This article was originally published in Home School Digest, Volume 18, Number 3. At the time it was published, around seven years ago, several publishers and distributors were actively marketing Henty’s books to homeschooling parents as safe, educational books for their children, written from a Christian worldview. When this article came out, it caused so much of a stir that I’m still asked about it frequently. So it seems as though there’s enough enduring interest that I may as well post it here. The article started as a much-longer 15-page document, edited down to this length to fit in a magazine format. This is the full version, now available for the first time; the published, condensed is here.
Several years ago, I read a catalog review that described G.A. Henty’s books as being written from a strong Christian worldview. Since I had noticed several passages of concern during casual reading, this caught my attention and prompted a systematic examination of his books.
In this article, I primarily discuss his children’s novels to see how they align with a Biblical worldview. He wrote several books for adults, which I also cite where pertinent. All of the books discussed are readily available today; most are available for free on Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org.
G.A. Henty believed that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God and are all part of the same religion.
In The Dash for Khartoum, the hero is captured by a sheik. The sheik is so pleased with his industriousness that he decides to see if the hero wants to convert to Islam so that he could adopt him. Before this transpires, the sheik’s wife speaks to the hero. She says: “You do not believe in Allah, Muley, you are a Kaffir.”
“I beg your pardon,” the hero responds, “we and you worship the same God. We call him God, and you call him Allah; but it is the same. Your prophet acknowledges Moses and Christ to be prophets. The only difference between us is that you believe that Mohammed was also a prophet, and the greatest of all, while we do not acknowledge that, but in other respects there is no great difference between us.”
In another book, With Kitchener in the Soudan, the hero discovers an account written by his late father. In a conversation between the father and a Muslim, Henty puts the following ecumenical sentiments into the father’s mouth: “We Christians feel no enmity against the followers of Mahomet—the hatred is all on your side. And yet, ‘tis strange, the Allah that you worship and the God of the Christians is one and the same. Mahomet himself had no enmity against the Christians, and regarded our Christ as a great prophet like himself.” (The Christians who chose death when Mohammed’s armies offered them the choice of death or conversion might dispute the “no enmity” claim.)
In a third book, Under Drake’s Flag, Henty interjects this ecumenical statement while discussing the Spanish Inquisition: “Nowadays we believe—at least, all right-minded men believe—that there is good in all creeds, and that it would be rash indeed to condemn men who act up to the best of their lights, even though those lights may not be our own.”
Henty put similar sentiments into the mouth of a character in A Search for a Secret, who says: “In my opinion, the sect to which a man belongs makes but little difference, if he does but do his best according to his belief.”
In another novel, Orange and Green, one of Henty’s characters stated that she did not feel “so sure as our ministers, that ours is the only path to heaven.” She added: “We believe firmly that it is the best path, but others believe as firmly in their paths; and I cannot think…that all mankind, save those who are within the fold of our church, can be condemned by the good Lord to perdition.”
Another character in the same story stated: “What a funny thing it is, to be sure, that people should quarrel about their religion! After all, we believe all the same important things; and as to others, what does it matter, provided we all do our best in the way that seems right to us?”
A third character said: “I am not one of those who think that there is but one way to heaven.”
A fourth character, when describing the beliefs of his grandfather and other Protestants who served under Cromwell, stated: “I would infinitely rather be a Mohammedan than hold such a faith as theirs.”
Henty’s ecumenicalism led to his acceptance of several religious practices that are incompatible with Biblical Christianity.
Masquerading as gods
In Under Drake’s Flag, four English boys, captured by South Seas natives, realize that they are to be made into pagan gods. The following discussion ensues:
“The boys could hardly help laughing at their strange position, surrounded by these hideous idols.
“‘You wanted an adventure, Ruben, and you have got one indeed,’ Ned [the main character] said. ‘You are translated into a heathen god, and, if you ever get home, will have your story to tell, which will astonish the quiet firesides in Devonshire.’
“‘Ought we not to refuse this horrid worship?’ Gerald said.
“‘I think not,’ Ned replied. ‘It can do no harm, and we are at least better than those wooden idols. So long at least as we are taken for gods we are safe. But I would not say as much if they once became convinced, by our actions, that we are men like themselves.’
“‘But we cannot sit here all our lives among these idols,’ Reuben said.
“‘I agree with you there, Reuben; but patience does wonders, and I am not troubled in the least about ourselves. Sooner or later a way of escape will present itself, and when it does, be assured that we will use it. Patience is all that we require now. It is of our poor shipmates that I am thinking.’”
So the boys accepted the proffered sacrifices of “fruit, fish, and other eatables,” and nearly choked on the smoke of a perfumed wood, which they believed to be the native equivalent to incense. They served as figureheads for the native canoes, and, “stripping off their upper garments, to the intense admiration of the natives, they themselves applied paint in rings, zigzags, and other forms to their white shirts, painted a large saucer-like circle round the eyes with vermilion, so as to give themselves something of the appearance of the great idols, and having thus transmogrified themselves, each gravely took his place on his perch, where, leaning back against the prow behind them, they were by no means uncomfortable.”
