Usually, traders did not ask what motivated attacks like the one on John Jewitt’s ship, the Boston. They simply believed the local people were vicious savages whose behaviour had no rational explanation. There were captains who tried to understand the motives behind the attacks, even some who blamed themselves. “I have no doubt that many of the melancholy disasters have principally arisen from the conduct of some of the Captains and crews of the Ships employed in this trade,” concluded William Sturgis, who rose from being a 16-year-old deckhand to become one of Boston’s leading merchants. But for most, the violence was an accepted part of a dangerous business.
Many attacks came about in response to insult or injury at the hands of the visitors. Coastal chiefs were highly sensitive to actions that demeaned their authority in the eyes of their followers or seemed to favour a rival chief or tribal group. As the case of the Boston indicates, they did not always differentiate between trading vessels when it came to meting out vengeance. If the chance to revenge themselves against a particular vessel did not arise, they would wait for a better opportunity to strike back against another vessel. The result was that innocent traders might suffer for the misdeeds of others, and the First Nations got a reputation for being capricious and bloodthirsty.
As time passed, and furs became scarce, competition among traders became more intense and trading practices less scrupulous. Both sides engaged in sharp dealing. Traders tried offering cheaper, shoddier goods. They bartered watered-down rum, defective guns, short measures of foodstuffs. In rare instances they took chiefs captive and held them against the payment of a quantity of furs, or bombarded villages with cannon fire until paid to stop. In 1792, Captain Robert Gray burned an entire village consisting of 200 houses--Opitsat in Clayoquot Sound--in retaliation for a threatened attack on his own vessel. For their part, the local people indulged in their own trickery, though most accounts agree that the American traders were the worse offenders.
Fuelling the sailors’ level of anxiety was the common belief among them that First Nations people of the coast were cannibals. “The idea of being eaten by the [Native] Americans absolutely haunted the imaginations and preyed upon the spirits of many of our people,” wrote the British adventurer John Meares. Cannibalism was considered a hallmark of barbarity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. White adventurers expected to encounter it whenever they travelled to distant lands beyond the reach of “civilization”. On the Northwest Coast, stories of cannibalism began with Captain Cook who reported being offered severed hands and skulls by the local people. The Spaniard José Moziño, who was at Nootka in 1792, wrote that “it appears to be proved in an uncontestable manner that these savages have been cannibals.” Like most witnesses, Moziño was relying on second-hand accounts and a poor understanding of Aboriginal cultural practices to conclude that so-called gustatory cannibalism was widespread. (Gustatory cannibalism refers to the consumption of human flesh as a source of food; it is usually contrasted to ritual cannibalism which refers to religious ceremonies that include the simulated or actual consumption of human flesh.)
Many visitors to the coast returned home to publish books about the area, as John Jewitt did. Eager to titillate their reading audiences, they filled their accounts with lurid stories of Indians sleeping on bags of skulls, brandishing severed limbs and feasting on brains and babies. In fact, there is a lively scholarly debate as to whether there was any cannibalism at all on the Northwest Coast. Some historians argue that it never took place. Others suggest that the ritual consumption of human flesh probably did occur among some First Nations during some religious ceremonies. Either way, it was not nearly as prevalent as early fur traders and explorers claimed. However, what mattered most to the captains and their crews was what they believed, and they believed that if they fell into the hands of the local people they were likely to end up murdered, butchered and consumed.
As forbidding as its inhabitants was the coast itself. The weather was usually wet and blustery. “We see the Sun perhaps once or twice a week and then not more than half an hour at a time,” lamented an officer on the Otter in 1809. The grey skies, looming shoreline, fog and drizzle got on most sailors’ nerves. “This Coast is as Silent and Solatary as the House of death,” wailed one captain, “and I wish that I was as Clear from it I would take Verry good Care that no man Should Ever Catch me in this part of the world again.” When the visitors were not bored or depressed, they were terrified. A litany of perils awaited small, wooden sailing vessels trying to navigate a storm-tossed coast. Ralph Haskins aboard the Atahualpa in 1800, described the nerve-wracking dangers faced by the ships. “Sunken rocks, strong tides, fogs, calms, no bottom for anchoring, and a large proportion of bad weather, are among the difficulties we are obliged to bear.”
