Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of E.J. Peck
Among the Eskimos
by the Rev. Arthur Lewis, M.A.

New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1904.

Chapter XII. Daybreak in Cumberland Sound

"There shall be no night there"

WHEN the two whalers, that called unexpectedly at Blacklead Island on October 10, sailed away to more genial climes, the weather began to wax more severe; the nights became longer, the days shorter; the ice formed and came closer and closer round the island, and silence, as far as the outer world was concerned, fell upon the little station. "Quis separabit" may be a good motto for the largest shipping company of the world, but the question will hardly bear a satisfactory answer as regards the navigation of Arctic seas in the winter.

The long dreary winter, the darkness that overshadows an Arctic station, and the complete isolation in which it is cut off, might almost be taken as symbolic of the degradation of life of the inhabitants, of the spiritual darkness of the kingdom of Satan, and of the power of sin to separate from the joys of the Sun of Righteousness.

And as the two messengers of Light settled down to their work in this condition of things, we can readily suppose that the words of Christ after His Resurrection, "As my Father hath sent Me, even so send I you," must have been comforting to them. Whether or not they recognized the likeness between Him, Who left His home on high for a world of darkness, and themselves, it is possible for the onlooker or the reader to do so.

In Mr. Peck's diary we find entries concerning the weather from time to time, which certainly would not encourage the pleasure-seeker to shape his course for Cumberland Sound. In the beginning of November we read of six degrees below zero, then of twenty. Again, by November 23, twenty-eight degrees below zero are registered, and then is the significant note: "I am told that over fifty degrees below zero is not uncommon here." A few days later the sea was frozen over near "our island home, and we can now walk on the ice. This is a great treat, as the walking on our rocky island is really most trying."

The darkness and the cold ran a race together. It is a constant thing to read of lamps being required nearly the whole day. In the latitude of Blacklead Island the sun is not wholly obscured for the whole of any one day in the winter; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that on the shortest day he does just rise above the horizon, for he may be obscured by bad weather. On December 19: "The days are very short now; the sun was first seen at 11.25 a.m., and set again at 12.30 p.m." And once more, early in the following month, it is: "No sun to-day. We do miss his genial rays. But Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness, does not leave us without His soul-reviving presence."

Mr. Peck's notes on December 21, when the weather happened to be bright and clear, were: "On this the shortest day I was able to watch the course of the sun and take observations. At no time of day did we see the full orb of the sun. The upper portion could be seen altogether for about one hour and ten minutes; the half orb was visible about fifteen minutes, and threequarters for about ten minutes." The weather was very cold; the thermometer stood about 25° below zero, and there was a strong wind. During the night the sky was ablaze with the Aurora and countless brilliant stars.

But cold and ice and darkness were not the only trials of life in that little Arctic community. Want of provisions, owing to the failure of the fishing, had brought the Eskimos and their dogs to a condition of starvation. There is, however, a joyful entry on November 3: "A whale has been caught to-day. Thank God for it. This monster of the deep will more than supply the needs of all."

The total length of this huge creature was about 50 feet, the height was fully 15, and the breadth of the tail was 12 feet. The thickness of blubber in some places measured 12 inches.

Soon the dogs and people were feasting away to their heart's content, and the latter were quite elated at the prospect of having many a good meal.

Whale-skin, which is called muktak, is considered to be a dainty dish, and when the whale was caught the missionaries looked forward with pleasure to their first meal of this delicacy as likely to give them an agreeable change of diet. But the result was not apparently so pleasurable as had been anticipated. The only remark Mr. Peck makes about it is: "Mr. Parker and I had our first meal of muktak. It is about an inch thick and of a dark colour. When boiled, it is fairly palatable."