Henty also used European alternatives to Christianity as a part of the plots of several stories. In At Agincourt: A Tale of the White Hoods of Paris, one of the chief characters in the story is an astrologer. The story’s hero is a page defending his master’s wife and children, who are hostages in Paris. In Paris, he meets an astrologer who tells his fortune. Some of Henty’s 19th-century skepticism about the supernatural shows when it is revealed that the astrologer knew about the hero through non-astrological means, and that he would usually find background information on new clients before telling their fortune. However, the astrologer’s claim to be able to foretell the future through the stars is left unchallenged.
The astrologer plays a key role in the story, helping the hero rescue his master’s wife and children. At the end of the story, the hero marries the astrologer’s daughter. Before the marriage, the astrologer tells his daughter, “I had cast your horoscope and his, and found that you would both be married about the same time, though I could not say it would be to each other.” He then relates how he had purposely placed his daughter in places where she came into contact with the hero, and concludes, “Matters have turned out according to my expectation.”
The story concludes with the astrologer taking upon himself the education of his grandchildren, and with him decorating the hero’s castle with the fortune he earned from astrology.
Several of G.A. Henty’s novels involve what he calls “second sight,” the ability to foretell the future through dreams. From the way these dreams are described, the accurate predictions are probably either coincidental or Satanic. In The Tiger of Mysore, for example, the hero devotes several years to finding his father, who was captured by Tippoo Saib, because his mother believed he was alive. His mother explained her confidence in these words:
“Why should I have such a confidence if it were not well founded? In my dreams I always see him alive, and I believe firmly that I dream of him so often because he is thinking of me. When he was at sea, several times I felt disturbed and anxious, though without any reason for doing so, and each time, on his return, I found, when we compared dates, that his ship was battling with a tempest at the time I was so troubled about him. I remember that the first time this happened he laughed at me; but when, upon two other occasions, it turned out so, he said, ‘There are things we do not understand, Margaret. You know that in Scotland there are many who believe in second sight, as it is called, and that there are families there, and they say in Ireland also, where a sort of warning is given of the death of a member of the family. We sailors are a superstitious people, and believe in things that landsmen laugh at. It does not seem to me impossible that when two people love each other dearly, as we do, one may feel when the other is in danger, or may be conscious of his death. It may be said that such things seldom happen; but that is no proof that they never do so, for some people may be more sensitive to such feelings or impressions than others, and you may be one of them. There is one thing, Margaret: the fact that you have somehow felt when I was in trouble, should cheer you when I am away, for if mere danger should so affect you, surely you will know should death befall me; and as long as you do not feel that, you may be sure that I shall return safe and sound to you.’ Now, I believe that firmly. I was once troubled—so troubled, that for two or three days I was ill—and so convinced was I that something had happened to Jack, and yet that he was not dead, that when, nigh two years afterwards, Ben came home, and I learned that it was on the day of the wreck of his ship that I had so suffered, I was not in the least surprised. Since then I have more than once had the same feelings, and have always been sure that at the time Jack was in special danger; but I have never once felt that he was dead, never once thought so, and am as certain that he is still alive as if I saw him sitting in the chair opposite to me, for I firmly believe that, did he die, I should see his spirit, or that, at any rate, I should know for certain that he had gone. So what ever you say, though reason may be altogether on your side, it will not shake my confidence one bit. I know that Jack is alive, and I believe firmly, although of this I am not absolutely sure, that he will some day be restored to me.”
Later in the book, while the hero was conducting the search, he was in a grove with a group of men who appeared to be traders. The hero had a “feeling of uneasiness” that they were Thugs. He prepared for an attack; when attacked, he had his hand on his pistol and shot his assailant. He said to his friend afterward: “I felt as if cold water was running down my back, and that some one was whispering to me, ‘Be on your guard, be on your guard!’ Therefore, the moment something passed before my face I threw myself back and fired at the man without a moment’s thought as to what it was.”
He added: “I feel thankful indeed that I had such a strange feeling that these men were dangerous. Do you know, Surajah, it seems to me that it was just the same sort of feeling that my mother tells me she has, whenever my father is in danger, and I shall be curious to know when we get back whether she had the same feeling about me. Anyhow, I shall in future have even more confidence that she would have certainly known if any evil had happened to my father.”
After rescuing his father, the hero returned home. His uncle told him: “I am truly glad to see you back, Dick, for your mother has been in a sad state of anxiety about you. Eight days ago she started up from a nap she was taking in the middle of the day, and burst out crying, saying that she was certain you were in some terrible danger, though whether you were killed or not she could not say. Since then she has been in a bad state; she has scarcely closed an eye, and has spent her whole time in walking restlessly up and down.”
Later, after the hero told another character about his brush with Thugs, and about how he felt as though he had been warned of the danger, the character said: “It must have been your mother who warned you. She told us that she dreamt you were in some terrible danger, though she could not remember what it was, and she tried with all her might to warn you.”
Henty closes the incident with a statement from the hero to his mother: “I have been [in terrible danger], but thank God I escaped, owing, I think, to the warning Annie says you tried to give me.”
