I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
The Conquest of Granada
From the time of Tacitus (c 98 CE), who was describing the conquered peoples of Germania under the rule of the Roman Empire, writers and philosophers have admired indigenous peoples and used the stock character of a “noble savage” in essays and fictional stories to condemn the writers’ contemporaneous society, a society found corrupt, effete, and otherwise morally flawed. As one uncorrupted by civilization, the indigenous person, portrayed virtually always as a male, was an “outsider” who was assumed to be “innately good.” Thus the term “noble savage” came to represent an ideal merely because the indigenous person was untainted by civilization.
Clearly, at the time the term originally appeared, “savage” did not have the negative connotations that it later acquired during the Industrial Age, when advancing technology caused imperial societies to look down upon and pity the “uneducated” and otherwise “uncivilized” indigenous peoples, the “savages” whose land and resources the white societies wished to plunder. Writers using the stock character of the Noble Savage were assuming that anyone who represented civilization — themselves excepted, of course — was corrupt and wholly “evil,” while any native was “innately good,” without any negative traits whatsoever. For these writers and the readers who liked their works, it was assumed that the Noble Savage had no negative traits until he himself was corrupted by his contact with said imperialistic society.
In FX’s new show, Taboo, produced and co-written by star Tom Hardy, the Noble Savage is James Delaney (Hardy), a British citizen returned from a long absence in Africa, to claim his inheritance after his father’s death. Despite the fact that James was born in England to a somewhat affluent father, and despite the fact that James was born a privileged white male, James has clearly been considered more “savage” than civilized from birth, if only because his mother was a Native whom Old Man Delaney brought back from North America as his wife. From the beginning of the show, James has been set up as the “outsider,” the “Other,” and the “Noble Savage.”
Taboo is about the return of the repressed, but also the suppressed, with Delaney serving as a vessel for social commentary about the species-wide violence and corruption wrought by imperialism, racism, and capitalism… Delaney’s travels and missions brought him in contact with the genocide against Native Americans and the horrors of the international slave trade; his back is inscribed with tattoos from his time in Africa, and he’s haunted by ghostly visions… (Vulture)
James Delaney is “the other” because he is part Native American, but he is also an “outsider” because he opposes the institutions and countries which represent imperialism, conquest, and subjugation. He does not abide by civilization’s morality, hence his love for his sister, Zilpha. Though cunning and dangerous to his “civilized” opponents, the “savage” in this drama seems to have a streak of morality and nobility that virtually everyone around him lacks. Those character traits make him, symbolically, a Noble Savage, though he is not a stock character by any means.
Opposing the Nobel Savage, attempting to steal his inheritance (Nootka), and representing the corrupt and powerful British imperialist civilization are frustrated and foul-mouthed Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), Director of the The East India Co,
and the corpulent and grotesque English Prince Regent (Mark Gatiss).
The British and Americans are both viciously competing for the island and for Nootka Sound, and this trade war is historically accurate. Why Britain and the newly independent American colonies want Nootka has not yet been made clear in Taboo, but after the East India attempted to kill James, he made out a will leaving Nootka to the Americans in the event of his death, causing Sir Stuart to observe that “the savage boy” — not man — “is cunning, too.”
In episode 3, James claimed to be willing to part with Nootka for trade monopolies. James told each side that he wanted a different trade monopoly, however. He apparently intends for his corrupt and imperialistic opponents to battle each other instead of him. What could be more “noble” than enticing two imperialistic powers into baiting and warring each other, rather than stealing from the “outsider”?
James Delaney is clearly not the villain of this tale, though almost everyone in the show believes James to be morally contemptible. His brother-in-law Geary (Jefferson Hall) said that James had been on a slave ship which sank, implying that James was a slave trader, but it seems more likely that James himself was sold into slavery.
After he broke into his dead mother’s locked room, James painted his hands with her makeup,
then meditated on her, causing her to appear, once again, in visions.
These visions haunt James frequently, and most often involve his mother. The visions further reinforce James as the “outsider” because he can see things that others do not. After the vision in his mother’s room, he tore off the boards from her fireplace and found this symbol,
which he showed devoted family servant Brace, saying that the same symbol in the fireplace was the same as the one carved on James’ upper back “after I was taken prisoner in Africa.”
Brace (David Hayman) did not seem to see the symbol in the fireplace, leading us to question the nature of James’ visions, but the servant certainly saw the mark on James’ back, asking him, “What does it mean?”
