Director, North Vancouver Museum and Archives, Canada
President, Vancouver Spanish Pacific Historical Society
I am free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began.
When wild in the woods the noble savage ran.
John Dryden, Conquest of Granada, 1701
Do not allow yourself to be imposed upon by such a gross absurdity.
It is sad stuff.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1773
The concept of the noble savage was one of the most pervasive themes of the Enlightenment. As such it both accompanied and was sustained by the voyages of exploration to the Pacific in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
The noble savage was not a creation of the eighteenth century; he was however popularized during this period as a symbol of the doctrine of natural law - a simple belief that the innate goodness of natural man was superior to the artificial goodness of sophisticated man. Natural law was a pillar of the new morality of the Enlightenment. It was a construct designed to fill the vacuum left by religion represented in a Church that any serious-minded person could see had become hopelessly tied to property and status and to the defence of its interest by repression and injustice. "Wipe out the infamous thing" proclaimed Voltaire as men of letters and intellectual society sought to replace what had been the chief creative force in western civilization with a smile of reason and the worship of nature.(1)
When in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men (1755) Jean-Jacques Rousseau presented his thesis that "Man in his natural state was born essentially good and free of all prejudices" and becomes bad chiefly through social institutions such as private property that restrain and corrupt his tendencies to natural behaviour, he was contributing to an already powerful literary tradition rooted in antiquity. Rousseau was aware of Ovid's picture of the Golden Age; he used the Germania of Tacitus in his own writings; and he knew of the medieval belief in a Beatus Ille, that legendary land of peace and plenty far away in the western seas. This was all part of the received tradition of sixteenth century men of letters who read the narratives of the earliest explorers. Columbus was only the first of a long line of navigators who, finding natives in a state of nature, extolled their goodwill and generosity, representing them as virtuous, mild and beautiful people with natural intelligence, living together in nakedness and innocence, sharing their property in common. It didn't last long of course - the noble savage could not long survive the introduction of the concept of private property, whether in central America or the colonies of New England and New France - and Bartolomé de las Casas soon exposed the contrast between the "idyll" of Hispaniola and the corruption and devastation wrought by the Spanish conquistadors from "civilized" Europe. It was a contrast to be pointed out by explorers and travellers right up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and thus fuelled the idea that there was both a nobility and a quality of life to be envied in man in his natural state.
Rousseau studied and used Montaigne, who was the first to draw a full-length portrait of the noble savage in his Essay "Of Cannibals" published in 1580. He was also influenced by the satirical use of the noble savage in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. And he appreciated David Hume's answer to the seventeenth century rationalism of Thomas Hobbes who disdained any idea of the noble savage, characterizing the existence of primitive man as "a time of war where every man is an enemy to every man".(2)
The principal reasons for Rousseau's identification with of the idea of the noble savage, however, and for his central importance in its development are twofold.
First was the man himself and his special genius. One of the most original minds of any age, he was a writer of incomparable prose. He was also the consummate outsider who wrote from the heart unencumbered by the opinions of others or with an expectation of being liked or loved. Rousseau proclaimed in the style of an Old Testament prophet the fundamental guilt of society itself; he condemned all partial solutions and rejected every compromise with existing society. Out of step with his contemporaries, he denounced their culture and their scientific progress and the refinement of their manners as an empty sham that could not conceal their utter spiritual poverty. He spoke with a democratic passion that was the secret of his immense influence. Other philosophes based their program of reform on a careful analysis of the past and present; their hope lay in the progress of knowledge and science. Rousseau, his eyes firmly fixed on the future regeneration of society, surrendered himself to his basic emotions and built a philosophy upon them.(3) Second was the fact that his two Discours (*) on the corrupting influence of society and inequality were still very much in vogue when the accounts of the voyages of Cook (his First to the Pacific) and Bougainville were published in the early 1770s. Indeed, belief in the superiority of natural man and simple virtues was emerging as one of the motive forces of the next half-century. Rousseau's claim that man had been depraved by his development from the natural state into the false environment of an artificial and complex society suggested that it should be possible to find in a simple society the happiness that men found it so hard to achieve in Europe. Although the philosopher admitted that his ideal state of nature "perhaps never existed and never will" and that his "investigations must not be treated as historical truths but only as conditional and hypothetical reasonings," (4) the concept was so persuasive and the intellectual reaction to formality, luxury, elaborate fashion and etiquette so strong that it was considered entirely plausible that native societies, particularly on remote islands, uncorrupted by any contact with modern civilization, harbouring nobility of mind and the simple virtues of the uninhibited and happy savage, could still be found. Certainly there was nothing about the court of Louis XV or the troubled state of civilized Europe to challenge Rousseau's bold assertions.(5) While Voltaire laughed that "no-one ever employed so much intelligence to persuade men to be beasts" (6) the spirit of the times was running against him.
