An Explorer's Journal|
Samuel Hearne was the first European to reach the Arctic overland.
The journal of his trip became a lively entry in the genre of Canadian exploration writing. It also offered a valuable record of native culture in the interior.
|Samuel Hearne became the first European to explore the Arctic, travelled overland, in 1771. (As portrayed by Art Kitching in Canada: A People's History)
Hearne left Churchill on his journey in December 1770 accompanied by a Dene
called Matonabbee who would become a centrepiece in his writings.
Hearne described the Dene. "I found my new acquaintance, on all occasions, the most sociable, kind, and sensible Indian I had ever met with. He was a man well known, and, as an Indian, of universal knowledge, and generally respected." Hearne and Matonabbee became close during the course of their travels.
Hearne described Matonabbee as being nearly six feet tall, well proportioned, courageous and defiantly agnostic.
"He was determined," Hearne noted, "as he came into the world, so he would go out of it, without professing any religion at all. Notwithstanding his aversion from religion, I have met with few Christians who possessed more good moral qualities, or fewer bad ones."
Matonabbee stipulated that even though it was against Hudson's Bay Company rules the expedition had to include women. He said when all the men are heavy laden they can neither hunt nor travel to any considerable distance. Women are made for labour. One of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men do, said Hearne. For this trip, Matonabbee brought women, among them his numerous wives.
Hearne was a reader of Voltaire and he had a philosophical bent that is seen in his journal.
Out on the tundra, he ruminated on the elusive nature of beauty. The Indian women aged quickly, he noted, worn with labour, but they were valued for the very qualities he abhorred. "Ask a Northern Indian, what is beauty? he will answer a broad flat face, small eyes, high cheekbones, three or four broad, black lines a-cross each cheek, a low forehead, a large broad chin, a clumsy hook-nose, a tawney hide, and breasts hanging down to the belt."
To the Copper Indians, who had never seen a European, Hearne was exotic, if not beautiful. "They flocked about me, and expressed as much desire to examine me from top to toe, as an European Naturalist would a non-descript animal.
They found and pronounced me to be a perfect human being, except in the colour of my hair and eyes... The whiteness of my skin also was, in their opinion, no ornament, as they said it resembled meat which had been sodden in water till all the blood was extracted," said Hearne.
Hearne noticed that when a woman was in labour, her people set up a small tent out of earshot of the main camp so they couldn't hear her shrieks. "These people never attempt to assist each other on those occasions, even in the most critical cases... they entertain that nature is abundantly sufficient to perform every thing required... When I informed them of the assistance which European women derive from the skill and attention of our midwives, they treated it with the utmost contempt; ironically observing, 'that the many hump-backs, bandy-legs, and other deformities, so frequent among the English, were undoubtedly owing to the great skill of the persons who assisted in bringing them into the world."
After his extraordinary trip, Hearne set up Cumberland House, the Bay's first inland trading post, and he eventually became the slightly eccentric factor at Fort Prince of Wales where he kept a small menagerie of mink, musket, geese, foxes, hawks and tame beaver.
While at Fort Prince of Wales, Hearne worked on the manuscript for A Journey from Prince of Wales Fort in Hudson Bay to the Northern Ocean.
In 1782, when England and France were at war, a French force of three ships under Comte de Laperouse approached the fort.
The French had 74 guns and 290 soldiers, while Hearne's fort contained only thirty-eight civilians. Hearne surrendered the fort, a logical, though controversial decision. Laperouse burned the fort down to its stone foundation. But he read Hearne's manuscript and praised it, urging him to publish. The French commander sent Hearne, his manuscript and his men back to England on an HBC ship. When Matonabbee heard that Hearne had surrendered the fort, he hanged himself in shame. His six wives and four children starved to death that winter.