A little later, in the middle of November, several seals were caught. The Eskimos seemed to be always ready to share their good things with their European friends. On November 16 the diary says: "They very kindly brought us several pieces of seal's meat. We cut this up in steaks and then fry it. As it is considered a capital preventive of scurvy we think it wise to use it freely, and when well cooked it is certainly more digestible than canned meats." But though the wants of the Eskimos were thus provided for a time, the food supply seemed to be precarious. Bad weather did its work continually in bringing the people to the verge of starvation.

It has been mentioned that early in the year 1895 the sun failed them altogether. The date of that entry in the diary is January 8. Well, for days and weeks after that there are gloomy reports of the weather. "Blowing and drifting again. I could not go far in the driving snow, but managed to crawl into four Eskimo dwellings which were close to our house, and speak a few words for the Saviour." Again, on January 19, it is "a wild day. So heavy was the storm that we could not gather the people together, so we spent the day in study and communion with God."

Not only was this continuously stormy weather a hindrance to the teaching of the people, but time after time it prevented the fishing, and caused much anxiety to the missionaries and great suffering from hunger to the Eskimos. It is perhaps difficult for us who dwell in the lands of regular sowing and reaping to realize that we live in dependence upon the promise of God that seed-time and harvest should not cease. But if our lot were cast in the icy lands above the latitude of 65°, we should probably put our hearts into the petition: "Give us this day, and day by day, our daily bread."

Who is proof, under the pressure of continued gloom, against despondency? Elijah was not; John the Baptist was not; Timothy was not. Thus we need not be surprised, but all our sympathy should be awakened when we read: "From Sunday the 20th to Saturday the 26th was a season of much trial and deep spiritual conflict. We have had such a number of wild days lately that our poor people (some 170 being now on the island) were not able to catch seals, and consequently were in great need. Some of them, wishing to propitiate their evil spirits, commenced their conjuring practices, thinking their incantations would have the desired effect of changing the weather. I spoke to them at our meeting of the power and love of God, and exhorted them to repent and turn to Jesus if they desired His great salvation. Thank God, some gave heed to the word spoken; but no one (I imagine) except ourselves can fully understand our position. We are here in the depth of a trying winter, in the midst of a starving and heathen people, without human sympathy or support. No wonder the Prince of Darkness tries to shake our faith. No wonder at times anxious thoughts rush into our minds."

Again, towards the end of January, the people were reduced to straits from hunger. The missionaries brought the needs of the people before God in prayer, and asked Him, who brought the fishes to the net of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, to give the people of Blacklead Island success in hunting. "We had," Mr. Peck writes, in consequence, "the joy of seeing five seals brought home." But the joy was balanced by anxiety of a fresh kind. "To our great sorrow and dismay we were told that some of the people had been driven out to sea on a field of ice. We are praying earnestly to God for them." But a trial of this kind was but the leading of God for those who were in danger. They remained on their ice-floe all night, and one of them at least, as a result, was thus led to pray to the God of whom the messengers of the Gospel had spoken. His prayer was repeated: "O God, save me, for I am in great danger." In the morning they noticed, to their great joy, that new ice had formed between them and Blacklead Island, and although it actually bent under their weight, they succeeded in escaping from their perilous position.

During this time of privation the missionaries adopted the plan of inviting one family to tea every day. This alone must have made some considerable inroad upon their stores, and shows the need of a plentiful supply such as was to some extent mentioned in detail in the last chapter. "After tea," Mr. Peck writes, "I take our large English Bible and explain to them that this is the Book which God has given to teach men the way to heaven. A suitable portion is then translated and explained. Before we part they kneel down, and we have prayer together. Poor people! they do seem so grateful, and we may well believe that their hearts are being drawn to Jesus."

The Eskimos were not the only living creatures that suffered from hunger. Their dogs as well were brought near to starvation. This the missionaries found to their cost. The dogs had not been invited to tea with their masters, so they thought it well to help themselves.