If Rousseau's denunciation of European society had
garnered an enthusiastic following in the 1750s and 1760s, it was the European
discovery of Tahiti and the publications resulting from the voyages of
Louis-Antoine Bougainville and James Cook that seemed to fulfil his thesis
and secured the noble savage's popularity through into the early years
of the nineteenth century.
Bougainville visited Tahiti for less than two weeks, but what he had to say about it convinced his listeners and readers that he had found the Beatus Ille and the noble savage. Likeable and popular, a man of evident charm, something of a courtier and yet fully in sympathy with the scientists and thinkers of the Enlightenment, Bougainville was the toast of Paris on his return from his successful circumnavigation. Even before he had gone to press with his own account of the voyage, however, his naturalist, Philip Commerson had published an article in the Mercure de France extolling the virtues of Nouvelle Cythere, where he had found "the state of natural man, born essentially good, free from all preconceptions and following without suspicion and without remorse the gentle impulse of an instinct that is always sure because it has not yet degenerated into reason." (7)
The salons loved it and Bougainville soon added to the picture. He was not a professional sailor and his journal is short on navigational details and scientific data. But he knew how to present his travels so as to achieve maximum public appeal. Moreover, literature was the medium most likely to gain him a wide audience in pre-revolutionary France. The salons, having received him and discussed him, now read him. Thus he brought the question of Pacific exploration out of the assembly halls of the learned societies into the far more influential circles of politicians and littérateurs. (8) And this is what they read:
The aspect of the coast offered us the most enchanting prospect. Notwithstanding the height of the mountains, they had no appearance of barrenness....we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw a peak covered with trees right up to the summit....from a distance it might have been taken for a huge pyramid, which the hand of an able sculptor had adorned with garlands and foliage. The less elevated lands were interspersed with meadows and copses....and along the coast....we could see the houses of the islanders amidst banana, coconut and other trees laden with fruit ......The French were exasperated by the continual thieving, but Bougainville even excused this by suggesting that "curiosity for new objects excites cupidity in them", and by stressing the point that "nothing is shut up in their homes and everything is left lying about without being under any particular person's care".(10)
As we neared the shore, the number of islanders surrounding our ships increased. Soon the canoes were so numerous that we had difficulty warping in amidst the crowd of boats and noise with all the people crying "tayo" which we later learned to mean "friend". The canoes were all full of females who for agreeable features are not inferior to European women and who in beauty of body often surpass them. Many of these fair females were naked. It was difficult in these circumstances to keep at work 400 young French seamen who had seen no women for six months. In spite of all our precautions a young girl managed to climb aboard and placed herself on the quarterdeck, near one of the hatchways that were open to give air to those heaving the capstan below. The girl carelessly dropped the cloth which covered her and appeared to the eyes of all beholders as Venus showed herself to the Phrygian shepherd having indeed the celestial form of that goddess. Never was a capstan wound in with more alacrity ......
