Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers
Dorothy Harley Eber
University of Toronto Press, 2008
Reviewed by David C. Woodman
I have always envied Dorothy Harley Eber. Two decades ago, my soon-to-be editor kindly invited me to lunch to discuss my unpublished manuscript. A charming lady named Dorothy, who had a similar interest in Inuit oral history, accompanied her. At that time, Dorothy, unknown to me, was already famous for her groundbreaking Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life. That book was an illustrated oral biography of the Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona created from recorded interviews Dorothy had undertaken in 1970. She had recently completed another biography based on interviews with Peter Pitseolak, eventually published as the excellent People from Our Side.
Whereas I mined dusty and obscure sources for Inuit testimony collected during the nineteenth century, Dorothy met with living Inuit and, over the years, had patiently developed a trust and rapport that allowed her to record and preserve a fast-fading culture. We shared a belief in the value of the Inuit oral tradition, both in itself and as a cross-cultural window into historical events. Dorothy had notably pursued this second avenue with her When the Whalers Were Up North: Inuit Memories from the Eastern Arctic (1989), her first foray into contact between the Inuit and Europeans.
We had a delightful lunch, and I remember asking Dorothy whether there were any modern memories of the Franklin disaster (my area of interest) among her informants. In this book, finally, and much to my delight, Dorothy has answered that question.
Gleaned from interviews conducted between 1994 and 2008, Encounters on the Passage relates modern Inuit remembrances, passed down through generations, of encounters with European explorers. Eber’s aim in doing so is simple and practical – to preserve the Inuit oral tradition. Yet this book is not simply a repository of endangered stories. Throughout, Eber takes pains to place the Inuit traditions in a historical context and to compare them with written accounts preserved by the explorers themselves. In doing so, she concludes that the traditions offer “correlations and contrasts, and, always, new perspectives.”
Eber is fully forthright about the difficulties involved in the use of Inuit oral history. Tommy Anguttitauruq tells her, “every time the stories are told, maybe they’r [sic] a little bit different; there’s a little bit added and maybe some things left out,” and she notes that the stories “are sometimes blended or “collapsed” … [t]hese stories are now getting through to the next generation only in a fragmented state.” Even so, as the narrative makes clear, these relics of old traditions often complement the preserved stories of the great-great-grandparents of Eber’s informants. Whether these correlations are confirmation or repetition is more difficult to determine.
The stories themselves preserve Inuit traditions ranging in date from the expeditions of Martin Frobisher (1575-78) to the successful accomplishment of the Northwest Passage by Amundsen in 1903. As the theme of the work is to show the reliability of transmitted oral tradition, it is not perhaps surprising to see that there is nothing particularly new in the modern stories. Most of these are pale reiterations of traditions initially relayed, mainly in the nineteenth century, to Rae, McClintock, Hall and Schwatka.
The best test for the accuracy and resiliency of Inuit testimony comes from extended interactions during Sir William Edward Parry’s 1821-23 sojourn at Igloolik and Sir John Ross’ voyage to Lord Mayor Bay between 1830-34. These well-documented expeditions allow Eber to usefully compare modern remembrances with the explorers’ journals. Eber relays various versions of the most colourful intercultural incidents of these interactions. The punishment meted out by Parry to a local shaman for stealing a shovel, and the shaman’s supernatural revenge is given prominence of place. The stories of Ross’ visit include the initial discovery of his ship in the ice, subsequent deliberations among the Inuit, and various tales of the repeated visits of the Inuit to his vessel.
Here the interest lies not so much in the content of the modern recollections but in noting how these have been filtered and modified by the passage of over a century and a half. Some contemporary Inuit stories also contribute to exploration history by dealing with matters unknown to the explorers themselves, such as the final resting place of Ross’ abandoned Victory or the use made by the Inuit of his “treasure trove” of abandoned equipment.
The modern stories are best at relaying charming cross-cultural vignettes of a hunter so afraid of a strange ship that he ran so fast that his caribou coat trailed behind him in the wind, of a girl using tobacco blocks as toys, or of children throwing flour into the air as “smoke” having no idea of its food value.
These opening chapters lead to the book’s core, the stories relating to the Third Franklin expedition (1845-?). Comprising almost half of the book, the following three chapters deal with this doomed expedition and the Inuit remembrances of it. The chapters revolve around three of the pivotal questions of the disaster – the burial of a “shaman” or officer, encounters of Franklin’s doomed men on the march, and the location of the wreck(s) of the expedition vessels.
Here Eber runs into the difficulty that, even according to her modern informants, “nobody saw the ship – what happened to it; or how they died … Little stories, here and there. We don’t know much at all.”
