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 (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 Native American 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 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 tattooed 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 Micmacs 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.

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