If James was taken prisoner, then he may have been sold into slavery, and that would make him one of the captured and imprisoned slaves, not a slave trader. James is covered in tattoos, symbolizing his “savage” nature, but he doesn’t know what this symbol on his back represents. That means he didn’t have it put there himself, and that it may have been put there against his will. There is a very good chance that James was a slave.
Old Man Delaney could have sold his own son into slavery. That would explain James’ mother’s “madness,” which would then be grief over the loss of her son. Called “mad,” the mother was not allowed to speak to anyone outside the house, and eventually she was not only locked in her room, but was physically restrained. What was everyone so afraid James’ mother might reveal? The incest with his sister? That his own father sold him into slavery?
If the father sold his son into slavery, Old Man Delaney may have believed he had good reason to do so. James might have been sold into slavery to hide the fact that he and his sister Zilpha had an incestuous sexual relationship. It might have been to hide the fact that the two had a child together. If the child from episode 1 is, in fact, the offspring of James and his sister, then their father could have sent James away to protect the daughter from losing her marriage prospects, to protect the family from shame and ostracism, and to punish James since he, as the male, would have been considered the seducer.
Whether James was sent to Africa by his father and then imprisoned (i.e., sold into slavery), or merely sent away to serve in The East India (and later imprisoned in Africa), James would have been separated from his sister Zilpha, something a “civilized” man like Old Man Delaney would have wished. Separated, though, James could not have taken care of his own child.
If the child is James’.
Isn’t there a possibility that the child is the offspring of Old Man Delaney? Zilpha is constantly referred to as Jame’s half-sister, which means that Delaney had relations with at least two women, yet two wives are not mentioned. Since it appears that Zilpha returns James’ love and passion, she was obviously a consensual partner in their sexual relations. But she may have been the victim of incest on her father’s part, and this could have happened before or after he discovered his children’s love and passion for each other. Since James loves his sister, he would have been outraged that their own father impregnated her, and his outrage (and fear of violent retribution) could have caused Father Delaney to get rid of his sons, by selling the older one into slavery, and by farming the younger one out to a caretaker.
If the child is, in fact, the offspring of Old Man Delaney’s, then James is more moral than his father, something that fits the image of the Noble Savage. In episode 1, the man taking care of the child told James that he had never been paid for the child’s upkeep. James was sent away, so he could not have supported a son. Because Old Man Delaney remained in England, where he ran a shipping company affluent enough to have its own ships, docks, offices, etc, Old Delaney could have supported his son/grandson. He didn’t. Instead, it was James who gave the caretaker enough money to make up for the decade of care, as well as for the rest of the boy’s life.
Family servant Brace told James in the premiere that Old Man Delaney used to stand on the banks of the river, shouting things to his absent son. James answered that he knew because he heard his father. This is another indication that James is more in touch with the supernatural world than other “civilized” men are. Was Old Man Delaney apologizing for separating the young sibling-lovers? Was the old man apologizing for selling James into slavery? Was the old man grief-stricken for sending James away to serve in The East India — under Sir Stuart — after James’ passion and love for his sister Zilpha was discovered?
Or was Old Man Delaney warning James in absentia, that Sir Stuart had forced the Old Man to be complicit in James’ slavery and imprisonment?
There’s a very good possibility that Sir Stuart himself could have sold James into slavery, despite his pretense, in episode 1, that he couldn’t “remember” James Delaney. In episode 1, James warned Sir Stuart, “I do know the evil that you do, because I was once part of it.” On the surface, that could mean that James participated in the violence against indigenous peoples. It could also mean that James was the victim of East India’s violence, and the “you” in the evil that you do could have meant East India collectively as well as Sir Stuart personally.
Though we don’t yet know why Sir Stuart would have harmed James in the past, we’ve already learned that Sir Stuart will murder James, albeit through a proxy, in order to get Nootka Sound. Atticus (Stephen Graham) told James that Zilpha’s husband Thorne Geary tried to put a contract on Old Man Delaney. Geary could have done this on his own, to sell Nootka Sound after his wife inherited it, or he could have been doing it on the behest of The East India, who was negotiating with Geary for the land even before Old Man Delaney died. Both Thorne and Sir Stuart want James dead, though the end result of his death would be the same no matter who causes his death: The East India would get Nootka Sound.
There are other, stronger indications that Sir Stuart himself did something very bad to James, however. When the King’s Man, Sir Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) was debating Nootka with Strange, Sir Stuart began to discuss James, telling Coop that James’ refusal to sell Nootka was not about money.