On January 23 "we were startled," writes Mr. Peck, "at about 3 a.m. by a pack of hungry dogs. These creatures had managed to climb up on the roof of our skin church, and to our dismay were tearing the edifice to pieces. Hastily slipping on our fur coats, Mr. Parker and I rushed out in the bitter cold. Here in the dim light we could make out our position. We were literally besieged by dogs, and they must in all have numbered over a hundred. Most of them were on the roof, some had fallen through, others were devouring pieces of sealskin, and altogether such a confused mass of dogs--young, old, bruised and wounded--it would be hard to find anywhere else. After a sharp battle we managed to put these unwelcome visitors to flight, and then we had the pleasure of contemplating the mischief the starving brutes had done."

We have heard fairly often of churches being destroyed by fire or tempest, or even by earthquake, but probably this instance is unique when one was devoured by dogs. Some years after, when the incident was told to a class of girls in Scotland, one lassie remarked "Now that we have heard of a kirk being eaten by dogs, it is not hard to believe that a whale could have swallowed Jonah."

Happily the damage was speedily repaired, and the church was, at least, rendered sufficiently proof against wind and cold for services to be held there on the next Sunday.

Though the darkest days of the year were days of trial, there was much cause for thankfulness. The people had learned to regard the missionaries as friends; they had taken in a great deal of instruction, and some at least had, as far as the eye of man could see, been drawn nearer to God in Christ.

Of a party of Eskimos who left Blacklead Island on February 25, Mr. Peck mentions one, a woman named Padlo, who had been a regular attendant at the services, and could read in her own tongue portions of God's Holy Word. In her case he expresses the earnest hope that she may become a missionary among her own people wherever her journeyings may take her.

A little later, too, we are told of the progress of the children; how several can read and answer correctly when questioned about the leading truths of Christianity. And so, as days lengthened, hope was strong that the true spiritual light that light-eth every man that cometh into the world was really shining. Even though the nights were long, yet Arctic darkness had its special hope, as on March 10, a glorious night, when an eclipse took place. After that phenomenon "the stars shone with a wondrous lustre, and the northern lights (Aurora Borealis), which were of every conceivable tint of the most exquisite colours, flitted across the heavens." Such a scene as this seems to speak promises of the time when there shall be no night over the frozen wastes of the Eskimos, when the people who sit in darkness and the shadow of death shall see a great light, when those who are blinded by sin shall have their eyes opened to behold Him who said, "I am the Bright and Morning Star"?

By the end of April Mr. Peck felt that Mr. Parker had made such progress with the language and in knowledge of the people that he could be left alone. Accordingly, he made preparations for a journey to Kikkerton, Mr. Noble's second whaling station. Forethought was very necessary, for many things were wanted to make a prolonged absence possible. The list is given by Mr. Peck:--

"Preparing for journey. As I shall have to live in the open-air for some considerable time, I have to provide various requisites: (i) A tent. This we are having made of canvas, and will be about 8 feet long, 6 high, and 6 broad. (2) Provisions. (3) Cooking appliances. As there is no firewood to be found in these parts I am taking a small lamp and some methylated spirit. (4) Clothing and bedding. These consist of a complete suit of fur and a sleeping-bag, the inside of the latter being made of reindeer skin, and the outside of sealskin. (5) Sledge and dogs, together with supplies for my Eskimo companion."

The start was made on May 4, although there was a strong wind blowing from the north to impede progress. However, after a hard day's travel a group of snow-houses between some rugged rocks was reached in safety. Mr. Peck took up his quarters with an old man and his wife. Their iglo was hospitable, but not pleasant for a fastidious taste. The house was in a most filthy state, blood, blubber, and pieces of seal's meat being thrown about in all directions. "I made, however," the missionary says, "the best of my not over-comfortable abode, and tried to make the portion of the house allotted to me as clean as possible."

Experiences among the Eskimos, as was seen when we looked into their homes in Hudson's Bay, were not always pleasant; and at a later date during this Kikkerton journey, Mr. Peck again remarks:--

"I witness strange sights in these Eskimo dwellings--an Eskimo feast, for instance, being by no means uncommon. Imagine a seal, fresh from the sea, laid on the floor of a hut, surrounded by a number of hungry people all armed with knives ready for the fray. The seal is cut open down the middle, the skin taken off, and the carcase roughly cut up; pieces of the gory flesh and blubber are then devoured with the greatest avidity, and soon the mass of meat vanishes away."

