Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Feb 7, 2010


Part 12

The maritime fur trade took place against a backdrop of mutual suspicion and violence. Historians have not agreed on how seriously to take this aspect of the trade. Some have emphasized the several murderous clashes that took place; others have downplayed the violence and emphasized the amicable nature of most of the encounters. With hundreds of voyages and thousands of trading encounters, there is evidence aplenty to support either view. What seems indisputable is that the traders expected the worst. “The level of suspicion was almost paranoiac,” one historian has written.


Far from home on a stormswept coast inhabited by people whom they were conditioned to mistrust, if not despise, the average sailor would have agreed with Samuel Ferguson, carpenter aboard the Otter in 1810, who summed up his position thusly: “...on the one hand there is dangerous reefs of rocks that seem at once to threaten and defy us, and on the other an iron bound lee shore inhabited with merciless savages.” There were many examples to justify Ferguson’s fears--had not James Hanna’s voyage of 1785, the very first trading excursion to the coast, begun in bloodshed?--but probably the most notorious instance was the destruction of the Boston in Nootka Sound in 1803, made famous by one of the survivors.


“I was born in Boston, a considerable borough town in Lincolnshire, in Great-Britain, on the 21st of May, 1783. My father, Edward Jewitt, was by trade a black-smith, and esteemed among the first in his line of business in that place.” So begins one of the most intriguing books ever written about the coast, John Jewitt’s account of his three-years as a slave belonging to Chief Maquinna.


Jewitt sailed into history on 12 March 1803 when he arrived at Nootka aboard the three-masted brigantine Boston under Captain John Salter. The Massachusetts-based vessel had stopped in the English port of Hull on its way to the northwest coast and it was there that young Jewitt, eager to see something of the wider world, joined the polyglot crew of Americans, Britons, a Norwegian, a Portuguese and a Black African. The Boston dropped its anchor in a small cove north of the village of Yuquot and began taking on wood and fresh water in preparation for a summer of trading along the coast. Maquinna and his people were frequent visitors to the ship and one day the chief appeared with a gun that Captain Salter had given him, complaining that it was faulty. (It was not unusual for traders to pass off defective guns to the locals.) Angry words were exchanged, and Maquinna went away. But on the day before the Boston was scheduled to depart, the chief and some of his warriors seized the vessel and slaughtered the crew.


Jewitt was wounded in the assault but Maquinna decided to spare his life because, as an armourer who could work with metal and repair guns, he was more useful as a slave. The Mowachaht sailed the Boston to Yuquot where they stripped it of everything valuable (later it accidently burned and sank). In the process of looting the ship they discovered another survivor, John Thompson, a sailmaker, hiding in the hold. By claiming that Thompson was his father, Jewitt was able to convince Maquinna not to kill him, and so the two hostages settled in to a forced sojourn among the Mowachaht that lasted for the next 28 months.


Thompson never did reconcile himself to his captivity. He remained uncooperative and contemptuous of the Mowachaht; several times Jewitt had to intervene to save his life after Thompson had struck or otherwise insulted one of his captors. Jewitt, on the other hand, though he never gave up hope of rescue, adapted quite well to life among the Mowachaht. He gained a rudimentary understanding of their language and a respect for at least some of their customs (which he recorded in a journal written with quills fashioned from raven feathers using ink made of blackberry juice mixed with powdered charcoal). He even took a teenage girl as his wife (he later sent her back to her family) and adopted native dress.


Jewitt was Maquinna’s personal slave but the two men developed an affectionate relationship. Maquinna doubtless appreciated the fact that the young seaman took an interest in Aboriginal culture, while Jewitt came to respect the old chief who, he later wrote, “always proved my friend and protector.” Maquinna explained to Jewitt that he had attacked the Boston to avenge a long list of insults and assaults at the hands of foreigners, dating all the way back to the murder of Callicum by Esteban Martinez but including the incident with James Hanna. He had nursed his anger, waiting for his chance to strike back, until, as Jewitt observed, “unfortunately for us, the long wished for opportunity at length presented itself in our ship...” Jewitt agreed that the Mowachaht had been misused in the past and laid the blame for any violent incidents more at the feet of unscrupulous traders than in the reputed bloodthirstiness of the local people.

Next time: the story of John Jewitt continues