Project Canterbury

An Apostle of the North
Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas, D.D.

By H.A. Cody, B.A.

London: Seeley, 1908.

Chapter VI. Among the Children of the Cold (1870)

"Love took up the harp of life, and smote on all the chords with might--
Smote the chord of self, that, trembling, passed in music out of sight."

WE left Mr. Bompas conducting the Indian school at Fort Simpson, according to Mr. Kirkby's desire. But the committee at Red River had other plans, and the Rev. W. D. Reeve, afterwards Bishop of Mackenzie River Diocese, was placed at Fort Simpson, while Mr. Bompas was sent to the far North. It suited his roving disposition well to take that long trip down the Mackenzie River, up the Peel River, over the Rocky Mountains to the Porcupine River, and then 600 miles to Fort Yukon. It was a thrilling moment when he reached the scene of Mr. McDonald's great labours, in July, 1869. It was for that place he had started four years before, when the appeal for help reached England. [On August 9, 1869, the United States Government, as represented by Captain Charles Raymond, took formal possession of Fort Yukon by hoisting the Stars and Stripes. Mr. Bompas was present on that important occasion.]

But though much interested in Mr. McDonald's work, still, a call was ever sounding in his ears which he could not silence. On his way to the Yukon he had met a number of Eskimos at Fort McPherson, who requested him to go with them down to the coast. It was this cry from Macedonia which was continually before him, so, leaving the Yukon, he ascended the Porcupine River, spent the winter at the lonely Rampart House, and in the spring went back over the mountains to visit the Eskimos.

These poor natives, with their strange, uncouth manners, strongly appealed to his rioble nature, and he expressed his feeling for such as these in the following beautiful words:

"At the funeral of the great Duke of Wellington it was considered to be a mark of solemn respect that the obsequies should be attended by one soldier from every part of the regiments of the British Army, and it is a part of the Saviour's glory that one jewel be gathered to His crown from every tribe of the lost human race. It is an honour to seek to secure for our Lord one such jewel from even the remotest tribe."

Leaving Fort McPherson on April 18, Mr. Bompas started down the river in company with two Eskimos, a man and a boy, hauling a small sledge with blankets and provisions. On the way he received a message from the chief of the Eskimos to defer his visit, as the "Esquimaux were starving and quarrelling, and one had just been stabbed and killed in a dispute about some tobacco." But this message had no effect upon the missionary; he was doing his Master's service, and he knew that same Master would take care of His servant, and, undaunted, he pressed bravely forward.

For three days they continued to travel without any difficulty, camping at night on the river-bank, and making a small fire of broken boughs. But the glare of the spring sun was very severe, and Mr. Bompas was stricken with snow-blindness.

This snow-blindness is very common in the North, and has been described by Mr. Bompas in the following words:

"As the sun rises higher and has more power in the months of March and April, to walk long over the snow in the sunlight becomes distressing to the eyes from the dazzling brightness. This is especially the case in traversing a wide lake or in descending a broad river, where there are no near forests of dark pines to relieve the gaze, but an unbroken expanse of snow.

"The effect of this is to produce after a time acute inflammation of the eyes. These in the end may be so entirely closed as to involve a temporary blindness, accompanied by much smarting pain. . . . The inflammation generally lasts for at least three days, after which it gradually subsides. In the meantime it may be ameliorated by dropping one drop of laudanum into the eye, though the sensation of this is like an application of liquid fire. The Voyager feels very helpless during the acute stage of snow-blindness, and, like Elymas the sorcerer or St. Paul himself, he 'seeks some to lead him by the hand.'"

For three days, in awful darkness, he was led by the hand of the native boy, making about twenty-five miles a day, till the first Eskimo camp was reached. It was only a snow-house, and to enter it with closed eyes, stumbling at every step, was a most disagreeable introduction. And yet such sufferings were little considered by Mr. Bompas.

"They are delights," he once said. "The first footprint on earth made by our risen Saviour was the nail-mark of suffering, and for the spread of the Gospel I, too, am prepared to suffer."

After one day of rest in the snow-house, Mr. Bompas recovered his sight, and then, moving forward, reached another camp. His appearance at each place, so he tells us, "excited a great deal of observation and curiosity, as they had never had a European among them in the same way before."

