May 30, 2009

Charles Dickens on "Esquimaux"

The aftermath of the doomed Franklin expedition is also interesting.

John FranklinIn 1854, explorer Dr. John Rae, while surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson's Bay Company, discovered the true fate of Franklin party from talking to Inuit hunters. He was told both ships had become icebound, the men had tried to reach safety on foot but had succumbed to cold and some had resorted to cannibalism. Rae's report to the Admiralty was leaked to the press, which led to widespread revulsion in Victorian society, enraged Franklin's widow and condemned Rae to ignominy.Dr. Rae and Mr. Dickens1. From Dr. John Rae's Report to the Hudson's Bay Company

From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative--cannibalism--as a means of prolonging existence.

2. Charles Dickens, "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," Household Words, 2 December 1854

Lastly, no man can, with any show of reason, undertake take to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves. It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any race of savages, from the deferential behaviour to the white man when he is strong. The mistake has been made again and again; and the moment the white man has appeared in the new aspect of being weaker than the savage, the savage has changed and sprung upon him. There are pious persons who, in their practice, with strange inconsistency, claim for every child born to civilisation all innate depravity, and for every savage born to the woods and wilds an innate virtue. We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man--lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race, plainly famine-stricken, weak, frozen, helpless, and dying--has of the gentleness of Esquimaux nature.
Comment:  I've read stories of people marooned, shipwrecked, or lost at sea. It's interesting how white Christians will start chomping on each other at the slightest provocation. It must be something in their savage, barbaric nature. Perhaps they become habituated to the idea of eating human flesh from eating the body of Christ, which some do every week.

Also interesting is that Dickens expressed an opinion about Natives--who knew?--and it was so negative. Based on his novels, I would've expected him to be more sympathetic to the poor, huddled masses of indigenous people. But I guess his sympathy extended only to Anglo-Saxons. Note his ugly portrayal of Fagin the Jew.

Dickens wrote frequently about how England's upper classes were covetous, treacherous, and cruel. Yet when it came to the upper-class Franklin vs. the classless Inuit, he guessed the latter might have eaten the former. Upper-class Anglos were bad--they might rob people blind or send them to the poorhouse--but at least they were "civilized." The "Esquimaux" were much worse.

Never mind that the Inuit probably took care of their poor, sick, and elderly much better than any Anglo society would. That the Inuit would've been appalled at Franklin's wasteful wealth and England's grinding poverty. To Dickens, apparently, white skins were good and brown skins were evil.

For more on the subject, see Review of Arctic Passage: Ice Survivor and Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines.

P.S. Thanks to correspondent DMarks for bringing this matter to my attention.

Below:  Children go hungry in Dickens's England--an unthinkable occurrence in Inuit society.

"Please, sir, can we pretend to be Esquimaux so I can have some more?"


dmarks said...

Dan Simmons' novel "Drood" addresses these writings of Dickens. Dickens comes across as some sort of ranting blogger about the subject.

dmarks said...

Also, in regards to: "But I guess his sympathy extended only to Anglo-Saxons. Note his ugly portrayal of Fagin the Jew."

Dickens was taken aback by the accusations of antisemitism over Fagin, and made sure to prominently feature a sympathetic Jewish character in a later novel.

Rob said...

Dickens may have been another example of unconscious racism. As in, "Gee, I thought all Jews were greedy moneylenders and all Esquimaux were savage cannibals. I didn't mean to offend anyone."

Yes, Dickens apparently revised his racist views over time. As did Mark Twain.