1817: Roquefeuil on the PNW coast, relying on English

I think this particular book tells us more about how some Native people spoke some English with sailors by 1817…

… than it does about any pidgin languages!

The events narrated below occurred some 40 years into the era of contact between Indigenous PNW Coast people and Euro-Americans.

So there had been lots and lots of mutual acquaintance, time, and opportunity for a “contact language” such as a pidgin “Nootka Jargon” to take root. Farther south, Chinuk Wawa already existed.

Thus, it’s noteworthy how scant the evidence of an established pidgin language is in the following narrative of Vancouver Island and northward along the coast. Hand gestures (signs) are still a prominent component of communication with the French visitors in 1817.

Just as I’ve previously found with Chinuk Wawa (which was by contrast a definite pidgin and then creole language), for several decades communication with Euro-Americans seems to have been the domain of a few traditional influencers, usually the most respected chiefs and elders, who personally conducted the trading and other negotiations with the Whites.

Take note please that “Maquinna” here is surely a descendant, one or two generations removed, of that Maquinna who hosted the first White visitors from Spain and England in the 1770s. The best-known chiefly names among the Nuučaan’uɬ tribes are hereditary. And there’s a traditional hierarchy of main chiefs vs. those described by Roquefeuil as “inferior chiefs” and such.

The author (image credit: Wikipedia)

Camille de Roquefeuil [1781-1831], “A voyage round the world, between the years 1816-1819” (London, UK: Richard Phillips, 1823). Of course this is an English translation from the original French.

September 1, 1817: The ship Bordelais arrives at Nootka.

September 7: Chief Maquinna arrives from “Tachès” (Tahsis); “An inferior chief, named Noak, with whom we had already become acquainted, participated in our liberality [gift-giving], on account of his usefulness as an interpreter.”

September 9: Chief Maquinna comes aboard; Noak again interprets, and is described as hinting at the Native people’s “propensity to steal”; Maquinna gives a speech to them “on the conduct they ought to observe towards us”.

And on page 29: “Noak gave me an account of the death of Canicum [Callicum], who was killed by Martines [Martínez], whom he had bitterly reproached, calling him a robber, on account of the plundering of a hut by his people. Except this officer, the natives speak well of the Spaniards, and have adopted many words of their language.”

(Here I’m wondering if Roquefeuil had read Mociño’s narrative of a long 1792 stay — yes, 25 years previous! — at Nootka; some of these details, and much that we’ll note below, are amazingly and/or suspiciously close to what that earlier visitor wrote. The Spanish had been gone for an entire generation, so the locals would have been unlikely to even raise the subject of them in conversation. Also, Roquefeuil keeps referring to Vancouver’s narrative from 1792 as being his only guide, which may have been true in the moment…)

And: “A large boat of Wicananich having come alongside, Macouina [Maquinna] appeared extremely angry at its coming into his port, and made a violent speech upon the subject…”

And, at the home of Omeacteachloa, one of that man’s wives “spoke a little English: she begged me to spit upon her child’s head, because it had got the head-ache. She took care to inform me, that her husband was the next chief to Macouina, and that the chiefs alone had a right to two wives.”

September 11 (page 30) — “At table he [Maquinna] made a long speech, but it was thrown away upon us, as the interpreter was absent…At last he departed for Tachès, after having made me promise to return, and engaged to keep his furs for me.”

Page 31: “I questioned Noak when he returned on board respecting the furs, and the vessels that are employed in the trade: he told me that the English formerly had a house, that the Spaniards had a larger one, but that both were abandoned. He added, that thirty months before, (he held up three times, the fingers of both hands,) an English vessel had come into the cove, the captain of which had a wooden leg, and that he stopped only three days: that before that, and after the departure of the English and Spaniards, only two vessels had entered the Bay, one English, the other American; that they had anchored at Mawina; that at present, and for a long time since, his countrymen sent the furs to Nasparté, (at the western extremity of the island,) where they exchanged them for handsomer blankets than ours. He told me also that the fishery lasted six months; that it had been finished two months, and would consequently begin again in four months, and he assured me that they would reserve the skins for me, if they were certain I would come back for them, which I positively engaged to do.”

Same page, September 12: “About a mile at the most from Friendly Cove, there is another smaller one…the natives call this cove by the name of Outza…[nearby there is] a chain of three woody islets, called Hinasohous.”