Statements such as “thank God” cause some to portray Henty’s novels as coming from a Christian worldview. However, time and again, these Christian elements are found mixed with elements of superstition, the occult, astrology, and other practices of concern to Christians.
Similar instances of second sight occur in other Henty novels. In this novel, The Tiger of Mysore, it forms an integral part of the plot, and is introduced and discussed without the slightest warning or caution.
The Curse of Carne’s Hold is a novel about a family with hereditary insanity. The “curse” was laid upon their family by one of the family’s ancestors, a Spanish woman who was insane and cursed her descendants and their house. In the story, siblings Reginald and Margaret Carne are the current generation of Carnes. The main character is Ronald Mervyn, their cousin; his mother was a Carne.
Early in the story, Margaret Carne is murdered in her sleep. (Some parents would find Henty’s description of the murder scene objectionable.) Ronald Mervyn is suspected and accused of the murder. He was tried and acquitted, because there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
Ronald Mervyn leaves England to go to South Africa until his name is cleared. He falls in love with a young lady whom he rescued from captivity and death; the young lady and her father go to England to try to clear Mervyn’s name. While they are there, Reginald Carne sets the Carne house on fire and fatally injures himself. Before dying, he confesses to killing his sister, setting the house on fire, and fatally injuring himself to break the curse of Carne’s Hold.
Henty put this deathbed confession in Carne’s mouth: “They let Ronald off, and he will not come back again, and I don’t suppose will ever marry; so there is an end of the curse as far as he’s concerned. Then I waited a bit, but the devil was always at my elbow, telling me to finish the good work, and last night I did it. I put the candle to the curtains in all the rooms down-stairs, and stood and watched them blaze up until it got too hot to stay any longer. It was a grand sight, and I could hear the Spanish woman laughing and shouting. She has had her way with us for a long time, but now it’s all over; the Curse of the Carnes is played out.”
Carne addressed his dying words to his Spanish ancestor: “I tell you it’s all over, witch; you have done us harm enough, but I have beaten you. It was you against me, and I have won. There is nothing more for you to do here, and you can go to your place, Carne’s Hold is down and the curse is broken.”
In The Lost Heir, the main character, a young lady, disguises herself as a gypsy fortune-teller. Chapters 3 and 4 are devoted to the account of her fortune-telling at a fair. At the end of the story, she married one of the men whose fortunes she told; Henty states, “Hilda never had any reason to regret that she had played the part of a gypsy woman at Lady Moulton’s fête.”
Rujub the Juggler
In Rujub the Juggler, the main character, Ralph Bathurst, saves the life of the daughter of Rujub the Juggler. The resultant friendship between Rujub and Bathurst is the framework within which Henty builds his story of life as an Englishman in colonial India.
Rujub the Juggler is portrayed as believing in reincarnation. Henty puts these words into his mouth in explanation for why he will not divulge his juggler’s secrets: “Were one to do so he would be slain without mercy, and his fate in the next world would be terrible; forever and forever his soul would pass through the bodies of the foulest and lowest creatures, and there would be no forgiveness for him.”
In gratitude for how Bathurst saves his daughter, Rujub gives a light show with a lamp and accurately predicts a sepoy (native Indian soldier) rebellion. He also uses this lamp to depict a future scene in which Bathurst and two other characters escape from the rebellion disguised as natives. Both of these predictions are fulfilled later in the book.
As the story progresses, Henty leaves no doubt that Rujub is in communication with supernatural powers (demons). At one point in the book, Rujub states: “It is seldom that we show our powers now. Those who aid us, and whose servants we are, are not to be insulted by the powers they bestow upon us being used for the amusement of men who believe in nothing.”
Rujub goes into a more detailed explanation of his powers when Bathurst asks him to call up a picture of what will happen in the future. Rujub says: “I cannot do that, sahib; I do not know what would appear on the smoke, and were I to try, misfortune would surely come upon me. When a picture of the past is shown on the smoke, it is not a past I know of, but which one of those present knows. I cannot always say which among them may know it; it is always a scene that has made a strong impression on the mind, but more than that I do not know. As to those of the future, I know even less; it is the work of the power of the air, whose name I whisper to myself when I pour out the incense, and to whom I pray. It is seldom that I show these pictures; he gets angry if called upon too often. I never do it unless I feel that he is propitious.”
Bathurst replies, “It is beyond me altogether, Rujub; I can understand your power of sending messages, and of your daughter seeing at a distance. I have heard of such things at home; they are called mesmerism and clairvoyance. It is an obscure art; but that some men do possess the power of influencing others at a distance seems to be undoubted, still it is certainly never carried to such perfection as I see it in your case.”
“It could not be,” Rujub said; “white men eat too much, and it needs long fasting and mortification to fit a man to become a mystic; the spirit gains power as the body weakens. The Feringhees can make arms that shoot long distances, and carriages that travel faster than the fastest horse, and great ships and machines. They can do many great and useful things, but they cannot do the things that have been done for thousands of years in the East. They are tied too fast to the earth to have aught to do with the spirits that dwell in the air. A learned Brahmin, who had studied your holy books, told me that your Great Teacher said that if you had faith you could move mountains. We could well-nigh do that if it were of use to mankind; but were we to do so merely to show our power, we should be struck dead. It is wrong even to tell you these things; I must say no more.”