As we walked over the grass, dotted here and there with fine fruit trees and intersected by little streams, I thought that I had been transported to paradise. Everywhere we went we found hospitality, peace, innocence and joy and every appearance of happiness ..... (9)
Not only did Bougainville return triumphantly from a remarkable expedition reporting on the paradise he had found in the South Seas, but he brought home a real Tahitian. Ahu-toru descended on a society that was prepared to acclaim him as one whose basic goodness had never been corrupted by the false trappings of civilization. Pleasant and quietly spoken, probably on account of bewilderment and a limited vocabulary, as he never mastered more than a few words of French, he enchanted the French salons.(11)
The first credible account of Cook's First Voyage, like that of his companion Joseph Banks, did not appear until the 1890s, more than 120 years after the expedition arrived home in England. Shortly after his return, however, his reserved view of the South Sea islanders, clearly stated in the journals from his Second and Third voyages, was set aside in favour of a spirited, enthusiastic and at times purely fictional account by Dr. John Hawkesworth that owed more to Banks than it did to Cook. Because he did not belong to the world of letters, it was natural that Cook should hand over his unpolished account to a professional editor to prepare it for public consumption.(12) The result however was a portrait of the South Seas that, accompanied by the presence in London of Omai from the Society Islands, propelled forward the popularity of the idea of the noble savage in English intellectual circles. This in spite of the open disdain of such luminaries as Samuel Johnson who while impressed with the "elegance" of Omai's behaviour, put it down to the fact that "he had passed all his time while in England only in the best of company so that all he acquired of our manners was genteel". (13)
Cook was always humane, fair but firm, respectful and friendly with the natives he encountered. In rules set out for his men upon their arrival in Tahiti he demanded that they endeavour "by every fairness to cultivate a friendship with the natives and to treat them with all imaginable humanity." (14) At times he was clearly charmed by their warmth and spontaneity, but he displayed hardly any enthusiasm for them. They were generally pleasant, good to trade with, generous in providing fresh food for his men and good as guides, but one searches in vain through his spare style to find any way in which their natural virtues impressed him. They are presented as incorrigible liars and thieves and he was clearly offended by their sexual licence. Hawkesworth, however, perhaps drawn to the views of the more sentimental Banks, knew how to give the explorer's material a popular twist. The Tahitians become
noble benefactors; their appearance is pleasing and their agreeable manners are proof of inward virtue: In their motions there is at once vigour and ease; their walk is graceful....and their behaviour to strangers and to each other affable and courteous. In their dispositions also, they seemed to be brave, open and candid without either suspicion or treachery cruelty or revenge ......Envying the strength of their passions, the transiency of their sorrows and their freedom from worldly anxieties, he muses:
These people have a knowledge of right and wrong from the mere dictates of natural conscience....the conformity of their conduct [is] to what in their opinion is right ....
If we admit that they are on the whole happier that we, we must admit that the child is happier than the man and that we are losers by the perfection of our nature, the increase of our knowledge and the enlargement of our views. (15)Cook had been particularly distressed by an incident in which a native man had forced his attentions upon a young girl of twelve while a number of islanders looked on approvingly. Hawkesworth records the passage, but then goes on to pass comment on the whole matter of sexual licence:
This incident is not mentioned as a subject of idle curiosity, but as it deserves consideration in determining a question which has long been debated in philosophy: Whether the shame attending certain actions, which are allowed on all sides to be in themselves innocent, is implanted in Nature or superinduced by custom. (16)The inference is clear and here, as elsewhere, Hawkesworth produces a story more highly coloured that anything found in Cook himself, or indeed in Banks.
At a time when the full impact of Rousseau's genius was exploding onto a Europe in which men of reason were yearning for simplicity, and the first reports from Tahiti seemed to confirm the reality of the noble savage, what could be expected from the discovery of native societies on the Northwest Coast of America as the exploration and exploitation of the world's last temperate coast got underway?
On the eastern seaboard French and English colonists had long solved the debate of the relative virtues of civilization and the primitive life. It was one thing for intellectuals to sit in the comfort of their cabinets an ocean away from the real savage, and quite another to survive a long sea voyage and to encounter him in the dark and mysterious forests of America. On this particularly harsh frontier the discussion was immediately focussed by the hard limits of necessity. The noble savage became the depraved savage - a wild man. When he threatened your family or thwarted your desire for land you killed him. It was impossible to abide for very long the indolence of a hunter who roamed over huge preserves which might better be put into crops. At best the savage was a soul to be saved from heathen superstition.(17)
This conflicting two-part European tradition of dealing with cultural otherness - on the one hand idealizing the noble savage, while on the other turning him into a depraved wild man - was part of the tradition that European explorers brought with them to the Northwest Coast in the last decades of the eighteenth century. From their accounts it is clear that they neither looked for, nor found, the noble savage on the Northwest Coast; however, the idea was certainly strong enough to influence official policy towards the peoples encountered, to drive detailed investigations of their cultures and practices, and to elicit both condemnation and sympathy in a number of the journals that have survived.
