Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part IV

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

During the first decade of the sixteenth century, European sailors began to explore the Atlantic coast of North America. Most sought to stake national claims to the Newfoundland fisheries, which European fishermen were just beginning to exploit. Many were (like Columbus) looking for gold or for an all-water route around North America to the Pacific Ocean. And many brought Indian travelers back with them to Europe, though apparently these early explorers viewed Native Americans as curiosities, rather than slaves or potential translators.

In 1501 three Portuguese adventurers from the Azores -- Joao and Francisco Fernandes and Joao Gonsalves -- formed a syndicate with three Bristol merchants to explore and exploit new lands in the vicinity of Newfoundland. Armed with a patent from King Henry VII (the founder of the Tudor dynasty), the Azoreans put to sea in 1501 and again in 1502, exploring the coast of Newfoundland and (most likely) Labrador and Nova Scotia. The 1502 expedition returned to England in the fall, its two ships bearing the surviving sailors and officers, several hawks, an eagle, and three Indians.

According to David Quinn, these first Indian visitors to England wore skins and ate half-raw meat, which suggests that they might have been Inuit (the word Eskimo means "eaters of raw meat"). If not, they were probably Micmacs. The travelers attended Henry VII's court in 1503 wearing English clothes, "but were not heard to speak." (Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements, 124-128, quote 126). Alden Vaughan is fairly certain that the three Indians were captives, since a contemporary chronicler writes that they were "takyn in the Newe ffound Ile land." (quoted in Vaughan, "Sir Walter Ralegh's Indian Interpreters," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 59 [April 2002], 344.)

By contrast, the first Native Americans to visit France may have come voluntarily. In 1508 the Norman explorer Thomas Aubert set out for Newfoundland in search of a Northwest Passage. The following year, after exploring the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and part of the Saint Lawrence River, he returned to Normandy in his ship La Pensee, bringing seven Indian men (again, probably Micmacs) with him. Aubert put the visitors on display in the port city of Rouen, and the Italian scholar Eusebius published an account of them in his Chronicle (1512):

They are of the colour of soot, have thick lips, and are tatooed on the face with a small blue vein from the ear to the middle of the chin, across the jaws. The hair is thick and coarse, like a horse's mane. They have no beards nor hair on any part of the body, except the hair of the head and eyelids. They wear a belt on which is a kind of little bag to hide their private parts. They speak with their lips, have no religion, and their canoes are made of the bark of a tree. With one hand a man can place it on his shoulders. Their arms are large bows with strings of gut or sinews of animals, their arrows are of reeds pointed with a stone, or fish-bone. Their food is of cooked meat, and their drink, water. They have no kind of money, bread, or wine. They go naked or else in the skins of animals, bears, deer, seals, or the like. (From James Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915].)

This is actually the first published European description of a native of North America, and is remarkably similar to later accounts. Like future chroniclers, Eusebius characterized the Micmac visitors as much by identifying things they lack -- money, bread, wine, clothing, religion, body hair -- as by physically describing them and their artifacts. Seventeenth-century French essayists would summarize Indians as men who had "ni loi, ni foi, ni roi" -- neither laws, nor faith, nor kings. Such descriptions allowed many observers to dismiss Native Americans as primitive curiosities, which is probably how the Rouen bourgeoisie viewed the Micmacs.

Neal Salisbury, citing Quinn's book (above) and Bernard Hoffman's Cabot to Cartier (1961), asserts that there were four European kidnappings of Micmac Indians between 1501 and 1509. (Manitou and Providence [New York: Oxford University Press, 1982], 52). We have seen three so far, by the Corte-Reals, the Fernandes-Gonsalves expedition, and Aubert's. Either Salisbury counted incorrectly or there is another case of Indians being taken to Europe before 1510. If so I haven't found it yet, but I'll keep looking.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The First Surfer Nation

This week's TIME Magazine has a good cover story on Kennewick Man, the 9,400-year-old skeleton discovered in Washington in the 1990s. The essay had two main points of interest: A) recent analysis of Kennewick Man indicates that he probably resembled an Ainu or native Siberian, not a European as previously thought, and B) he probably belonged to a coastal culture that relied on fishing and shellfish-collecting for its livelihood. The latter observation links Kennewick Man to a growing body of evidence that early Americans migrated from Beringia down the Pacific coast of North America, thereby bypassing the glaciers that covered Canada and the northern United States during the last Ice Age.

The coastal-migration thesis makes it unnecessary to assume that early Americans reached the non-glaciated parts of the Americas by using a temporary "ice-free corridor" through the ice sheets, a hypothesis advanced by W.A. Johnston and Ernst Antevs in the 1930s and popularized by C. Vance Haynes in the 1960s. Johnston, Antevs and Haynes postulated that the ice-free corridor appeared about 12-13,000 years ago, shortly before melting ice caps submerged the Bering Land Bridge. They used this odd hypothesis to support the notion that there could not have been any human presence in the Americas prior to 9,000-10,000 BCE, a belief that archaeologists held for decades before it was finally discredited by Tom Dillehay.

The article notes that researchers are now pushing the date of first human migration to the Americas as far back as 28,000 BCE, based on mitochondrial DNA studies. That said, it is startling to realize that the first Americans may have been primarily boaters and beach dwellers. I suspect it's only a matter of time before we find the first Native American surfboards.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

One Man's Trash


With the approach of spring, a person's thoughts turn naturally to...Eskimos. Well, perhaps not everyone's, but the Inuit have been somewhat on my mind lately, partly because I recently watched Nanook of the North for the first time, and mostly because I've just finished Edward Beauchamp Maurice's posthumous memoir of a year spent with the Eskimos of Baffin Island, The Last Gentleman Adventurer.

Maurice, who died in 2003, was the son of an impoverished middle-class English widow. In 1930 his family decided to move to New Zealand and try their luck as farm workers. Maurice, who was about to finish school, found the prospect of becoming a fieldhand unpleasant and jumped at an opportunity suggested by one of his teachers: becoming an employee of the 260-year-old Hudson's Bay Company. At the age of 17 Edward signed his work contract, became one of the "company of gentlemen venturing into Hudson's Bay" (in the words of the HBC charter), and took ship for Labrador, probably the most desolate place in the Western Hemisphere.

During his first year as an HBC employee, Maurice was stationed at an icebound post on Baffin Island (the second most desolate place), where he befriended the local Eskimos. His memoir is chiefly useful as a source of ethnographic information on the Inuit: their survival skills, hunting practices, family structures and eschatology. Some details have probably been left out or bowdlerized by the descendents who edited the memoir for publication; for instance, the book gives almost no space to the "country marriage" which Maurice contracted with at least one Inuit woman, Innuk. On other points, though, Maurice doesn't hesitate to shock. His description of how polar bears hunt seals, for instance, makes you realize just how intelligent and cruel these giant stuffed toys really are.

As someone interested in the fur trade, I was particularly struck by Maurice's details on the uneven dynamics of Anglo-Inuit commerce. In one passage, he talks about two Inuit women who have just had an extremely successful winter hunting fox and other animals, and how after selling the furs they have spent many months accumulating, they hope to have earned enough money to buy some fuel and cloth and a couple of rifles. On the other hand, he observes that the prize fur of the Arctic fur trade was that of the white fox, which Eskimos traditionally used to wipe their babies' bottoms. The British employees of the HBC were willing to pay $10 for each of these things. Presumably they didn't tell their European customers the whole story about the furs' origins and their other...applications.