The remembrances concerning the burial of an officer again follow closely on other recorded testimony, particularly the “Bayne story,” which Eber surprisingly buries in a long endnote. Presumably dealing with the burial of a senior officer (usually assumed to be Franklin himself) and, more significantly, with the nearby burial or deposition of written records, the modern physical description of the site “a sandy hill” matches that of Bayne. However, the exact location remains frustratingly vague.
The stories of encounters with Franklin survivors on the march are given in three versions, all located in different but uncertain areas. Two of these deal with Franklin crew members wandering into a camp, one told from the women’s perspective and one from the hunters who returned to find that strangers had come to visit. Even the Inuit are unsure whether these traditions “might be the same story … but passed on through a different family in a different manner.” These stories do not have much in common with the testimony preserved by Hall, Schwatka and Rasmussen about an encounter between hunters and struggling men in Washington Bay. Still, there are enough common elements (being offered a small piece of seal, the abandonment of the Europeans after one night etc.) to make one wonder whether these are indeed new stories.
Eber herself considers the stories of the “ship at Imnguyaaluk” and the “fireplace trail” to be the most significant of her collection, remarking that they “add a new chapter to the Franklin tragedy.”
The first deals with the discovery by the Inuit of a ship to the east of the Royal Geographical Society Islands and a presumed Franklin campsite ashore. Although the story adds detail, this again is not entirely new information as Amundsen was told of a ship having been seen here (Eber notes this herself, but not until ten pages later). The traditions that relate to visits to this ship and interactions with its crew also follow older stories about pre-abandonment encounters between the Franklin expedition and the Inuit. The location tends to validate the hypothesis that at least one ship (only one is mentioned) was remanned after the initial 1848 abandonment.
The “fireplace trail” stories also tend to reinforce this idea as they deal with a sequence of encampments found around the western and northern coasts of the Adelaide Peninsula. These seem to mark a party retreating from the ship spoken of as having been abandoned near O’Reilly Island. The first find was at “Aveomavik,” a small island off Grant Point, where Michael Angottitauruq found a non-Inuit campsite and bones of three individuals in 1984. The discovery of camps and human remains on a small islet nearby in 1997, 2002, and 2004 lends support to this story. Other locations on the “trail” recollect finds from the nineteenth century at Thunder Cove and northwest of Starvation Cove.
Eber then diverts to lengthy consideration of the possibility that one of Franklin’s ships traversed Simpson and/or Rae Strait to come to rest near Chantrey Inlet or Matty Island. The first idea is based entirely on late testimony from the Anderson expedition that is well-known, if not widely supported. The idea of a Matty Island wreck is also previously attested, mainly by testimony relayed to Maj. Burwash in 1929. This told of a strange but orderly cache of crates found inland on an islet near a sunken wreck. Eber’s informants add to our knowledge of this strange cache with an eyewitness account of it. They found “burlap and cotton bags filled with flour and sugar and perhaps something like porridge – oatmeal. These were all buried in a mound covered with part of a cotton sail buried under sand and rocks … and when they uncovered this cache, they found cans, sacks of sugar, oatmeal.”
This detailed description further calls into doubt the opinion of most commentators (uncritically accepted by Eber) that this deposit was formed from cases of dog food thrown overboard by Amundsen while the Gjoa was enmeshed in the Matty Island shoals. Both the Burwash account of carefully stacked cases inshore and this new story of a carefully buried cache imply stores left deliberately and point to the Franklin expedition. This does not necessarily support the idea of a wrecked vessel nearby, which has been repeatedly searched for in vain. A cache could have been established to support survey or retreat parties.
The book ends with chapters of Inuit stories about the Collinson expedition sent in search of Franklin and of remembrances of Amundsen’s Northwest Passage triumph. Again these stories are fascinating windows into the Inuit perception of the visits of these strangers but offer little new information of significance to historians. The publisher’s claim that “new information opens another chapter in our understanding” of the events of these expeditions, especially the Franklin disaster, is perhaps overstated. A close reading shows that there is very little new information presented and that where there is, it tends to, at best, confirm earlier evidence.
Overall, the book is a very worthy contribution to the store of preserved Inuit oral traditions. It serves as a helpful reference and introduction to the stories relating to explorers that are otherwise scattered throughout the literature on British Arctic exploration and sets them in a clear context. Those already familiar with the traditions will enjoy tracing the genealogies of modern remembrances; others will be interested in the effect of time on changing the original versions.
To her credit, Eber rarely gets caught up in the intricacies of historical speculation and primarily stays with her strength – the reporting and preservation of the stories themselves. This is a task she was seemingly born to do, and once again, we are indebted for her painstaking labours.