James Cook's brief sojourn at Nootka, the account of which was published in 1784, sets a tone for all subsequent reports, no matter on what part of the coast or to which group the visit was being made. Nootka Sound was a harsh environment lacking the aesthetics and sensualities of the South Seas which had made the concept of the noble savage so much more seductive. Between the sultry Polynesian Islands and the blustery shores of the Northwest Coast Cook's men experienced a fundamental change.(18) The contrast was heightened as the carefree days in Polynesia dissolved into fog, rain and sleet and the Englishmen were confronted by people who looked wild and dirty, were expert in trading and unscrupulous in acquiring other people's property when they could, and yet who expected the mariners to pay them for wood and water, and grass for their goats.(19) English fastidiousness easily came to the fore; the natives lived nastily, painted themselves strangely, danced about incomprehensively, quarrelled bitterly, spoke a language that seemed planned to break the vocal chords and lived in a state of rivalry and tension with their neighbours. While they undoubtedly had skills - they could expertly handle great logs of timber, made and managed efficient canoes, were expert fishermen, hunted whales successfully and utilized effectively iron and copper for which they demonstrated a passion - they appeared for all intents and purposes as wild and uncouth as any of the Indian tribes in all of North America.(20)
Cook was a practical, down-to-earth seaman and his journal betrays, at best, an interested neutrality in his description of the native people. If his Instructions owed something to the spirit of the age - he was "to endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship with them ... shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard" - there is a pragmatic footnote: "taking care, nevertheless not to suffer yourself to be surprised by them, but to be always on your guard against any Accidents".(21) Cook, in spite of Hawkesworth's efforts never found the noble savage in the South Seas and he gave no thought to finding him in North America. He provided straightforward facts, honestly presented, without any hint of the type of embellishment that his compatriot George Dixon felt obliged, for public consumption, to put on his account of the Tlingit at Mulgrave:
the inside of these dwellings exhibits a complete picture of filth and dirt, indolence and laziness....In short the whole served to show us how wretched a state it is possible for human beings to exist; and yet these people appear contented with their situation and probably enjoy a much greater portion of happiness and tranquillity than is to be found under the gilded roofs of the most despotic monarch. (22)With such a comment Dixon was extolling the essential virtue of the primitive life, one of the prerequisites of the idea of the savage as noble.
Although of all the major voyagers George Vancouver seems to have appreciated and commented upon native societies the least, he also was affected enough by the idea to regret for some time a clash with groups of Tlingits in the summer of 1793, in which perhaps a dozen native lives had been lost. He had sincerely hoped to complete his survey of the Northwest Coast without incident and bloodshed, and was upset by the fact that this had not been possible.(23) And later, in Hawaii, while not unmindful of the harsher sides of life in the Pacific Islands, Vancouver commented on the generosity of "these untaught children of nature," comparing his warm reception to the cool welcome he had received a couple of months earlier from the Spanish governor in Monterey. More than once the reserved Englishman compared Hawaiian and European society:
A conduct so disinterestly noble, and uniformly observed by so untutored a race will not fail to excite a certain degree of regret that the first social principles, teaching mutual support and universal benevolence, should frequently, amongst civilized people, be sacrificed to suspicion, jealousy and distrust. (24)If Cook, of all the English navigators felt the least encumbered by Enlightenment ideology, the voyage of La Pérouse offers a much more dramatic commentary on the subject. Much more entrenched in French thought than in English, the idea of a noble savage clearly influenced his Instructions, both in the approach to be taken to the native peoples encountered and to what he was expected to find out about them:
On all occasions Sieur de Lapérouse will act with great gentleness and humanity towards the different peoples who he will visit ......In addition, the Memoranda of the Academie des Sciences and the Societé de Medicin raised questions bearing on the theme of the noble savage, many of them recalling passages of Rousseau. For instance:
If dangerous circumstances should ever oblige Sieur de Lapérouse to avail himself of the superiority of his weapons ...he must not use force except with the greatest moderation. If he cannot obtain the goodwill of the savages by kind treatment he should endeavour to constrain them by fear and threats and should use arms as a last resort ......
His Majesty will consider it one of the happiest events of the expedition if it should end without costing the life of a single man. (25)
Do some people live without houses ?and a question bearing on the very principle of the wholesomeness of the natural life:
How fast can uncivilized man run ?
How do the proportions of their bodies compare to the artist's principles of beauty ?
Do they bind their infants in swaddling clothes or let them kick and stretch freely ?
