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Denomination of Labrador

The country denominated Labrador, extends from Esquimaux Bay, on the Straits of Belleisle, to the extremity of the continent, Cape Chudleigh, at the entrance of Hudson's Strait. The interior is inhabited by two tribes of Indians, Mountaineers and Nascopies, members of the Cree family. The coast was inhabited at one time by Esquimaux only, but the southern part is now peopled by a mongrel race of Esquimaux half-breeds, a few vagabond Esquimaux, and some English and Canadian fishermen and trappers, who are assimilated to the natives in manners and in mode of life. While the European inhabitants adopt from necessity some of the native customs, the natives have adopted so much of the European customs that their primitive characteristics are no longer distinguishable; they cook their victuals, drink rum, smoke and chew tobacco, and generally dress after the European manner, especially the females, who always wear gowns. They have also a smattering of French and English, and are great proficient's in swearing in both languages; nor do they seem ignorant of the more refined arts of cheating, lying, and deceiving. Taking everything into account, however, we may be surprised that their manners are not more corrupt than they are.

A number of small trading vessels from the United States hover about the coast during summer; the accursed "fire-water" constitutes a primary article in their outfit, and is bartered freely for such commodities as the natives may possess. These adventurers are generally men of loose principles, and are ever ready to take the advantage of their customers. The natives, however, are now so well instructed that they are more likely to cheat than be cheated.

The Esquimaux inhabiting the northern parts of the coast differ in every respect from their neighbors of the south. They have acquired a knowledge of the Christian religion, together with some of the more useful arts of civilized life, without losing much of their primitive simplicity. The Moravian Brethren, those faithful "successors of the Apostles," after enduring inconceivable hardships and privations for many years, without the least prospect of success, at length succeeded in converting the heathens, collecting them in villages around them, and at the same time not only instructing them in things pertaining to their eternal salvation, but in everything else that could contribute to their comfort and happiness in the present life. There are four different stations of the Brethren; Hopedale, Nain, O'Kok, and Hebron. At each station there is a church, store, dwelling house for the Missionaries, and workshops for native tradesmen. The natives are lodged in houses built after the model of their igloes, being the best adapted to the climate and circumstances of the country, where scarcely any fuel is to be had: the Missionaries warm their houses by means of stoves.

The Brethren have much the same influence with their flocks as a father among his children. Whatever provisions the natives collect are placed at their disposal, and by them afterwards distributed in such a manner as to be of the most general benefit; by thus taking the management of this important matter into their own hands, the consequences of waste and improvidence are guarded against, and the means of subsistence secured.

In years of great scarcity the Brethren open their own stores, having always an ample supply of provisions on hand, so that through their fostering care the natives never suffer absolute want. The Brethren have also goods for trading, which they dispose of at a moderate profit; the profits accruing from the business are thrown into the general funds of the institution. It is said they carry on trade in every part of the world where they have missions. Their object is not to acquire wealth for selfish purposes, but to extend the kingdom of Christ on earth; to enlighten the nations; and by instructing them in the knowledge of Divine truth, to "ameliorate their condition" in this life, and secure their eternal happiness in the life to come.

From the paternal anxiety with which these good people watch over the morals of their flocks, they discourage as much as possible the visits of strangers; fearing that intercourse with them might open their eyes to the allurements of vice. In spite of all their vigilance, however, they have sometimes to deplore the loss of a stray sheep. It is an established rule, moreover, with them, never to allow a stranger to sleep within their gates; he is hospitably received and treated with kindness and attention, but on the approach of evening he is apprised that he must shift for himself: care is taken, however, to provide him with lodgings in one of the native huts, where he can pass the night in tolerable comfort. Should he not be pleased with his treatment, he is at liberty to depart when he pleases.

The European inhabitants of Labrador are for the most part British sailors, who, preferring the freedom of a semi-barbarous life and the society of a brown squaw, to the severity of maritime discipline and the endearments of the civilized fair, take up their abode for life in this land of desolation.

In course of time the gay frolicksome sailor settles down into the regular grave father of a family; and by sobriety and good conduct, may ultimately secure a comfortable home for his old age. Jack's characteristic thoughtlessness, however, sometimes adheres to him even when moored on dry land; and when this is the case, his situation is truly miserable.

