The Noble Savage

When we study about North American aboriginals we seldom, if ever, stop to explore the tremendous impact these Indians, as they were called, had on the European imagination.

The first extended contact of the Mi’kmaq with European nations was with the Basque, English and French fishermen, beginning in the 15th Century – maybe even earlier. The most significant relationship was with the French in Acadia, and was one of quiet exploitation combined with religious conversion. Things did not get unpleasant until the mid-1750s, just before the Deportation, when a priest, the Abbé LeLoutre, caused a great deal of trouble, incited violence as a threat and perhaps actively caused funds required to build Fort Beausejour to be diverted to his own ends. The English viewed the savages, as they called them, in a different way. It was not good enough to exploit them and their lands, but they had to be civilised and Christianised, or gotten rid of. Some of the English, who were products of the European Enlightenment, brought with them however, an aesthetic attitude that saw the aboriginals, in what they perceived to be their innocence, as similar to man before he had been corrupted by the vices of modern European society.

By the time exploration of North America had begun in earnest, the Renaissance – the rebirth of the art and literature of the Ancient World – was in full swing. Literature, architecture, painting, city planning, music and sculpture all changed in very dramatic ways. Buildings of all kinds, even humble ones, had decoration and elements that imitated Roman temple architecture. Perhaps, most powerfully, the aesthetic of human beauty was completely reformed based on the Greek and Roman statues that were being excavated and displayed in Italy, especially Rome, the former centre of power. Physical beauty was judged in relation to Classical models, especially those that suggested a movement about to take place, and a spiral twist in the body associated with that movement called contrapposto. It is true that highly realistic portraits, influenced by Northern realism such as one found in Flanders in the 1400s, were produced in great numbers, and celebrated the individuality of the model. But over all this, especially in full-length painted portraits and sculptures, was overlaid the Classical contrapposto: a step about to be taken, a gesture about to be made, and a turn of the head that suggested focussed attention.

Would you be surprised to learn that these artistic conventions would apply to the representation of Mi’kmaq from Acadia?

Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, Jacques, Encyclopédie des voyages, contenant l’abrégé historique des moeurs, usages, habitudes domestiques … de tous les peuples; et la collection complette de leurs habillemens civils, militaires, religieux et dignitaires, dessinés d’après nature, gravés avec soin et coloriés à l’aquarelle, Deroy, Paris, 1796.

After printing became established and the great age of exploration began, there was an ever-increasing demand for illustrated books showing the newly discovered lands and the people who lived there. This illustration is from one such book. This 1796 encyclopedia copperplate engraving has all the earmarks of Renaissance posture. The Mi’kmaq is about to stride forward, his body turned to the left, and his head to the right. Let me show you the origin of this famous pose.

As in all these representations of people from far away lands, the accuracy of the detail portrayed was not of the highest importance, rather they had to meet European expectations and the sometime confused accounts and sketches of the early explorers.

In the early 1500s a statue of Apollo was excavated near Rome and soon found it way into the Papal collection at the Vatican. Its fame spread and casts of it found their way into a number of European royal collections so that it became known to connoisseurs. Its fame spread so that by the Eighteenth Century the figure and its pose were seen as the epitome of human perfection. Artists, consciously and unconsciously, used it in their depictions of important male figures, whether clothed or unclothed. The great American artist, Benjamin West, visited Rome in 1760 as part of his Grand Tour. Condescending artists and officials, to show up his colonial ignorance, arranged to surprise him with a view of the statue. His reaction was to exclaim, “My God! How like it is to a young Mohawk warrior! (Haskell and Penney, p 150.)” West won hearts and minds with this perceptive remark because, at the time, experts were arguing whether or not this represented Apollo the Hunter. The argument was solved, and the statue continued to inspire artists for many years. That is why, 36 later, the artist who drew the above image to be engraved based its pose on the Apollo of the Belvedere. (The Belvedere is a sheltered part of the Vatican gardens.)

Leochares (attributed), The Apollo of the Belvedere, possibly Hadrianic, c. 120 – 140 AD, Cortile del Belvedere, The Vatican.


The term Noble Savage was first coined by the English poet John Dryden in 1672 when he used it to describe man in his newly created state. This image of a wild man was soon sentimentalised in the Eighteenth Century as representing somebody essentially good and upright, uncorrupted by the evils of European civilisation. He was seen as a “natural” gentleman, full of the best creation could offer. As Europeans become more and more aware of the “savages” of the New World who lived such a natural, unaffected life, the concept of the Noble Savage began to appear. This was strengthened by the appearance at European courts of aboriginals who had been kidnapped or persuaded to come to Europe by various explorers. They were so completely different in every way that endless fantasies about their essential natures were constructed and discussed. The reality of their lives and culture was of far less importance than imposed speculation.

And thus, it came to pass that the Noble Savage was represented in the pose of Apollo the Hunter. In the collage below I show you another image of what was presumably a Mi’kmaq seen through the European imagination in Apollonian contrapposto, and as well, I show you a portrait of Admiral Keppel, the winner of Lot 4 in the great lottery held after Samuel Holland’s survey of the Island of Saint John in 1765. Although wearing his splendid uniform, he is very Apollo-like in his posture.


