1787-1788: Colnett, and no existing NW Coast pidgin

A British commander travels much of the Pacific Northwest coast in the interest of fur trading…

…And in his journals, I find little evidence of any effective, established pidgin language.


(Image credit: Biblio.com)

Today I’m looking through Robert Galois (ed.), “A Voyage to the North West Side of America: The Journals of James Colnett, 1786-89” (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2004). 

I invite you to make the case in the Comments area below, if you find the following anecdotes regarding intercultural communication to be suggestive of any sophisticated shared linguistic system! 

The picture that’s building up in my mind is that there was some extremely limited comprehension between the Native & Euro-American cultures in the first several years of contact on the PNW coast.

A couple of exceptional visitors (Jewitt; Mociño) managed, through unusually long stays at “Nootka” and with exceptional aptitude, to achieve somewhat greater mutual understanding via a simplified Nuučaan’uɬ. 

By contrast, the majority of visitors didn’t hang around for such long periods, and consequently their use of pidginized Nuučaan’uɬ was relatively primitive and ad hoc. There is much information that was being told to them (or that they thought they were being told) that they understood poorly if at all. This latter category includes the crew of James Colnett, as we’ll see in the following excerpts from his journals. 


Nuuchahnulth country:

July 6 — “Two Chiefs paid us a visit named McCulagh [Maquinna] & Clataluka …we learnt from them of a Ship in Port much larger than ourselves…” 
(An endnote suggests to us that “Clataluka” might be Maquinna’s brother “Cuatlazape”, or catlati which Mociño has as ‘brother’ in Nuuchahnulth.)

July 7 — A chief stands in his canoe speaking to his people alongside the ship for nearly an hour, “we were quite ignorant respecting the purport of the oration, yet we were sure He found himself offended at something…we remained ignorant of the cause…”

July 12 — “…the Natives…generally took great pains to instruct those who were desirous of learning their language, but ’tis extremely difficult to get acquainted with, and I have minded in asking the name of any particular article that in asking six different Men I have received as many different name [sic], but ’tis scarcely fair to say each Man had a different name for the articles it might [sic] in consequences of some misunderstanding in the question asked.” 

July 17 — “…Oughomeize our Chief…possessed some humour, and could pronounce a number of English words very well, this evening he described to us their method of killing Sea Otters and other animals…” which however turns out to be a pantomime enactment!

July 20 — The chief again “harangues” (makes a speech to) the local people who are in canoes alongside the ship, “but to what purpose none could tell”; when he won’t stop talking, the chief mate hits him on the side of the head. Later in the day, the chief comes on board; “he took the chief Mate by the arm, and requested him to come and look over the side, when he [the chief mate] made it known to them that He was the Man, who gave him the blow, yet he was perfectly friendly and seemed to forgive.” 

A few days later, a Native man takes a piece of iron without permission and swims to shore with it; “The Natives afterwards informed us he was dead, but their intelligence I believe to be false. his Countrymen all pleaded an excuse for him, by putting it on a footing with retaliation, which they deemed allowable. captain Duncan they said had stole all the Boards from the Roof of his house…”

General observations, no date attached, page 116: In a Native cemetery, “a Trunk of a tree was set up with a Human face carved on & call’d by the Natives Klumma.”

And this: “There was an old man which I took for a priest came off several times & made long Orations to numbers that were collected around the Ship. this is the same man that brought the Invitation to traffick on shore with the Strangers, but what was the purport of his harangue the imperfect knowledge we had of their language, made it impossible to tell…”

And an incident with chief “Vaumaise” (same man as “Oughomeize” above): “…on our mentioning what had pass’d his answer was we had not treated him nor his brohter well who resided abreast the Ship that the people of his Village had supplyd us with fish and berries & his Brother with water wood & a mast the latter articles we had paid nothing for, had made presents to strangers and given them nothing[.]”

This same chief (page 117) prevented the mariners from buying salmon from some Native people who came to sell it, “cruising about in a large canoe well man’d and arm’d taking all or most the fish from any one he saw coming near us thus they tamely submitted to & was call’d capsheitle.”

Chief “Maccula” (Maquinna) spoke poorly of that behavior, “seem’s much displeased said they were peshak & belong’d to suma or fishing Merchants”.
(An endnote observes that su-ma is given for ‘fish’ in Nuuchahnulth by Mociño. It also notes that Nuuchahnulth p’ishaq ‘bad’ was found as far north as Kaigani Haida, i.e. far southern Alaska, as Pee,Shack ‘bad’ (recorded by James Sturgis in the early 1820s). The latter word of course eventually wound up in Chinook Jargon.)

