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Introducing: The Indigenous Peoples of the New World 

As the world quickly expanded, an interest as to what – and who – occupied it did, as well.  Mythological representations evaporated as rational depictions of the earth, maps, began to circulate.  (See my own comments: The Interface of Novels and Maps).  The spirit of the Royal Society manifested itself in the writings of the authors of the time, insofar as they took remarkably detailed observations of environment in which they found themselves immersed and the people that inhabited it, and relayed these facts to their target audience with remarkable precision, as exemplified by the following passage from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688):

We dealt with [the local indigenous peoples] with beads of all colors, knives, axes, pins, and needles, which they used only as tools to drill holes with in their ears, noses, and lips, where they hang a great many little things; as long beads, bits of tin, brass, or silver, beat thin, and any shining trinket.  The beads they weave into aprons about a quarter of an ell long, and of the same breadth; which apron they wear just before them, as Adam and Even did the fig leaves; the men wearing a long string of lining, which they deal with us for.  (Behn, Oroonoko)

A number of things can be gleaned from this passage.  First, an air of mystery and exoticism surrounded the practice of body piercing, because not only was the process described in great detail, but so, too, were the actual decorative elements.  Second, that the indigenous peoples were seen as being innocent, yet at the same time with a type of Biblical majesty, for they were compared directly to Adam and Eve.  Third, that the individuals show deference to the Europeans, as the men wear a ‘long string of lining, which they deal [trade] with us for’, viz., in order to have contact with the Westerners, they had to conform to a certain degree of modesty and that modesty could only be obtained through Western means.

Herein lies the apparent paradoxical relationship that the Western Europeans had with the indigenous peoples with the newly discovered lands of the ‘New World’.  On the one hand, they were to be found as entities that were “Wild … [ate] Mens Flesh, [and were] Savage” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe); in short, they were the things of nightmares, rabid beasts, monsters that were not in control of their most bestial of urges and indulged in the ultimate taboo: cannibalism.  On the other hand, “[they were extremely] modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched.  And though the [were] all thus naked, if one [were to] forever among them, there [was] not to be seen an indecent action or glance…” (Behn, Oroonoko).  

In many ways, this “other” can be viewed as an embodiment of the Enlightenment itself.  If the savage beast were to be a nod towards David Hume’s belief that “[r]eason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature), then perhaps the innocent, almost child-like indigenous individuals in as portrayed Behn’s Oroonoko are comparable to the Rousseauian ideal of uncorrupted morals as they exist within a ‘natural state’.  Added weight can be given to this conclusion when it is taken into account that, in his Discourse on Inequality, Jean Jacques Rousseau himself comments on this particular phenomenon – the ability of the aboriginal peoples of the Caribbean and their ability to reign in their sexual appetites, specifically.  In The Passions that Drive Us, Ryan Conlon writes that “[e]ssentially, an individual’s desire, whether it is fueled by positive or negative intentions, does not truly become a passion until another strong emotional force becomes associated with said desire.”  It is my lurking suspicion that Michel de Montaigne, in his own essay Of Cannibals, believed that the indigenous peoples could not control their passions, due to a desire, a deep-seated blood lust:

[Their priest] prophesies to them events to come, and the issues they are to expect from their enterprises, and prompts them to or diverts them from war: but let him look to't; for if he fail in his divination, and anything happen otherwise than he has foretold, he is cut into a thousand pieces, if he be caught, and condemned for a false prophet: for that reason, if any of them has been mistaken, he is no more heard of.

Indeed, that nonfulfillment of divination, loss in battle, or other societal failure leads to an act of vengeance.  By tying it in with a semi-rational thought process – “you have failed me, this angers me, it arouses my passion, I desire to kill you, now I must eat you” – there is a certain respect which can be conjured for it; after all, it was the collective group of Western Europeans who launched the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, and contemporaneous witch-trials.  While the savagery of butchering and cannibalizing a human being is not lost on anyone, especially our intrepid Robinson Crusoe, the innocent, modest nature of the perpetrators of such an act is somewhat baffling, and completely fascinating.

I assert that it is from this dualistic, conflicting identity that the noble savage’ trope is established.

The Noble Savage

The term ‘noble savage’ first appeared in a heroic play by John Dryden entitled The Conquest of Grenada (1672), and is spoken by a Moor who is revealed to be, at the end of the play, the son of a Christian prince:  

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran. (Dryden, The Conquest of Grenada)

Similarly, Behn’s titular hero of Oroonoko, a Western African prince, is in the same vein, insofar as the hero appears to be Western European:

His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes.  The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome.  … [He] was as sensible of power as any prince civilized in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts. (Behn, Oroonoko)

Indeed, were it not for his skin tone, Oroonoko would appear to be a member of the European aristocracy.  Moreover, it is because of his skin tone that he is flawed, despite the fact that he is beautiful of face, sensible of power, and civilized and learned in the humanities.  This is a direct statement of the duplicitous nature of Oroonoko as an individual, a person who is the noble savage.  

Defoe, on the other hand, was more subtle in his exploration of the character trope as embodied in Friday, Robinson Crusoe’s “Man”:

I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and understand me when I spake, and he was the aptest Schollar that ever was, and particularly was so merry, so constantly diligent, and so pleased, when he cou’d but understand me, or make me understand him, that it was very pleasant to me to talk to him […] (Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Defoe makes no effort to have Friday appear to be Western European, nor does he attempt to have the two share a commonality in language at first.  Victoria Peterson notes, quite eloquently, that –

Knowledge is what gives people power in society. Their education on rhetoric or language allows them to convince others that they should have power and can manipulate people into believing in something they would have never thought of before.