They pass the summer in situations favorable for catching salmon, which they barter on the spot with the stationary traders for such commodities as they are in want of. When the salmon fishing is at an end, they proceed to the coast for the purpose of fishing cod for their own consumption, and return late in autumn to the interior, where they pass the winter trapping fur animals.

The planters, as they are designated, live in houses which they call "tilts," varying in shape and size according to the taste or circumstances of the owner. These buildings are generally formed of stakes driven into the ground, chinked with moss, and covered with bark; they are always warmed with stoves, otherwise the igloe would afford more comfort.

The half-breeds live in much the same way as their European progenitors; they are generally sober and industrious; and although unacquainted with any particular form of religious worship, they evince, in their general deportment, a greater regard to the precepts of Christianity than many who call themselves Christians. They are entirely free from the crimes that disgrace civilized life, and are guilty of few of its vices; should a frail fair, however, make a faux pas, it is no bar to her forming a matrimonial connation afterwards. The women are much fewer than the men, and on this account a greater indulgence may be extended to their faults than otherwise would be.

I was surprised to find them all able to read and write, although without schools or schoolmasters. The task of teaching devolves upon the mother; should she (what seldom happens) be unqualified, a neighbor is always ready to impart the desired instruction.

The Esquimaux half-breeds are both industrious and ingenious; they are at a loss for nothing. The men make their own boats, and the women prepare everything required for domestic convenience; almost every man is his own blacksmith and carpenter, and every woman a tailor and shoemaker. They seem to possess all the virtues of the different races from which they are sprung except courage; they are generally allowed to be more timid than the natives. But if not courageous, they possess virtues that render courage less necessary; they avoid giving offence, and are seldom, therefore, injured by others.

The Hudson's Bay Company obtained a footing here a few years ago, by buying out some of the petty traders, whose operations extended to the interior, and consequently interfered with the hopeful Ungava scheme; independently, however, of this consideration, expectations were entertained that Labrador might become the seat of a profitable branch of the business, from its various resources in fish, oil, and furs. These expectations were not realized, owing to the strong competition the Company met with; while their interference in the trade subjected them to the charge of "grasping ambition," a charge which appears but too well founded, considering the monopoly they possess of the whole fur trade of the continent. "Plus le De a, plus il voudrait avoir," is an old adage; nor have we any reason to believe that any other mercantile body would be less ambitious of increasing their gains, than their honors of Fenchurch-street.

There are several establishments along the coast, belonging chiefly to merchants from Plymouth and Dartmouth, who carry on the salmon and cod fisheries on an extensive scale, and traffic also with the planters. This business was at one time considered very lucrative; of late years, however, competition has increased from all quarters, and prices in the European market have diminished, so that the profits are now greatly reduced.

The climate of the southern section of Labrador is by no means severe; the thermometer, even in the coldest months of the year, seldom falling lower than 30 below zero. Along the shores of Esquimaux Bay, a few spots have been found favorable for agriculture, and potatoes and other culinary vegetables have been raised in abundance. Grain, especially oats and barley, would doubtless also thrive; it so happens, however, that the inhabitants are under the necessity of devoting their attention to other pursuits during the season of husbandry; so that the few that attempt "gardening," derive small benefit from it. They sow their seed before starting for the coast, and leave nature to do the rest.

I shall close my description of Labrador by narrating a rather tragically event that occurred a few years ago. An old fisherman, formerly a sailor, and his only son by an Esquimaux squaw, lived together in the greatest amity and concord. The son, after the death of his mother, attended to domestic affairs, and also assisted his father at out-door's work. As the fishing season approached, however, it was considered expedient to hire a female, so that they might give their undivided attention to the fishing. The girl had not remained long with them, when her charms began to make an impression on Jack's still sensitive heart; the son also became enamoured; both paid their addresses, and, as a matter of course, the young man was preferred.

The demon of jealousy now took possession of the father's breast; and his conduct became so violent and cruel, that his son determined on parting company with him and carrying off the girl. Seizing the only boat that belonged to his father, he slipped away under cover of night with his companion, and put ashore on the first island they found. A violent storm arose in the course of the night, and either dashed the boat to pieces on the rocks, or carried her out to sea; and thus the unfortunate lovers were left to their fate. This event happened late in autumn. The winter passed without any word being heard of the lovers; in the ensuing spring their bodies were found clasped in each other's arms, and the young man's gun close by with fifteen notches cut in the stock, supposed to mark the number of days they suffered ere relieved by death.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849

 

Notes on Hudson Bay Territory

 


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