July 20, 1585
'A People of Tractable Conversation': A Reappraisal of Davis's Contribution to Arctic Scholarship
English Explorer John Davis sails to Greenland and discovers the Inuit for the first time, noticing they were "very tractable people", however, he didn't record their eating habits.
Yet, on reading their reports, one cannot fail to be struck by the explorers’ relatively unprejudiced tone as they describe the natives’ mutual solicitude or even their fundamental honesty. It is true that Davis sometimes seems to contradict himself: commenting on the Inuit’s apparent passion for iron – which caused them to steal the ship’s anchor – Davis felt bound to denounce their ‘vile nature’. But both Davis and Janes display a genuine interest in the Arctic people they interacted with. Failing to find a new maritime route to China, Davis appears to have turned part of his attention to the Inuit instead. The Inuit often take pride of place and it looks as if the description of their mores had been substituted for the traditional list of profitable ‘commodities’ that can be found in so many travel narratives. This is all the more remarkable as the quest for a Northwest or Northeast maritime route to China partly originated in the English merchants’ desire to remedy their financial woes after the cloth trade with Antwerp and the Low Countries had become less profitable. What is more, Davis did not content himself with listing their drinking and eating habits, or ‘the many little images’ and diverse cultural artefacts they produced. Our main contention is that Davis also approached their language with linguistic acuity.
Encountering 'very tractable people': Arctic pre-ethnography
Davis set sail in June 1585 with a total crew of forty-two. He was the captain of a ship called the Sunshine while the other ship, the Moonshine, was under the command of one William Bruton. John Janes was Davis’s supercargo and a member of the Sunshine’s crew. Davis and his men sighted Greenland for the first time on 20 July. He seems to have been far from favourably impressed if one is to judge by the name he chose to give it:
The 20. as we sayled along the coast the fogge brake up, and we discovered the land, which was the most deformed rockie and montainous land that ever we saw ... the shoare beset with yce a league off into the sea, making such yrksome noyse as that it seemed to be the true patterne of desolation, and after the same our Captain named it, The Land of Desolation.
Davis and his men then turned Cape Farewell (Uummannarsuaq) without trying to explore the coast and entered what is now the fjord of Nuuk (Nuup Kangerlua, previously Godthaab Fjord), which Davis named ‘Gilbert Sound’, at latitude 64°11’. It was there that they first encountered a group of Inuit. If the very first contact proved a little baffling and rather disconcerting, Janes tells us that surprise and diffidence rapidly gave way to ‘many signs of friendship’:
The Captain, the Master and I, being got up to the top of an high rock, the people of the countrey having espied us, made a lamentable noise, as we thought, with great outcries and skreechings: we hearing them, thought it had been the howling of wolves ... Whereupon M. Bruton and the Master of his shippe, with others of their company, made great haste towards us, and brought our Musicians with them from our shippe, purposing either by force to rescue us, if need should so require, or with courtesie to allure the people. When they came unto us, we caused our Musicians to play, ourselves dancing, and making many signs of friendship.
It is perhaps significant that the first interaction between the two parties should have taken such a musical form as this scene may be said to set the tone for Davis’s subsequent encounters with the different groups of Inuit he met. On the whole, it seems that concord prevailed over disharmony, though it is important not to oversimplify the necessarily complex and ambivalent feelings that both sides mutually experienced towards the other party. It should also be noted that, from the start, the Inuit’s ‘speech’ and their ‘pronunciation’ aroused Janes’s linguistic curiosity: ‘their pronunciation was very hollow thorow the throat, and their speech such as we could not understand’. If Frobisher’s first contact with the natives gave rise to a display of gymnastic virtuosity on the part of the Inuit, in Davis’s case the first encounter between the explorers and the natives concluded with music, dancing and a scene of rejoicing: ‘one of them came on shoare, to whom we threw our cappes, stockings and gloves, and such other things as then we had about us, playing with our musicke, and making signes of joy, and dauncing’.