Does venereal disease exist among such peoples and if so, is it indigenous or did it come from Europeans? (26)It is easy to see here the sort of enlightened impulse that drove the exhaustive commentaries of a number of Spanish mariner/scientists and particularly the work of José Mariano Moziño whose Noticias de Nootka touches on all of these subjects and many more.
The interesting thing about La Pérouse, however, is his total rejection of the idea of the noble savage. His annoyance at any such suggestion developed more and more strongly throughout the voyage (27) and is clearly apparent after his visit to the Northwest Coast. Even at the beginning of his journal he challenged Rousseau with the sentiment that "the reform of customs has, perhaps, rather than good laws, contributed more to the good of society.(28) He did not share contemporary misgivings about spoiling the innocent savage; rather he hoped to improve his lot by the introduction of new plants, fruits and technology. One of the goals of modern navigators he said was to make "happier the people they visit and add to their means of subsistence". Drawn to the Physiocrats’ belief in progress through economic reform, La Pérouse would later criticize the Franciscans of Monterey because they were not missionaries of progress, civilizing the local Indians quickly enough into active Europeans.(29)
His experience at Port des Français, where he found the Tlingit gloomy, dirty, ungrateful, thieving and quarrelsome - "I am willing to admit that it is impossible for a society to exist without some virtues but am forced to state that I did not have the wisdom to notice any," he noted on his journal (30) - caused La Pérouse to launch into a condemnation of the theoretical and sentimental speculation of his time about the noble savage:
The philosophers can rant in vain against this image. They write books by their firesides while I have been voyaging for 30 years. I have witnessed the knavery and injustice of people whom they depict as good because they are so near to the state of nature; but nature is sublime only in the larger view, in detail it is less so. It is impossible to go into the woods where the hand of civilized man has not stretched to meet with the man of nature because he is savage, deceitful and malicious. (31)For La Pérouse any enthusiasm for the innocence and peacefulness of the savage, however friendly he might appear, was not only nonsense but also dangerous. The tragic murder of Cook had made this clear, as did the sudden attack on one of the watering parties belonging to his expedition in Samoa, where twelve men were lost, including his naturalist Robert Lammanon. As fate would have it Lammanon, carried away by Rousseau's concept of the superiority of the man of nature, had protested to his commander the day before he was killed that "the savages of the island were better men than the French".(32)
As the spirit and conventions of the French enlightenment engulfed Spain during the reign of Carlos III, among its numerous manifestations were the Sesse expedition to Mexico and the voyage of Alejandro Malaspina into and around the Pacific. Particular mention of native peoples does not figure in Malaspina's preparations for the voyage; technical, geographical and political matters dominate the discussion.(33) However, his approach to the native people of the Northwest Coast continued a tradition established by Viceroy Antonio Maria Bucareli's mandated expeditions to the north pacific in 1774, 1775, and 1779, and reflected an attitude that had much to do with the prevailing intellectual view that man close to nature, if perhaps something less than a noble savage, was nevertheless worthy of intense study and treatment that was at once generous and humane.
Certainly Spanish self-interest in defence of a challenged sovereignty in the Pacific and a shortlived dream that the natives might be christianized and set on the road to eternal salvation helped shape the approach, but seduction and manipulation for political and religious purposes alone cannot explain the remarkably exhaustive, substantive and detailed descriptions of native life on the coast. From the diarios of Juan Crespi and Tomás de la Peña in 1774 through to the journal of Jacinto Caamaño in 1792, there exists an enduring fascination with the peoples of the coast that cannot be explained by mere curiosity. Despite their distaste for much of what they saw of "savage life", the Spaniards admired the cultural achievements they encountered. Like other Europeans, they praised the artistry and skills expressed in the textiles, wood carvings, jewellery, fishing equipment and arms and armour, particularly of the Tlingit, the Haida and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth. And the collections brought home elicited amazement especially among officials in Mexico and Madrid who believed, based on their experience in the Americas, that native civilizations became more primitive the further south or north one travelled.(34) The Enlightenment's fascination with detailed observation, and the idea of the noble savage that was part and parcel of it, therefore exercised a profound attitudinal influence on the Spanish mariners and scientists who travelled to the Northwest Coast even as their actual experiences were proving that reality had nothing to do with the Rousseau-inspired myth.