Henty uses these supernatural powers as a main part of the plot. At one point, Rujub warns Bathurst of approaching danger through supernatural methods. Bathurst is quoted as telling his companions: “There is an apprehension of danger weighing over me that I can’t account for. As you say, everything seems going well, and yet I feel that it is not so. I am afraid I am getting superstitious, but I feel as if Rujub knows of some danger impending, and that he is somehow conveying that impression to me. I know that there is nothing to be done, and that we are doing the only thing that we can do, unless we were to land and try and make our way down on foot, which would be sheer madness. That the man can in some way, impress my mind at a distance is evident from that summons he gave me to meet him at the ruins of the bungalow, but I do not feel the same clear distinct perception of his wishes now as I did then. Perhaps he himself is not aware of the particulars of the danger that threatens, or, knowing them, he can see no way to escape out of them. It may be that at night, when everything is quiet, one’s mind is more open to such impression than it is when we are surrounded by other people and have other things to think of, but I feel an actual consciousness of danger.”
Shortly afterwards, the boat is attacked. Most of the party are killed, but Bathurst escapes. Once out of harm’s way, he hears Rujub supernaturally communicating to him. He heard the words “Wait till I come.” Henty said:
“He seemed to hear the words plainly, just as he had heard Rujub’s summons before.
“‘That’s it; it is Rujub. How is it that he can make me hear in this way? I am sure that it was his voice. Anyhow, I will wait. It shows he is thinking of me, and I am sure he will help me. I know well enough I could do nothing by myself.”
The next morning, Rujub comes. The following conversation ensues:
“Thanks be to the holy ones that you have escaped, sahib,” Rujub said, as soon as he came within speaking distance of Bathurst. “I was in an agony last night. I was with you in thought, and saw the boats approaching the ambuscade. I saw you leap over and swim to shore. I saw you fall, and I cried out. For a moment I thought you were killed. Then I saw you go on and fall again, and saw your friends carry you in. I watched you recover and come on here, and then I willed it that you should wait here till I came for you.”
Rujub explains to Bathurst that he can read his thoughts “as easily when you are away from me as I can when we are together,” that he knew why Bathurst acted the way he did, and that he controlled some of Bathurst’s actions.
Elsewhere in the book, Rujub and his daughter Rabda conduct séances to communicate with Isobel Hannay, the young lady Bathurst marries at the end of the book. The séances are described in minute detail; the actions and the words of the people involved are carefully recorded.
This supernatural demonic activity is central to the book’s plot.
Portrayal of Christians
Several of Henty’s novels contain disparaging portrayals of Christians and Christian activities. In All But Lost, Henty described the daily routine of a boy living in a Christian home in these words:
“He hated the shop, he hated business, he almost hated his father. Heartily did he envy his associates in the shop, who at least, when the day’s work was over, could take their departure and be their own masters until the shutters were taken down in the morning. His drudgery never ceased, for when the shop was closed, his father, a great part of whose daytime was occupied by City business, would sit down with him at the desk and go into the whole accounts of the day’s sales until half-past nine. Then upstairs, where the servants would be summoned, and his father would take his place at the head of the table with a large Bible before him, which he would read and expound in a stern harsh manner, eminently calculated to make the Scriptures altogether hateful to those who heard him. This with prayer lasted for an hour. Then to bed; to begin over again in the morning.”
A similar portrayal, this one portraying Calvinism in a negative light, is found in Won By the Sword: A Tale of the Thirty Years’ War. One character expresses his distaste for Calvinist preachers in these words:
“My father brought me up a Protestant like yourself, and when I was quite young I had a very dreary time of it while he was away, living as I did in the house of a Hugenot pastor. After that I attended the Protestant services in the barracks, for all the officers and almost all the men are Protestants, and, of course, were allowed to have their own services; but the minister, who was a Scotchman, knew better than to make his discourses too lengthy; for if he did, there was a shuffling of jack-boots on the stone floor and a clanking of sabres that warned him that the patience of the soldiers was exhausted. In our own glen my father has told me that the ministers are as long-winded as those of Geneva; but, as he said, soldiers are a restless people, and it is one thing for men who regard the Sunday gathering as the chief event in the week to listen to lengthy discourses, but quite another for soldiers, either in the field or a city like Paris, to do so.”
The characters were going to Geneva. Henty described their view of Geneva’s Calvinism: “The strict Calvinism of Geneva suited neither of them; and after a fortnight’s stay there they went up among the hills, and in the clear brisk air Hector his blood begin to run more rapidly through his veins, and his strength and energy fast returning.”
