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The Native Peoples

Miniature paddle and harpoon, made around 1908

To western eyes the native peoples of the Arctic were considered savages. They were a great curiosity to first time whalers. Whalermen referred to them as natives, Eskimos (often spelled Esquimaux) or in Dundee, Yaks or Yackies. The Inuit as they are now called were frequent visitors to Scottish whalers during whaling voyages. They would bring furs to trade for western goods like knives, rifles and ammunition. Tobacco was always in great demand. Sadly the whalers often gave unsolicited gifts like western diseases. Flu epidemics often wiped out whole tribes, who had little immunity to virulent strains. A young surgeon Mathew Campbell of the Nova Zembla describes his first meeting while anchored at the Danish settlement of Leively on the Greenland coast.

They come aboard with a sack filled with slippers, tobacco pouches, bags, etc. made of sealskins ornimented with dyed leather. They are as a rule harmless creatures and very cheery. The men only are allowed to come aboard, they call themselves Huskeys and their wives or the women Coonies, the children Piggenenies... The engineer and I went up to their houses tonight, or Toopicks, they are made of wood, roofs being covered with moss. You require to crawl in on all fours as the door is very small, but we crawled out very quick as they had a terrible smell.

[Diary of a Voyage to the Davis Straits aboard the Nova Zembla of Dundee. 1884 Mathew Campbell]

Fraternizing with the Inuit was frowned upon but was often the case, and a number of captains were known to take "Eskimo wives" for the duration of the voyage.

A number of Eskimos were brought back to Scotland to sample western society and be educated. Few stayed more than the winter months and returned with the whalers the following spring. While in Scotland, they were the centre of attention at soirees and social gatherings given by their well-meaning benefactors. One could not wait to get home complaining that it was far to cold in Dundee. It is presumed that he was talking about the damp cold, rather than a simple 30 below.


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