September 13th, same page: A Clayoquot chief is “suspected of having carried off the iron helm of the long boat. He soon returned, but without his cloak, and protested his innocence, and, as we had no proof against him, we were obliged to take his word…”

Same day, pages 32-33: Three young local men who had accompanied Roquefeuil while he took elevations of landmarks “did not go away till we had promised them presents for the next day, and till they had given us a specimen of their dancing and music…the words of the ritornello [were] sonorous: Hellé yalla hé, hellé yalla hellé. Not understanding them [presumably because they were “vocables” and not words], I thought they had borrowed them from the Lascars, on board some vessel from India, but the explanations which they gave me of their own accord, confirmed us, that these songs were in honour of their country, of which they speak with enthusiasm. The eldest assured us, that Macouina said wacoch to the sun.

September 15, page 33 — “Eachtel, a nephew of Macouina, joined us…[and] gave me to understand, that it was by this means the great stones were raised, which are employed in building the huts of Macouina.”

Page 34 — Some human bones are found; “I…questioned Machoalick, who confirmed our conjecture, that this place, some hundred paces in the forest, behind the abode of the chief, was consecrated to festivities; but I obtained no positive information on the principal point; he either could not or would not understand, whenever we asked how his countrymen treated their prisoners, and whether they eat human flesh. The bones, he said, belonged to bodies unburied [dug up] by the bears, which often disturbed the graves…Machoalick entered into details on the subject [of burial], which we could not fully comprehend, and which related to the ceremonies used by the natives before and after this undertaking…Machoalick doubtless alluded to some formal act of invocation when he emphatically repeated, that Macouina said wacoch to the sun; I know not whether it was the idea of an abominable repast…but I shuddered during this recital…”

September 18, page 35 — “A boat from behind the point came alongside…They recognize Macouina for their supreme chief…They tried to persuade me to anchor in their port, which they shewed us, where they promised we should have many otter skins…”

Page 38, early October — “Before I left these coasts [Ditidaht (Nitinat) area] the Indians solicited me to return the next year, but I would not bind myself to pay a second visit to this port…”

Same page, October 7, an episode I’ve blogged about separately — A man “who was nearly white” approached and came on board, speaking some English and saying he is from “Tchinouk, behind Cape Flattery”; I suspect this Swanimilich was a Lower Chehalis Salish.

[In the next many pages, the mariners visit Russian California and Alaska, including Tlingit territory; the village of “Houtsnau” is visited (Xutsnoowú / “Hoochinoo”, which decades later became Chinuk Wawa and the US English slang term “hooch” for moonshine liquor). One or two Tlingits seem to know English, from previous work with Americans, and communicate well with the French mariners.]

Page 86, coming into “Port Cordova, which the Indians call Kaïgarny” [Kaigani, northern Haida land in SE Alaska], “A canoe came out with five Indians on board, who after having observed us at a distance, came within hail, and asked us whence the ship came, its name, that of the captain, &c. To all these questions I gave answers calculated to inspire them with confidence, and asked them to give me a pilot to conduct us to the anchoring place…”

Page 87, in Haida Gwaii: “The movement of the anchor made the natives, several of whose canoes were alongside, suppose that we were going to sail. I endeavoured to make them understand that I had no such intention; but in spite of my assurances…they threw themselves into their canoes…In spite of all our endeavours to undeceive them, they went on shore on the south side…Being encouraged by our promises…they called to their countrymen…”

Pages 88-89, same locale, October 29: “Itemtchou the head chief of Masset…would not come on board, till we had promised that an officer should remain as a hostage in his boat…We conversed by means of an Indian of Skitigats [Skidegate], named Intchortge.* Having asked the name of the chief, telling him my own, he thought I wanted to change names with him, which, among these people, is the most inviolable pledge of friendship…The exchange was made, notwithstanding the difficulty the chief found in pronouncing his new name [Roquefeuil], which, to oblige him, I softened into Roki…”

A footnote to the above: * “Intchortge was well made, of fine stature; his complexion was slightly tanned, and his countenance entirely European, except the eyes, which in all the natives of the north-west coast that I saw, have always something savage in them. He piqued himself not only on speaking English well, but also on his polished manners; of which he endeavoured to persuade us by saying, frequently, “Me all the sames Boston gentleman.” These Indians, who have no intercourse except with the vessels from Boston, conceive that city to be the capital of the civilized world.” Was “Intchortge” a Haida-accented pronunciation of “King George”, which was already a long-established PNW Coast jargon word for ‘British’?