In another of Henty’s books, his negative portrayal of doctrinally conservative Christians is central to the plot. In Orange and Green: A Tale of the Boyne and Limerick, Henty describes the conflict between an Irish Catholic family who had been landowners and a Protestant family who displaced them. The displaced Catholic family’s members are the main characters in the story. Henty describes the Cromwellian Protestants in these words:
“The followers of Cromwell had no eyes for the beautiful. They were too much in earnest to care aught for the amenities of life, and despised as almost sinful any thing approximating to beauty either in dress, person, or surroundings. The houses that they reared in this land of which they had taken possession were bare to the point of ugliness, and their interior was as cold and hard as was the exterior. Everything was for use, nothing for ornament. Scarce a flower was to be seen in their gardens, and laughter was a sign of levity to be sternly repressed.… The next generation had fallen away from their fathers’ standards. It is not in human nature to stand such a strain as their families had been subjected to. There is an innate yearning for joy and happiness, and even the sternest discipline cannot keep man for ever in the gloomy bonds of fanaticism.”
Henty describes Zephaniah Whitefoot, the patriarch of the Protestant family, as an “old man now, but as hard, as gloomy, and as unloveable as he had been when in his prime.” When describing the other members of the family, Henty shows them one by one rebelling against him. His wife “submitted without murmuring” to her husband until her deathbead, when she told him, “You may say what you like, Zephaniah, but I do think we were meant to have some happiness and pleasure on earth.”
Zephaniah Whitefoot’s son, Jabez Whitefoot, submits to his father at the beginning of the story, and is criticized by his wife for doing so. Jabez’s wife Hannah told him: “If you had told me that, when I became your wife, I was to become the inmate of a dungeon for the rest of my existence, I wouldn’t have had you, not if you had been master of all the broad lands of Leinster.”
Hannah Whitefoot also defies her father-in-law, telling him: “You have had the management of your son, sir, and I will manage mine. I will see that he does not grow up a reprobate or a Papist, but at least he shall grow up a man, and his life shall not be as hateful as mine is if I can help it.” Eventually, Hannah succeeds; Henty comments that “Hannah herself benefited as much as did the child by her rebellion against the authorities.”
Hannah eventually persuades her husband to defy his father. When he does, the following conversation ensues:
“Father,” Jabez said, “for forty-five years I have been a good son to you; but it is time that I took my stand. It seems to me that the principles upon which the soldiers of Cromwell fought were the principles which animated the Israelites of old. Exodus, Judges, and Kings were the groundwork of their religion, not the Gospels. It has gradually been borne upon me that such is not the religion of the New Testament, and while I seek in no way to dispute your right to think as you choose, I say the time has come when I and my wife will act upon our principles.”
“It is written, Honour thy father and thy mother,” Zephaniah said sternly.
“Ay, father, I have honoured you, and I shall honour you to the end; but a man has no right to give up his conscience to his father; for it is written also that a man shall leave father and mother, and wife and home to follow the Lord. I have heard you, father, and the elders of our church, quote abundant texts from Scripture, but never one that I can recall from the New Testament. Hitherto I have been as an Israelite of Joshua’s time, henceforward I hope to be a Christian. I grieve to anger you, father, and for years I have held my peace rather than do so; but the time has come when the spirit within me will no longer permit me to hold my peace. In all worldly matters I am still your obedient son, ready to labour to my utmost to gather up wealth which I do not enjoy, to live a life as hard as that of the poorest tenant on our lands; but, as touching higher matters, I and my wife go our own way.”
Jabez Whitefoot’s wife later congratulates him on this decision. She says: “I thank God for your words, Jabez. Now I am proud of you as I have never been proud before, that you have boldly spoken out for liberty of conscience. I feel like one who has for many years been a slave, but who is at last free.” Henty concluded the scene by stating that though the act of rebellion was a “great trial” to Jabez, “he knew that he was right, and would have done it again if necessary.”
Later in the story, Jabez and Hannah’s son described his grandfather as “crazed with religion and hate,” and adds: “It is awfully sad, Walter, though it is strange, to see such a travesty of religion as the tenets of my grandfather and some of the old men who, like him, represent the views of Cromwell’s soldiers.
“Their religion cannot be called true Christianity. It is the Judaism of the times when the Jews were among the most ignorant of peoples. To me it is most shocking, and I would infinitely rather be a Mohammedan than hold such a faith as theirs. I thank God that my father and mother have shaken off such a yoke, and brought me up according to the teaching of the New Testament rather than that of the Old.”
Missionaries and native Christians
Several of Henty’s volumes contain derogatory references to Christian missionaries and to native Christian converts. In The Curse of Carne’s Hold, the main character describes the Hottentots in these words: “The missionaries made pets of them, and nice pets they turned out. It is just the same thing in India. It’s the very dregs of the people the missionaries always pick up with.” (Setting aside the fact that the statement is more or less true, for the rich rarely respond to the Gospel, the contemptuous tone of the statement is the cause for concern.)
Elsewhere in the same book, native Christians are described in the following words: “Local magistrates and commissioners are scattered about among them, and there have been a lot of schools and missionary stations started. They say that they are having great success. Well, we shall see about that. In the last war the so-called Christian natives were the first to turn against us, and I expect it will be the same here, for it’s just the laziest and worst of the natives who pretend to become Christians.”