In this camp he was disturbed "by yelling and dancing" on the very spot where he was lying. This was caused by an old woman "making medicine--that is, conjuring in order to cure a man who was, or was thought to be, sick." Mr. Bompas, unable to stand the terrible confusion, tried to stop them by saying that medicine-making was all a wicked lie, whereupon the old woman threw herself upon the missionary, and in no gentle manner vented upon him her wrath. After this he left the place and betook himself to another camp, where he lay down and "enjoyed a good night's rest." Next morning, seeing the man who was the cause o£ all the trouble, Mr. Bompas found he was suffering from a sore head, for which he gave him a "small piece of soap and a few grains of alum to rub it with." When he saw the man some time later, he was told that his conjuring was very strong.

What a forlorn hope lay before this missionary in trying to uplift and save such wild, uncouth creatures, who were ever around him! Yet there were many things which appealed to him. He looked deeper than the mere surface, and, studying them very carefully, saw there was much cause for encouragement. He noticed how ingenious the Eskimo was in the forming of implements "out of any old iron which he is able to obtain, such as files, saws, etc., from which he will forge variously shaped knives, gimlets, and other tools, with which he constructs his boats and canoes, as well as arrows, bows, spears, fishing-hooks, nets and tackle, sledges, and all other implements for the chase, as well as furniture for his tent."

Then he watched his skill in building the snow-house, which he could "compare to nothing but the skill of the bee in making its honeycomb. . . . The snowy material is so beautiful that the work proceeds as if by magic." People who were so clever and artistic he well knew must have a love for the beautiful, and were capable of higher things.

He studied their religious instincts, and found they were very low. They were addicted to lying, stealing, and even stabbing. "They practised heathen dances, songs, and conjuring, and placed much dependence upon spells and charms." And yet, sifting through all this, he found they believed in two spirits: one "an evil, named Atti, which seems to symbolize cold and death, and which they seek to exorcise or appease by their charms and spells; the other a dim idea of a good spirit connected with the sun, as the source of warmth and life." Their faint idea of heaven was that of a "perpetual spring, and the name they give to ministers who bring them tidings of the world above is 'Children of the Sun.'" He also learned that they possessed a tradition of the creation, and of the descent of mankind from a single pair.

Though he found them at times very treacherous, yet there was a spirit of true hospitality still existing, which he felt could be fanned into a flame, and which would work a great change. His own difficulty was the language, and he maintained that the best hope would be to bring a Christian Eskimo from Labrador, as the Moravian missionaries there and in Greenland had mastered the language in the course of many years' labour.

"A native of Labrador would probably be able to converse fluently with the natives in the course of a few months, and might be able in that time to give them a better knowledge of Christianity than a European missionary could in as many years."

Though the language was a great drawback, still Mr. Bompas determined to do the best he could. He collected many Eskimo words, and with his remarkable linguistic ability made fair progress in a short time. He found they expressed great willingness to be taught, and says:

"They have received the little instruction I have been able to give them with great thankfulness. At the same time, their ignorance and carelessness are so great that they seem quite unable at present to apprehend the solemnities of religion. The chief idea they have in seeing my books is to wish that they could be metamorphosed into tobacco, and indeed, at present, smoking seems to be the sole object of their lives."

He accompanied them on their various hunting and fishing journeys, and lost no opportunity of studying them and winning their affection. He stood by their side as they fished for hours through holes in the ice, and, observing their great patience, he himself became strengthened in the greater task of fishing for souls, and expresses the thought in the following words:

"We may admire the patience of an Esquimau fishing for hours over the blow-hole for a seal; and such should be the perseverance of a watcher for souls. 'Lord, we have toiled all night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless, at Thy word I will let down the net.' "

During the cold weather Mr. Bompas slept with the Eskimos in their small, crowded houses, and the inconvenience he suffered must have heen great, as the following words will show:

"The Esquimaux sleep in their tents between their deer-skins, all together in a row extending the whole breadth of the tent, and if there are more than enough for one row, they commence a second at the foot of the bed, with the head turned the other way. For myself, I always took care to commence the second row, keeping to the extremity of the tent, and thus generally rested without inconvenience, except, perhaps, a foot thrust occasionally into my side. At the same time, it must be confessed that the Esquimaux are rather noisy, often talking and singing a great part of the night, especially the boys; and if any extra visitors arrive, so that the tent is overfull, it is not exactly agreeable."

