1788: Meares in the Nootka zone, and the limitations of proto-Nootka Jargon

A hat tip to Dr. Peter Bakker for nudging me to more fully explore British maritime fur-trader John Meares’ journals…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (Image credit: Wikipedia)

That is, “Voyages made in the years 1788 and 1789 from China to the north west coast of America: To which are prefixed an introductory narrative of a voyage performed in 1786 from Bengal in the ship Nootka, observations on the probable existence of a north west passage, and some account of the trade between the north west coast of America and China, and the latter country and Great Britain” by Meares, John, 1756?-1809 (London: Logographic Press, 1790). 

By following that link, you’ll arrive at a fully readable copy of the book, pre-highlighted by me with all references to “Comekela”.

That’s the name of one important person to focus on. Comekela was a young Nuučaan’uɬ man, a brother of Chief Maquinna; he had been brought to Canton, China, in 1786 on board the Sea Otter, which was captained by James Hanna (?-1787), the first White person to visit the Pacific Northwest for the purpose of trading in furs. (Thus Meares’s visit there was very early in the maritime fur-trade period, and consequently his narrative must be about the earliest document of any pidgin that may have existed here.)

In Meares’ journal we see Comekela brought back to Vancouver Island after a couple years of cosmopolitan living among Euro-Americans, Chinese, Lascars (sailors from India and/or Southeast Asia), and Hawai’ian people. His presence had linguistic consequences for Meares’s dealings with Pacific Northwest Native people. 

However, what I think we find in Meares’s book is a report of a contact situation in which there was no established pidgin language. Instead, the non-Native visitors appear to have mastered only a few Indigenous words. They and the Nuučaan’uɬ (and Alutiiq) people had a very hard time understanding much of anything in the way of detailed and abstract information. You’ll see, in what follows, that most of the information noted by the Whites is stuff that could have been conveyed with a heavy reliance on gestures, and on Comekela’s translation help. 

Having laid out this backdrop of information, I’d like to turn to the text of Meares’s journal now. There’s actually quite little overt language data in it, although what’s there is precious indeed. As I typically do, I’ll try to list any observations of linguistic significance.


In the more or less prefatory pages centred around page xiv, in the autumn of 1786 the Native people of Prince William Sound, Alaska, are perceived by the English visitors as unacquainted with the Russians although a Russian brigade soon appears. They demonstrate their knowledge of the word English and of various British and/or American ships’ crew, and “cried out their usual manner, laulè-laulé, or friend, friend, and extended wide their arms as a token of amity.” (These were Alutiiq people, a branch of the “Eskimoan” language family, but I haven’t located this word in the online Alutiiq dictionary.) On page xxviii, a young woman is sold to the ship’s crew, who hope to learn something of the local language, but of course she turns out to be a captive/slave from a tribe to the “south”, perhaps an Eyak or a Tlingit. 

Page 2 (January 1788) — The crews of Meares’s ships Iphigenia and Felice are “Europeans and China-men”, apparently 40 of the former and 50 of the latter. It’s a virtual guarantee that these men’s shipboard — and then for many months onshore Nootka — lingua franca was Chinese Pidgin English! On page 4 we learn that a chief “Tianna” from Hawai’i is part of the expedition, and that an “American” (Comekela) is to be repatriated to Vancouver Island. In this era, both are referred to as “Indians”. 

Page 108 begins the narrative of the PNW visit, arriving at “Friendly Cove” in “King George’s Sound” in Nuučaan’uɬ country on Vancouver Island. On page 109 the traders learn from sub-chief “Hannapa” that chief “Maquilla” and “Callicum” (known to Europeans from previous explorers’ written accounts) are away “on a visit of ceremony to [chief] Wicananish” to the south. (I.e. to the southeast along the Vancouver Island coastline.) 

Page 110: Comekela’s intention to visit ashore “was soon communicated to the village”.

A well-known word comes up on page 113: Chiefs Maquinna and Callicum return in large canoes full of rowers. “They paddled round our ship twice in this manner, uniformly rising up when they came to the stern, and calling out the word wacush, wacush, or friends.” Stonham’s dictionary of present-day Nuučaan’uɬ tells us that this is a word borrowed from the northern Vancouver Island language, Kwak’wala (so it may be part of a very old tradition of Indigenous intercultural contact), and it’s one that seems to come up repeatedly in early Euro-American contacts with the “Nootka” peoples. 

May 25, 1788 (page 114) — Meares understands Maquinna to have granted permission for his crew to build “an house” on the chief’s lands, and to have promised to help the fur traders in their enterprise, including protecting whatever crew were going to be left behind at this location. 