In a short story called The Plague Ship, one of Henty’s characters praised a missionary he knew by describing him as “a man of higher class than most of the missionaries I have run against,” denigrating other missionaries by comparison.
A satirical nonfiction work Henty wrote called Those Other Animals contains the following passage concerning Maoris and missionaries: “The Maori has always been regarded as a remarkably fine specimen of a savage, and his liking for ‘missionary’ has never been imputed to him as a grave failing. Man’s likes and dislikes are unfortunately sadly tinged with selfishness. Many men go to sea, and therefore the man-eating propensities of the shark excite in us a feeling of indignation. The proportion of men who went out as missionaries to the Maori was so small as to be altogether inappreciable, and the majority therefore regarded the weakness of the Maori for them from a purely philosophical point of view.”
Evolution, Racism, and Children
Henty firmly believed that the earth evolved millions of years ago. He advanced this view in many of his books and articles.
In an article from The Union Jack, Henty advanced his belief that the earth was at least millions of years old. When providing background on his topic, he stated: “In order that you may understand the subject it is necessary that I should take you back a long time. I do not mean a long time according to our present views of time, but a long time geographically—that is to say, a good many millions of years.”
In A Hidden Foe, an older lady praises a younger man with these words: “It always refreshes me to have a chat with him, which is more than I can say of young men in general. Most of those I meet go vary far to confirm Darwin’s theory about our having an ape among our ancestors.”
In Those Other Animals, in chapters on various animals, Henty made numerous evolutionary statements. In a chapter on the crocodile, Henty referred to “the days when he and his relatives ranged undisputed masters of a swampy universe, undisturbed even by anticipations of changes and cataclysms that should render the world an unsuitable place of habitation for, at any rate, the larger species among them.”
He begins his chapter on the camel by saying: “During the countless ages that must have elapsed in its upward progress from the original germ, by the various processes of survival of the fittest, selection, and adaptability to circumstances, it is clear that the camel kept its eyes strictly to business. The object of the germ and its descendants was to build up an animal that should be capable of enjoying existence in the desert. To this they turned all their attention, with, may it be admitted, marvellous success; but it must be added that, while so doing, they unaccountably neglected the beautiful, and turned out a creature which in point of awkwardness and uncouthness stands completely apart from the rest of the brute creation.”
Henty uses evolutionary time estimates when he refers to the tortoise perhaps “the oldest existing creature on earth.” He adds: “Its congeners, who ranged with it the surface of the earth countless ages before the present race of animals existed, have all passed away, but the tortoise remains almost identical with his far-off ancestors.”
Elsewhere in the book, Henty referred to the “legend” of the Garden of Eden as an explanation for Europeans’ prejudice against the snake; however, he added that this did not account for the similar antipathy of “Orientals and others who are still in ignorance of the legend,” concluding that the prejudice must be a “natural and instinctive antipathy throughout the whole human race.” He evidently did not pause to consider the possibility that the Garden of Eden “legend” was also known to the ancestors of Asians, as Adam and Even were the ancestors of Europeans and Asians alike.
Henty’s belief in evolution led him to conclude that there were several evolutionary stages in the development of humanity co-existing. These beliefs about levels of humanity can be found in several of his books.
In Those Other Animals, while describing the tortoise, he said: “Unfortunately, active tortoises, male or female, were extremely scarce, and the result of ages of indolence has been that the race has remained absolutely without progress, and that no visible improvement has been effected since its first introduction among the inhabitants of the earth. The lesson furnished by it cannot be too earnestly taken to heart, especially as we see the same thing, although in a modified extent, among the lower races of humanity.”
As in this statement, many of Henty’s “lower races of humanity” statements contain not only evolutionary but also racist assumptions. For an intrinsic part of Henty’s beliefs about several levels of humanity was that the Europeans were at the highest level and that Africans, Asians, and Native Americans were at lower ones. (As an aside, this belief, taken to the extreme, also led to Hitler’s Aryan supremacist ideas.)
Henty expressed these levels of humanity views in several of his novels for children.
In By Sheer Pluck, one of the characters says: “The intelligence of an average Negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old. A few, a very few, go beyond this, but these are exceptions, just as Shakespeare was an exception to the ordinary intellect of an Englishman. They are fluent talkers, but their ideas are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power. Living among white men, their imitative faculties enable them to attain a considerable amount of civilization. Left to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery.”
Henty also compared negroes to children in another novel, With Lee in Virginia, where the hero’s father advises his son to “be always kind to your slaves—not over-indulgent, because they are very like children and indulgence spoils them—but be at the same time firm and kind to them[.]”
In At the Point of a Bayonet, Henty describes the natives of the Andaman Islands in these words: “The natives of the Andaman Islands are among the lowest types of humanity known. Their stature does not exceed five feet, and with their slender limbs and large heads their appearance is almost that of a deformed people. They use no clothing whatever, plastering their bodies with clay or mud to protect the skin from the sun’s rays. Animals are scarce on the islands, and the people live chiefly on fish. They carry bows and arrows and heavy spears, to which in most cases are added shields. They inhabit roughly-made arbours, and seldom remain long at any spot, moving about in small communities according to the abundance or scarcity of food. They use no cooking utensils, and simply prepare their food by placing it on burning embers.”