The Story of Omai

The idea of the Noble Savage took hold of the European imagination to an astonishing degree. When Captain Cook was exploring the Pacific Ocean, he hired a young native of Tahiti called Omai as a sort of pilot because he was sensitive to the geography of the vast Pacific spaces. He persuaded him to come to England and there he was given the reception of a celebrity. The greatest portrait artist of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds who had painted his great friend Admiral Keppel just a few years before, got to work and produced this amazing image of Omai.

Sir Joshua Reynolds – Portrait of Omai, a South Sea Islander who travelled to England with the Second Expedition of Captain Cook, 1776. On loan to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Reynolds, or somebody, dressed him up in a sort of Roman toga and put a loose turban on his head to give him a flavour of the exotic but also the nobilitas of the Noble Savage. The pose is taken from the Apollo. Thus, Omai appeared before the public eye in a completely anachronistic get-up and prints of this painting could not be produced fast enough to sell to a greedy public. (I must confess to desperately wanting to buy one of those prints before I die…)

Nearly ten years after the Omai sensation, the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote two long stanzas or sections about Omai in a very long poem indeed called The Task. I attach some deeply moving lines from Cowper to the image. In the narrative Omai has now returned home and, as one might expect in those times, has not died of European syphilis. Cowper wonders, after Omai’s happy reunion with his family back in the Pacific, if just for a moment, he regrets having left the perfection of European civilisation…

Thee, gentle savage! whom no love of thee
Or thine, but curiosity perhaps,
Or else vain glory, prompted us to draw
Forth from thy native bow’rs, to show thee here
With what superior skill we can abuse
The gifts of Providence, and squander life.
The dream is past; and thou hast found again
Thy cocoas and bananas, palms and yams,
And homestall thatch’d with leaves. But hast thou found
Their former charms? And, having seen our state,
Our palaces, our ladies, and our pomp
Of equipage, our gardens, and our sports,
And heard our music; are thy simple friends,
Thy simple fair, and all thy plain delights,
As dear to thee as once? And have thy joys
Lost nothing by comparison with ours?
Rude as thou art, (for we return’d thee rude
And ignorant, except of outward show) ⁠
I cannot think thee yet so dull of heart
And spiritless, as never to regret
Sweets tasted here, and left as soon as known.
Methinks I see thee straying on the beach,
And asking of the surge that bathes thy foot
If ever it has wash’d our distant shore.

(The Task, from Book I, 1785.)

I can never read this without wanting to cry, at the image it conjures, and at the arrogance of the European Enlightenment that so fascinates me.


The Ultimate Canadian Noble Savage

For us in Canada, the most splendid and moving of all the Noble Savages occupies the left foreground of Benjamin West’s painting, The Death of Wolfe. At this crucial moment in Canadian history, the very moment when France lost its possessions in North America to the English and sealed the fate of the aboriginals forever, it is a Noble Savage who sits and ponders death and the future. Classically perfect in every way, does he see a future where, in spite of wordy treaties, he and his people, indeed all aboriginals, will lose forever the land they occupied for so many thousands of years?


Barbarians and Savages

At the same time the concept of Noble Savage was being developed and talked about, Europeans everywhere were concerned with land and its use. More and more the attitude developed in poor areas of Europe that any land not under cultivation could be taken by those who desired to make productive use of it. This was particularly the case in Ireland. That was the mentality the Europeans, especially the British, took to the New World and which was always hidden away in the various treaties that were made from time to time with the savages. In effect, there was moral and legal justification to take over and cultivate what the natives ignored in their primitive farming practices (Thomas pp. 158 ff.).

There was, among many English intellects of the era of colonisation, an ever-increasing tendency to compare the aboriginals to the ancient barbarians subdued into order and discipline by the spread of the Roman Empire. Instead of living aimless lives in the wilderness the barbarians were absorbed into an orderly productive system that was seen as the result of civilisation. They became civil  – a loaded word and thus belonged to a highly organised and central system of governance. The Savages of America quickly became equated with barbarians and from there it was only a short step to justify the necessity of conquest, and even the possibility of extirpation if they proved to be too recalcitrant. This sentiment is elegantly yet powerfully expressed in this 1712 speech from a play written by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) called Cato and based on events at the end of the Roman Republic during the rise of Julius Caesar.

A Roman Soul is bent on higher Views:
To civilize the rude unpolish’d World,
And lay it under the Restraint of Laws;
To make Man mild and sociable to Man;
To cultivate the wild licentious Savage
With Wisdom, Discipline, and lib’ral Arts;
Th’ Embellishments of Life: Virtues like these,
Make Human Nature shine, reform the Soul,
And break our fierce Barbarians into Men.
(Act I, Scene 4)

It was a case of Nature imitating Art.



Addison, Joseph, Cato: A tragedy. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, by Her Majesty’s servants, 1712.

Connaughton, Richard, Omai: The Prince Who Never Was, Timewell Press Limited, London, 2005.

Cowper, William, The Task, Book I, 1785.

Denys, Nicolas, Concerning the ways of the Indians: Their Customs, Dress, Methods Of Hunting And Fishing and their Amusements [1672], The Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, 1979.

Haskell, Francis and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, Yale University press, New Haven, 1981.

Hoffman, Bernard Gilbert, The Historical Ethnography of the Micmac of the Sixteenth And Seventeenth Centuries, PhD Thesis, University of California, 1955. PDF of typescript from the Library of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada. Scanned June 2012.

Thomas, Keith, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Mass., 2018.