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)

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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