One character referred to them in these words: “I suppose in a day or two we shall have hundreds of them down here. I don’t think they will try to interfere with us as long as we are at work, but they will certainly oppose us if we attempt to enter the forest, and will effectually prevent our wandering about in search of water. We could only go in a strong body, and even then might lose a good many lives from their arrows. Of course we should be able to beat them off, but I should be sorry to have to kill a lot of the poor little beggars. One can hardly blame them for their hostility. Naturally, they want to have the place to themselves, and are just as averse to our landing as our forefathers were to Julius Cæsar and his Romans.”
In A Roving Commission, a story about a slave insurrection in Haiti, Henty concluded the story by saying that the forebodings of the insurrection’s leader “as to the unfitness of the blacks for self-government have been fulfilled to the letter.” Henty added:
Civil wars, insurrections, and massacres have been the rule rather than the exception; the island has been gradually going down in the scale of civilization, and the majority of blacks are as savage, ignorant, and superstitious as their forefathers in Africa. Fetish worship and human sacrifices are carried on in secret, and the fairest island in the western seas lies sunk in the lowest degradation—a proof of the utter incapacity of the negro race to evolve, or even maintain, civilization, without the example and the curb of a white population among them.43
The book concludes with those words.
Incidentally, Henty used his evolutionary beliefs to justify slavery. In A Woman of the Commune, Henty referred to slavery as being the “nature of the negro,” adding that “servitude is his natural position.”
Henty did not limit the application of his views about various levels of humanity to Africans, Asians, and Native Americans; he also applied them to monkeys, comparing them to children. In several of Henty’s books, his characters refer to monkeys as though they were nearly people, thus evincing his evolutionary belief that monkeys were our ancestors.
In By Sheer Pluck, the main character expresses reluctance to shoot monkeys or baboons for food. “‘I don’t like the thought of shooting monkeys,’ Frank muttered, as he took up his Winchester carbine.
After being reassured that the baboons were needed for food, he repeated his sentiments. “‘I’d rather not shoot at them, Mr. Goodenough,’ Frank said.”
After the baboons were killed, skinned, and roasted, the hero ate them, though “it required a great effort on Frank’s part to overcome his repugnance to tasting these creatures.”
In another book, With Cochrane the Dauntless, the hero of the story expresses similar sentiments. In one place, the hero says: “All we want to do is look for food, and the most likely food for us to find is a troop of monkeys among the trees overhanging the river. As a rule, I should not like to shoot the beasts. They are too much like human beings.”
In another place, another character makes a similar statement: “I suppose we had been gone about an hour when we saw a troop of monkeys on the boughs of a tree overhanging the water. They did not seem a bit afraid of us, but chattered and screamed. We shot three of them. I did not fire, for I could not bring myself to kill one of them. It was like shooting at a child.”
Henty did not stop at raising monkeys to an almost human level. In his layout of the world, he ranked children as almost animals. He put these opinions into the mouths of his characters (especially the men). In All But Lost, the hero and his wife have a child. The hero’s wife is disappointed that her husband does not consider the boy a fine baby, but the hero protests that “for his part he can really see no difference between one baby and another—they are all queer little animals, till they begin to look about and know people.”
While other Henty characters do not go so far as to express this belief, several of Henty’s characters express a similar disdain for children under 4-6 years of age. In No Surrender: A Tale of the Rising in La Vendée, the hero was informed that his wife was captured and that his fourteen-month-old son may have been killed. The hero said, “The child is as nothing to me. It would have been some day, but so far ’t is as nothing compared to Patsey [his wife].”
Henty’s heroes rarely have large families; if any families in his books are large, it is customarily the poorest or lowest-class family in the book.
In many of Henty’s novels, at least one character uses objectionable language.
In The Young Franc-Tireurs, one character uses the phrase “I’m bewitched” as an exclamation of surprise. In A Search for a Secret, the main character calls a secondary character a “witch.” In The Lost Heir and in Held Fast for England, characters are quoted as commenting that a ship “sails like a witch.”
Henty used a synonym for “negro” now considered derogatory in a number of his books (though in his defense, it was not then considered as offensive as it is now). The word appears in Held Fast for England, Through the Fray, The Lost Heir, With the British Legion, On the Irrawaddy, With Cochrane the Dauntless (twice), A March to Khartoum (four times), and By Sheer Pluck (about a dozen times).
Another objectionable word appears frequently in Henty’s books when a character (frequently the hero) ruefully refers to himself with an Elizabethan English synonym for “donkey.” This word occurs in Colonel Thorndyke’s Secret (twice), A Woman of the Commune, A March to Khartoum (five times), Through the Fray, Maori and Settler, No Surrender, Rujub the Juggler, and a number of his other books.