When the warmer weather arrived, Mr. Bompas began to camp by himself outside, and found it much better. The days became so long that he found it difficult to tell what time of day or night it was, as he "thought it most prudent" not to carry his watch with him. Seldom did the missionary speak of his hardships, but, reading between the lines of the few words he utters, one can see they were of no ordinary nature.

In a letter to Mrs. Loft in England, Mr. Bompas gave a vivid description of these Eskimos:

"It would be easy for you to realize," he wrote, "and even experience the whole thing if so minded. First go and sleep a night in the first gipsy camp you can find along some roadside, and that is precisely like life with the Indians. From thence go to the nearest well-to-do farmer, and spend a night in his pigsty (with the pigs, of course), and this is exactly life with the Esquimaux. As this comprises the whole thing in a nutshell, I think I need give you no further description. The difficulty you would have in crawling or wriggling into the sty through a hole only large enough for a pig was exactly my case with the Esquimaux houses. As to the hahits of your companions, the advantage would be probably on the side of the pigs, and the safety of the position decidedly so. As you will not believe in the truth of this little simile, how much less would you believe if I gave you all particulars? So I prefer silence to exposing myself to your incredulity, but if I had to visit them again I should liken it rather to taking lodgings in the den of a Polar bear. The first time, in God's good providence, he did not show h's claws.

"Harness yourself to a wheelbarrow or a garden roller, and then, having blindfolded yourself, you will be able to fancy me arriving, snow-blind and hauling my sledge, at the Esquimaux camp, which is a white beehive about 6 feet across, with the way a little larger than that for the bees. . . . As to one's costume, you cannot manage that, except that a blanket is always a good cloak for us; but take a large batcher's knife in your hand, and that of itself will you an Esquimaux without further additions.

"If you will swallow a chimney-ful of smoke, or take a few whiffs of the fumes of charcoal, you will know something of the Esquimaux mode of intoxicating themselves with tobacco, and a tanyard will give you some idea of the sweetness of their camps. Fat raw bacon, you will find, tastes much like whale blubber, and lamp oil, sweetened somewhat, might pass for seal fat. Rats you will doubtless find equally good to eat at home as here, though without the musk flavour; but you must get some raw fish, a little rotten, to enjoy a good Esquimaux dinner.

"Fold a large black horse's tail on the top of your head, and another on each side of your face, and you will adopt exactly the Arctic lady's headgear. Then thrust a knife through the centre of each cheek, and leave the end of the knife-handle permanently in the hole, and you will experience the agreeable comfort of the Arctic cheek ornament. After this, get a dozen railway trucks, tackled together, and load them with large and small tow-boats, scaffold-poles, a marquee, three or four dead oxen, the contents of a fishmonger's stall and of a small rag-shop, and then harness all your family, and draw the trucks on the rails from Alford to Boston, with a few dogs to help, and thus you will have a very close resemblance to an Esquimaux family travelling in winter with their effects over the frozen ice. As I have formed one of the haulers on such an expedition, I speak from personal experience."

Writing to his brother George, he says: "Do you know that the Esquimaux took me for a son of Cain, probably Mahujael, for they said on my visit that in the first family in the world two brothers quarrelled, and the one killed the other, and the murderer had to wander away, and they concluded that the white men who now came to meet them were probably sons of the murderer. ... I should think it probable that the Esquimaux circled round the pole from Northern Siberia, which they would first reach on the dispersion of Noah's sons from Babel. They may be descendants of Javan, to whose name their word for tribe, 'kavani,' has some resemblance. All the races in this part of the world show evidence of having crossed from Asia by Behring's Straits, and the Tukudh have a tradition to that effect. These, as the nearest, must have been the last to cross, but their language is allied to that of the Chipewyan race, who must have preceded them, and who extend the whole breadth of the continent from Hudson Bay to the Pacific coast in British Columbia. The Crees must have preceded these, as they are beyond them to the south, and retain so many Eastern customs that they have been mistaken, like most other nations, for the so-called lost ten tribes of Israel."

