How the Barbarians Became Noble Savages: The Changing Image of Native Americans in European Cartography


The European attitude towards the Other largely depended on the images and descriptions available to them. Images on grand, impressive maps were intended for intellectuals, who were interested in, not only geography, but also anthropology and ecology. These subjects were once a single discipline, studying both the Earth and its inhabitants. Through maps and atlases, the upper and developing middle classes (or “middling sort”) could explore the world and experience new people, even if they were fictional experiences, derived from biased descriptions. Appealing to European intellectuals, maps of the Americas incorporated descriptions and images of native people, flora and fauna. Although the European image of Native Americans varied between the mid-sixteenth and late-eighteenth centuries, they were all used as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign, to encourage colonial support and reinforce European dominance. Native Americans were generally referred to as either barbarians or savages, depending on their relationship to a particular colonial power. The Enlightenment thinker, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu, distinguished barbarians from savages in his piece, The Spirit of the Laws; “one difference between savage peoples and barbarian peoples is that the former are small scattered nations which, for certain particular reasons, cannot unite, whereas barbarians are ordinarily small nations that can unite together.” The maps in this exhibit had no practical purpose. Rather, they were intended to support western ideology, ethnocentrism and colonial expansion, thus aiding in the fall of the indigenous peoples of America.

Although the title of this exhibition suggests that the European image of Native Americans changed only once from barbarians to noble savages, in reality it was not so simple. The first depictions of indigenous Americans were barbaric. Then, the Enlightenment thinkers pushed the idea of the Noble Savage – the natural vision of man not yet corrupted by civilization. But then the technological advancements of the modern era reverted the Native image back to the primitive barbarian. It was not until the last century that the idea of the Noble Savage came back as a representation of the Back-To-The-Land movement, still persisting in contemporary western culture.