In the rest of his narrative, Janes often insists on the feelings of ‘trust’ and ‘familiarity’ that gradually developed between the two groups. On the second day, the English gained the trust of the Inuit by mimicking their attitudes and ‘swearing by the sun after their fashion’: ‘so I shook hands with one of them, and he kissed my hand, and we were very familiar with them. We were in so great credit with them upon this single aquaintance, that we could have anything they had.’ Much like Thomas Harriot who also admired the ingenuity of the native Algonkians, Janes marvelled at the skill of the Inuit. In particular, he showed deep interest in their fine – and warm – sealskin buskins, gloves and hoses, for which he willingly exchanged his much less comfortable clothes, ‘all being commonly sowed and well dressed: so that we were fully perswaded they have divers artificers among them.’ In fact, except for their religion – or lack thereof – Janes did not find anything wrong with them, as can be seen from the following description of the first group he came into contact with: ‘they tooke great care one of another ... They are very tractable people, void of craft or double dealing, and easie to be brought to any civility or good order: but we judge them to be idolaters and to worship the Sunne.’
July 17, 1771
A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772
Hearne explains how the Eskimo are fond of high meat fermenting in seal-skin bags and how they had no preference for his food: "when I first knew them, would not eat any of our provisions, sugar, raisins, figs, or even bread"
When the Esquimaux who reside near Churchill River travel in Winter, it is always from lake to lake, or from river to river, where they have formed magazines of provisions, and heaps of moss for firing. As some of those places are at a considerable distance from each other, and some of the lakes of considerable width, they frequently pitch their tents on the ice, and instead of having a fire, which the severity of the climate so much requires, they cut holes in the ice within their tents, and there sit and angle for fish; if they meet with any success, the fish are eaten alive out of the water; and when they are thirsty, water, their usual beverage, is at hand.
When I first entered into the employment of the Hudson's Bay Company, it was as Mate of one of their sloops which was employed in trading with the Esquimaux: I had therefore frequent opportunities of observing the miserable manner in which those people live. In the course of our trade with them we frequently purchased several seal-skin bags, which we supposed were full of oil; but on opening them have sometimes found great quantities of venison, seals, and sea-horse paws, as well as salmon: and as these were of no use to us, we always returned them to the Indians, who eagerly devoured them, though some of the articles had been perhaps a whole year in that state; and they seemed to exult greatly in having so over-reached us in the way of trade, as to have sometimes one third of their bargain returned.
This method of preserving their food, though it effectually guards it from the external air, and from the flies, does not prevent putrefaction entirely, though it renders its progress very slow. Pure train oil is of such a quality that it never freezes solid in the coldest Winters; a happy circumstance for those people, who are condemned to live in the most rigorous climate without the assistance of fire. While these magazines last, they have nothing more to do when hunger assails them, but to open one of the bags, take out a side of venison, a few seals, sea-horse paws, or some half-rotten salmon, and without any preparation, sit down and make a meal; and the lake or river by which they pitch their tent, affords them water, which is their constant drink. Besides the extraordinary food already mentioned, they have several other dishes equally disgusting to an European palate; I will only mention one, as it was more frequently part of their repast when I visited their tents, than any other, except fish. The dish I allude to, is made of the raw liver of a deer, cut in small pieces of about an inch square, and mixed up with the contents of the stomach of the same animal; and the farther digestion has taken place, the better it is suited to their taste. It is impossible to describe or conceive the pleasure they seem to enjoy when eating such unaccountable food: nay, I have even seen them eat whole handfuls of maggots that were produced in meat by fly-blows; and it is their constant custom, when their noses bleed by any accident, to lick their blood into their mouths, and swallow it. Indeed, if we consider the inhospitable part of the globe they are destined to inhabit, and the great distresses to which they are frequently driven by hunger in consequence of it, we shall no longer be surprized at finding they can relish any thing in common with the meanest of the animal creation, but rather admire the wisdom and kindness of Providence in forming the palates and powers of all creatures in such a manner as is best adapted to the food, climate, and every other circumstance which may be incident to their respective situations.
It is no less true, that these people, when I first knew them, would not eat any of our provisions, sugar, raisins, figs, or even bread; for though some of them would put a bit of it into their mouths, they soon spit it out again with evident marks of dislike; so that they had no greater relish for our food than we had for theirs. At present, however, they will eat any part of our provisions, either fresh or salted; and some of them will drink a draft of porter, or a little brandy and water; and they are now so far civilized, and attached to the English, that I am persuaded any of the Company's servants who could habituate themselves to their diet and manner of life, might now live as secure under their protection, as under that of any of the tribes of Indians who border on Hudson's Bay.
They live in a state of perfect freedom; no one apparently claiming the superiority over, or acknowledging the least subordination to another, except what is due from children to their parents, or such of their kin as take care of them when they are young and incapable of providing for themselves. There is, however, reason to think that, when grown up to manhood, they pay some attention to the advice of the old men, on account of their experience.
