‘God bless us, everyone,’ unless you’re Native

Vincent Schilling

Revered 'Christmas Carol' author Charles Dickens called Native Americans 'bloodthirsty savages' and 'monotonous humbugs'

Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

Charles John Huffman Dickens, who was born in February 1812 and became one of history’s most celebrated writers, was not a fan of Indigenous people.

Dickens authored such popular stories as “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” and was considered the most popular novelist and writer of his time.

He also wrote some lesser-known works, including a scathing editorial that appeared in his weekly magazine, “Household Words,” titled “The Noble Savage.”

In it, Dickens levels a multitude of racially charged words toward Native people. In the first paragraph, he calls the Noble Savage a “prodigious nuisance”:

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. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage.”

“Household Words,” a 2-cent weekly that Dickens started in March 1850, was a collection of journalistic stories and short fiction. It also included opinion-laden narratives from Dickens himself.

Charles Dickens (Photo by Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844 - 1894 via Creative Commons)
Charles Dickens (Photo by Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844 - 1894 via Creative Commons)

Dickens' "Noble Savage" essay contained a term made famous in his book “A Christmas Carol,” which has been adapted countless times into plays and films. The Ebenezer Scrooge character was a mean, stingy old man who often used the word “humbug.”

Dickens applied the phrase to the savage:

“It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird’s feathers in his head; whether he flattens his hair between two boards, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, or paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage — cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.”

His narration continues for more than 2,500 words, and his disdain toward Native people is unflinching:

“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 grey 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.”

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 than ever ran wild in any earthly woods, and the world will be all the better when his place knows him no more."

You can read Dickens’ essay in full here.

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Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor at Indian Country Today. He enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. TikTok @VinceSchilling. Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com.

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Comments (4)
No. 1-4
JackyFoD
JackyFoD

Dickens was in some ways a nasty piece of work. For example he tried to have his wife locked up as insane because he wanted to take up with a newer younger model, and prevented her having any contact with their children. The attitudes of Victorian England were deeply shaming in many ways, and even now the National Trust (a charity that looks after stately homes and other important cultural places) gets loads of complaints from modern day Victorians when they point out how much of the money that paid for those stately homes came from slavery, and how badly the British Empire treated indigenous people round the world.
But we're working on it.

d'mari
d'mari

Dickens was not a nice man. He was a brilliant story-teller, but he was not a nice man. He was cruel to his wife, whom he loathed (but he nevertheless kept fathering babies on her, including a number of miscarriages, year after year after year until her poor body was worn out). He moved her sister into the house and most likely carried on an affair with her. When that sister died, he moved in a different one. When he finally managed to separate from his wife, he took all the children (this was the practice in those days) and forbade them even talking to her.

He met an old flame from his youth and, finding that she had gotten fat, he pilloried her in one of his novels.

He and his daughter were unspeakably rude to Hans Christian Andersen, who was an ardent fan of Dickens. They invited him (or perhaps he invited himself) to come for a visit and then, discovering that he spoke almost no English, spent the entire visit sneering at him.

Dickens was also an anti-Semite. His depictions of Fagin focus on the most vile of Jewish stereotypes. Meanwhile, his morals and his attitudes, as he displays them in his novels and short stories, are relentlessly middle class (it's no surprise that Oliver Twist and Smike are discovered, at the end, to be of fairly good breeding -- he would never have given such fine hearts to people of lower stock.)

Nevertheless, he was a brilliant storyteller.

Disabled Vet
Disabled Vet

Dickens is not alone, which tells me that the entire information flow immigrants had of the "New World" and the birth of American media, absent of facts regarding indigenous culture, was an industry of white supremacy. Everything in America from children's rhymes to folklore, cartoons, television, music, headlines consistently through today's small town papers have spewed over 500 years of hate and denigration has successfully kept native peoples in subhuman or mystical nonsense. Refusing the irony of disparaging indigenous religions as superstition while preaching about hold ghosts and demons? I recall the editorials written by L Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame, "that the safety of the frontier would not be established until there was "total annihilation" of the remaining Native Americans, who, he claimed, lived as "miserable wretches." This article should be discussed in American classrooms to show just how incomplete American culture is dismissing natives and their contributions and sacrifices for this collective democracy. What would Dickens say if he saw white Americans today toting guns "better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage.” But then again, these are the mobs that keep America anti-intellectual and last in the world's progress for humanity.

BlackTears
BlackTears

It is funny how white people view people of color. They commit genocide and theft but they call victims savages and murderers. Throughout history these invaders have committed atrocities on native lands. The white supremacist system is still in place and their kids are continuing this illegal country call America. Russell Means described the white man that is true to this day.

The white man is the trickster. He does everything backwards.

He lives for wealth and plunder

He destroys everything he touched

He does not honor contracts

His religion is used to control and enslaved

He has a culture of plunder

He does not value the woman

A warrior culture

Love taking other people's things


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