racism.

Scientific Racism

In 1860, two British white supremacists, John Crawfurd and James Hunt mounted a defense of British imperialism based on “scientific racism". Crawfurd, in alliance with Hunt, took over the presidency of the Ethnological Society of London, which, as a branch of the Aborigines' Protection Society, had been founded with the mission to defend indigenous peoples against slavery and colonial exploitation. Invoking "science" and "realism", the two men derided their "philanthropic" predecessors for believing in human equality and for not recognizing the that mankind was divided into superior and inferior races. Crawfurd, who opposed Darwinian evolution, "denied any unity to mankind, insisting on immutable, hereditary, and timeless differences in racial character, principal amongst which was the 'very great' difference in 'intellectual capacity.'" For Crawfurd, the races had been created separately and were different species. Since Crawfurd was Scots, he thought the Scots "race" superior and all others inferior; whilst Hunt, on the other hand, believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon "race". Crawfurd and Hunt routinely accused those who disagreed with them of believing in "Rousseau’s Noble Savage". The pair ultimately quarreled because Hunt believed in slavery and Crawfurd did not. "As Ter Ellingson demonstrates, Crawfurd was responsible for re-introducing the Pre-Rousseauian concept of 'the Noble Savage' to modern anthropology, attributing it wrongly and quite deliberately to Rousseau.” . In an otherwise rather lukewarm review of Ellingson's book in Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 4:1 (Spring 2003), Frederick E. Hoxie writes:
For early modern scholars from [St. Thomas] More to Rousseau, descriptions of Indian cultures could provide opportunities to criticize “civilization.” After Hunt and Crawfurd — or at least at about the middle of the nineteenth century, when both imperial ambition and racial ideology was hardening into national policy in Europe and the U.S. — Indians became foils of a different kind: people whose traditions underscored the accomplishments of Europe. The imperial powers were now the models of human achievement. Ellingson sees this shift and shows us how profoundly it affected popular conceptions of Native people.

"If Rousseau was not the inventor of the Noble Savage, who was?" writes Ellingson,
One who turns for help to [Hoxie Neale] Fairchild's 1928 study, a compendium of citations from romantic writings on the "savage" may be surprised to find [his book] The Noble Savage almost completely lacking in references to its nominal subject.
That is, although Fairchild assembles hundreds of quotations from ethnographers, philosophers, novelists, poets, and playwrights from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth Century, showing a rich variety of ways in which writers romanticized and idealized those who Europeans considered "savages", almost none of them explicitly refer to something called the "Noble Savage".
Although the words, always duly capitalized, appear on nearly every page, it turns out that in every instance, with four possible exceptions, they are Fairchild's words and not those of the authors cited.
Ellingson finds that any remotely positive portrayal of an indigenous (or working class) person is apt to be characterized (out of context) as a supposedly "unrealistic" or "romanticized" "Noble Savage". He points out that Fairchild even includes as an example of a supposed "Noble Savage", a picture of a Negro slave on his knees, lamenting lost his freedom. According to Ellingson, Fairchild ends his book with a denunciation of the (always un-named) believers in primitivism or "The Noble Savage" -- whom he feels are threatening to unleash the dark forces of irrationality on civilization.

Ellingson argues that the term "noble savage", an oxymoron, is a derogatory one, which those who oppose "soft" or romantic primitivism use to discredit (and intimidate) their supposed opponents, whose romantic beliefs they feel are somehow threatening to civilization. Ellingson maintains that virtually none of those accused of believing in the "noble savage" ever actually did so. He likens the practice of accusing anthropologists (and other writers and artists) of belief in the noble savage to a secularized version of the inquisition, and he maintains that modern anthropologists have internalized these accusations to the point where they feel they have to begin by ritualistically disavowing any belief in "noble savage" if they wish to attain credibility in their fields. He notes that text books with a painting of a handsome Native American (such as the one one by Benjamin West on this page) are even given to school children with the cautionary caption, "A painting of a Noble Savage".

Opponents of Primitivism

Lord of the Flies, an example of Anti-Primitivism
The most famous modern example of hard (or anti-) primitivism in books and movies was William Golding's Lord of the Flies, published in 1954. The title is said to be a reference to the Biblical devil, Beelzebub. This book, in which a group of school boys stranded on a desert island and "revert" to savage behavior, was a staple of high school and college required reading lists during the Cold War.