The schizophrenic character of the Spanish approach - attempting to treat the natives with dignity and respect while at the same time being on guard because they were considered untrustworthy savages - is reflected in official policy that underlay all native-Spanish contacts on the coast. Thus we find Bucareli's Instructions to Juan Perez in 1774 that he is to treat any Indians encountered "affectionately" and to endeavour to learn about their "customs, characteristics, their mode of life and their neighbours ... their system of government ... the things they value most:"
He will not take anything from the Indians against their will, but only in barter or given by them in friendship. All must be treated with kindness and gentleness which is the most efficacious means of gaining and firmly establishing their esteemThese are mirrored in those of Viceroy Revillagigedo to Francisco Eliza in 1791, where he writes of the "lamentable consequences" of incidents that lead to the use of force. Everyone is to be on his guard (the native are untrustworthy) so as not to spill "the blood of unfortunates who do not know the force of our arms" (respect for innocent lives); and those again of Revillagigedo to Dionisio Alcalá Galiano in 1792:
He must maintain good order among the crew ... when a landing is made, in order to prevent lack of obedience and to ensure good treatment of the Indians, against whom force is never to be used except when it is necessary for self-defense ......(35)
Good treatment and harmony with the Indians is of the first importance to establish ... a solid friendship ... so that our visits should not be as distressing as those of other voyagers to the detriment of humanity and the national credit. (36)There is evident self-interest of course - it was always important to lay the foundation "for a friendship very useful to religion and the sovereign" - but in the spirit of the Enlightenment there is more than a superficial concern for the native people as human beings. Thus the severe reprimand meted out to Salvador Fidalgo when he revenged the murder of a Spanish officer at Neah Bay in 1792, first and foremost by Bodega y Quadra, (38) who provides us with an interesting evolution in his own approach to the Indians. In 1775, on the present-day coast of Washington, a watering party of six sailors was massacred in front of his eyes. In defiance of Viceregal orders he argued strongly for a revengeful counter-attack but was overruled by Bruno de Hezeta and his fellow officers.(39) Yet seventeen years later at Nootka his attitude proved to be more enlightened than that of any other European on the coast during the entire first contact period, so much so that he was criticized by his own colleagues and the visiting English for allowing Chief Maquinna to deal with the murder of a young Spaniard rather than seeking revenge through the taking of hostages. (40)
Use of the superiority of...arms...is a last resort ... directly opposed to humanity and it can only be justified by the need of self preservation. (37)
In the summer of 1792, Bodega more than lived up to the letter and spirit of official Spanish policy. As a result, he was able to write:
I can say with assurance that it is not possible to mistake the confidence they have in me and the affection that not only the common people declare they have for me, but the chiefs as well since they frequently sleep at night in my house with the satisfaction that perhaps they would not have in the houses of their most intimate relatives. Thus I have no difficulty in establishing with them a human relationship towards which my disposition inclines.Bodega's experience with the Nuu-Chah-Nulth - "the natives are of a most peaceful nature" (42) - was not however the normal experience for European visitors. The Indians at Nootka were certainly less aggressive than the Tlingits or Aleuts to the north - there were also definite advantages in tolerating the presence of Europeans in their midst - but there exists a long list of incidents that betray an underlying tension, an ever-present aspect of the contact years, that always threatened to explode. Displaced at Yuquot, the Indians continually asked the Spanish when they were going to leave.(43) At Mulgrave the seemingly peaceful visit of the Malaspina expedition ultimately turned ugly (44) and Nathaniel Portlock reported on his visit to a Russian outpost in the Aleutians that :
I could flatter myself that, by treating these Indians as people should be treated and not as though they are individuals of an inferior nature, I have lived in complete tranquillity. (41)
The Russians were constantly on their guard for fear of being surprised by the Americans. I judged it prudent that we should do likewise and accordingly sent a chest with arms along with the parties on shore...Malaspina's visit to Mulgrave demonstrates the extent to which the concept of the noble savage could play on the minds of those who voyaged to the Northwest Coast. Unlike La Pérouse who, as we have already noted, brutally dismissed the whole idea as a fraud, Malaspina in his account betrays a sympathy for it. This becomes clear at the moment in which the explorers sail towards the coast. While La Pérouse's eye "wandered painfully over masses of snow covering a barren, treeless land. The mountains appeared to be close to the sea which broke against the cliffs on a plateau...black as if burned by fire and totally devoid of any greenery ..." (46) Malaspina evokes the totally different picture - almost the Beatus Ille:
