Julius Caesar and the Ten Little Injuns

Racism shows up in every level of a society, but I was surprised to find it stated explicitly in an old illustrated child's edition of Mother Goose which I have had around for years unread. I don't know if you know the stanzas of "Ten Little Injuns", so let me quote the specific ones which jarred my eye:

Eight little Injuns never heard of heaven
One kicked the bucket and then there were seven
Six little Injuns kicking all alive
One broke his neck and then there were five

Two little Injuns fooling with a gun
One shot the other and then there was one

One little Injun living all alone,
He got married and then there were none

These "accidents" must have seemed to someone humorous somehow, grisly as they are, but the last entry is doubly strange: Getting married was apparently enough the kill off the last survivor, and then (the wished-for point of it all) the little Native Americans were all gone. Was is that once married, he couldn't find a job, went to drink, the usual infant mortality and hence no family line?. The one part of this story that is omitted is that they didn't all die by their own accidental mischance, they were hunted and shot, condemned to poverty, and gradually ground down into the earth. One way or another, we know this now as "genocide". But imagine all this in a genial, nicely illustrated book for little children.?

I bring this up for a specific purpose. Julius Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic Wars", a remarkable piece of military writing from the first century B.C., chronicled the domination of the advanced but still Neolithic Gaulish tribes by the well organized and efficient Roman Legions. Skirmish and war after war, Caesar always wins, even against a resolute and clever adversary like Orgetorix or Vercingetorix, the Sitting Bull of the American campaigns. Clearly "Civilized Man" must win out. Caesar was not taught in European schools, but the Commentaries were introduced as the prime Latin text in America by l730.. There is the lesson drummed into every schoolboy from l730 on, who did his Latin in American one-room school houses. These boys became the soldiers, the officers and the politicians who waged the Indian Wars of the Colonial Period, which were extended for economic and territorial reasons up to the very end of the l9th century.

We try very hard to see the bright side of the ancient world as enlightening, humane and a model for modern thinking. But there is a dark side to it which cannot be ignored. Athenian prosperity started with the slaves in the silver mines of Laurium, it fostered forced trade arrangements which brought in heavy taxes from the whole Aegean world. The Romans showed us a world in which slaves did the work, they were the working backbone of a prosperous society, and we took that as advice to develop the slave trade from Africa. Furthermore, Caesar's triumph over the indigenous peoples of Gaul gave us a clear idea of how to treat the Native Americans, and the Classics enforced this message in every classroom throughout the country where Latin was taught ---- incidentally as political propaganda.

My case rests! I would invite Classicists with a conscience, and especially any with Native American background, to undertake a serious study of this long-buried use of the Classical interface. A group with ability to pursue this thread with philological diligence on the Latin side, and outline in sociological detail this peculiar phase of a twisted message from the remote past used in an unholy mode, would be of great use for our general awareness of Man's in-humanity to his fellow man.

In the months after this was aired, I had many comments, and would like to add two new pieces of information:

   A gentleman from Germany has sent me stanzas from a song common there for years, which uses the same song as we have here, but with the motive "Ten Little Niggers" (negerlein), although he says the word has a slightly less pejorative meaning in German. This would seem to have been the original wording of the song.

    Another correspondent informed me that the detective writer Agatha Christie, who had in her stories numerous anti-negro and anti-Jewish references, wanted to call one of her stories "Ten Little Niggers", but the publishers thought this would influence sales seriously. So she changed it to "Ten Little Indians" as a compromise, expecting less criticism with that title. But even that was suspect, so the book finally came out with the less pointed title "And Then There Were None". Apparently it didn't matter to her if the victims were black or red, so long as she could retain the notion of "genocide". (None of this seem to have ever affected her sales...)

We need a serious study on the Propagandistic Effects of the Classics on American culture and history. Along with literature and some high art, we seem to have inherited from the Ancient World a penchant for tolerating Slavery and for systematically wiping out native populations. This seem all the more tragic since it is done under the umbrella of high Classical culture, literature and art.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College