Page 90, same setting and day — “I gave him to understand, that the great number of men which covered the deck, and the quantity of canoes which surrounded the ship, without making us uneasy, hindered us greatly in the measures which it was necessary for us to take to get the ship afloat. He made no answer to this indirect solicitation, but, a moment after, when we were going to carry out an anchor, he took leave of us. After he had left the ship, he spoke some words in a loud voice, and, in about five minutes, there did not remain a single canoe alongside, and not a single man on board, except the interpreter [Intchortge]. This Indian told me, that he stayed only with the permission of his chief, and also begged mine, which I readily gave him. This man, whose English I understood, was very intelligent, and well acquainted with this country.”

Pages 92 — At Skedans(?) (“Skitansnana”) in Haida Gwaii, the local people are extremely hard bargainers, as if they’re accustomed to Euro-Americans, but there’s no indication given of any verbal communication.

November 5 (page 92) — Arriving back at Nootka, to the people’s “reiterated cries of wacoch (friend)”.

Page 93 — “Macouina…appeared very happy to see us again, but he soon expressed how much he was mortified at not being able to satisfy us with respect to the principal object that brought us hither, after the loss which he had just experienced. He then related, with all the marks of grief and indignation, that an American three-masted vessel having entered the cove, he went on board, with his son, at the desire of the captain, who was lame. That after having been received with apparent cordiality, and entertained at the captain’s table, they had been seized and bound, by his orders: obliged to give a great quantity of furs, which had exhausted his store; he added, that this vessel had sailed ten days before, and had been at Naspaté. Notwithstanding the improbabilities of this story, I did not shew any doubt respecting its truth. The ingenuity with which the chief explained, by signs, the terms which we coul not understand, and the singular quickness of [crew member] Eyssautier in comprehending the language of these savages, induced me to believe that I was not mistaken respecting the substance of his narrative, which the old chief delivered in a persuasive and impressive manner. I replied, that though deceived in the hope of finding furs, I was nevertheless his friend; that I was obliged to him for the reception which he, as well as his people, had given us on our first visit, and, lastly, that the confidence with which he had come on board, immediately on my return, was very agreeable to me…I let the chief know, that furs being the principal object of my visit, I should depart in two days, if no furs came; but that if any were brought, I should remain four or five. I begged him to let the subjects of Wicananich come with him. He not only acceded to this request, but promised to send his son to acquaint his neighbours with our arrival, and induce them to bring us their furs.”

Page 94 — “At half past two, at Macouina’s request, I went on shore with him. He took me to his house, where I was received by his numerous family and some persons of consequence, with repeated cries of wacoch! wacoch! These exclamations were frequently uttered in chorus during the very animated discourse of the old chief, of which I understood rather by his attitudes than his words, only the expressions of his affections for us; and it seemd to me also to contain some imprecations against the Americans. This part of his speech seemed to be listened to with indifference by his auditors, and in his own manner there was an air of affectation.”

Pages 96-97 — Back on board with Maquinna and his son, “I was visited by Omacteachloa, who said he come on purpose from Tachès, to see his good friends, the French. The evening passed in conversing, in the most friendly manner, whether it was, that our conduct had gained the good will of the Indians, or that their own interest made them put on the appearance. As, among other subjects, I spoke of the possibility of another visit to Nootka, the old chief expressed a lively wish that we would return, and form a permanent establishment, as the Spaniards had formerly done. He was also extremely desirous to keep Eyssautier till my return: his happy character, joined to a singular facility in comprehending their language and signs, gained him the favour of all the savages, with whom he was our natural interpreter. Macouina begged me to leave him behind, and endeavoured to gain him by the assurance of his constant friendship, by the offer of a wife of a family of distinction, of his own choice, and the promise to let him share with him in the noble labours of the whale fishery, and the pursuit of sea-otters. Nothing seemed to him more seducing, and more calculated to shake the resolution of our young companion, than the picture which he gave him of the delightful repose he would enjoy during the bad season, or rather the absolute idleness in which he would be able to indulge, and which he expressed in a manner not to be mistaken, by folding his arms, and pretending to go to sleep. He then explained, in a very intelligible manner, that he had concluded a treaty with the Spaniards, which he made us understand by signs, had been put in writing; that by this convention he had ceded to them a piece of ground, on the coast of the bay, in return for a quantity of iron instruments, woollens, &c., which they delivered to him at stated periods; that they lived together on the most friendly footing, (the Spaniards occupying one part of the cove and the Indians the other); that they had built large houses, and erected batteries upon the little Islands at the entrance; that their presence was very advantageous to him, well as on account of the useful things which he received from them, as the terror they inspired into his enemies. He expressed great regret at their departure, spoke in high terms of the commanders, Quadra, Alava, and Fidalgo, and gave to all the Spaniards in general, except to Martinez, praises, which seemed to be assented to by Omacteachloa himself, who, in his hatred to the murderer of his father, did not include his countrymen, who had had no share in his crime. ¶ Macouina spoke also in praise of Vancouver, Broughton, and the English captains who frequented Nootka at the same time. He mentioned, among others, Meares, who, he said, had built a small house, in a place which he pointed out to me, in the western extremity of the village. I took this opportunity to obtain, at the fountain-head, information on a subject which has become interesting, on account of the quarrel to which it gave rise. The result of my enquiry was, that Meares’s house had been built with the permission of Macouina, but that there had not been any act of cession or treaty between them…”