Naval historian Harry Morton has written that “much of the seaman’s life was not so much dangerous...as it was thoroughly unpleasant”; this was surely true of the sailors who visited the Northwest Coast. For one thing, they were crammed onto their small sailing vessels like sardines in a can. Some examples will illustrate. The artist Tomá de Suria, who made some of the earliest paintings of the area, sailed on a Spanish vessel that was 36 metres long and carried over 100 men plus a barnyard’s worth of livestock to feed them, including pigs, chickens, goats and calves. He described his sleeping quarters: “I will only say that stretched in my bed my feet were against the side of the ship and my head against the bulkhead... From my breast to the deck, which was my roof, the distance is only three inches. This confined position does not allow me to move in my bed and I am forced to make for myself a roll of cloth to cover my head, although this suffocates me, but this is a lesser evil than being attacked by thousands of cockroaches, which are such a great pest that you see some individuals with sores on their foreheads and bites on their fingers.”
The first Spanish vessel on the coast, the Santiago, was 25 metres (82 ft) long with a crew of 84 and decks crowded with 12 bulls, 24 sheep, 15 goats and 79 chickens. The noise and stench may be imagined. British explorers like Cook and Vancouver employed larger ships, but the fur-traders preferred smaller vessels because they were easier to maneuvre in the coastal waters. They also preferred to have a crew large enough to defend the vessel, which meant at least twenty hands, often more. Basic rations were bread, water and salted meat, supplemented by whatever fresh provisions they could pick up along the way. Not surprisingly, scurvy was endemic. Scurvy is a debilitating disease brought on by a deficiency of vitamin C in the diet. Symptoms include bleeding gums, blotchy skin, loosening teeth and lethargy, leading inevitably to death if fresh fruit or vegetables were not obtained. By the time the maritime fur trade began it was recognized that scurvy could be avoided with a proper diet, particularly citrus fruit or regular doses of spruce beer, a boiled tea made of spruce boughs. But these cures were applied haphazardly and the disease was still common. Less fatal than scurvy were a variety of respiratory ailments that afflicted visitors to the coast, brought on by the heavy rains, dense fogs and water-soaked conditions aboard the ships.
So, what induced so many seamen to risk long voyages in cramped vessels into unknown waters where they believed the inhabitants were dangerous cannibals? “We are constantly attracted, especially in Youth, by whatever is new and uncommon,” explained Alexander Walker. “The desire of seeing a Country, which had been but lately in a manner discovered, and of viewing Men still living in a Savage state of Society, formed one of the objects of my most anxious wish.” If curiosity was part of the attraction, so were money and sex. The maritime fur trade was like a gold rush, with every captain dazzled by the dream of striking it rich. Officers received not only a wage but also a percentage of the profits from the voyage, as well as an opportunity to carry on a bit of personal trading on the side. Members of the crew, on the other hand, received only a wage, somewhere between $5 and $20 a month, a good portion of which they spent on clothing, tobacco and other necessaries in the ship’s stores. In other words, what the owners paid out with one hand they took back with the other.
Ordinary seamen were unlikely to return from the Pacific with much money owed to them. For them a strong attraction was the lure of the South Pacific with its balmy climate and beautiful women. Voyages to the Northwest Coast were part of a larger trading itinerary that included stops in Hawaii and other Pacific Islands to trade for sandalwood and to take on fresh supplies. The charms of Polynesian women were legendary, as was their lack of sexual restraint. But the free and easy sexual atmosphere of the South Pacific was not replicated on the Northwest Coast, where aboriginal women were more modest and custom did not encourage mixing with the newcomers. Of course liaisons did occur, but for the most part they were with slave women whom their owners offered to the sailors to expedite the trading relationship.
Next time: Ecological catastrophe