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Explainer: the myth of the Noble Savage

The figure of the ‘noble savage’ has deep roots in Australia colonialism. Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, John Curtis, 1838.

Explainer: the myth of the Noble Savage

Federal Liberal MP Dennis Jensen has come under attack for telling Parliament the Australian government should not be funding people to live a “noble savage” lifestyle in remote Indigenous communities. To link the idea of the “noble savage” to Indigenous Australians in 2016 is unquestionably offensive, but to understand why it’s worthwhile probing the term’s chequered history.

Victor Hugo’s novel Bug-Jargal (1826) used the ‘nobel savage’ trope. Illustration from Bug-Jargal (1826).

The modern myth of the noble savage is most commonly attributed to the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He believed the original “man” was free from sin, appetite or the concept of right and wrong, and that those deemed “savages” were not brutal but noble.

His noble savage, considered in Emile, ou de l'Education (1762), Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782) and Confessions (1768), was a shining beacon to 18th-century Europe.

The idea can be found also in theology as an explanation for the degeneration of 18th-century society. The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, claimed that,

in the beginning man was made right with regular, pure affections.

But “he” became diseased and degenerated, obsessed with the things of the world.

James Cook brought Enlightenment ideas and sciences to the South Seas in his journeys around the Pacific, and was perhaps expressing Rousseau-style sentiments when he described Australian Aborigines in noble savage tones:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing …

They were, Cook famously declared in his Endeavour journals, “far more happier than we Europeans”.

Through the 19th century, as empires swallowed Indigenous lands, the idea of the noble savage receded and the reverse negative stereotype of the dangerous, brutal savage prevailed.

The European reaction to the death of James Cook revealed the conflicting stereotype of the ‘brutal savage’. Johanne Zoffany, The Death of Captain James Cook, 1779

Both typecasts relied on the idea that the Indigenous peoples of the world were in an original state, “primitive”, “backward”, the ancient ancestor to “modern man”, the infants of humanity. Metaphors of time forged the social relationships of colonialism.

The noble savage re-emerged with Karl Marx’s critique of empire in the mid to late 19th century. It was expressed most powerfully by his partner, Friedrich Engels, who tied his revolutionary hunger for freedom from Victorian restrictions to the belief that human societies were originally led by women, and were characterised by the absence of jealousy and a state of almost free love.

In his famous fourth edition of Origins (1894), Engels claimed that the most perfect example of this society could be found among Australian Aborigines.

Friedrich Engels popularised the notion of the ‘noble savage’ for a new century. via Wikimedia Commons

Engels berated those who argued for the brutal savage, for those “philistines in their brothel-tainted imagination” who viewed Aboriginal sexual relations with abhorrence.

Many historians and anthropologists have questioned his reading of the Australian texts, in particular Fison and Howitt’s landmark study of Aboriginal and Pacific Island societies, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880), that formed the basis of his analysis.

Engels’ noble savage proved particularly tenacious through the 20th century and became a kind of pagan foundation for the Soviet State, an argument against both Christianity and the West.

Free love was held to be the gift of the revolution, an attempt to recreate the perceived sexual freedom of Indigenous peoples.

The idea of the noble savage became a romantic foil to the alienation and inequities of capitalism and was restated by the neo-Marxists of the 1970s.

Yet another version of the noble savage can be found in New Age romanticism. Indigenous peoples are credited with special powers, such as healing or enhanced spirituality. New Age practitioners might seek to recreate or dance through Indigenous ceremonies, often with little idea of their original meanings.

Dream catchers and unattributed dot paintings on bags produced in China prove that there is money to be made from this model of the myth.

Scholars have long recognised that both the noble and the brutal savage are fantasies of the European mind that kept Indigenous peoples in a suspended state of either elevated purity or perpetual evil.

The noble savage binds Indigenous peoples to an impossible standard. The brutal savage, by contrast, becomes the pre-emptive argument for Indigenous failings.

The ideal of the noble savage has led to considerable derision. James Cook’s most famous biographer, J.C. Beaglehole, dismissed Cook’s passage on Aborigines as,

preposterous sublimity, this nonsense on stilts.