The original title of the book was neither And Then There Were None nor Ten Little Indians but Ten Little N_____s. This title apparently seemed inoffensive to Agatha Christie as it was an allusion to a well-known Victorian minstrel show song.
"In England . . . there was no mention of bias or racism in any reviews [of Ten Little N_____s], which thought the title a mere reflection of the nursery rhyme on which it was based" (Hack, Duchess of Death [Beverly Hills, CA: Phoenix Books, 2009], 158).
Minstrel shows were a form of stage entertainment in which white actors would don "black face" and parody black speech patterns and singing styles for comic effect. The racism inherent in such entertainment was often lost upon white audiences.
The song "Ten Little N_____s," described as a "nursery rhyme" on page 30 of the book, was written by Frank Green with music by Mark Mason. It was published in 1869. Green wrote the song for a tenor with the Christy Minstrels. The song became very popular with children.
The lyrics were adapted from the American song Ten Little Indians by Septimus Winner, who also wrote 'Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?' (1864)
When the original title of the song and book gave offense (especially to American audiences), both were changed to "Ten Little Indians." (For further discussion, see the third Bookmark for page 14.)
An interesting side note: "Christie biographer Gwen Robyns points out that during a 1966 English revival of the play [based on the novel], an organized protest by a civil rights group resulted in the title of the play, during that run, at least, being changed to And Then There Were None, apparently with Christie's permission" (Sanders and Lovallo, 183).
In The New Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie (Riley and McAllister [New York: Ungar, 1989]), author Pam McAllister gently takes Christie to task for her use of the term. "Perhaps Christie . . . thought n_____s to be an innocent word but the etymology doesn't let [her] off the hook. . . . About 1825, . . . American abolitionists and blacks objected to the word, claiming that it was a derogatory slang reference to people of the Negro race. Since the American Civil War, n____r has been considered a contemptuous word. . . . Certainly the word is considered offensive in the twentieth century, and so it is somewhat surprising that the questionable term was not only not buried on a back page of Christie's story, but put up front where it counts, on the cover" (144).
Fortunately, the use of the word in the book is completely gratuitous, and the plot is not harmed in any way by carefully eliminating it.