Troy Bickham

Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Troy Bickham, Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 314 pp. ISBN: 0-19-928696-5 (hardback). £65 (UK), $125 (USA).


Reviewed by Kevin Hutchings, University of Northern British Columbia (reviewed online, July, 2009)


In Savages within the Empire, Troy Bickham does not set out to write a history of American Indians in the eighteenth century. His concern, rather, is to examine contemporary British representations of Indians as they were disseminated in such diverse venues as museum and art exhibitions, the periodical press, travel accounts, captivity narratives, sermons, speeches, and political correspondence. In the process, he not only demonstrates that ‘American Indians loomed larger in the eighteenth-century British imagination than any other non-Europeans’ (3), he also sheds helpful light on the ways in which British perceptions of Indians were shaped by, and informed, the discourses and practices of empire. Among other things, Savages within the Empire is remarkable for its revisionist engagement with ‘new frontier history,’ a mode of historiography that ‘compels us to consider borders in cultural, rather than merely geographical, terms’ (7). But rather than focusing on the North American continent, as most practitioners of new frontier history have done, Bickham demonstrates the extent to which an intercultural ‘middle ground sometimes extended beyond America’s shorelines’ (8), and he documents the ways in which this transatlantic middle ground affected the development of British imperial culture. Ultimately, it was Native Americans’ military power, and not any sense of their exotic otherness, that ‘placed them at the front of the British imagination’ in the three decades that followed the outbreak of the Seven Years War (16).

Chapter 1 commences with an account of ‘live engagements’ between English people and American Indians, including a spirited discussion of the 1710 visit to England by those Mohawk headmen known in the contemporary popular imagination as ‘The Four Indian Kings.’ The English public’s nearly total lack of cultural understanding during this visit is made apparent by the various instances of confusion that Bickham documents, including the fact that the Mohawk ambassadors were thought to be Indians of the East rather than Indigenous North Americans. But by the time of the famous Cherokee embassy of 1762, British views had undergone a sea change: attempting to avoid the misperceptions of the past, commentators now strove to provide—and the public increasingly demanded—‘the most accurate descriptions of the Indians possible’ (31). This new, quasi-scientific desire to encounter ‘authentic’ representations of American Indians is made apparent in Bickham’s analysis of such popular exhibitions of material culture as ‘Mrs Salmon’s Waxwork in Fleet Street’ (32) and the newly established British Museum, both of which ‘offered sustained opportunities to engage with Indians’ (34); and later in the chapter a similar spirit of empirical inquiry is shown to inform the histories and travel accounts of the period. Emphasizing the ‘pedagogical intentions’ of late eighteenth-century exhibits and textual portrayals, Chapter 1 ultimately demonstrates the extent to which such representations provided not knowledge of Indigenous cultures per se but ‘a material-culture reinforcement for British presumptions about American Indian cultural inferiority’ (50). One of the chapter’s most important insights involves an analysis of the circulation of contemporary travel texts, which were not as widely read as modern commentators have often assumed, but which became influential due to the publication of selected extracts in the periodical press and the use of travel accounts as source materials by the Scottish Enlightenment’s conjectural historians.

In Chapter 2, the discussion shifts to the newspaper and periodical press, paying particular attention to accounts of Indian warfare during and after the Seven Years War. These printed discussions were, Bickham notes, primarily pragmatic and politically self-interested, focusing on Indians as they affected the assertion and maintenance of British military and economic hegemony in North America (67–8). Analyzing available circulation and readership figures, the chapter begins by chronicling the rise of an independent press and the increasingly influential role it played as ‘the nation’s pedagogue’ (67) in the formation and dissemination of cultural ideas. Because the public was eager to devour news of North American military events and their political implications, wartime reporting provided a skewed image of Indians focused on martial practices and related stories of sensationalistic violence. Once again, the common notion that the British public felt a sense of humane sympathy for Native Americans does not stand up to Bickham’s critical scrutiny: ‘Sympathetic descriptions or favourable commentary were not sought, and at times they appear to have been consciously avoided’ (82). In order to set the historical record straight, the author cautions, we must appreciate the extent to which modern-day historical and literary scholarship has exaggerated the importance of the ‘noble savage’ paradigm by focusing too closely on a narrow range of novels and travel accounts whose sympathetic primitivist portraits were by no means representative of popular British attitudes to American Indians.

The idea of a humanitarian mode of eighteenth-century colonialism is further challenged in the book’s third chapter, which focuses on British responses to Native Americans during the Seven Years War. Such military events as Braddock’s defeat (1755), the Cherokee War (1759–61), and Pontiac’s War (1763–5) greatly humbled the British governing elite by demonstrating for the first time that Indians ‘represented a formidable threat to British interests in North America’ (115). Believing that the practices of American colonists and traders were responsible for the poor state of Indian relations, Britain attempted to shore up its North American hegemony by assuming ‘a more permanent authority over Indian affairs.’ As Bickham argues in Chapter 4, the result was ‘a new form of British imperialism, which was directed from the metropolis and claimed sovereignty—and to varying degrees presided—over a multitude of ‘primitive’ peoples’ (134). Although this new postwar regime helped in the mainland colonies to stir up tensions leading to the American revolutionary war, ‘the programme for the interior was a great success’ (135) insofar as it helped to prevent costly military conflicts on the frontier by addressing Indian complaints regarding unethical colonial trading practices and unregulated encroachment on Indigenous territories. But British attention to these complaints did ‘not indicate that a compelling sense of moral responsibility towards American Indians shaped British policy’ (137). On the contrary, such policy was, Bickham shows, based primarily on a pragmatic concern to protect and promote British imperial interests by avoiding Indian conflicts that, as the Seven Years War had demonstrated, could pose a grave threat to British hegemony in North America.