January 1, 1833
Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean
Richard King also finds emerging evidence of cancer in westernized native populations.
Following up Back, let us turn to his colleague Richard King's Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean in 1833-35 ... (2 vols., London, 1836). We fail to learn anything pertinent about cancer on Lake Superior; but the expected Lake Athabaska reference turns up on page 108 of the first volume:
“... I proceeded (from Fort Chipewyan) to the woods with my gun and vasculum in search of specimens of botany and natural history; in which employment, and in administering relief to the sick people at the fort, my time was entirely engaged. Amongst those who daily came for medical advice was a half-breed woman with her upper lip in a highly cancerous state. It was a case wherein a surgical operation was absolutely necessary, to which the poor woman readily submitted. She bore it with much fortitude, fully justifying the character imputed to these people.”
June 1, 1833
Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition
Back's saying that it surprised him “to learn how much disease had spread through this part of the country”
During the early summer of 1833, the future Admiral Sir George Back, after whom Back's River in arctic Canada has since been named, was on his way from Britain to discover it. With his later equally famous surgeon-naturalist companion, Dr. Richard King, Back traversed the St. Lawrence River and followed the north shore of Lake Superior westward before crossing northwest to the Mackenzie system at Fort Chipewyan, both doctor and captain interested in what they could learn about disease. Most pertinent to our study of frontier beliefs related to cancer, is an extract which begins on page 187 of Back's Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition (London, 1836):
“While at Chipewyan, Mr. King had performed a successful operation on a woman's upper lip, which was in a shocking state from cancer, brought on, as he thought, from the inveterate habit of smoking, so common among the half-breeds. He had met with two or three cases of it before; one, at Fort William, was incurable, and very loathsome. His presence was hailed with delight at every post beyond Jack River, either by the natives or those who resided with them; and it surprised me to learn how much disease has spread through this part of the country.”
Back's saying that it surprised him “to learn how much disease had spread through this part of the country” is, of course, confirmatory of the general belief of the time, that in their native state the Indians of northern Canada were healthy; and that most sicknesses which he found among them were of European introduction.
January 1, 1836
Veniaminov, Vol. II
Aleut Eskimos who died between 1822 and 1836 are recorded with their age.
Fortunately I have long been in touch with the Moravians and their records. The records of the Russians, however, pertained to a field I had never much cultivated — the Aleut Eskimos. So I appealed to my friend Professor William S. Laughlin of the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin. He replied from Madison on March 14, 1958:
“First, I should like to call your attention to the splendid table in Veniaminov, Vol. II, table 4, in which ages of those who died between 1822 and 1836 are given ...
“I have seen a number of skeletons of advanced age at death. Thus, one Aleut from Umnak Island gave every evidence of being over 80 years of age. I do not have enough records of this sort to be of much statistical value. They do serve to confirm my belief in the validity of local traditions about aged persons ...
“Concerning Anaktuvik persons [inland Alaska Eskimos] I have the list of birth places and birth dates which Mr. Robert Elsner of the Aeromedical Laboratory kindly made available to me. The number of aged men was notable, as was the absence of aged women ...”
Here Professor Laughlin goes into the details of a study being made jointly by himself and Professor Leopold Pospisil of Yale's Department of Anthropology on a small group of inland Eskimos at the Anaktuvik Pass. Of this group one subgroup of 8 consists of men all of whom were born during or before 1900, all thus 58 years old or older.
When I finally got around to formulating this chapter I wrote Professor Laughlin again. He replied on February 4, 1959:
“Concerning the diet of the Aleuts, we can happily document the fact that not only were they living on fish and sea mammals in the time reported (Veniaminov, Vol. II) but they still have a diet which is heavy in flesh foods ... The Aleuts still depend on salmon, sea lion, seal and store foods, in this descending order.”
Veniaminov's table, from which Professor Laughlin sent extracts, is for the Unalaska district of the Aleutians only, and records 1,170 deaths:
“For the period 1822-36 inclusive, the following numbers died: 92 for ages 1 to 4; 17 for ages 4 to 7; 41 for ages 7 to 15; 41 for ages 15 to 25; 103 for ages 25 to 45; 66 for ages 45 to 55; 29 for ages 55 to 60; 22 for ages 60 to 65; 24 for ages 65 to 70; 23 for ages 70 to 75; 11 for ages 75 to 80; 20 for ages 80 to 90; 2 for ages 90 to 100.”