Page 120 is one of several junctures where Meares contributes acute observations about the Indigenous people’s trading habits, which clearly distinguish gift-giving from obligatorily reciprocal exchanges, bound up with traditional “displays of pride and hospitality”. (Thus, what in near-future years came to be known in Chinuk Wawa terms as “potlatches” and “cultus potlatches“.) The former, as well as the European-dominated initial trades made, with standardized “prices”, are quickly replaced with the latter, under the Natives’ agency; “After some little time they changed the whole order of their traffic with us” (pages 119-120). 

Page 120: Meares is called by the chiefs at Nootka the “tighee, or Captain”. (Known to us later in Chinuk Wawa as táyí ‘chief; leader; boss’.) It is also “hinted” by these Native people that once their current supply of furs runs out, they will make a new hunting expedition. 

Pages 120-121 make the observation that even though the Nootka Sound people have by now received many ships’ visits, there’s no sign of Euro-American goods in their village. Meares is at a loss to understand how they have “contrived, in so short a time, to dissipate their treasures”, but to us it seems clear that the “Nootka” folks exploited their monopoly on the imported items in trades with other tribes. 

Comekela, page 121 remarkably tells us, had in his absence from North America “become very deficient in his native tongue, and he now spoke such a jargon [sic] of the Chinese, English, and Nootkan languages, as to be by no means a ready interpreter between us and the natives”. That is, he had presumably picked up Chinese Pidgin English, and mixed in some of his native Nuučaan’uɬ, into a pidgin-style speech used with the Felice crew — but this pidgin was not understood by his family and tribe! This valuable observation meshes well with my recent observation that even 7 and 8 years later, what we think of as “the” “Nootka Jargon” was still only a rather unstructured and inconsistent medium

Page 122 tells of a Native messenger informing the mariners that Maquinna is about to give them a “very superb present”. This turns out to involve Maquinna and his sub-chiefs visiting, dressed in all the European-style clothing that they have access to, with their hair braided and powdered like late-1700s White gentlemen, tipping their hats and using the few random English words they have picked up in a show of the fur traders’ best manners! Some furs are eventually produced and traded for. 

On June 7 (page 123), the ship’s cooper’s grindstone has been stolen, which has happened to previous European visitors, who have an understanding that the Native people believe these stones have great supernatural power. A reward is offered to the Indigenous people for its return. 

On page 124, a canoe of visiting strangers arrives, and they have in their possession some property, and perhaps a body part, of Mr. Millar of the Imperial Eagle. The crew want to take violent revenge on these men, but chief Maquinna winds up assuring them that these items were gotten in trade from the people of “Queenhythe” (Quinault/Taholah, Washington), where several of that ship’s men were killed. Running into page 125, we find that Maquinna has difficulty expressing himself clearly to the mariners, showing “manifest confusion”, i.e. saying apparently contradictory things. (Compare this with the frequent White supposition that PNW Indigenous people were constantly lying to them, despite the fact that the Whites understood extremely little of the languages being spoken.) 

Wicananish visits the ship on page 125, inviting the mariners to his village and promising many furs. 

On page 126, the houses at Friendly Cove disappear as if by magic; Maquinna explains that they are being transferred to a different place for seasonal fishing in preparation for the winter. 


On page 127, a pinnace (a large boat) is discovered to be missing, and a reward for its return is offered to the Native people. On the next page Maquinna is warned not to allow any such further thefts to happen. 

Quite nice “Nootka Jargon” (pidginized Nuučaan’uɬ) syntactic and lexical data show up on page 130: In a visit by the mariners to Maquinna, “We made him understand that it would be three or four months before our ship would return, and about what time we supposed the vessel on the stocks would be launched. They called the latter Mamatlee [a Nuučaan’uɬ-origin word] or ship, and the former Tighee Mamatlee, or great ship.” 

[DDR: I don’t find this word in the modern Nuuchahnulth or Makah dictionaries that I have. But the similar suffix for ‘out on the water’, known to us in the word ma-maɬn’i ‘White person’ (lit. ‘dwelling on the sea’), occurs in compound words for ‘boats’ in the T’aat’aaqsapa Cultural Dictionary. Examples: nipniit-maɬn’i ‘mission boat’ (nipniit ‘priest’ from Chinuk Wawa), mamak-maɬn’i ‘cash buyer’ (boat that comes around to buy fish), ʕaaʕaak-maɬn’i ‘packer’. Anyway, this < Tighee Mamatlee > would be something like *táyí-mamaɬi*, matching the known syntactic pattern in the earliest known Chinuk Wawa that seemingly used the Nuuchahnulth-origin word for ‘chief’, táyí, to mean the biggest or best exemplar of a thing. An example of that is the ‘chief beads‘ in the Lewis & Clark journals.]  