In the 1960s, film director Stanley Kubrick, although a political liberal, professed his opposition to primitivisism. Like Dickens, he began with a disclaimer:
Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage.
He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved — that about sums it up.
I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it's a true picture of him.
And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.
The opening scene of Kubrik's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) depicted prehistoric ape-like men wielding weapons of war, as the tools that supposedly lifted them out of their animal state and made them human.

Another self-styled opponent of primitivism is the Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall, who has made a career of accusing other anthropologists of exalting the "noble savage". A third is archeologist Lawrence H. Keeley, whose stated mission is to debunk what he believes in a "widespread myth" that "civilized humans have fallen from grace from a simple primeval happiness, a peaceful golden age" by uncovering archeological evidence that he claims demonstrates that that violence prevailed in the earliest human societies. Keeley, a political conservative, writes that he believes that the "noble savage" paradigm has warped anthropological literature to (presumably liberal) political ends.

Casting their net rather indiscriminately, self-styled anti-primitivists have disparaged books, genres, and protagonists and (more often) their sidekicks, as "savage" characters too nobly depicted. Examples include Friday from Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe; Dirk Peters from Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838); everyone and everything appearing in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass poems; Chingachgook and Uncas from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales (1823 and later); Queequeg from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851); Umslpoagaas from H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain (1885); and Winnetou from Karl May´s Winnetou novels (1893 and later); and Tonto from the Lone Ranger. These criticisms often display the fallacy of Presentism (judging works of the past by the standards of today).

Other twentieth century fictional characters who display Romantic Naturalism and are stigmatized as "noble savages" also include figures such as "Mowgli", "Tarzan" and "Conan the Barbarian." As sensitivity to racist stereotypes has increased, science fiction has often cast space aliens in the role of the "good Other" for example in Natural Law .

In 1906 the Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev wrote a memoir Dersu Uzala, based on the life of a Siberian Nanai hunter who had saved the lives of Arsenyev and his companions on multiple occasions in the wilderness of Manchuria, but was subsequently unable to adjust to life in the city. Although substantially true, this book has been disparaged as a romanticized portrayal of a "noble savage", because Uzala's heroism was apparently not credible to the reviewer.

In fact, any indigenous or non-European character who shows positive qualities or is either handsome, intelligent, or resourceful is subject to being called a "Noble Savage" by detractors. In 1964, the Australian writer Mary Durack published a fictionalized account of Yagan, an Indigenous Australian warrior who played a key part in early resistance to British settlement around Perthmarker, Western Australiamarker, in her children's novel The Courteous Savage: Yagan of the Swan River. When reissued in 1976, it was renamed Yagan of the Bibbulmun because the word "Savage" is now considered negative or even racist. Ter Ellingson also recommends that the term be dropped.

See also

Cultural examples:


