Charles ‘the slave’

D.F., watercolour, “Inuit man (Sadlermiut ?) paddling an inflated walrus-skin boat (Northwest Territories),” dated c.1830, with note: “Image is of an Inuit man from Southampton Island, NWT, who probably belongs to the Sadlermiut tribe. He is paddling out to assess and greet His Majesty’s ship Griper during an encounter noted by its Captain, George Francis Lyon, on August 27th, 1824. The man carries typical greeting goods of an arrow and fish. The people on the shore also display dried fish which will be later offered to Capt. Lyon when he disembarks for an investigative visit.

An engraving nearly identical to this watercolour, based on a drawing by Capt. George Lyon, as well as a narrative of the encounter between the man from Southampton Island and the ship Griper, can be found in George Francis Lyon’s book ‘A brief narrative of an unsuccessful attempt to reach Repulse Bay, through Sir Thomas Rowe’s “Welcome,” in His Majesty’s ship Griper, in the year MDCCCXXIV’. The engraving as well as the narrative identify the man in the image as being named ‘Nee-a-kood-loo’. The Sadlermiut perished from dysentery, introduced by a whaling ship, in 1902-1903.”

Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-30 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.
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Ambiguity infuses the story of Charles, “the slave,” who may have been among the first individuals native to the shores of Hudson Bay to train as a sailor aboard a transatlantic HBC ship. Initially, Charles served to mediate as shipboard interpreter in  trade dealings with Aboriginal people encountered during voyages.[1]

In 1738, Richard Staunton, in charge of Moose Fort, had informed the London Committee that “Upon the request of Captain [Christopher] Middleton I have sent your slave home, the Escomay boy, he [Middleton] saying how serviceable he will be in informing them relating to the trade in the Straits relating to the whalebone.”[2]

Robert Hood, watercolour, “The Hudson’s Bay Company Ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone Bartering with the Eskimos off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait,” dated 1819, inscription includes note: “The large boat in the fore ground is filled with the Women/and an Old Man steering. The canoe in the fore ground is laden with blubber & bladders of oil. The/naked Esquimeaux, has sold all his cloaths.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-1271 W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana.


Staunton’s reference might be to “a Young Eskemoe Boy” recorded as purchased at Albany Fort in 1736 at the cost of “1 lb. Brazil tobacco, 1 gallon brandy, and 1½ yards of blue broadcloth,” from a group of “Albany and Moose River Indians.” As reported by the Albany post journal, the child’s slave status originated when a party of fifty “Indians” captured fifteen children in a raid on Inuit “of the East Main” during which five men and fifteen women were killed.[3]

While according to its commercial records the Company did not officially engage directly in slave trading, comments in journals refer to other Aboriginal individuals ‘entertained’ in that capacity from as early as 1712.[4]

Company records designate the slave boy at Moose ‘Charles.’ His original name is unknown. Whether he was identical to the child who was bought at Albany or not is also unknown.

Charles apparently spent the years 1738 to 1740 voyaging to and from Hudson Bay aboard the Hudson Bay [V] as a de facto apprentice of Middleton – an educated master, having been elected fellow of the Royal Society for “contributions to the theory and practice of navigation” in 1737.[5]

In 1741, Charles transferred to the Seahorse [I] to serve as ship’s boy under Captain George Spurrell. The posting suggests Charles was advancing. Spurrell was a senior ships’ master among HBC mariners. By 1741 Spurrell had nineteen years experience in commanding voyages to the Bay, and apparently was possessed of considerable influence and money – on retirement from the sea in 1756 he became a member of the London Committee.[6]

Charles’ career came to an abrupt end, however. At some point, during or after the homeward crossing of his first engagement under Spurrell, he seems to have contracted either the epidemic fever (apparently typhus being the main component) that raged from 1741 to 1742 and then died – virtually innominate, details of his death, like those of his origin, service at sea, and status as an HBC employee, left to historiographical inference.[7]

Additional Resources:

Alice M. Johnson, “Early Ships in Hudson Bay,” The Beaver 26, no. 1 (June 1946): 10-13. with descriptions and illustrations that give an indication of what the ship(s) were like that carried the first individuals who were native to Hudson Bay and Strait in North America and sailed with, or for, the Company.


“First Communication with the Natives of Prince Regents Bay as drawn by John Sackheouse,” dated, 1819. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2952748.

Peter Rindisbacher, watercolour and ink, “The Eskimos of Labrador force their way onto the ships, July 23, 1821.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-250-9.

John Ross, aquatint and engraving, “1st. Communication with the Natives of Boothia Felix,” dated 1834. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2837166.