< ti-a, co-mo-shack > or chief’s beads (image credit: Wikipedia)

Maquinna was requested to take care of the crew left behind with the ship under construction, and be kind to them. On the next page Maquinna reaffirms the “treaty of friendship” already made with Meares’s people, and amazes them by asking for a written letter to be given to a captain who he is told is soon to visit. It’s later realized that this tribe had previously had a Mr. “Maccay” among them for 14 months, keeping a journal, which is why they know of the existence of writing. The following pages tell how surgeon’s mate McKaye (?) came to be voluntarily left under Maquinna’s protection in 1786 by the ships Captain Cook and Experiment, out of Bombay, India, and captained by Mr. Strange, in order to learn enough of the Nuučaan’uɬ language and culture to benefit future trading. (His eventual departure was aboard the Imperial Eagle.) Meares has read McKaye’s journal; has it been published, I wonder? 

Callicum returns on page 133, displaying some brass cricket-bat-shaped (!) objects with botanist Sir Joseph Banks’s name & coat of arms on them. Gifts from Captain Cook’s 3rd and final voyage, which visited here in 1778?


Sailing near the location of Wicananish’s village, the mariners take on board the neighbouring (sub-?) chiefs “Hanna” (is the name due to Captain Hanna’s visit?) and “Detootche”, who give “very friendly invitations” to their lands and urge that the ship enter the cluster of islands nearby to reach the shore. 

On page 137 Wicananish sends a message inviting the mariners to a “feast” at his vast house. His village is about 3 times larger than Maquinna’s. 

Page 140: On being presented with some blankets and two copper teakettles, which the Native people obviously view as rare treasures, Maquinna has 50 men bring large otter skins in exchange, and makes a speech to the effect that these are his return gift.

Wicananish “requested our attendance on shore to engage in a barter for furs” (page 141). 

Soon after this, a Native canoe not from Wicananish’s village tries to approach the ship to trade, and is prevented from doing so. 


Page 145: Wicananish is angered to find that the mariners arm themselves when the Natives visit on board, and refuses to trade personally with them, as well as forbidding his people from bringing supplies of food to the visitors. 

Wicananish on page 145 informs the mariners that he is negotiating a treaty with chiefs Hanna and Detootche putting W. temporarily in control of the fur trade and guaranteeing the safety of the Euro-Americans, then setting up equal free access to them by the tribes. 

A canoe arrives from Maquinna’s territory; “we had the pleasure of hearing that our party were well, and continued to make speedy advances towards the competion of the vessel: as one of the people, who was rather more intelligent than the rest, by measuring a certain number of spans, contrived to inform us of the actual state of the little mamatlee, as he called her; — by which we understood that the floor-timbers were laid.” (page 147)

Page 149 tells us that all tribes “from the Southern part of the coast” (of Vancouver Island, thus e.g. Ditidahts and Salish) were forbidden by Wicananish to directly trade with or even to communicate with the mariners. Those Nuučaan’uɬ head chiefs who these ships’ people dealt with were perceived by them as holding immense power over vast swathes of territory. 


On page 151 the ship visits a village a bit southward from Wicananish’s, where the inhabitants tell the mariners they are under his “jurisdiction”. They try hard to persuade the ship to remain there. People from the many Native villages further southward express the same attitude.

The ship reaches the territory of “Tatootche” (Makahs) on pages 153-154, and are informed that this is outside of Wicananish’s area of influence; Tatootche has sway over a stretch of land to the southward (Washington coast). Some people here have trade goods that must have come from the Felice’s commerce with Wicananish’s people. The ship sails south along the Washington coast, but without visiting any of the Native villages seen; the mariners have a persistent horror that Indigenous people, especially Quinaults, will eat them. 


On pages 164-165 the mariners ‘discover’ Shoalwater Bay, Washington, where they can’t understand the Lower Chehalis Salish or Lower Chinookan inhabitants, who don’t recognize “the language of King George’s Sound”. I’ve written about this in a separate post. Later, e.g. page 174, the explorers try to get information about the people of Shoalwater Bay from Nuučaan’uɬ folks. 


Page 184 tells how the crew left behind to build the new ship had received inaccurate reports from Wicananish’s people that the Felice‘s crew had been attacked and cut to pieces.

When the crew is given leave to “ramble on shore” (page 186), the Native people are curious…………..


Page 193 — chiefs Maquinna and Callicum are informed of a thwarted mutiny among the sailors, and are surprised to learn that they are not slaves of the captain. The mutineers, banished to shore, are put into the care of Callicum, who puts them to chores that only slaves do in the Native culture. 