It was very evident that this little party [Russians] were under great apprehension from the Americans. Indeed the Chief [Russian officer] gave me to understand that they had attempted to surprise them several times, which made it absolutely necessary for them to be constantly on their guard. He told me that they were a set of savages, very cruel..." (45)
Next to the shore and opposite to all the snowy cordillera that descends from Cape Fairweather, a strip of low land covered with beautifully leafed pines extends for a long distance, which sometimes, by hiding the snow gives one the impression of a latitude nearer to the Equator than of one not distant from the Pole. Added to the beautiful prospect were various patches of snow on the protruding peaks which reflected the soft rays of the sun with a new brilliance or presented to the imagination wide roads and level fields. Many flock of curlew flew around us [and] the water had taken on a deep green." (47)and later:
With nightfall the weather cleared and the spectacle presented to our view was both new and grand, like the curtain of a theatre which rises so quickly to disclose ... in a single instant a great number of new and agreeable objects to the admiring onlooker. We were able to see the majestic cordillera which runs from Mount Fairweather to Mount St. Elias. the snow with which they were covered from the peaks to the last foothill reflected the rays of the sun with a new brilliance. We could see before it for some leagues all the pines forests, luxurious and leafy beyond description, finally the air was extremely pure with a mild, light wind from the North West [which] greatly extended the length of the day by [giving] a greater clearness to the twilight; not even at midnight did we lose this agreeable and majestic vista. (48)Malaspina's appreciation of the physical beauties of the coast soon extends to the native themselves. At the moment of contact:
They intoned a harmonious song of peace accompanying it later with the unmistakable sign of open arms to show that they came unarmed and were really anxious to receive assurance of peace and friendship from us. (49)In an extended discussion of native life at Mulgrave, Malaspina's generosity of spirit is also clear as he fixes his attention
on moral questions ... where the Philosopher views, with wondering curiosity, the vices and virtues of natural man, his innate leanings with respect to food and multiplication, the formless beginnings of society .... Here, finally, is where reflection, moving ever slowly and on the edge of a precipice, guides the train of thought to pick up a few imperfect notions about the important history of man. Our voyage despite the problems of language, the newness of ideas and the burden of philosophic systems, has been able to secure some knowledge that will not displease the philosoper (50)He writes of the Tlingit's "lively and happy genius", ultimately proclaiming in true Rousseau-like fashion:
We cannot but envy that primitive state of nations where the very absence of owned property leads men to labour for the whole and to be useful to all. (51)choosing to ignore or downplay the darker sides of what was before him he goes on to praise:
the tranquillity and good harmony which was apparent in all of their activities as well as in their unremitting, private family labour. (52)In contrast, the Mexican artist Tomás de Suria is disgusted by the experience. In his description of the visit he writes of dwellings "more like pigsties than the habitations of human beings...[which] causes such a fetid and disagreeable odour on their belongings and persons that you cannot stand it." He openly stated that his view of the situation is very different from that recorded in the ambitious and grandiose account being written by Malaspina. Distancing himself from the "sublime notion" of the Commander, he suggests that any pleasure encountered by the reader would not be sustained by any experience on the ground at Mulgrave.(53)
Malaspina was content to be his own Hawkesworth, but the tradition of embellishing accounts during the later editing of voyage narratives was not without its Spanish imitators either. In his recent study of the Galiano voyage of 1792, John Kendrick has persuasively argued that Manuscript 619 in the Museo Naval in Madrid is the definitive account.(54) If this indeed is the case there is a fascinating addition to the description of the visit to the inlet upon whose shores the city of Vancouver now stands. It proves that, where the opportunity presented itself, the proponents of the noble savage idea rarely failed to adjust or expand on the text to accommodate their flights of fancy. Galiano wrote of Indian Arm, a narrow stretch of water extending north from the end of Burrard Inlet:
The shores are steep and rocky with mountains of a considerable height with a mantle of tall close spaced conifers and impenetrable underbrush. Many streams of fresh water, and some cascades, flowed from the melted snow.... The mild temperature, the beauty and lushness of the various greens, the multitude of clusters of wild roses and several meadows with small fruits, blackberries and gooseberries made it a delightful visit...." (55)This already appealing picture is too tempting for the editor of what was actually to appear as the text of the Galiano expedition in the Relacion del hecho por las goletas Sutil y Mexicana. He uses it as the jumping off point to further enhance the physical portrait, and then proceeds to introduce the noble savage:
