“Savage” (fl. 1750-1900) is a racist term that has been applied to the native peoples of Ireland, the Americas, Africa, Australia and the Pacific. It pictures them as being like wild animals, as less than fully human. The word comes by way of French from the Latin word silvaticus, said of someone who lives in the woods.
Jefferson used it in the Declaration of Independence (1776) when he said the king:
“has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
By 1800, it had become one of the stages of history:
Roughly speaking, savages hunt, barbarians farm or herd and civilizations write the history books.
Used as a noun as “mere description” by:
- 1598 William Shakespeare
- 1651 William Bradford (Pilgrim Father)
- 1787 Thomas Jefferson (Founding Father)
- 1846 Herman Melville
- 1871 Charles Darwin
- 1899 Joseph Conrad
- 1899 Winston Churchill
- 1900 Harper’s magazine
- 1926 New York Times
- 1959 The Golden Book Encyclopedia
- 1962 C.S. Lewis
- 1962 Marshall McLuhan
- 1974 T.R. Fehrenbach, “Comanches”
It does not appear in the King James translation of the Bible. James Baldwin and St Augustine seem to have no need for such a term either.
There are two main stereotypes about savages:
- Merciless Savage – untouched by the advantages of civilization and therefore cruel, violent, ignorant and immoral.
- Noble Savage – untouched by the disadvantages of civilization and therefore kind, peaceful, wise and moral.
Both stereotypes go back to Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Some 500 years later, both stereotypes are alive and well, as seen in Hollywood’s “Dances With Wolves” (1990). The Merciless Savage underlies the Black “thug” and Muslim “terrorist” stereotypes.
Priests and traders preferred the Noble Savage stereotype: it expanded their customer base.
Settler colonialists preferred the Merciless Savage stereotype: it expanded their land base, by giving them moral cover to wipe out the people whose land they wanted.
Anglos learned the Merciless Savage stereotype from the Spanish and applied it to those they conquered or enslaved:
The timeline of savage geography (when phrases first appeared in English-language books):
- 1561 Irish savages
- 1604 Indian Savages
- 1737 African Savages
- 1824 Australian savages
It has been applied to Indians (Native Americans) way more than anyone else.
“African savages” appears well after Africans had already been made slaves in the English-speaking world. It was part of the racism that gave moral cover to slavery and colonialism. The phrase reached its peak in 1877 and has pretty much been in decline since 1968. The phrases “black savages” and “negro savages” appeared later and were generally less common.
Whites, for the most part, are projecting their own faults onto others. For example, it was not the Taino Indians who were the merciless savages, but Columbus himself, whose known rule of warfare was an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. It was the West that had degenerated from civilization to barbarism to savagery.
– Abagond, 2015.
Note: “Savage” is a moderated word on this blog. For the next ten days it will not be.
- Welcome to Native American Heritage Month 2015
- The term “thug”
- The term “terrorist”
- Views of Native Americans
- human zoos
- tribal nudity
- The whiteness of Laura Ingalls Wilder
- The Golden Book Encyclopedia
- Dances with Wolves
- Chinua Achebe: Africa’s Tarnished Name