Page 98: “A young man who said he was the son of [Wicananich], had come on board at day break, and had told Eyssautier that no furs would come from his father as long as we remained at this anchorage: but that we should receive some as soon as the vessel should appear on his coast. This young chief spoke with animosity of Macouina, but seeing Omacteachloa, who was probably sent to watch him, he leaped into his canoe, notwithstanding the endeavours made to persuade him to stay…”

Page 99: “On the 11th [of November?]…Macouina and Omacteachloa did not fail to partake of our dinner, according to their custom: the conversation was animated and very friendly: it was chiefly on our return, which our guests seemed much to desire; they asked us many questions on the subject, which I answered, as much as possible to keep up their hopes without flattering them too much. Macouina made the fairest promises, to induce me to realize them…We took a last farewell, drinking a glass of brandy together; the old chief and his companions withdrew, crying out wacoch! wacoch! as an expression of their wishes for our happy voyage….Soon after ten o’clock we saw a canoe under sail, coming from Point Breakers. It came up to us, and one of the six Indians that composed the crew came on board; this man told us a long story; speaking very loud and quick, like him whom we had seen there the year before, he gave us to understand that the subjects of Wicananich were particularly in want of blankets, and that an American brig had been at anchor two days in one of the ports…”

Pages 100ff: Here Roquefeuil maks a few superficial observations about “Nootka” society, citing the words Tahi ‘chief’, tahîs-kalata ‘brothers of the Tahis’, and Mistchimis ‘slaves’. The Indigenous religion is described in essentially the same terms of Mociño’s 1792 report, referencing ‘the protector’ Kouautzl, a creation story of a lone woman and a copper canoe, the people’s dread of a monster Mattoch living inland, their belief in a hell called Pin Paula, etc. etc. All of this strikes me as probably plagiarized from Mociño rather than observed by the French visitors 25 years later.

Aside from the close resemblances in content, there’s also the fact that Roquefeuil records hardly any Nuuchahnulth words or names, none of the former differing in meaning and only a few of the latter representing different people from what’s found in Mociño’s report. Captain Cook’s and other British reports may have also been consulted; on page 103 the author starts an observation with the words “From the accounts of the English and Spaniards, as well as what we saw ourselves…” A final point — anyone who has read both Mociño and Roquefeuil can see that the 1817 Eyssautier is being substituted into scenes that originally happened with Mociño.

Factoring out — no fur-trade pun intended — all the questionable elements, we find some, but very very few, data points on PNW Coast intercultural communication in 1817 here. Most of the interactions that we can believe did occur involving Roquefeuil’s people are very simple, conveying information that hand gestures are pretty adequate to communicate.

Bonus fact: 

When we sometimes read that “sign language” was in use in early PNW contact situations, I’ve concluded that this rarely if ever implies any conventionalized system of manual symbols.

I believe that by now we would have found someone’s careful document of such a gestural system, had it existed, because it would’ve been of tremendous economic and political use, analogous to the Plains Sign Language.

Instead, in the PNW places and times where folks didn’t share a firmly established language, be it Chinook Jargon, English or other, they of course were waving their arms around to amplify the signal.

A few of these gestures may have become semi-conventionalized, e.g. I’ve come across descriptions (and, once, a personal demonstration based on an individual’s memory) of an arc-ing & pointing gesture that went with Chinuk Wawa’s sáyá ‘far’.

But I’ve concluded that there was no “sign language” per se associated with CW or its predecessor jargon(s)/pidgin(s).

The received assumptions to the contrary have been in great part a byproduct of how folks habitually describe things.

Sign language” is a folk category for non-linguists; linguists distinguish “signed languages” from simple “gestures”.

The appropriate comparison is to remind you that “Chinook Jargon” doesn’t mean a communication system that’s lacking in grammatical & other structure — it’s just a typical Canadian French-influenced, regular folks label for what we linguists analyze as being a “pidgin” and later a “creole”, an actual language in either case, as distinguished from our technical term “jargon” for a formless bunch of words used in unpredictable ways.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?