A Native man was found beheaded, and an armed party set out from Maquinna’s village; “the results of this expedition we could not learn.” 

Barkley’s Cove: “The Town which stands very pleasant, the Natives call Nutka…Maquilla…speaks some English, and is very ready in learning he has a very good notion of singing after the English manner.”
(Nutka/Nootka is actually a misunderstanding by Euro-Americans of local people saying ‘go around’!)

August 10? (page 122) — Visiting a nearby village: “we saw by some beads, that these People Visit Maquillas Village, the language and customs are exactly alike”

August 22 — “The Canoes increased, but we could not find any Village near the Ship, nor could we learn from what quarter the Natives came.”

August 26? (page 123) — “An Indian was onboard this morning who told us a confus’d story of a Boat, & a Musket he had seen fired out of her.”

August 27 — A factor in a certain group of Native people deciding to set up houses near the ship “was our promising to renew our visit at the expiration of Eight Moons.” 

Haida country:

The mother of a Haida chief’s daughter (page 134) burst “into a Violent fit of grief. being ask’d the occasion of her tears she signify’d how ill we had treated her by not paying any attention to her daughter…the Supercargo Apologiz’d to the Mother for this seeming neglect alledg[in]g it to the Crowd, that surrounded the Ship…”

Tsimshian country:

Mid-September, in Coast Tsimshian country (page 144) — “…they informd us Seax [Shakes] Chief of the tribe our boats had visited was coming, by two o’Clock a number of Canoes hove in sight…I went into the Canoe & by signs for their Language differ’d from any we had heard before, invited the Chief who was a very respectable old man on board…”

September 22 — “While at breakfast an Ax and a piece of Iron were stolen, I made it known to Seax, he went out onshore where the Strangers were who had also been onboard & recover’d both for me…”

September 21 (page 147) — The same chief, “Seiiax”, “was informed that two half Tubs had been stole from the [ship] Princess Royal, To which he replied very coolly, that the Princess Royals Boat Stole some planks from their Village.” A similar circumstance occurs the next day, “but as they coolly informed us, they acted by way of retaliation.” 

November 1, still in Seax’s territory — the chief (I think this is who is being referred to by a long, convoluted sentence) “desired the Mate of the Sloop to tell his Chief that he had brought some skins for sale. Seax answered complaints made by the visitors about how they are being treated with “a lame excuse blaming his brother Chiefs.”

On November 2, the mariners show Seax some arrows that were fired at them: “Twas not him, he said, but Armseit, and that he was going to fetch more Skins…” 

A general observation about Seax on page 165: “I am thoroughly convinc’d he never saw a Ship or Cannon [before the visit of the Princess Royal], the latter he seem’d much terrified at when one was fired to shew them the use of it, he had some European Blue Cloth at his Village besides the Brass Patoo seen along side, thro’ what channel he got these articles we are yet to be acquainted with.”
(This patoo, engraved with the coat of arms of Captain Cook’s botanist Sir Joseph Banks, is a New Zealand Māori word for a kind of club, patu, perhaps known to Colnett via the already-used South Seas Jargon. Other specimens of this brass souvenir were seen in Nuuchahnulth territory by John Meares in 1788.) 


Alutiiq country:

Arriving at Prince William Sound, south-central Alaska, April 29 — The Native Alutiiq people “seem’d to Apprehend no Danger form us. they pronounced the word Nutka frequently this we knew to be the Name of a Vessel that Winter’d on Snug Corner Cove Last Year as we learn’d from Capt. Dixon. they also mentioned ye King George which is the Name of Capt. Portlocks Vessel.” (Both of these words are false friends, in terms of Nootka Jargon / Chinook Jargon studies, being ships’ names rather than used as pidgin words. (Contrary to some previous scholars’ implications or claims, I see no evidence of NJ or CJ ever being used so far north.) During the mariners’ time spent here, they notice (e.g. page 225) that there are a variety of ethnic groups in the area, speaking various languages — a testament to their powers of linguistic observation.) 

