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Mission Life on the Labrador

From Mission Life, Vol. 1 (Sept. 1, 1866), pages 260-268.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006


PERHAPS there is no diocese which presents to the Christian missionary fewer attractions in the shape of worldly comforts and advantages than the diocese of Newfoundland. Long and sharp winters, with the thermometer often several degrees below zero, a black and barren soil, a very small stipend to live upon, and a protracted separation from dear relatives and friends;--these are amongst the trials and difficulties with which he has to contend. But having the grace of God in his heart, he is willing "to bear all things," and "endure all things" for his Saviour's sake, and the spiritual welfare of his fellow-creatures who dwell on those dreary shores. We are going to ask our readers to travel with us in imagination to the coldest part of this cold diocese, and to contemplate a small picture of mission life on the Labrador. The details of our picture will be drawn from an account furnished through the kindness of Archdeacon Kelly, by one of the students at the theological college at St John's, who has lately spent a winter and a spring on that inhospitable coast.

The Labrador lies upon the American mainland to the north of Canada and of Newfoundland, being separated from the latter by Belle-isle Strait. On approaching it from the sea, the total absence of verdure is very striking, There are no trees, no green fields, nothing but bare barren-looking rocks. The very sea itself is frozen over from December to April or May, and huge icebergs may be seen floating along even in the summer season of the year. One would scarcely expect to meet with any permanent residents in such a place, and yet little hamlets are to be found in almost every bay, and on many of the larger islands, containing on the whole a very considerable population. No English clergyman had ever visited this spot before the Bishop of Newfoundland landed in Fortune Bay on the 29th of July 1848. Finding the inhabitants entirely destitute of the means of grace, being as sheep without a shepherd, he made arrangements for the establishment of a mission amongst them, and in 1850 the Rev. H. P. Disney proceeded thither. In 1853 the bishop brought on Mr Disney's successor, the Rev. G. Hutchinson, and on the 10th July of the same year the first church was consecrated in the Labrador.

This particular mission, which we intend to describe, is now regularly visited by the bishop's schooner, the Hawk, on its quadrennial voyage of northern visitations. From Chateau or Henley Harbour, to Seal Islands, a distance of nearly ninety miles without counting the [260/262] indentations, which more than double the actual length of the seaboard, Mr Hutchinson's ministrations are performed. His head-quarters are at Battle Harbour, which is a small haven joined by "a tickle," or small creek, very narrow at its southern extremity, between Caribou Island and Battle Island. On the latter islet, which is not more than a mile in circumference, and stands opposite to the northern headland of St Lewis Bay, projected into the Atlantic, is built a small parsonage house and church, both of wood. The land rises into a ridge behind these buildings, and again on its eastern side descends to the Atlantic: here the incessant and often furious waves of the open sea have stripped the island of the thick moss and matted vegetation elsewhere found, and it presents a clear, rugged terrace of naked rock. There is a path from the parsonage leading over a wooden bridge and down a steep ravine into a valley, opening into Dead Drake Cove on the north shore, where is fenced off a portion for a consecrated graveyard. Climbing by a winding path to the east of this ravine, we reach a hill at whose foot is a level amphitheatre of deep particoloured moss, and there the missionary may be seen on Sunday evenings in the humble cabin, his labour finished, while the sun sets across the bay behind the blue hills. Such is our island; and add, that on the beach which edges the tickle there are a few rooms or fishers' splitting houses and drying flakes, and at the southern point the large establishment of a pork merchant, and you have a full description of the spot in which Mr Hutchinson has chosen to labour, instead of that comfortable English parsonage beneath the shadow of the Malvern Hills.


"The inhabitants of the mission," our friend informs us, "may be divided into two classes: those who are stationary, or rather born and brought up in the locality; and those who only come from Newfoundland in the summer, and live partly in small schooners and partly in the rude mud or wooden huts which they erect for shelter during the brief fishing season. While during the long winter the population does not exceed some nine hundred inhabitants, during the fishing months --June, July, August, and September--there are some ten thousand people in Mr Hutchinson's mission. This shifting population constitutes one of the greatest difficulties of a clergyman's work. The unsettled life and ceaseless labour of the crews, who either flit from cove to cove, or take up their quarters on the most projecting and often most inaccessible points of the shore, seem to distract their attention very much from the due observance of religious duties, and the education of their children. The life of even the native [262/263] fisherman is one continual hardship. He rises on Monday morning, and embarking in his frail codseine skiff, (that is, a boat which uses a net, and not the more ordinary hook and line,) he remains away from home till the following Saturday night: he and his companions, braving rain and cold, snatch a few hours' sleep at midnight on the rocks which happen to lie most convenient to their trawling ground. Their homes are rude huts, penetrated by the wind and weather, and apparently provided with but few comforts, often dirty and untidy, never neat and clean. They only take enough to supply the bare necessities of nature, in the way of food. The summer fisherman has often less comfort, and certainly less rest, than the perpetual resident, for he seems to count the inconveniences of the fishing season as nothing, so long as he makes a good voyage; and if you suggest any change in his dwelling or habits, he will tell you it is only for the summer.

