The Noble Savage and the Savage Beast

(From Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (Penguin, 1991) pp. 196-203)

Sunday morning, 14 August.... 7he natives of this country are much like those on the other islands, but. their foreheads are not so broad and they do not. appear to have any religion. They speak different languages and generally go naked except for a cloth about their genitals.... They tattoo their arms and bodies by burning in Moorish-style designs that. give them a strange aspect. Some display painted lions, others deer, others turreted castles [?!], and others a variety of other figures.... When they adorn themselves for some festivity, some paint. their faces black or red, others draw stripes of various colors on, their faces or put on a beak like an, ostrich, and still others blacken, their eyes. They do this to appear beautiful but they really look like devils. —Fernando

Nothing shows so well Europe's perception of the natural world as its reaction to the natural people living in it—and thereby hangs an inquiry of some complexity. We arrive here at a realm of myths and myopias and misunderstandings, of uncertain realities and certain fancies, imposed dreams and received nightmares, that comprised the European image of the American for at least the next two centuries, an image that might best be thought of as the confusing and shifting combination of the Noble Savage and the Savage Beast.

Both concepts surely dwelt within the mind of the Discoverer, and they could be brought to the fore to serve first one purpose, then another, according to the conceit at hand. But the former was the image predominately conveyed in the Santangel Letter of I493, easily the most widely read—and at least, among the educated, the most widely influential—of any of Colon's works in Europe. Here the subcontinent for the first time had a firsthand, face-to-face description of people actually living in that Paradise, or Arcadia, or Elysian Fields, envisioned by the ancients: they "all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them"; they do not have weapons "nor are they capable of using them"; they are well built people of hand some stature" and "of a very keen intelligence" but "wondrous timid"; they have no religion and "know neither sect nor idolatry"; "they are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it—without having seen it," and "whet the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given o them." How sharply must those descriptions have struck the morose and troubled European soul, concepts of innocence and generosity and pacifism that could have cut like beacons through the dark night of late medieval Europe.

The idea of splendid innocence also shone through the works of Amerigo Vespucci—or, that is to say, the reports bearing his name that were fabricated from his letters with such success from about I503 on. "Vespucci" was far more lavish and colorful than Colon, far more salacious and erotic, and certainly far more inventive—none of which, the historian reports with regret, did anything to diminish his popularity—and his heavily fictitious tales were the most widely read accounts of the New World for at least the first four decades after its discovery. Vespucci's Indians, living somewhere along the Atlantic coast of South America, were like Colon's, "entirely naked, the men like the women without any covering of their shame," but they had several crucial additional-features: they have "no laws and no religious faith, they live according to nature"; "there is no possession of private property among them, so everything is in common"; "they have no king, nor do they obey anyone, each one is his own master"; "there is no administration of justice, which is unnecessary because in their code no one rules"; "they live in communal dwellings"; "they mate with whom they desire and without much ceremony" and "are a very Procreative people"; and they are a people of great longevity . . . and do not suffer from infirmity or pestilence or from any unhealthy atmosphere." It is true that they are "assuredly" cannibals, are also "warlike" and "very cruel to their own kind," and wear ornaments in their lips and cheeks, "a brutal business," but that sort of exotica was the kind of thing one might expect of strange new peoples and was not to be seen as detracting substantially from their wondrous libertarian society.

These Vespuccian themes were immediately picked up by the diligent Peter Martyr at the Spanish court, whose accounts, beginning with the pirated Libretto edition of I 5 o4, were particularly influential among scholars and the literati and were now given elaborate supportive details (though supplied entirely by hearsay, inasmuch as Martyr never saw the New World). Of Española he wrote:

The inhabitants of these islands have been ever so used to live at liberty, in play and pastime, that they did hardly [boldly] away with the yoke of servitude which they attempt to shake off by all means they may. And surely if they had received our religion, I would think their life most happy of all men, if they might therewith enjoy their ancient liberty.

A few things content them, having no delight in such superfluities, for the which in other places men take infinite pains and commit many unlawful acts, and yet are never satisfied, whereas many have too much and none enough. But among these simple souls, a few clothes serve the naked; weights and measures are not needful to such as know not skill or craft and deceit and have not the use of pestiferous money, the seed of innumerable mischiefs.