  1. See French Wars of Religion and Thirty Years War.
  2. Essay "Of Cannibals"
  3. "The cannibal practices are admitted [by Montaigne] but presented as part of a complex and balanced set of customs and beliefs which 'make sense' in their own right. They are attached to a powerfully positive morality of valor and pride, one that would have been likely to appeal to early modern codes of honor, and they are contrasted with modes of behavior in the France of the wars of religion which appear as distinctly less attractive, such as torture and barbarous methods of execution", Terence Cave, How to Read Montaigne (London: Granta Books, 2007), pp. 81-82.
  4. Anthony Pagden, The Fall of the Natural Man: the American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology. Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies.(Cambridge University Press, 1982)
  5. It is not known if Lescarbot was aware of Montaigne's stigmatization of the aristocratic pass-time of hunting, though some authors believe he was familiar with Montaigne. On Lescarbot's familiarity with Montaigne, see Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (University of California, 2001), note p. 390.
  6. "In French, sauvage does not necessarily connote either fierceness or moral degradation; it may simply mean 'wild', as in fleurs sauvages, 'wildflowers'. Dryden also wrote in 1697, 'Thus the savage cherry grows. . .' (OED 'Savage', A,I,3); and Shelley. . . wrote in 1820 in his 'Ode to Liberty', 'The vine, the corn, the olive mild / Grew savage yet, to human use unreconciled' (OED 'Savage' A, I, 3)" (Ellingson [2001], p. 377). One scholar, Audrey Smedley, believes that: "English conceptions of 'the savage' were grounded in expansionist conflicts with Irish pastoralists and more broadly, in isolation from, and denigration of neighboring European peoples." and Ellingson agrees that "The ethnographic literature lends considerable support for such arguments" (Ellingson [2001], p. 389).
  7. See Doyle R. Quiggle, “Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqdan in New England: A Spanish-Islamic Tale in Cotton Mather's Christian Philosopher?” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, 64: 2 (Summer 2008): 1-32.
  8. In his "Essay on Man" Pope largely adopted the Deism of Shaftebury. Both Pope and Dryden were Roman Catholics, a marginalized minority at the time in England.
  9. For the distinction between "hard" and "soft" primitivism see A. O, Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, Baltimore, I, 1935.
  10. Erwin Panofsky, "Et in Arcadia Ego", in Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York: Doubleday, 1955).
  11. Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker ([1771] London: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 292. Interestingly, One of the characters in Smollett's Humphry Clinker, Lieutenant Lismahago, is a kind of ludicrous noble savage. A proud and irascible Scotsman of good family and advancing years, Lismahago has been so poorly requited by the government for his services in the Canadian wars that he is planning to return to Canada to live out his days with his Native American common-law wife, in squalor but with more honor and decency than would be possible as a pauper at home.
  12. See Paul Hazard, The European Mind (1680-1715) (Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books [1937], 1969), pp. 13-14, and passim.
  13. Originally published in Modern Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186, Lovejoy's essay was reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948, 1955, and 1960, is also available on Jstor.
  14. "It is notorious that Voltaire objected to the education of laborers' children" – Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, [1969] 1977), p. 36. In a recent | review about a book discussing Steven Pinker, Peter Gay writes "As far as the noble savage is concerned, that phrase is from Dryden and does not appear in Rousseau’s writings. In the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up" (Peter Gay, "Breeding Is Fundamental: Jenny Davidson reflects on Enlightenment ideas about human perfectibility", Book Forum [April/May 2009]).
  15. See Ter Ellingson (2001).
  16. See reference to Frederick E. Hoxie's review of Ter Ellingson's Myth of the Noble Savage in note 30 below.
  17. For an account of Dickens's article see Grace Moore, "Reappraising Dickens's 'Noble Savage'", The Dickensian 98:458 (2002): 236-243. Moore speculates that Dickens, although himself an abolitionist, was motivated by a wish to differentiate himself from what he believed was the feminine sentimentality and bad writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe, with whom he, as a reformist writer, was often associated.
  18. Lillian Nayder, “The Cannibal, the Nurse, and the Cook in Dickens’s ‘The Frozen Deep'”, Victorian Literature and Culture 19 (1991):1.
  19. See Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The True Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002). In July 2004, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced into the UK Parliament a motion proposing that the House "regrets that Dr Rae was never awarded the public recognition that was his due". In March 2009 Carmichael introduced a further motion urging Parliament to formally state it "regrets that memorials to Sir John Franklin outside the Admiralty headquarters and inside Westminster Abbey still inaccurately describe Franklin as the first to discover the [North West] passage, and calls on the Ministry of Defence and the Abbey authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify the true position."
  20. "The cruelties of the Sepoy natives [toward the whites] have inflamed the nation to a degree unprecedented within my memory. Peace Societies, Aborigines Protection Societies, and societies for the reformation of criminals are silent. There is one cry for revenge", Thomas Babington Macaulay, Diary, quoted in Ellingson (2001), p. 273.
  21. On Dickens’s racism, which “grew progressively more illiberal over the course of his career”, see William Oddie, Dickens and Carlyle: the Question of Influence (London: Centenary) pp. 135–42, and “Dickens and the Indian Mutiny”, Dickensian 68 (January 1972), 3–15; and Myron Magnet, Dickens and the Social Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), pp. 3–4. Grace Moore, on the other hand, argues that Dickens, a staunch abolitionist and opponent of imperialism, had views on racial matters that were a good deal more complex than previous critics have suggested; see Grace Moore, Dickens And Empire: Discourses Of Class, Race And Colonialism In The Works Of Charles Dickens (Nineteenth Century Series) (Ashgate: 2004).
  22. see Ellingson (2001), pp. 249-323.
  23. History page: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The Ethological Society later merged with the Royal Anthropological Institute.
  24. Hunt went on to found the rival Anthropological Society of London, with a mission of "promoting the study of Anthropology in a strictly scientific manner" and focused on the issue of race. Like the Ethnological Society, Hunt's Anthropological Society later merged with the Royal Anthropological Institute.
  25. Hoxie Neale Fairchild, The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism (New York, 1928).
  26. Ellingson (2001), p. 4.
  27. Ellingson (2001), p. 380.
  28. For an appraisal of Roger Sandall see
  29. Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford, University Press, 1996), p. 5.
  30. In for example the review from Publishers Weekly posted on Amazon. The book has been made into two movie pictures, the 1961 Soviet film Dersu Uzala by Agasi Babayan (Агаси Бабаян), as well as the 1975 Soviet-Japanese film Dersu Uzala by Akira Kurosawa (黒澤 明)

