Revisiting the Racism That Inspired One of the World’s Bestselling Crime Novels
The original title of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” is a stark reminder of ‘yesterday’s’ white supremacism.
That original title, as published in 1939, was “Ten Little Niggers.”
This is well known in literary circles, and not news. I do believe the source material for Christie’s most-lauded novel deserves a revisit, however, and I apologize in advance if this article serves as a trigger for some.
Why this? Why now?
Shouldn’t we be healing? Why am I reopening old wounds?
Because if white supremacism goes unchecked from today forward, what was once acceptable may become acceptable again. I’m one of those people who firmly subscribes to philosopher George Santayana’s adage, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
I do not believe in suppression. I believe we need to understand the underpinnings of racism, and not sweep it under the carpet.
“Ten Little Injuns”
“Ten Little Indians” was a children’s rhyme of indeterminate date of origin. The original verse, along with others that have survived from the oral tradition of storyteller to storyteller, from generation to generation, was categorized by the Roud Folk Song Index with a number of 12976.
The verse, as it is best known today, is this:
One little, two little, three little Indians
Four little, five little, six little Indians
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians
Ten little Indian boys.
Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians
Seven little, six little, five little Indians
Four little, three little, two little Indians
One little Indian boy.
In 1868 (estimated), American songwriter Septimus Winner adapted the verse for a song, titling it “Ten Little Injuns.” The song was intended for a minstrel show, a popular form of burlesque at the time featuring primarily white men and women in blackface.
The “Injuns” in this case were Native Americans.
Winner’s verse read as follows:
Ten little Injuns standin’ in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine;
Nine little Injuns swingin’ on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
Refrain: One little, two little, three little, four little, five little Injuns boys,Six little, seven little, eight little, nine little, ten little Injuns boys.
Eight little Injuns gayest under heav’n,
One went to sleep and then there were seven;
Seven little Injuns cutting up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Injuns kickin’ all alive,
One kick’d the bucket and then there were five;
Five little Injuns on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Injuns up on a spree,
One he got fuddled and then there were three;
Three little Injuns out in a canoe,
One tumbled overboard and then there were two.
Two little Injuns foolin’ with a gun,
One shot t’other and then there was one;
One little Injun livin’ all alone,
He got married and then there were none.
(Note: Depending on the performers, the refrain was sung either between all stanzas, or irregularly beginning with the second.)
“Ten Little Niggers”
Though the historical record is not consistent, it is widely considered that British songwriter Frank Green adapted Winner’s song in 1869 with new lyrics of his own. Now entitled “Ten Little Niggers,” the lyrics to the new verse were the following:
Ten little nigger boys went out to dine
One choked his little self, and then there were nine.
Nine little nigger boys sat up very late
One overslept himself, and then there were eight.
Eight little nigger boys traveling in Devon
One said he’d stay there, and then there were seven.
Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks
One chopped himself in half, and then there were six.
Six little nigger boys playing with a hive
A bumble-bee stung one, and then there were five.
Five little nigger boys going in for law
One got in chancery, and then there were four.
Four little nigger boys going out to sea
A red herring swallowed one, and then there were three.
Three little nigger boys walking in the zoo
A big bear hugged one, and then there were two.
Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun
One got frizzled up, and then there was one.
One little nigger boy living all alone
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.
The issue of historical accuracy of both accounts is of question, as some scholars believe the inspiration was the reverse, and that Winner’s words were inspired by Green’s.
Regardless, “Ten Little Niggers” sparked a new minstrel favorite.
Neither Native Americans nor African Americans have been spared any offense in either case.
A Racist Heritage: An Album of Minstrel Shows and “Ten Little Niggers” Merchandising
In identifying images to supplement this article, curiously I found innumerable photos and artist renderings of “Ten Little Niggers” … and barely anything on “Ten Little Injuns.”
My thoughts are Winning’s “Injun” piece, though hugely popular in certain circles, in part did not track as strongly with the minstrel crowd due to Green’s more thematically appealing version to that audience — assuming accuracy of the above timeline — being released so closely behind it.
In a twist, the original “Ten Little Indians” verse predating both songs has survived and is still sung in early school grades nationwide.
Is that acceptable?
Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”
As the years went on the words “Injun” and “Niggers” were largely stricken from the titles of both songs, in favor of “Soldiers,” “Negroes,” “Monkeys,” “Suffragettes,” “Banker-Boys” and more.
Internationally, the songs were further adapted into various languages with the words both replaced and saved.
Agatha Christie preferred Green’s version of the song, as did her native England. Her novel “Ten Little Niggers,” was published in 1939 by The Crime Club.
The plot regarded a series of killings on a remote island near Devon, the author’s hometown. Eight guests have arrived on the island, who are welcomed by a butler and housekeeper. A copy of “Ten Little Niggers” is present in the room of each guest, as well as 10 figurines. The deaths follow the course of the song.
Interestingly, beginning in 1940 publishers worldwide changed the title, first due to accusations of racism to a perceived less racist “Ten Little Indians” outside the U.S., and to “And Then There Were None” in the U.S. It should be noted, though, several countries (Spain, Russia, Germany) continue to use a title that translates to the original “Ten Little Niggers.”
Also, as an aside, 13 films were released to date based on “And Then There Were None.” This number also includes international versions. Two of the films were called “Ten Little Indians” (1965 and 1989) in their non-U.S. releases.
Native Americans, who have had their sacred land stolen from them via a forced migration, had become a villainous pop culture laughingstock during the 19th and 20th centuries. Numerous early cowboys and Indians films, especially, were guilty of such portrayals. Even when I was a child in the 60s and 70s, plastic Indian masks were commonplace.
Speaking of that childhood, I was raised in an area of Brooklyn, New York which at the time was tolerant only in certain circles. Thankfully, I came from a family of acceptance. I learned early how the storied treatment of African Americans had left a permanent scar on this country … to the point where we continue in 2020 to discuss reparations.
Our current political climate is doing no favors for either, as hatred and hate groups are in the midst of a renaissance.
We should not ignore small signs, as they tend to grow. Nor should we easily dismiss encounters with casual racism.
We cannot afford today or ever to return to the acceptable standards of the past.
As a last note, Agatha Christie’s oeuvre has also been accused of “Orientalism,” meaning the racist use of Asian tropes. See here as an example, once again punctuating the points as referenced above.
I do not believe in censorship, or I would not have written this article.
I believe in education.
I hope you have found this article of value, and I would love to hear your thoughts, pro and con.
Thank you for reading.
For an article on related themes which elucidates where I personally stand on these matters, see here:
Wikipedia, IndianCountryToday.com, IMDbPro.com, Indianz.com
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