Other objectionable words, such as words which in Elizabethan English were synonyms for “condemn” and “of illegitimate birth,” occur occasionally in Henty’s books for children and adults.
It would be impossible to cover every area of concern in each of Henty’s articles within the span of a single article. A few other objectionable plots or scenes do deserve brief mention:
Both Gabriel Allen, M.P. (Member of Parliament) and A Search for a Secret involve characters whose birth is said to be illegitimate. In Gabriel Allen, M.P., the plot centers around the main character’s attempt to discover the circumstances of his birth. Characters use words inappropriate for children (or, for that matter, adults), when disputing the circumstances of his birth.
In a short story called The Plague Ship, Henty described the wife of the missionary as so “wrapt up” in her family “that one could scarcely think what she would be like if she were separated from them.” The characters that Henty portrayed in a favorable light were usually independent characters.
In Facing Death, when the characters plan a fair as an alternative to a yearly fair felt to have a deleterious influence on the community, one of the main characters suggests that “a conjurer” be provided as part of the alternative entertainment.
In Henty’s novel A Woman of the Commune, the heroine holds a feminist position through most of the book. When her father states that women were “meant to be wives and mothers,” she responded: “That is another way of putting it, father, that because women have for ages been treated as inferiors, they ought always to remain so.” In another place, she complains to herself: “We have no rights, because we are content to remain slaves. Here is my life spoilt.” By the end of the story, she changed her mind, married the hero, and decided that she had “no patience whatever with the persons who frequent platforms and talk about women’s rights.” Whether a good ending amends an otherwise objectionable story is a matter of parental discretion.
Some parents may have concern over the romantic scenes in many of Henty’s books. Numerous of Henty’s heroes rescue a young lady in a desperate situation, and marry her at the end of the story. While a few of the heroes seek the heroine’s father’s permission before speaking to the heroine, the hero frequently goes directly to the heroine herself to ask if she will marry him. In some of the novels, the hero seeks the permission of the heroine’s father, but in some of the novels, he defies the father’s wishes and circumvents his authority.
Some of Henty’s novels contain objectionable elements so central to the plot that the book cannot stand without them. Others can be edited so that the story remains after objectionable elements are removed. Henty’s body of work, though flawed, is valuable at points. Should you proceed, proceed with caution.
 Henty, The Dash for Khartoum, chapter 17. For this article, I cited the book and chapter. I omitted the page number since there are many different editions, with no one being both authoritative and consistently available.
 Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, chapter 18.
 Henty, Under Drake’s Flag, chapter 15.
 Henty, A Search for a Secret, chapter 1.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 1. (The omitted word was “Jabez,” the name of the woman’s husband.)
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 2.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 12.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 14.
 Henty, Under Drake’s Flag, chapter 19.
 Henty, Under Drake’s Flag, chapter 19.
 Henty, The Tiger of Mysore, chapter 4.
 Henty, The Tiger of Mysore, chapter 18.
 Henty, The Tiger of Mysore, chapter 20.
 Henty, The Curse of Carne’s Hold, chapter 20.
 Henty, The Curse of Carne’s Hold, chapter 20.
 Henty, The Lost Heir, chapter 26.
 Henty, Rujub the Juggler, chapter 1.
 Henty, Rujub the Juggler, chapter 17.
 Henty, Rujub the Juggler, chapter 21.
 Henty, Rujub the Juggler, chapter 18.
 Henty, Rujub the Juggler, chapter 19.
 Henty, All But Lost, volume, chapter 3.
 Henty, Won By the Sword, chapter 6.
 Henty, Won By the Sword, chapter 6.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 1.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 1.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 5.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 5.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 5.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 14.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 14.
 Henty, The Curse of Carne’s Hold, closing paragraph of chapter 10.
 Henty, The Curse of Carne’s Hold, chapter 8.
 Henty, Those Other Animals, chapter 7.
 Henty, The Union Jack, “An Editor’s Yarns: Among the Gold and Silver Mines,” pages 7980.
 Henty, A Hidden Foe, chapter 8.
 Henty, Those Other Animals, chapter “The Snake.”
 Henty, Those Other Animals, chapter “The Tortoise and the Turtle.”
 Henty, By Sheer Pluck, chapter 8.
 Henty, With Lee in Virginia, chapter 1.
 Henty, At the Point of the Bayonet, chapter 14.
 Henty, At the Point of the Bayonet, chapter 14.
 Henty, A Roving Commission, chapter 19.
 Henty, A Woman of the Commune, chapter 5.
 Henty, By Sheer Pluck, chapter 10.
 Henty, By Sheer Pluck, chapter 10.
 Henty, By Sheer Pluck, chapter 10.
 Henty, With Cochrane the Dauntless, chapter 4
 Henty, With Cochrane the Dauntless, chapter 5
 Henty, All But Lost, volume, chapter 1
 Henty, No Surrender: A Tale of the Rising in La Vendée, chapter 9
 Henty, Facing Death, chapter 18
 Henty, A Woman of the Commune, chapter 1
 Henty, A Woman of the Commune, chapter 13.
 Henty, A Woman of the Commune, chapter 25.