Sunday, May 5, was spent in working among the people of this village. There were six houses in all, and we are given some description of the inhabitants of each of them; "Spent the day in work for my Saviour. Six snow-houses formed our Eskimo village. The inmates of the house in which I lived showed little desire for instruction, but I tried to lay before them God's message of love and mercy. In the next house a conjuror with his wife and family resided. Spoke to them about God's love and goodness. They listened with some attention to our message. The next dwelling contained four inhabitants; one, a young woman, was very encouraging. The mother of this young person also spoke very nicely, and I felt really thankful to God for inclining their hearts to listen to the Gospel. In the next house I found a poor man with his wife. The former is suffering from a painful and incurable disease. I tried to point him to Jesus, the Fountain of life, blessing, and comfort. In the next habitation I found another conjuror with his wife and family, and spoke to them of the Saviour's love. I passed into the next dwelling, where I found a man with his wife who were very favourably disposed, and who listened to our words with evident interest. I gathered the children together during the day, and found them bright, intelligent, and most eager to learn."

On May 6 Kikkerton was reached about 7 p.m., and Mr. Mutch, who was stationed here, kindly received Mr. Peck. He had, however, no sleeping accommodation to offer him, so it was a case of living in his tent during his stay.

The visit to this station was distinctly encouraging and interesting. The people came together in large numbers to hear the Word of God and for instruction. And there was unlimited room in the church for all to gather together who would. It certainly was Catholic in the sense that none need be shut out. We have looked into the iron church at Whale River, and we have seen the skin and whalebone church of Blacklead Island, and we have read the fate that overtook it. But at Kikkerton we see one which was more commodious than either of these, cheaper to erect, and proof against attacks of dogs, or fire or earthquake. We will hear Mr. Peck describe his own edifice: "Having no house in which the people could assemble, I requested some Eskimos to build a large circular wall of snow, about 6 feet high, to keep out the piercing wind. The seats--if such I may call them--were made of square blocks of snow, which were placed close to the snow wall. This was our Arctic church. Our service consisted of hymns and prayer, and I then told them some simple Scriptural truths. What a strange sight these walls of snow, with nothing between us in an upward direction but the blue heavens! Truly the angels of God might look down upon such a gathering with wonder and joy."

Here then the people met on Sunday. "Many came, and we had a grand time. Services generally lasted about an hour. Some friends might perhaps be disposed to blame me for remaining so long in the open-air with only a wall of snow for protection; but there is no alternative. There is not a fragment of wood or anything else here to make a more suitable meeting-place; but God has not failed to strengthen me wonderfully to bear the cold."

But it must be admitted the church of this kind even has some disadvantage, for on May 27 it was snowing all day.

"I could not, therefore, hold meetings in the open-air, and so visited from house to house. In one dwelling I had the pleasure of meeting one of the Eskimos who had heard the Gospel at Blacklead Island during the winter. When I spoke to the people he warmly seconded my remarks, and spoke very kindly of our work." This is not a solitary instance of the effect of work previously done. For on another day, "I was cheered by meeting two of the people who had heard much of Jesus from one of the Blacklead Island Eskimos." ... "There are wonderful signs from time to time of God's blessing and ready help, and one would be faint-hearted indeed to doubt the power and presence of our God."

The missionary had been taking his meals with Mr. Noble's agent. But after some days Mr. Peck writes: "Mr. Mutch left to-day, so I am, in a measure, thrown on my own resources. Had tea in tent this evening. Bread was frozen quite hard, so I had to chop off pieces, and altogether I made but a poor meal."