So that if we should not be ashamed to confess the truth, they seem to live in that golden world of which old writers speak so much: wherein men lived simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarreling Judges and libels, content only to satisfy nature, without further vexation for knowledge of things to come.

And of the Indians of Cuba he wrote:

It is certain, that among them, the land is as common as the sun and water: and that Mine and Thine (the seeds of all mischief) have no place with them. They are content with so little, that in so large a country, they have rather superfluity than scarce ness. So that (as we have said before) they seem to live in the golden world, without toil, living in open gardens, not en trenched with dikes, divided with hedges, or defended with walls. They deal truly one with another, without laws, without books, and without Judges. They take him for an evil and mischievous man who takes pleasure in doing hurt to others.

It is an extraordinary picture, and must have been extraordinarily attractive to a Europe which, as Martyr repeatedly suggests, is mired in the "mischiefs" of what we can see as early capitalism and nascent statism. So attractive, in fact, that it entered very quickly into European culture and became lodged in political discourse as the very image of the newer, better world that Europe might become. Not by accident did the classic, defining work of utopian literature, Thomas More's Utopia, appear in 1516, just two decades after Europe first learned of the Indian societies of the Americas, nor is it an accident that it is specifically located in and was inspired in large part by the New World presented so effectively by Vespucci. (Similar seventeenth-century works, such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun, we may note, also have American inspirations.)

For the Noble Savage is not, as sometimes supposed, an ancient and common part of Europe's mythical heritage. Visions of the Golden Age and Arcadia and the like go back a long way, but the images are often blatantly fanciful (houses made of sugar-and-spice, for example) and the inhabitants usually undefined stick figures, nothing more specific than Adam and Eve, or Brahmin sages and Ethiopian kings, or endlessly happy children. (Nor is this a frequent theme: one diligent researcher found only sixty-five mentions of such creatures in all the literature from the Hebrews to the fifteenth century.) The specific elements of the Edenic society are not found in the works of classical authors or early Christian theologians, not even in the radical sectarian dissidents of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whose images of the Good Polity are essentially, in the words of a recent study by Germán Arciniegas, "built on air . . . poetic abstractions without consequence."

This is of marked importance because it is the description of the Indian of the New World in the early accounts, beginning with the Santangel Letter and running for three decades thereafter, that basically created the idea of the Noble Savage in Europe and provided for European political thought the underlying characteristics of the free commonwealth. The idea of political liberty—masterlessness, a society without kings, hierarchies, laws. parliaments—really began here; so too the idea of equality—social parity, shared property, without mine or thine; the idea social harmony—communal ease, peaceful concord, sodality, without judges and lawyers; and the idea of abundance—enoughness, living on the fruits of nature, without wants, without toil. Right from the start these were the impressions that made the New World stand for "the land of liberty," the land of Possible Paradise; as the decades went on, they became every bit as important and ubiquitous in Europe as potatoes and tobacco, two other borrowings from the same soil. When Europeans (particularly north Europeans) actually began to settle in that New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were taking back to it these ideas and ideals, expecting to see them flourish in the colonies they implanted there, a process that of course culminated in the revolution that for the first time asserted just these values to the world and sought to build a new nation upon them. Full circle.

But this positive impression of the New World, important as it was for Europe, was not the only or even the principal one: for the Noble Savage existed always intertwined with the Savage Beast, and it was the latter whose images gradually predominated, particularly in the minds of those who went to the new lands and dealt with the Indians face to face.

Cristobal Colon in this sense was quite typical. We have seen how he lost interest entirely in the gentle Tainos, so easy to subjugate, and contrived out of wish and myth the fierce Caribs who must be enslaved or slaughtered; we have seen how he conquered and ruled the Indians by force, killing fellow beings with no more compassion than a butcher for his beasts. Now, on this last voyage, when he spoke of the Indians at all it was with contempt. Those who did not take kindly to his building a colonial outpost in their midst he called "very wild, " and he decided on impulse to capture their kaseke; those who he decided ate human flesh he said had "brutish faces" betraying their practice; those whose language he could not understand he dismissed as "savage people." And when in the midst of the people of Jamaica, on whose hospitality he and his crew of more than a hundred had depended for an entire year, whose gifts of food and drink were all that kept the indolent and sickly foreign band alive, he wrote that he was "surrounded by a million savages full of cruelty and our enemies." By the end he seems to have quite forgotten the sweet marvelousness of those people of Guanahani, whom he now decreed to be, with all their kind, like the Wild Men who "live in hills and mountains."