Further reading

  • Barzun, Jacques (2000). From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: Harper Collins. Pp. 282-294, and passim.
  • Berkhofer, Robert F. "The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present"
  • Boas, George ([1933] 1966). The Happy Beast in French Thought in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Reprinted by Octagon Press in 1966.
  • Boas, George ([1948] 1997). Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.
  • Bordewich, Fergus M. "Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century"
  • Bury, J.B. (1920). |The Idea of Progress: an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth. (Reprint) New York: Cosimo Press, 2008.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr. "The Pretend Indian: Images of Native Americans in the Movies"
  • Edgerton, Robert (1992). Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0029089255
  • Edwards, Brendan Frederick R. (2008) "'He Scarcely Resembles the Real Man': images of the Indian in popular culture" Our Legacy [6624]
  • Ellingson, Ter. (2001). The Myth of the Noble Savage (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press).
  • Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object
  • Fairchild, Hoxie Neale (1928). The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism (New York)
  • Fitzgerald, Margaret Mary ([1947] 1976). First Follow Nature: Primitivism in English Poetry 1725-1750. New York: Kings Crown Press. Reprinted New York: Octagon Press.
  • Fryd, Vivien Green (1995). "Rereading the Indian in Benjamin West's 'Death of General Wolfe.'" American Art, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Spring, 1995), pp. 72-85. [6625]
  • Hazard, Paul ([1937]1947). The European Mind (1690-1715). Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books.
  • Keeley, Lawrence H. (1996) War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford: University Press.
  • Krech, Shepard (2000). The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0393321005
  • LeBlanc, Steven (2003). Constant battles: the myth of the peaceful, noble savage. New York : St Martin's Press ISBN 0312310897
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. (1923, 1943). “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, ” Modern Philology Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186. Reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948 and 1960.
  • A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas ([1935] 1965). Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Reprinted by Octagon Books, 1965. ISBN 0374951306
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. and George Boas. (1935). A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas, vol. 1. Baltimore.
  • Moore, Grace (2004). Dickens And Empire: Discourses Of Class, Race And Colonialism In The Works Of Charles Dickens (Nineteenth Century Series). Ashgate.
  • Olupọna, Jacob Obafẹmi Kẹhinde, Editor. (2003) Beyond primitivism: indigenous religious traditions and modernity. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0415273196, 9780415273190
  • Pagden, Anthony (1982). The Fall of the Natural Man: The American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pinker, Steven (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking ISBN 0-670-03151-8
  • Sandall, Roger (2001). The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Rollins, Peter C. "Hollywood's Indian : the portrayal of the Native American in film"
  • Tinker, Chaunchy Brewster (1922). Nature's Simple Plan: a phase of radical thought in the mid-eighteenth century. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Torgovnick, Marianna (1991). Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago)
  • Whitney, Lois Payne (1934). Primitivism and the Idea of Progress in English Popular Literature of the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press
  • Eric R. Wolf, 1982. Europe and the People without History'.' Berkeley: University of California Press.

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