But the next day "I had a more satisfactory meal than that of previous day, experience having taught me a lesson. The frozen bread I wrapped in a towel and took to bed with me the previous night, and through the heat generated in my fur bag it was quite thawed by the morning. Snow was melted by one of the Eskimo and brought to me; this was finally, by means of my methylated-spirit lamp, brought to the boiling point, and I soon had the pleasure of drinking a cup of hot cocoa, which beverage, by-the-bye, is most acceptable in these cold regions. It is certainly preferable to either tea or coffee, on account of its sustaining properties."

Towards the end of May: "The weather is now, I am thankful to say, getting warmer, and I slept quite comfortably last night in my tent. The bread in my box is also beginning to thaw, so there is much to be thankful for."

It is indeed well for the dwellers in Arctic regions that the kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink.

So the nights became shorter, or practically did not exist, for on May 28 the sun was actually shining about eighteen hours out of the twenty-four, and the remaining six hours were bright twilight, scarcely distinguishable from day. But this meant weakness of ice, and consequently the near impossibility of travelling across the sea. So on June 6 Mr. Peck had to make a start on his return journey to Black-lead Island.

His account of the journey is as follows: "We made our way over the vast ice-field which stretches right across the Sound. We followed in many places the track of sledges which had passed over the same ice. But at last, to our dismay, we saw that the ice had been carried away, and that the open water extended in a more northerly direction. We were therefore obliged to alter our course, and after a hard day's travelling we succeeded in reaching the edge of the ice floe on the opposite side. Here we found two boats, the crews of which were engaged in the whale fishery. The boats were secured to the edge of the ice, and we were almost inclined to go and sleep in them for the night. After prayerful consideration, however, we thought it wiser to go to some Eskimos who were encamped close to the land. These people received us very kindly, and, with the help of our methylated-spirit lamp, a cup of tea was soon ready, and we attacked our evening meal with an appetite which only an Arctic traveller, perhaps, can understand."

On the next day "there was a strong wind blowing from the north. We looked for the boats we had seen the previous day, but the ice, to which they had been fastened, had all disappeared. What a mercy we did not carry out our intention of staying in the boats! For, although we should probably have been safe enough, what would have become of our sledge and dogs? As the wind was strong we rigged up a sail, and drove along before the gale at a brisk rate. After going some distance, however, we had to haul close to the wind and keep in near to the land, as we found the ice weak in many places. We almost caught a seal which was basking in the sun. The creature was asleep, and allowed us to get nearly within gunshot before it awoke. When it raised its head my Eskimo companion began yelling in a most unearthly manner, and the seal, quite surprised with the noise, and looking about to see what was the matter, almost forgot his own means of safety. However, he slipped into his hole in the ice just as the dogs were on top of him.

"We did not reach Blacklead Island before two a.m. on Saturday morning. I was surprised to see many people out and about, and they gave me a warm welcome. Right glad I was to meet my friend and brother, Mr. Parker, and to hear good accounts of his welfare and work."

And so this tour and sojourn of a month's duration came to an end, and there is a pleasing retrospect: "I think of my stay at Kikkerton with feelings of gratitude to God. Many have heard the Gospel, a few can read, and several have reading sheets in hand which they have promised to learn during my absence." The great difficulty in dealing with Eskimos, as with all people, is to overcome the first obstacle, and convince the people that they are sinners who stand in need of a Saviour.

"Often when I speak of man's lost, fallen state to the Eskimos they make remarks which show that they--if any people under heaven---ought not to be placed in the list of sinners. Some remark, when I mention the various sins to which they are addicted, 'But I do not steal,' 'I do not commit adultery,' etc., etc. Others, again--not, I must confess, without just cause--refer to the sins of white men who have visited them from time to time, and they naturally reason that if they are specimens of the religion we have come to teach the Eskimos might just as well remain as they are."

Happy it is for the missionary to reflect that all things are possible with God, and that it is not his work to convince of sin, but the work of the Holy Ghost whom Christ sends into the world through the medium of His willing messengers.

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