[1] See, Kenn Harper, “Oct. 21, 1741 – Almost Anonymous: The Death of Inuk Charles,” 21 October 2005, Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History, [former link: http://www.nunatsiaqnews.com/archives/51028/opinionEditorial/columns.html] replacement link: http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/taissumani_oct._21_1741_almost_anonymous_the_death_of_inuk_charles/

[2] Richard Staunton and George Henry, letter, Moose Fort, Aug. 1738, in Letters from Hudson Bay, 170340, ed. K.G. Davies with A.M. Johnson (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1965),270; see also Letters from Hudson Bay,23 n.1, 32, 64 n.1, 83; and E.E. Rich, “Staunton, Richard,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography [DCB], online: http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html. Stauton began his HBC service as cooper at York in 1694. French forces captured and transported him across the Atlantic twice, but he returned to serve at Albany to 1707 when he again crossed to England. He reengaged in 1708 as cooper and steward of the Hudson’s Bay [II], then served landward to 1716, returning to England aboard the Port Nelson. The next year he returned to the Bay as James Knight’s deputy, becoming Chief at Churchill by 1719. His letter of 7 September 1718 to the London Committee “is the earliest surviving letter from Churchill River.” He appears to have served as chief at Churchill to 1722, then transferred to Albany. His whereabouts from 1726–1737 are not clear. In 1737 he was chief at Moose, retiring to England in 1741.

[3] Davies and Johnson, Letters from Hudson Bay, 270 n.1; HBCA, B.3/a/24, Albany Post Journal, 1735–1736.

[4] See Anthony Beale, letter, Albany Fort, 10 Sept1712, Letters from Hudson Bay, 25, who refers to “the slave” named Poet, in conjunction with London Committee “orders for to entertain two young Indians,” about which he responded, “I shall be sure for to keep two [sic]”; and Anthony Beale, letter, Albany Fort, 2 Aug. 1714, for additional comments on the same; also Alice M. Johnson, “Ambassadress of Peace,” The Beaver 32, no. 3 (December 1952): 42-45; Sylvia Van Kirk, “Thanadelthur,” The Beaver 53, no. 4 (spring 1974): 40-45; Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670–1870 (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer Publishing, 1980), 66–71, 77. Rich, History, vol. I, 475, 479, 484, 485, 677; Morton, History of the Canadian West, 43, 208; see also Pentland, Labour and Capital, vi, 1–3, on slavery in Canada; and K.G. Davies, The Emergence of International Business, 12001800, vol. 5, The Royal African Company (Taylor & Francis, 1999); HBCA, “Lake, Bibye (Sir) (d. ca. 1744) (fl. 1712–1743),” Biographical Sheet. Although Davies does not link the HBC to the RAC, Sir Bibye Lake, first Baronet, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1713 to his death in 1743, was also deputy-governor of the Royal African Company — which engaged in the slave trade — from 1660–1667, and 1672–1752.

[5] Glyndwr Williams, “Middleton, Christopher,” DCB.

[6] Glyndwr Williams, “Spurrell, George,” DCB.

[7] Harper, “Almost Anonymous”; Davies and Johnson, Letters from Hudson Bay,270 n.1. See Daniel Cox, Observations on the epidemic fever of the year 1741: To which are added several new cases, as examples of the benefit arising from the cool method, in the cure of this fever, in its several stages, second edition corrected (London : printed for W. Meadows, and T. Cox; and R. Wellington, 1742). Charles Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain, vol. 2, From the Extinction of Plague to the Present Time (Cambridge: Cambrifge University Press, 1894), 83, supplies a description of symptoms of the epidemic fever of 1741-42:

It began like a common cold … On the seventh day spots appeared like fleabites on the breast and arms; in some there were broad purple spots like those of scurvy. Miliary eruptions were apt to come out about the eleventh day, especially in women. In most, after the first six or seven days, there was a wonderful propensity to diarrhoea, which might end in dysentery. The cough, which had appeared at the outset, went off about the ninth day, when stupor and delirium came on. … It came to an end about the fourteenth day; the sick were almost constantly under a coma or raving, and they died of an absolute oppression of the brain; a profuse sweat about the seventh day was followed by an aggravation of all symptoms.

See also Brian Altonan, “Ye Fever, an Ague, ye Cure [59-60],” WordPress blog, http://brianaltonenmph.com/. George C. Kohn, “London Typhus Epidemic of 1741-42,” Encyclopedia of plague and pestilence: from ancient times to the present (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008), 237, links ‘the fever’ to typhus.

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