The book’s fifth chapter moves from the sphere of imperial policy to that of cultural philosophy, investigating the role that the Scottish Enlightenment played in synthesizing information about Indians ‘into an accessible, intellectual framework for widespread British audiences to digest’ (171). Although this chapter does not significantly revise previous thinking about Scottish socio-economic theories of Indigenous culture, it provides useful information about the Scottish Enlightenment’s central thinkers, the makeup of their readership, and the diverse texts and imperial contexts that informed the production and reception of their ideas. An important emphasis in this chapter is on the fact that the Scottish discourse on Indians ‘was not carried out in an ivory tower’ but was, rather, ‘consciously constructed for consumption by the public, or at least by the middling and higher ranks’ (175). Particular attention is paid to the important role played by the press in the popular dissemination of Scottish notions of Indian culture. Although Bickham questions the modern-day argument that influential concepts of stadial theory and cultural development amounted to ‘any sort of proto-racism in the modern sense’ (197), he observes that Scottish ideas nevertheless helped to support popular contemporary assumptions regarding Indians’ supposed ‘savage inferiority and irredeemability’ (200).

If Scottish philosophizing helped to promote imperialist attitudes in the eighteenth century, so did formal practices of evangelization, the subject of Chapter 6. Here the primary focus is on the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), whose central mission was to ensure that British imperialist enterprise was accompanied by the dissemination of Anglican religious beliefs and practices. Examining the SPG’s ‘Annual Anniversary Sermons’ and the correspondence and actions of its missionaries in America, Bickham acknowledges the powerful devotional impulses that often informed evangelization, but his main concern is to clarify the SPG’s attention to more mundane realities as well; for ‘alongside and often intermingled with this religious devotion was an acute awareness, and indeed blatant celebration, of both the secular benefits of spreading the Anglican brand of Protestantism overseas and its usefulness as a tool to thwart rival European imperial powers’ (212). While documenting the failures of some of the SPG’s evangelical endeavours in America, the chapter also examines its largely successful Mohawk mission, which played an important role in binding the Mohawk people—whose own strategic diplomacy evinced a pragmatic combination of religious and secular interests—as political allies to the British. What is most striking here and elsewhere in the chapter is how closely evangelical rhetoric ‘resemble[d] the pragmatic discussions about Indians in the press and government’ (229), concerned as it was with a civilizing process aimed in part to turn Indians into loyal subjects of the British crown.

In the final chapter of Savages within the Empire, Bickham considers Anglo-Indian relations in the context of the American War of Independence. As in the book’s previous discussions, this chapter emphasizes Britain’s colonial self-interest in its transactions with Indian nations: ‘Essential to recognize is that Britain had little official interest in the plight of its Indian allies,’ a fact made most painfully apparent when Britain made ‘no official effort to secure any sort of terms’ for them in the treaty that concluded the war (246). What is most interesting in this chapter is Bickham’s analysis of the tensions that existed between the views of British officials, who saw Indians as potentially important allies against rebellious American colonists, and the perceptions of the British public, which expressed the strongest antipathy towards the use of Indian warriors to fight against, or to terrorize, rebelling American colonists who were nevertheless recognized as fellow British subjects. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Bickham engages productively with press accounts in order ‘to recapture and assess the public discussion that raged in Britain’ during the period, noting that the War of Independence was ‘the first event in which the government’s handling of a controversial conflict of national importance was fully aired before an eager audience’ (254). In its general coverage of the war, and in its response to particular events such as General John Burgoyne’s infamous surrender at Saratoga, the press helped to ‘demonstrate the overwhelming lack of regard the [British] public had for the Indians themselves’ (270).

Exploding the common notion that the British public and its leading thinkers were often motivated by a sense of admiration and humanitarian sympathy for Indian people, Savages within the Empire everywhere reveals Britain’s ‘ruthlessly pragmatic’ approach to Anglo-Indian affairs, an approach ‘whose single aim was to preserve the interests of the British empire’ (15). In emphasizing this hard-headed, political self-interestedness, Bickham’s book offers an important corrective to modes of literary and historical scholarship that have often placed undue emphasis upon the ‘noble savage’ paradigm and its ostensibly benevolent informing impulses. Informed by the nuanced analysis of a broad array of primary sources and a productive engagement with secondary source materials, Savages within the Empire is an insightful and well-written book. I recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in understanding the role that representations of American Indians played in the shaping of British politics and popular culture during the eighteenth century.


© Symbiosis, 2009