Sir Stuart: You do realize this whole business is about revenge, don’t you?
Coop: And why would James Delaney hate The East India so?
Sir Stuart: (no reply)
Coop: What the hell did you do to him, Stuart?
The Director of The East India, Sir Stuart, is going to be even more of a villain than expected. He not only represents the omnipotent East India Trading Company, as well as the acquisitive and militaristic England, but, on a personal level, he seems to have done something horrific to James Delaney. Did Sir Stuart sell James into slavery? If so, why?
Of course, it’s not yet clear that James was, in fact, sold into slavery, but he is obviously not the villain of Taboo, despite his incestuous relations with his sister. James is not the “savage” that others consider him: so far, we have seen him threaten people, but only do violence when he is defending his own life or protecting someone else. He is protective of children, including the boy farmed out to strangers, and Winter, the supposed mulatto child of the Madame Helga, the child which some reviewers regard as a possible ghost. James told Winter that it wasn’t safe for her to stay in the basement of his father’s house. She ostensibly comes to warn him of danger, but he is the one protecting her (and not accepting the “spoils” of the silver tooth of the assassin).
James is also protective of women, even if their interests are directly in conflict with his. James allowed his father’s widow, Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) to remain in the house with him. He also followed her to the theatre — she refused to cancel her performance — and saved her after she was kidnapped. James offered her a diamond to go to Paris because she’s a “weakness” in his plans.
Of course, it’s James’ protective feelings toward women that is the “weakness” in his plans, but James may not realize this himself.
In fact, James protects anyone whom he perceives to be weaker than he himself is, even if he happens to be blackmailing the person for information on The East India. When James learns that Secretary Godfrey (Edward Hogg) of East India spends his nights as a “female” whore, James slaps him, then blackmails him into becoming a spy.
James: You’re not going to get caught because I will protect you.
Godfrey: You know at the seminary I was in love with you. Of course, you do.
The two have a history together, making Godfrey yet another child whom James protects, both in the past and in the present, despite that child-now-a-man’s being in the employ of James’ enemy, The East India. It’s this protection of women, children, and vulnerable men that strengthens James’ role as the Noble Savage.
James loves his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and writes her many letters, urging her to come away with him, most likely to a place where their love for each other will not be condemned, since James has “sailed to places where there is no damnation.” Though Zilpha tells him that it is dangerous for him to keep writing to her, she answers his letters, increasing her own peril. She even writes him to tell him she will no longer write him, and James threatens “to come to [her] at her home.” Zilpha goes to a church, where James is waiting in the otherwise deserted sanctuary. Based on James’ comments and Zilpha’s behavior, she is the powerful one in this couple.
James: You summoned me. I am here. What do you want?
Zilpha: I used to think we were the same person.
James: We are.
Zilpha: We’re not.
Zilpha leaves her pew, goes to James, hikes up her skirts, straddles his lap, and kisses him most passionately. Afterward — as James related she did when they were younger — she straightened her skirts and walked away without looking back. For not wanting to see James or to hear from him, Zilpha is doing some extremely perilous things, especially since her husband Geary now knows about the sexual relationship between the siblings.
Geary revealed this knowledge in several taunts to James, and, later, in an angry confrontation with Zilpha at dinner. If James protects Lorna Bow, his father’s widow, whom he does not care for, there can be little doubt that James will protect the only woman he has ever loved, his sister Zilpha, even if it is from her legal husband.
James Delaney is “the other” in Taboo because he is part Native American, but he is also “the other” because he opposes the institutions and countries which represent imperialism, conquest, and subjugation. He is intimately familiar with slavery not, I suspect, as a Slaver but, rather, as a slave himself. James is the “savage boy” — not “man” — who does not live by society’s civilized rules and morality, hence his love for, and sexual relations with, his sister, Zilpha. Though cunning and dangerous to his “civilized” opponents, James, the Noble Savage in this drama, protects women and children, no matter if they are competing with him for his inheritance (Lorna), his father’s property (Madame Helga), or if they are “ghosts” (Winter ?). His ability to commune with the dead (his mother, Winter) makes James an outsider to the logical, scientific world of the Industrial Age.
James Delaney is clearly intended as the Noble Savage in Taboo, though he is no stock character. Instead, this anti-hero is clearly going to become the hero of this drama.
Whether or not the drama becomes a tragedy or a metaphorical return to the Garden of Eden remains to be seen.
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