It would certainly be impossible to find a more delightful view than that which is here presented by the diversity of trees and shrubs, by the loveliness of the flowers and the beauty of the fruit, by the variety of animals and birds. When to this is added the pleasure of listening to the song of the birds, the observer is afforded many occasions for admiring the works of nature and for delighting his senses as he contemplates the majestic outlines of the mountains, covered with pines and capped with snow, when he sees the most glorious cascades falling from them and reaching the ground below with an awe-inspiring rapidity, breaking the silence of these lonely districts, and by their united waters forming powerful rivers which serve to give life to the plants on their banks, and in which a large number of salmon are bred. When any men are met, although they are of a different appearance and colour [from their neighbours], it is clear that they are of the same species from the similarity of their ideas, and the observer will see that, denied those advantages which are believed to be indispensable for life, these men are yet very intelligent, strong and cheerful, and that, without the aid which is supplied by the study and perfection of the arts, they still know how to provide themselves with the necessary sustenance, to supply their wants and to defend themselves against their enemies.(56)In the abstract it seems fairly ridiculous that any civilized man in the eighteenth century would shrink from the march of progress and turn with admiration to the savage state from which he had so laboriously struggled; that he should confuse apparent freedom with happiness; or lack of knowledge with mystical inspiration. But the noble savage - mythical though he was - came at a time when he was needed. The virtues of "natural man," misunderstood and exaggerated though they were, helped that particular generation to see the superficiality of much of that which passed for "civilization" - polish, luxury, organized religion, worldly power and elegant learning. A strain continues to run through human progress that yearns for the simple and the basic when set against the organized and the analytical. And from this yearning was born the noble savage.
We should not, however, interpret Malaspina's glowing
portrait of the Tlingit as a call for a return to primitivism. Rather it
is an affirmation of the innate virtue of man, a belief in the value of
progress and of the necessity of the dynamic of reform, motives that inspired
his politico- scientific quest. Nevertheless his blatant invocation of
the concept of the noble savage encourages us to look beyond motives of
mere pragmatism and self-interest - whether personal or official - and
to see that, on the Northwest Coast as elsewhere, the myth helped shape
a reality - an approach - that ultimately encouraged many Europeans to
meet the native peoples as fellow human beings, inferior only in their
progress along the road of the ascent of man, and to play out in their
actions and in their writings their fascination with "man close to nature."
2. For the shaping of the concept of the noble savage and its literary development, see Fairchild, Hoxie Neal: The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism, Russell and Russell, New York, 1961, pp. 1-56.
18. The climate of the Northwest Coast has been described as "a succession of unpleasant weather; cyclonic storms with winds of gale violence, sudden squalls, low cloud, dense fogs and drizzling rain or driven snow for days on end." Quoted in Cameron, Ian: Lost Paradise: The Exploration of the Pacific, Topsfield Mass., 1987, p. 169.
33. Malaspina, Alejandro: Viaje politico-cientifico alrededor del mundo por las corbetas Descubierta y Atrevida al mando de los capitanes de Navio D. Alejandro Malaspina y D. José Bustamante y Guerra desde 1789 a 1794, edited by Pedro Novo y Colson, Madrid, 1885 [hereinafter cited as Viaje], p.1-35. Note comment on the "stages of society" in the Discurso Preliminar, p. 39.
34. For a detailed analysis of Spanish-Native relations see Archer, Christon: "Seduction before Sovereignty: Spanish efforts to manipulate the natives in their claims to the Northwest Coast," a paper presented to the Vancouver Conference on Exploration and Discovery, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, April 1992 and published in Fisher, Robin and Johnston, Hugh: From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver, 1993, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, pp. 127-159.
38. See Tovell, Freeman: "The Career of Bodega y Quadra: a summation of the Spanish contribution to the heritage of the Northwest Coast," in Inglis, Robin ed.: Spain and the North Pacific Coast, Vancouver, 1992, p. 175.
53. Journal of Tomás de Suria of his Voyage with Malaspina to the Northwest Coast of America in 1791, translated by Henry Raup Wagner in 1936. New edition edited with an Introduction by Donald C. Cutter, 1980, Fairfield, Washington, pp. 42 and 51.
Updated: June 13, 2018