This same cast of mind is evident in a great many other chroniclers of the Indians, and if their writings were not at first as popular as those of the Noble Savagists, they were actually more numerous and in the end more influential. Not surprisingly, they emerged as soon as anything of real value was seen in the new lands that were inconveniently in the hands of the natives, and after 1519, when Cortes uncovered the immense wealth of Mesoamerica, they fairly proliferated: those Indians who looked like Noble Savages when there was nothing but Guanahani to conquer came quickly to look like Savage Beasts when the treasures of the two vast continents became apparent and the stakes involved Mexico and Peru. Then, in official document and personal letter alike, with only the occasional exceptions from a man such as Las Casas, we hear again and again of the sinister nature of these foul creatures.

Here is a Dominican monk, Tomas Ortiz, writing to the Spanish Council of the Indies in mid-sixteenth century:

They are more given to sodomy than any other nation. There is no justice among them. They go naked. They have no respect either for love or for virginity. They are stupid and silly. They have no respect for truth, save when it is to their advantage. They are unstable. They have no knowledge of what foresight means. They are ungrateful and changeable.... They are brutal.... The older they get the worse they become. About the age of ten or twelve years, they seem to have some civilization, but later they become like real brute beasts. I may therefore affirm that God has never created a race more full of vice and composed without the least mixture of kindness or culture.

Thus the kindly cleric; here the great humanist and nationalist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda:

Compare then those blessings enjoyed by Spaniards of prudence, genius, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religion with those of the little men [hombrecillos, the Indians] in whom you will scarcely find even vestiges of humanity, who not only possess no science but who also lack letters and preserve no monument of their history except certain vague and obscure reminiscences of some things on certain paintings. Never do they have written laws, but barbaric institutions and customs. They do not even have private property.... How can we doubt that these people—so uncivilized, so barbaric, contaminated with so many impieties and obscenities—have been justly conquered?

And, he concluded, Indians were as different from Spaniards as cruel people are from mild. as monkeys from men.

The recurrent bestial theme is revealing: "They live like proper beasts," said Cuneo; "stupid wild insensate asses," said Gomara; they "commit bestial obscenities," said Oviedo; nothing but "wild beasts," said Garcilaso de la Vega. It comes from that hallowed Christian tenet that those who live closest to nature are by nature beasts and therefore less than human in the divine hierarchy called the chain of being. This of course ties in with the Wild Man again, the hairy savage of the woods—and indeed, a woodcut in a I505 edition of the "Vespucci" Mundus novus shows a classic Wild Man figure, bearded, heavy bow instead of club, naked wife beside, to represent the new-found Indians. It ties in, too, with the European degradation of nature: "America is today inhabited," wrote the French historian André Thevet in I5S8, "by marvelously strange and savage peoples . . . living like irrational beasts just as nature has produced them."

It was not wholly a cynical device-of-empire thus to denigrate the Indian into the Savage Beast, though it certainly played an important part in the ideologies that Europe used to justify its conquest and exploitation of the New World. It was, in a still deeper sense, a response to the unresolved burden of guilt that was (and was felt to be) an inherent part of the cast-from-Eden mythology of Christianity, made all the heavier for the medieval soul by the official castigations of St. Augustine, and sharpened by jealousy and resentment toward the prelapsarian peoples living without such a burden in apparent fertility, ease, simplicity, safeness, freedom, harmony, and uncorruptedness. The resulting tensions, then, could be resolved, as Europe’s perception of nature had always permitted, only by being played out against—literally against—the natural world and its natural peoples. This is a matter of some complexity, but I would suggest that the only way the people of Christian Europe ultimately could live with the reality of the Noble Savage in the Golden World was to transform it progressively into the Savage Beast in the Hideous Wilderness—and then progressively work to destroy it.