"Mr Hutchinson, in order to minister to this scattered flock, has a small whale-boat, and hires summer by summer an experienced man and a boy to direct his voyages up and down the shore. When he reaches a harbour he has prayers, and performs what church rites emergency demands, and then pushes on. It is no voyage of pleasure even in the height of summer. The cruel reefs stretch around Battle Harbour, and the white water breaks over them all day long, and the icebergs sail by through the whole year, and chill the wind, so that it is seldom warm on the water: fogs are frequent, and the roughness of the ocean is terrible to unaccustomed eyes. Last summer twelvemonth fear and sorrow pervaded the shore, because it was reported that the mission-boat was lost: she had been seen out in a gale, which it was scarcely likely that she would ride out. Through God's providence, however, she was preserved, though at one time all hope of safety was given up.

"At Battle Harbour is a school for the free education of the poor children who dwell among the adjacent islands; for Battle Island is only one among the varied archipelago which lies to the south of St Lewis inlet. About thirty children come pretty regularly to be instructed in the low garret-like room which forms the second story of the parsonage-house directly over Mr Hutchinson's sitting and dining-room. The parents, however, do not seize the opportunity of education as they might, and many neglect sending their children, because their homes are no nearer than two miles from the place. The schoolmaster himself might sometimes be seen a little before school hours rowing, with the assistance of some sturdy scholar, a [263/264] whole boatful of little ones whom in his anxiety so teach he has collected from the shores of the surrounding islands. During the months of February and March 1865, the schoolroom was occupied by a frost-burnt man, who was brought twelve miles from an inland bay to be subjected to the best available surgical skill, and the school was accordingly held in the kitchen.

"But towards the end of October the aspect of the place changes, the southern vessels are returning, and soon leave the harbour quite empty: the last ship has left for England: the fishing is over, and even the native fisherman leaves the coast with his family, and retires up the deep bays which everywhere indent the shore: those of Battle Harbour and its neighbourhood seek the forests of St Lewis Inlet. This inlet presents a grand specimen of northern island scenery: the line of the landward, as the fisherman picturesquely calls the shore-line, winds and varies in altitude and character until into the head of the bay two mighty rivers disgorge themselves, while the whole surrounding scene is one dense mass of fine forest, quite still in winter, except that there is the perpetual murmur of the forest, " loquente sæpe sibilum edidit corâ," or the rush of a flying squirrel, and in the evening, the dull cry of the white owl. The fishermen settle in groups of three or four "tilts," (i.e., rude houses full of crannies and clefts, and warmed by an immense stove.) They choose the thickest woods, cut fuel for summer consumption or for sale, build boats, comitiques, turn rackets, make oars, &c. The winter missionary journeys up the bay, and visits them all consecutively, having prayers, and administering, where necessary, the other rites and ordinances of the church. He travels either in a comitique or on snow-shoes or rackets. The comitique is a low sleigh, raised from the ground on runners, shod with ivory or whalebone, and barred by horizontal boards looped transversely on the runners: it is often fourteen feet long and nine inches from the ground. Dogs are used to draw it, fourteen being considered a full team. I remember going a journey of twelve miles to bring a frost-burnt man to the parsonage. An Indian driver and a servant from the room accompanied me. The dogs were in good condition, great lusty fellows, baying like a pack of hounds, and moving so fast that the dry powdery snow flew round us like dust on a turnpike road. A beautiful and intelligent-looking animal, the swiftest of course of the team, was harnessed as leader, and curveted all the way like a spirited leading horse in a tandem gig. She kept constantly turning her head back, and watching the slightest motion of [264/266] the driver. At the word 'ûk' she would start off to the right, and 'arrar' would send her off to the left. The greatest danger is that of being frost-burnt, especially if there is any wind. My nose and cheek were frequently discovered by the attentive Indian to be turning white, and had to be recovered by rubbing snow on them.

"The dogs are very savage and unruly. An old servant on the Merchant's Room who went out one night, not fearing the team of which he had charge, although they, like all Labrador dogs, were at large all night, was, after the fashion of Actæon, devoured by his own pack, the animals not recognising him in his nightcap. The driver even with his ten-feet whip has little or no command over his dogs when they are well advanced on a journey, and are consequently hungry. There is a woman in Battle Harbour who relates how she barely escaped with her life from such a team. When her husband was sick in the winter, some twenty-five miles from the Merchant's Room, she sent for medicine, and was daily expecting it by the Room comitique. At length she walked out into the bay to see if there were any signs of its arrival. She heard the sound of dogs, and presently round a projecting wood the team swept into view. She, being a Newfoundlander, and unaccustomed to the dogs, imprudently rushed to meet them. 'Arrar, Arrar,' and off they went to the right. The poor woman saw this, and thought the driver had forgotten to call. She attempted to intercept them again; the dogs caught sight of her; with a loud cry they redoubled their speed, despite of the threats and remonstrances of the driver, and springing upon her, knocked her down. The Indian took his heavy-handed whip, flung himself over the body of the woman, and beat them off, but not before she had received thirty bites on different parts of her body.


