When Hank Morgan, the protagonist of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, finds himself stranded in sixth-century Britain, he thinks of himself a new Robinson Crusoe, Christopher Columbus, or Hernando Cortéz. Each of these men (Crusoe is fictional; Columbus and Cortéz are historical) is responsible for imposing his rule on the unsuspecting population of a distant land. As soon as Hank realizes that he’s landed in a less advanced society, his first goal is to rule it. Near the end of the story, he’s even preparing to re-enact and preempt Columbus’s voyage by 700 years with an expedition of his own to “discover” America. Hank displays an imperialist tendency to dehumanize conquered people in his ongoing comparisons of the medieval Britons to irrational, unintelligent animals. Similarly, his ongoing habit of comparing the “savage” and uncivilized Britons to “Comanches” and “white Indians” mirrors the vexed relationship between the Native American tribes in the New World and the European colonizers who ultimately established the United States.
Hank sees the technologies and values that he introduces to medieval Britain—soap, the telephone, the telegraph, trains, gunpowder, and the factories that make these things—as unmitigated goods. But the story suggests that the colonizer’s story is more complicated and less triumphant than Hank makes it out to be. Cleaning the bodies of the gentry doesn’t change their political values; despite superior communication technology, the Church still manages to strand Hank in France while the kingdom falls into civil war; and, in the end, Hank’s ability to command the total annihilation of life is also his undoing. His belief in the superiority of his own beliefs blinds him to the good and noble in the medieval world, like King Arthur’s noble gentleness. By failing to see the value in these beliefs, the colonizer—Hank—underestimates how deeply committed people are to them. The dangers that imperialism poses to the colonizer are subtle. But Hank’s failure to see the humanity of his newly minted modern citizens leads to his own annihilation. The village locals turn on Hank when he tries to prove the superiority of his economic theories and unwittingly oversteps and insults them. And after he unleashes a previously unimaginable amount of destruction on the ranks of English chivalry with gatling guns and land mines, Hank finds himself trapped behind a wall made up of his enemies’ rotting bodies. Believing in his own superiority, Hank ensnares himself in his own trap, belatedly learning that that the danger in trying to conquer others is at least as great as the perceived rewards.
Imperialism Quotes in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
I was not the only prisoner present […]. Poor devils, many of them were maimed, hacked, carved, in a frightful way; and their hair, their faces, their clothing, were caked with black […] blood. They were suffering sharp physical pain […] and weariness, and hunger and thirst, no doubt; and at least none had given them the comfort of a wash, or even the poor charity of a lotion for their wounds; yet you never heard them utter a moan or a groan, or saw them show any sign of restlessness, or any disposition to complain. The thought was forced upon me: “The rascals—they have served other people so in their day; it being their own turn, now, they were not expecting any better treatment than this; so their philosophical bearing is not an outcome of mental training, intellectual fortitude, reasoning; it is mere animal training; they are white Indians.”
[…] many of the terms used in the most matter-of-fact way by this great assemblage of first ladies and gentlemen in the country would have made a Comanche blush. Indelicacy is too mild a term to convey the idea. However, I had read “Tom Jones” and “Roderick Ransom,” and other books of that kind, and knew that the highest and first ladies and gentlemen in England had remained little or no cleaner in their talk, and in the morals and conduct which such talk implies, clear up to a hundred years ago; in fact clear into our own nineteenth century—in which century, broadly speaking, the earliest samples of the real lady and real gentleman discoverable in English history—or in European history, for that matter—may be said to have made their appearance.
I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good or restore it, shall rest with you. These are the terms, to wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions, and receive all the glories and honors that belong to the kingship; but you shall appoint me your perpetual minister and executive, and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed in creating for the state. If I can’t live on that, I shan’t ask anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?
There were no books, pens, paper, or ink, and no glass in the openings they believed to be windows. It is a little thing—glass is—until it is absent, then it becomes a big thing. But perhaps the worst of all was, that there wasn’t any sugar, coffee, tea, or tobacco. I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did—invent, contrive, create, reorganize things; set brain and hand to work, and keep them busy. Well, that was in my line.
Oh, it was no use to waste sense on her. Training—training is everything; training is all there is to a person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training. We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they are transmitted to us, trained into us. All that is original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle, all the rest being atoms contributed by, and inherited from, a procession of ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the Adam-clam or grasshopper or monkey from whom our race has been so tediously and ostentatiously and unprofitably developed.
The newest prisoner’s crime was a mere remark which he had made. He said he believed that men were about all alike, and one man as good as another, barring clothes. He said he believed that if you were to strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he couldn’t tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotel clerk. Apparently here was a man whose brains had not been reduced to an ineffectual mush by idiotic training. I set him loose and sent him off to the Factory.
Early in the afternoon we overtook another procession of pilgrims; but in this one there was no merriment, no jokes, no laughter, no playful ways, nor any happy giddiness, whether of youth or of age. Yet both were here […] Even the children were smileless; there was not a face among all these half a hundred people but was cast down and bore that set expression of hopelessness which is red of long and hard trials and old acquaintance with despair. They were slaves.
Expedition No. 3 will start adout the first of mext █ month █ on a search f8r Sir Sagramour le Desirous. It is in command of the renowned Knight of the Red Lawns, assisted by Sir Persant of Inde, who is compete9t, intelligent, courteous, and in every ʍay a brick, and further assisted by Sir Palamides the Saracen, who is no huckleberry himself. This is no pic-nic, these boys mean busine&s.
So the world thought there was a vast matter at stake here, and the world was right, but it was not the one they had in their minds. No, a far vaster one was upon the cast of this die: the life of knight-errantry. I was a champion, it was true, but not the champion of the frivolous black arts, I was the champion of hard unsentimental common sense and reason. I was entering the lists to either destroy knight-errantry or be its victim.
The worship of royalty being founded in unreason, these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so, because it would presently be noticed that they hanged nobody, beheaded nobody, imprisoned nobody, inflicted no cruelties or injustices of any sort, and so must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it. The eyes of the whole harried world would soon be fixed upon this humane and gentle system, and royal butchers would presently begin to disappear; their subjects would fill the vacancies with catlings from our own royal house; we should become a factory; we should supply the thrones of the world; within forty years all Europe would be governed by cats, wand we should furnish the cats. The reign of universal peace would begin then, to end no more forever…M-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow—fzt—wow!