Several years later, referring to these Eskimos, he wrote:

"Both the Rev. Mr. Canham and myself often showed the Esquimaux the Illustrated London News, when, on meeting with an elephant, they Would recognize it, apparently by its trunk, exclaiming 'Kaleh!' as an exclamation of surprise. The interpreter, an Esquimaux who speaks English well, told me that they knew the animal, because, though not now alive in their country, they thought it was not long since it was so, from finding its body or skeleton. As elephant bodies are known to have been found on the Siberian coasts, it is still less strange that they should be found near the Mackenzie, for the current sets eastward from Behring's Straits. The bodies might, however, lie embedded in the ice for thousands of years without decomposition, and may have been floated hither at the time of the flood."

His great friend among the Eskimos was the old chief, Shipataitook by name, who had at the first invited him to visit them, and had offered the missionary the use of his camp, and entertained and fed him with the greatest kindness and cordiality. To this old chief Mr. Bompas was indebted for his life not long after, and ever remembered him with the greatest affection.

When the ice had gone out of the Mackenzie River, the Eskimos began to move up stream to trade with the Hudson Bay Company at Fort McPherson, taking the missionary with them. It was a voyage of 250 miles, and much ice was encountered. For days they made slow progress and laboured hard. Then they became angry with one another, and also cast threatening glances upon the white man in their midst. They imagined that in some way he was the cause of all their trouble, and the angry glances were followed by threatening gestures, and Mr. Bompas saw that the situation was most critical. One night, after a day of unusually hard work, when little progress had been made, the natives became so hostile that Mr. Bompas feared they would take his life ere morning. But, notwithstanding the impending danger, the faithful servant committed himself to the Father's keeping, and, wearied out, soon fell asleep.

Old Shipataitook was to be reckoned with. He had taken a fancy to the brave young white man, and could not see him murdered without making an effort to save him. He had heard the threatening words, and when the plotters were about to fall upon their victim, he told them to wait, as he had something to tell them before they proceeded farther. Then he began a strange story, which, falling upon the ears of the naturally superstitious natives, had a great effect. He told them he had a remarkable dream the night before. They had moved up the river, and were almost at Fort McPherson, and as they approached they saw the banks lined with the Hudson Bay Company's men and Indians, all armed ready to shoot them down in the boats if they did not have the white man with them.

When this story was told, all plotting ceased, and in the morning, when Mr. Bompas awoke, he found no longer angry glances cast upon him, but the natives were attentive in their care.

On June 14 the ice left them and the river became clear, and without more detention they continued on their way, "and arrived safely, by God's help," says Mr. Bompas, "at Peel's River Fort on June 18, about midnight."

Here a most hearty welcome was given him by Mr. Andrew Flett, the officer in charge of the Fur Company's post, and of him Mr. Bompas wrote in the following words:

"His influence over the Esquimaux, as well as the Indians, has been very beneficial, for the whole time of his residence among them--now nearly ten years--and by consistent and honourable conduct, as well as by his attention to the duties of religion, he has done much to assist the work of the missionary. Of his personal kindness to myself I have had much experience during the past twelve months."

In this beautiful heartfelt testimony to the work and kindness of one man we see how the missionary was cheered in his great labour by earnest words of sympathy and an ever-open door of hospitality, where he could rest from his great journeys. To Mrs. Flett also Mr. Bompas was greatly indebted; for in his study of the Loucheux language she gave him much material aid. Upon the lay members of the Church of Christ devolves a noble work in cheering the hearts and upholding the hands of their leaders in their strenuous battle against the powers of darkness.

Never again was Mr. Bompas able to visit that band of Eskimos along the Mackenzie River, but he ever held them in mind, and often his heart went out to them, and he declared that "there was nothing warmer than the grasp of a Husky's hand."

But his visit had not been in vain. He had lived among them, and shared their humble camps, and, though they could not understand him, nor fully comprehend his message, yet they could understand his love for them, and long years after they spoke of him in the highest terms.

Bishop Stringer, who more than twenty years later travelled a good deal with Takachikima, son of Chief Shipataitook, says:

"Takachikima was a young boy at that time. Several times he asked me about the white man who lived with his father long ago, and he bemoaned the fact that they treated him so shamefully. 'Why would they not listen to him?' he used to say. 'We were like dogs. We know now what our fathers missed.' "

Project Canterbury