Tlingit/Haida country:

June 23 — In the southernmost islands of present-day Alaska, “I took a good deal of pains by signs (for their language differ’d from any I had before heard) to learn where their Chief or tribe lived, they either had none or all I could understand was, that they lived themselves on the Isle, or on the main in a line with it bearing NBW.” This description suggests Colnett was encountering Lingít people (Tlingits) for the first time, in territory that eventually became predominantly Haida-speaking. 

June 24 — Same area, where the visitors find “only one family of Indians, they told them their Chief lived a little to the Southward of a Head land pointed to…” 

June 25 — Same area: “…they were acquainted with several words in several Languages along Shore [thus Coast Tsimshian] and of Charlottes Isle [Haida]. it was therefore difficult to determine what Tribe they belonged too. they were probably situated near diff[eren]t. Tribes & were acquainted with Charlotes Isle & the Long Shore Languages also & were therefore of the Mongrel Specie.”

July 2 — Haida Gwaii: “they pointed to their Houses and made use of every effort in their power to prevail on us to go into the harbour they came from we saw neither Male or female whose faces were familiar to us by our visit among them last year we enquired for our Old acquaintances Yukah & Cooyah with out gaining any satisfactory information tho’ they seemed to know them by name…”

July 9: “… a Canoe came off & the Indian in a piteous tone told he had no skins having sold them to smokett Duncan…”
(This is a Tsimshian word for ‘chief’.)

July 17: Also in Haida Gwaii — From the Native people, the mariners “…heard a confus’d account of a dust with some Strangers who came to trade, and that Capt. Duncan had taken a part in favour of Silkynance who was wounded in ye fray with a Stab in his thigh & Cap D kill’d ye Chief who gave him the wound…”

July 19: Same locale — “…a Canoe came of[f] inform’d us Uka, which was the Chief’s name, could not be onboard till morning, sold a skin & said he had plenty…”

July 21: Same local — “[I] should have been happy to have understood enough of their Language to have made friends between them [nearby Haidas and some “Northern Indians”]; as that was not the case & also ignorant of each others injury; suffer’d them to act as they thought proper…”

July 19 (apparently; page 248): Same locale — “…a Canoe with two women and an old Man. from these we also understood Yookah was coming with Skins”. 

July 20 (page 249) — “The Whale boat went to see if Yookah was in ye Eastern Bay as the Natives describ’d…[local Haidas] said Yookah wou’d be on Board after we had slept…we endeavour’d to learn from Yookah whether he was at variance with Silkynance which he denied…”

July 26(?; page 252) — “People of these Isles are much civiliz’d by our visits; & we also began to understand their Language which I though Easier spoken than any I had heard on the Coast; they also pronounc’d our names perfectly, their large horn spoons, from the description of the animal they said it belong’d to, should suppose it to be the Mountain Sheep.”

Heiltsuk country:

August 6 — In or about Heiltsuk territory on the coast: “Their Language was new to us, many of their words were similar to Nutka others to Seyax’s Language…”

August 13 — Same area: “…two strange Canoes came from Westward among the Isles [Haida Gwaii] & brought 20 Skins and 17 Salmon, they were acquainted with our old friend Sea-ax that we had traded with last Year, & used much of their Dialect, but our first visitors [Heiltsuks] we could not understand a word, but the name for Iron which nearly corresponded with Nootka…there are many reasons for suposing this [Heiltsuk land] a boundary [between ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ tribes], not only the Language differing, but their Canoes & Custom of the Women…”
(An endnote identifies the westerners as Tsimshians, but the description sounds like Haida Gwaii to me.)


September 12 (page 266) — In the Hawai’ian Islands: “A very humorous Dialogue commenced between our Sandwich Islander and a fine Boy a countryman of his on Board the Sloop. they hail’d each other in English and strove hard for the prize in genuine Sailors Blackguardism. our native had paid more attention to his Education and therefore had rather the advantage they also endeavour’d to puzzle each other with different languages they had met with on the coast of america which they remember’d each some few words…”

Bonus fact:

A footnote on page 350 mentions that an American trader named Magee, in Haida Gwaii in 1793, observed that Haidas “would not sell them [sea otter furs] for anything but Moose skins which we had none of, these skins the[y] call Clemmons which is we had would command skin for skin.” This is Haida hlamál ‘elkhide’, a word that became well-known (in many spellings including clemen, clamon, etc.) up and down the PNW coast in the early maritime fur trade.

What do you think?
qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?