– in her notes on language, The Age of God Bless You.  How curious, then, that Crusoe does not wield his language as a weapon by withholding it from his “Man” – which is, in itself, quite the descriptor, for it immediately calls attention to Friday's humanity – but as a means of empowerment: he teaches Friday how to speak, how to read.  Indeed, what Defoe does is paint Friday as an individual who is not so much a tabula rasa, but a person who is capable of taking care of himself, and most importantly, following someone else’s instruction.  While it is true that this instruction came from an Englishman, it is important to note that Crusoe, the man providing the instruction, calls him “the aptest Schollar that ever was”, quite the compliment coming from an individual who had just moments before made his new companion swear that he would never consume ‘Man Flesh’ or be a ‘Savage’ ever again.

Most intriguing is the emphasis that both Behn and Defoe place on Oroonoko’s and Friday’s respective abilities to remember facts, reason through problems, and learn.  Behn depicts Oroonoko as a student of the humanities, whereas Defoe calls Friday a ‘Schollar’.  Both of these terms were high praise of the time and could not have been lost on their readers.  More to the point, it is doubtful that the impact of those terms would not have gone unnoticed to the characters that uttered them in the first place.  In this regard, I am thinking specifically of Robinson Crusoe, the man whose only real interaction with peoples of other cultures had effectively been that of enslavement.  For him to have elevated an indigenous person of the Caribbean to the rank of ‘the aptest Schollar that ever was’ spoke to the keenness of mind of Friday.

The idea of ‘civil savages’, individuals who were untouched by European teachings and yet could still contribute something to our understanding of the world without becoming our equals, was one that captured the imagination.  It became such an ingrained idea that it soon became an archetypical character within literary works.  Alexander Pope, in his 1734 work “Essay on Man” wrote:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far 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.

While this may seem like it is a celebration of the fact that the Native American is unbeholden to the demands of the “Christian’s thirst for gold” – and in some respects it is – he, like Dryden – also viewed the indigenous peoples of the Americas as spiritually impoverished, for they were not, unlike him, Catholic.  In addition, as they were also uneducated in the classic European sense, they were to be pitied all the more, for, as Caleb Rainey highlights in Deception: Theocracy's Tool,

Kant argues that a complete monarch is the only place the type of freedom needed for an enlightened society can be reached, and even though Dietrich does not explicitly agree, it can be interpreted that he would prefer a monarch to a theocracy simply because the system would not be founded on denying access to knowledge, or subject to fall into superstition.

That is to say, not only were they spiritually impoverished, but their system of government was wrong, and – as a result – they could never, truly, be on the path to true Enlightenment.  Yet, it was the central idea of a close connection to the natural world, and of (supposedly) not having a desire for material wealth which fired the imagination of the Europeans.  Perhaps, too, there was a bit of capitalistic self-interest which crept in to the motivation, as well, for if the indigenous peoples had no thirst for gold and they only took what they needed from the land, then there would be more for the Westerners to exploit.  In that sense, they would be doing the Europeans a favor: a selfless act worthy of emulation.

Impact upon Literature

The noble savage archetype, once established, would be persistent for years to come.  As the following scenes in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick demonstrate, the relationship could be extraordinarily complicated: 

Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.

"No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale's barbs were then tempered.

"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood. (Melville, Moby-Dick. Chapter 113. The Forge.)

– followed by –

While this pallidness was burning aloft, few words were heard from the enchanted crew; who in one thick cluster stood on the forecastle, all their eyes gleaming in that pale phosphorescence, like a far away constellation of stars. Relieved against the ghostly light, the gigantic jet negro, Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real stature, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come. The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corpusants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg's tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body. (Melville, Moby-Dick. Chapter 119. The Candles.)

While the individuals in question – Daggoo, Tashtego, and Queequeg – do not seem noble in this example, it is important to note that there is a larger conceit in play.  Ahab, driven to a state of monomania by his pursuit of the white whale, has recruited these three harpooners, all of whom are from different continents from across the world: Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Pacific Island region.  These men, aside from the captain and the mates, are the highest paid, receive the largest rations, know the most about the sea (as well as Moby-Dick), and – interestingly enough – are some of the only named crewmen: compare to ‘the Manxman’, &c.  By using Pope’s statement from above, their fall from nobility can be charted throughout the book, for it is not until they are ‘tormented by fiends’, in this case Ahab or the specter of Moby-Dick, and give in to the ‘Christian’s lust for gold’, that they become the savage, devilish characters as portrayed in Chapter 119.  In this sense, Melville uses the noble savage trope and turns it against itself, allowing the reader to see how ignobility can arise in even the most revered of character archetypes.

Benjamin Franklin, in an astute moment of cultural relativism, would go on to state the following in his Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (1784):

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs. (Franklin, Remarks.)

Perhaps that is the best way to sum up this article.






'Oroonoko Kills Imindo'.  Unknown artist.  23 November 1776.  In this case, the hero and his doomed love are both dressed in European aristocratic garb, and he faces away from her as he kills her, showing remorse, thus playing down the fact that he is a 'savage'.













'Robinson Crusoe and His Man Friday'.  Currier & Ives.  1872.  Lithograph.  The dog implies fidelity, the sheep is an allusion to deliverance for both Friday and Crusoe, the firearms in both Crusoe's and Friday's hands are notable because it points to a certain degree of trust and equality, especially given the date during which this lithograph was printed.
















Conference Between the French and Indian Leaders Around a Ceremonial Fire.  Vernier.  ca. 1763-65

'Conference Between the French and Indian Leaders Around a Ceremonial Fire.'  Vernier.  ca. 1763-1765.  Note the Christ-like posture of the Native American leader and the deference that the members of both parties afford him.  This hints at the wisdom of the man, but also at the philosophical leanings of the painter.













Title page of 1851 first edition, Moby-Dick.  Herman Melville.  Source: Yale University.