Elisabeth Gifford writes about the link between Scottish whalers and the Inuit people living on the Arctic Atlantic coasts, which is a major theme in her latest book, A Woman Made of Snow.
The Arctic Bar in Dundee is an unprepossessing pub with a modern frontage, but inside the dusty harpoon guns and photographs of ice bound ships displayed around the walls indicate that this was once the pub where Victorian whaler men would go to collect their pay at the end of a six month voyage.
There are many reminders of Dundee’s whaling past around the city. The new Victoria and Albert museum is built in the shape of a ship, seeming to set out over the Tay, because it stands on the site of what was once the Earl Grey dock where whaling boats berthed over the last two centuries. Next to it at Discovery Point lies the ship RRS Discovery – Scott commissioned this converted whaling ship, with its triple-reinforced hulls, for his Antarctic expedition.
The McManus Museum of Dundee holds many Inuit artefacts brought back by Victorian whaler men, a stunning collection of photographs of Inuit and whaling boats crews, and several diaries written by various ships’ surgeons – usually medical students wanting adventure and funds for the summer.
Arthur Conan Doyle, while serving as a student surgeon on a whaler, wrote a ghost story about an Arctic voyage. From early Victorian times, writers have penned gothic tales about the sublime and savage Arctic wilderness and the journey to man’s darkest heart that six months of darkness can cause.
Mary Shelley, as a girl, would have listened to tales from Dundee whaling captains while staying near the port. At the end of her novel, Frankenstein’s monster flees into darkness across Arctic waste. The Terror and The North Water continue in this gothic tradition of man set against extreme conditions and dark taboos. I found myself wandering on the dark side with a true but rather gothic tale of cannibalism among the wrecked crew of Franklin’s expedition for the short story collection Victoriana for the HWA.
For my novel A Woman Made of Snow, however, I wanted to evoke the daily lives of the whaler men and the Inuit that they worked and lived with. The Dundee whaling industry lasted longer than in any other whaling port in Scotland and England. With steady work available and a strong church tradition the whaler men of Dundee were by and large sober artisans – though with plenty of the famous ‘wild rough lot’ found in most whaling ports. Conan Doyle found the working class Scots crew he sailed with steady and educated, sober and religious. He enjoyed talking with the crew and relished joining in with hunting expeditions.
In fact, the wildest and roughest lot in Dundee might have been the mill girls from the jute factories. Whale oil kept the jute mills running. Since the mill girls were cheaper to hire than the men, their husbands were left at home to care for the children as ‘kettle boilers.’
The women worked, smoked, swore and drank, and Dundee became an early hotspot for the suffragette movement – the women even chasing a young MP called Winston Churchill down the Perth Road when he failed to support the idea of votes for women at a meeting.
Whaler men however did earn well. Many of them never seeing a summer at home, they brought their pay home to wives who were able to run respectable homes, judging by the photographs in the McManus museum.
Though given little credit owing to their lowly working-class backgrounds, the Scots whaling captains often knew more about the Arctic than most of the captains sent out on feted Admiralty Arctic expeditions. Dundee whaling crews also interacted with the Inuit over extended periods. They adopted the polar technology of the Inuit tribes that they met and worked with, commissioning sealskin boots and suits for the men to better survive an Arctic winter. Such ‘going native’ was looked down upon by the brave and manly sons of Empire who set out to conquer the polar extremes. Scott of the Antarctic would pay dearly for such hubris by his refusal to use sled dogs and Inuit technology.
From the early 19th century, as whales declined in numbers, Scots ships from Aberdeen and Dundee began to overwinter on Baffin Island and the far side of Hudson Bay. They wanted to be ready to begin hunting as soon as the ice broke up.
Each ship would hire several Inuit or even a whole tribe to supply fur clothes and boots and to help with hunting for seal and whales. In exchange, the Inuit received knives, beads, sewing machines and sometimes their own small boat to hunt the whales for the Scotsmen.
The Inuit hunter-gatherers were surprised to be given three meals a day, even when they were not hungry, and discovered a taste for coffee, cocoa and treacle. The Inuit learned to play the accordion and danced Scots reels on deck with the sailors.
Since the Inuit were free to pick the boat they worked for, with different tribes working for US or Scottish boats, the interchange was mostly good-humoured and considerate. There was room for abuse, though. Inuit tribes would allow ‘Arctic wives’ for the whaler men, but only for men they respected.
In spring the Inuit would leave the winter hunting and their ice houses to make a summer camp of skin tents on the shore, setting a lookout to spot the first sign of a whaler. The first puff of smoke from a steam engine was the cause of celebration. The entire village would come on board ship, with sleds and dogs and piles of fur skins and meat, sleeping as a ‘village’ on the reinforced boards that ran around the hold like shelves.
Some of these collaborations between Inuit and the whaler men lasted over two generations. Captain Murray of Dundee, who had a Dundee wife and an Inuit wife, took his half-Inuit son back to Dundee to be educated alongside his Scots son. Both boys later became whaler captains.
At the end of the 19th century, Captain Cromer from Quebec was considered an authority on Hudson Bay Inuit culture, if of questionable morals. He had no European wife, but took Shoofly as his Inuit wife, with her bead-braided hair and tattooed face – with the permission of her husband and of her husband’s second wife, since Shoofly was barren. Cromer photographed Shoofly and her tribe over the years leaving a beautiful record of Inuit culture before traditions became altered by the demands of the 20th century.
Once the Canadian authorities began to send police and missionaries to the newly established trading stations and settled Inuit communities that grew up around the whalers and traders, partnerships such as those between Cromer and Shoofly were no longer tolerated.
Contact with western ships brought benefits to Inuit communities that sometimes starved in winter, but also problems. Inuit who came to rely on the boats suffered catastrophic results when the boats stopped coming, and when diseases such as smallpox were imported.
Up until the 1980s many elderly Inuit retained happy memories of their childhood among the whaler men, dances on board and good food on exciting great ships. Dorothy Harley Eber collected some of these oral stories in When the Whalers Were up North.
These were a valuable resource while writing A Woman made of Snow, as were the diaries of crewmen on the boats. The most evocative sources, however, were the photographs of the Inuit from Cromer or from the Dundee McManus collections, often showing the people mentioned by Eber in her collection of oral stories.
I hope A Woman Made of Snow will serve to bring to life some of these early encounters between Victorian Europeans and the last hunter-gatherers of Arctic Canada.
Read more about her novel.
- Inuit family by George R King for National Geographic Magazine vol 31, 1917: Wikimedia
- RRS Discovery in front of the V&A Dundee by Graham Hogg: Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Ladies of STUC in Dundee (L-R) Jeanie Spence, Mrs Lamont, Agnes Brown, Mary Macarthur, Kate McLean, Rachel Devine at the STUC conference in Dundee, Dundee Advertiser, 27 April, 1911: Wikimedia
- Inuit dance near Nome, 1900: Wikimedia
- Inuit woman and child on board Scottish whaler: with kind permission of Dundee Art Galleries and Museums
- Dundee harbour, c1880, Centre for the Study of World Christianity: Wikimedia