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The Noble Savage

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Africa—Social Life and Customs
Myth; Legends; Epic Literature; Fables; Allegory; Folklore
Race; Racism; Ethnicity; Anthropology; Ethnography
United States—Social Life and Customs
Other Details
Printed : 11/6/1853
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume VII
Magazine : No. 168
Office Book Notes
Views : 13524

Dickens was provoked into writing this article by the renewed public enthusiasm for the eighteenth-century concept of 'the noble savage', of a 'purer' moral nature to be found in dark-skinned races who had not been 'corrupted' by civilisation. This enthusiasm was given a focus by the latest show presenting native Africans to be staged in London, a party of 'Zulu Kaffirs' brought over by A. T. Caldecott, a merchant from Natal, which had been annexed to Cape Colony by the British in 1843. The troupe consisting of eleven men, one woman and a child, appeared at the fashionable St George's Gallery, Hyde Park Corner, and performed scenes illustrative of daily life in their native environment enlivened with 'characteristic dances'. The Times announced the event (18 May 1853) as 'a novel and most interesting exhibition with appropriate scenery and moving panorama painted expressly by Mr Charles Marshall'. 

Bernth Lindfors in his 'Charles Dickens and the Zulus', in M. van Wyk Smith and D. MacLennan (eds), Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on South African Literature (David Philip, Cape Town, 1983), notes that Caldecott's son 'served as interpreter and master of ceremonies, lecturing briefly on Zulu customs and traditions before they were enacted on the stage'. Caldecott Junior also wrote a pamphlet called Descriptive History of the Zulu Kaffirs, Their Customs and Country, sold during the performances, and Lindfors shows that Dickens's grotesque accounts of the scenes enacted by the Zulus were closely based on the descriptions given in this document. The show was a huge success with crowds flocking to the Gallery twice daily to see the Zulus perform their repertoire (see further the essay by Lindfors already cited and R. D. Altick, The Shows of London [1978], pp. 282–3). Punch (23 July 1853) ridiculed the 'Belles from Belgravia 'who came to gush over the Kaffirs' dancing: 

Their stampings and kickings are done with such grace,
That ladies of title e`en make the confession
That they in the Savage – nobility trace!

Dickens was always exasperated when preoccupation with black slaves in America or exotic 'savages' from either America or Africa deflected the public's attention from the desperate poor in the slums of London and other great cities. When he actually met 'one Pitchlynn, a chief of the Choctaw tribe of Indians' on an American steamboat in 1842, he was clearly impressed, finding him 'as stately and complete a gentleman of Nature's making, as ever I beheld' (American Notes, Ch. 12), but it was Pitchlynn's 'remarkably handsome' person and apparently 'natural' ability to comport himself like an English gentleman ('another kind of being' from his white American fellow-passengers) that impressed Dickens. He seems, however, to have taken a melancholy satisfation in Pitchlynn's belief that 'unless they [the Indians] tried to assimilate themselves to their conquerors, they must be swept away before the strides of civilised society'. Dickens had in his library George Catlin's Letters on...North American Indians (1842), but hardly shared Catlin's belief in the evident 'simplicity and loftiness' of man's nature when 'unrestrained and unfettered' by civilisation (ibid., p. 2). Whether it was the Ojibwa Indians exhibited in London by Catlin and Rankin during 1843–4, or what Dickens called 'the grim, stunted, abject Bush-people', shown in 1847 and recalled here, who were captivating London audiences, all such races were, when in their native state, in Dickens's view â€“ and in the view of many of his contemporaries â€“ uniformly inferior and ignoble specimens of humanity (see ['The Amusements of the People [II]', HW, Vol. I, 13 April 1850, p. 58] Vol. 2 of [the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism], pp. 70–1 and 196, and his comments on the Inuit, ['The Lost Arctic Voyagers', HW, Vol. X, 2 December 1854]). When revolving ideas for his projected new journal (HW) in October 1849, he contemplated 'A history of Savages, showing the singular respects in which all savages are like each other; and those in which civilised men, under circumstances of difficulty, soonest become like savages' (Pilgrim, Vol. V, p. 622). And in the figure of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House (1852–3) he had memorably satirised those who were more concerned with improving life for dwellers on 'the left bank of the Niger' than with tackling the poverty on their own doorsteps.
      Characteristically, Dickens rounds on his European readers at the end of the piece (compare the end of 'The Chinese Junk' [in the Examiner], Vol. 2 of [the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism], pp. 98–102) with sardonic allusions to London society's marriage market, the eulogies poured out in praise of Napoleon III both before and after he had been proclaimed Emperor of France (December 1852), and the current craze for spiritualist seances and table-rapping (see 'Well-Authenticated Rappings', [HW, Vol. XVII, 20 February 1858]). 

Literary allusions

  • [Title]: John Dryden, Conquest of Granada (1670), Part 2, Act 1, Sc. 1 ('When wild in woods the noble savage ran'): Dickens alludes to this line twice during the course of the essay;
  • 'BUFFON knew what he was...': see Buffon's Natural History (1797), Vol 4, pp. 87 ('the savages of hot countries...are tyrannical to their women, beyond any other classes of men') and 312 ('the multipliction of the human species depends more on society than nature');
  • 'his faithful dog;: Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle 1, 1. 112 (final line in a passage about 'the poor Indian' whom 'simple Nature' has taught to believe in an afterlife in which 'his faithful dog shall bear him company'); 
  • 'fearfully and wonderfully': Psalm 139, V. 14;
  • 'when his place knows him no more': Psalm 103, V. 16. 
Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851–59 (1998). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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