On page 196 and following, Maquinna and Callicum inform the mariners that they are about to go to war against an enemy quite a distance to the north; that tribe has attacked a village ruled by the grandmother of one of these two leaders. The mariners loan the chiefs some guns, and try to get them to promise not to kill any captives they take. 


Page 202 — visiting Wicananish again, the mariners are invited to leave the longboat for the winter at his residence in Clayoquot. 

On page 204, the chief sends word for the ship to delay its departure. The following page has him visiting the ship and asking “how many moons would pass away before our return; and solicited us, in the strongest manner, to prefer his port and harbour to every other….Wicananish and his people left us with every token of sincere regret, and repeated entreaties that we would soon return.” 


Maquinna and Callicum visit the ship to say that their people are about to move to their winter residence. On page 216 they express wishes for the mariners to return soon, and to ask for Maquinna’s people’s help in launching the little mamatlee. The mariners tell the Natives “how many moons” till they will return, and that they will be accompanied by “others of our countrymen, and build more houses, and endeavour to introduce our manners and mode of living to the practice of our Nootka friends. — This information seemed to delight them beyond measure…”

On page 222, the new ship North-West America is launched, and the Hawai’ian Tianna exclaims “Myty, Myty; a word the most expressive in the language of the Sandwich Islands, to convey wonder, approbation, and delight” (Hawai’ian maika’i ‘good’, here perhaps an early instance of the South Seas Jargon). 

Meares has a Nootka Jargon name! Page 224 tells us of Tianna, upon the Felice‘s departure from North America, “Nor could he say adieu to Noota, the name universally given me, both in America and the Sandwich Islands, without a frame almost convulsed with agitation, and tears gushing down his cheeks.” Take note that Noota is a Hawai’ianized pronunciation of “Nootka”, as that language had “T” instead of modern “K” in the 1780s.


Here begins Meares’s summary of information about the Pacific Northwest Coast. 

Pages 231-232: “We could obtain no other knowledge of any villages to the Southward of Queenhithe [Quinault on the Washington coast], but from the further information of Wicananish. He indeed repeated the names of several, which, according to his account, were situated a great way to the Southward, the inhabitants whereof not only spoke a different language from the Nootka natives, but who varied also in manners and customs. That this part of his intelligence was correct, we had sufficient proof, when we were off Shoalwater Bay, as the two natives who then approached the ship, spoke a language which seemed to have no affinity with that of Nootka, and appeared, in the circumstances of dress and the form of their canoe, to be a separate and distinct people from the American nations which we had visited. ¶ The following names of the villages to the Southward of Queenhithe, were taken down, at the moment, as Wicananish pronounced them: — Chanutt, Clanamutt, Chee-mee-sett, Lo-the-att-sheeth, Lu-nee-chett, Thee-wich-e-rett, Chee-set, Lino-quoit, Nook-my-ge-mat, Amuo-skett, Nuisset-tuc-fauk [or -sauk?], Quoit-see-noit, Na-nunc-chett, and Chu-a-na-skett.” [DDR: These names don’t strike me as particularly Salish although from Quinault south is Salish land, nor am I aware of their having been nearly this many coastal Salish villages there. Some of these place names sound more Wakashan to me, so Meares perhaps was misunderstanding Wicananish as the latter told of places seaward along Vancouver Island from Nootka Sound.]


Pages 252-3 — The “sea-otter vestment” is commonly worn by Nuučaan’uɬ people; “the natives call it a cotsack, and wear it in the same manner as their dresses of skin and fur.” This is a word that we find in many early European visitors’ PNW Coast narratives as cutsark, etc.

Page 257 (September 1788) — an episode that’s been repeated by one scholar after another without actually giving a good solid read to this original document has Maquinna getting cut on his leg, refusing Western medical care, and sucking the blood from the wound, “exclaiming cloosh, cloosh; or good, good.” This was immediately interpreted as evidence of cannibalism (!), although I don’t see why he couldn’t have simply meant “it’s all right, it’s all right”. Goes to show you how imperfectly conventionalized any Nootka Jargon had yet become by 1788! The word is known to us later in Chinuk Wawa as ɬúsh ‘good’.


Page 269 — A young man tries to explain to the mariners how the Natives “became acquainted with copper”. “Where words were wanting, or not intelligible, which frequently happened in the course of his narration, he supplied the deficiency by those expressive actions which nature or necessity seems to have communicated to people whose language is confined; and the young Nootkan discovered [demonstrated] so much skill in conveying his ideas by signs and symbols, as to render his discourse perfectly intelligible whenever he found it necessary to have recourse to them.” Meares’s rudimentary understanding of the traditional story told by the youth follows. 

All in all, I have a hard time finding evidence of any linguistic medium identifiable as a “Nootka Jargon” in all these many pages.

What do you think? Kata maika tumtum?