"The terrible drift, if it comes down in a sudden storm upon travellers, often causes the loss of their dogs, and not unfrequently of their own lives. Two men, journeying from Chateau to Battle Harbour, were overtaken by a storm and fierce wind, the glass being about minus 14. A half-blood Indian and an Englishman they were, and when within seven miles of their destination the Indian fell off the cart. He was lifted on again by his companion, and after a while could only be kept on his seat by being lashed on with sealskin thongs. He was frozen dead on reaching Battle Harbour. There are numberless stories of this kind. The lives of a travelling party sometimes seem to be saved by the sagacity of the dogs, who run at full speed, as if they, too, felt the terrible danger of their situation [266/267] through pitch darkness and sweeping drift, and most frequently bring their master safely to his home again. A fisherman, however, told me that once his dogs were at fault in a fearful snow-storm, and, after resigning himself to their care for four or five hours, he began to judge, from the gentle heaving and groaning of the ice over which he was passing, that they had carried him out to sea. He stopped, therefore, wrapped himself up and slept. And so it was. On the following morning, which rose bright and clear and calm after the storm, he descried Battle Island purple in the distance, and hastily returned thither.

"The storms are still more fatal to pedestrian travellers. Through the deepest drifts the snow-shoes enable one to walk, and men are always moving from place to place in this manner, so that the missionary has never any difficulty in securing a director. 'He always had a weak spirit,' said a fisherman who was describing to me the loss of a comrade--Webster. He was a deserter from a regiment in St John's who had travelled a long distance to obtain food for his starving family, and was found, excepting his feet, covered all over with snow. ' He always had a weak spirit,' and I am sure that there is nothing which requires a stronger spirit and more determination, than travelling with heavy Eskimo rackets through the deep snow, with a desperate drowsiness stealing over the senses, and the drift and the cutting wind baffling your progress and stinging your face, and finally, the thought that you are some ten houseless miles from home."

Such may give our readers a faint idea of the missionary life on the Labrador. Strange as it may seem, these perils and hardships, terrible as they are in reality, do not appear half so terrible, nor the isolation and privations half so trying to one actually enduring them, as to him who tries to realise them through the medium of narration. The missionary does not feel the personal inconveniencies so long as he has attentive congregations and a devout flock; and the perils and difficulties of a long journey are often well repaid by the hearty welcome he meets with, and the gratitude with which his teaching is received.

There are a few Indians at Battle Harbour, who have come from the Moravian missions to the north--Nain and Hopedale. The student to whom we are indebted for the facts of this account, says that he had four of their children in his school. They seem to be rapidly dying out among the European families. Perhaps civilisation has an enervating effect on those whose former life has been one [267/268] restless, incessant battle for subsistence with the ragged powers of Nature in the north. At Christmas tide, the only Eskimo who could speak English died. "I shall not soon forget," adds our friend, "seeing him dying on the floor, and his sad countrymen grouped round singing a hymn,--the air of it was shrill and simple, taught them, probably, by the Dutch missionaries. I buried Benjamin on Holy Innocent's day, and soon after, the child of his brother."

But what is wanting in Battle Harbour is a boarding-school, which might be supported by the contributions of the people who would place their children there, for at present only a small moiety of the rising generation receive any instruction at all.

The Bishop of Newfoundland intends to visit England shortly, with the hope of exciting a greater interest in the wants of his much-tried diocese, and especially to raise an endowment fund for the Theological College at St John's, which, in the present dearth of men from England, must be his mainstay for the supply of future missionaries. A Vice-Principal of this college is now being sought for. Archdeacon Kelly, in a letter to the writer of this says, "A young man of fair ability, who had taken his degree at Oxford or Cambridge, would find it in many ways an interesting and, I hope, a pleasant post. There are six students, and the stipend the Bishop can offer is £100 a year, with board and rooms in the college. Do you know of any man who would come to us for three years? It would, I venture to say, be never a subject of regret to any young clergyman to have spent three years of his life in such a glorious way. If more assistance does not come to us, missions will become vacant, as we shall have no men to fill them with, and the people will fall a prey to Romanism, or, what is worse still, to no religion at all."

Would that this earnest appeal, borne home by God's Holy Spirit, might reach the hearts of some of our readers, and that they would accept the call now made to them, to go over and help those who are labouring for the spiritual welfare of Newfoundland and the Labrador, and show their inhabitants, who are now living in ignorance and sin, the strait and narrow road that leads to life eternal. Amen.

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