Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 31, 2013 - 4:22 pm

Taissumani, Feb. 1

Portagee: The Inuktitut Word for Black Person

A promotional still from the 1974 film, The White Dawn, with the actor Lou Gossett Jr., who played the character called Portagee. (HARPER COLLECTION)
A promotional still from the 1974 film, The White Dawn, with the actor Lou Gossett Jr., who played the character called Portagee. (HARPER COLLECTION)

I am often asked: What is the origin of the word “Portagee” or “Portugee” which many Canadian Inuit, at least in the eastern Arctic, use to describe a black person, that is, an African-American or African-Canadian, the people (no matter what their origin) once commonly described as “Negroes.”

The word sounds like it might be used to describe Portuguese people, and, in fact, some dialect dictionaries of English include an entry for “Portugee,” with the explanation that it is sub-standard English speech meaning “Portuguese.”

And the Urban Dictionary (online) tells us that “Portagee” means “a native, resident, or emigrant from Portugal.” None of this helps at all , however, to explain why it is used by Inuit to describe black people.

The answer is to be found in the history of the whaling industry in the Arctic. American whale men roamed the world in search of their cetacean prey. Often they augmented their crews with men from islands where they stopped for water, news or supplies. One such place was the Cape Verde Islands.

The Cape Verde Islands is a group of islands in the mid-Atlantic about 500 km off the coast of Africa. It was discovered, uninhabited, by Portuguese navigators in the fifteenth century and, because of its location astride important mid-Atlantic shipping lanes, it was eventually colonized under Portuguese domination.

Portugal played an important role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and so the islands came to have an African population as well as a European one. Eventually much of the population was “creole,” that is, of mixed ancestry.

New England whaling ships made Cape Verde a regular port of call, and picked up crewmen there and on the west coat of Africa itself. These men, whether Cape Verdean or African, were usually Portuguese speakers and were identified by the whalers as “Portuguese.”

The American ship owners, frugal businessmen, in fact preferred to recruit men in Cape Verde because the men there “worked hard to save what they could while on board the vessel and they could be hired for much less money than American seamen. Furthermore, they made a disciplined crew.”

The American captains were not averse to taking on escaped slaves and even criminals. But regardless of their origins, the Cape Verdeans were generally considered to be “hardworking, honest seamen.” By the early years of the 1800s, three-eights of the crew men on Nantucket whaling ships were “colored.”

Eventually many Cape Verdeans settled in New England itself, especially in the area of New Bedford, Massachusetts. From there, many continued to work in whaling.

Many were crew members of vessels that came to the eastern Arctic, where whaling was centred in Cumberland Sound and the Repulse Bay area. They would naturally have been described by other crew members as “Portugee” or “Portagee” — a standard mis-pronunciation of “Portuguese” — and may have self-identified as such.

In this way, the Inuit learned that these dark-skinned members of the whaling crews were different than the “qallunaat” – the white men – on the ships. The Inuit learned the word “Portugee,” but modified the sounds a little to make it more easily pronounceable, the way Inuit have done with many words borrowed from other languages and cultures.

In this case, the word became more like “Puatugi.” (Inuit readers may have other preferred ways of spelling it — I have written it here the way it would be written in standard Inuktitut phonemic orthography.)

Because whaling was a world-wide enterprise, the word became known in the western Canadian Arctic as well, where Herschel Island was an important whaling centre. In 1910, Vilhjalmur Stefansson quoted Natkusiak, an Alaskan Eskimo living in the western Canadian Arctic , as saying of the first Inuit they encountered farther east, “And one looks like a Portugee.” 

R. M. Anderson on the Canadian Arctic Expedition described the former whaler Peter Lopez, who had married an Inuk woman, as “a Portuguese Negro.” Many Inuit throughout the Arctic have “Puatugi” whalers among their ancestors.

In 1971 the author James Houston published his novel, The White Dawn, based on an actual historical event that occurred in the eastern Arctic in the 1800s. Three men from a whaling ship ended up living with the Inuit, initially on friendly terms, but eventually with tragic consequences.

One was a black man. The only name he has in the book is “Portagee.” In the movie made of the story in 1974, his part was played by the African-American actor, Lou Gossett Jr.

Sometimes one also hears the word “Qirniqtaq” to describe a black person. But it has not supplanted the use of “Puatugi.”

This is the interesting history of a word still common in Inuktitut speech, but whose origins have been obscured by time. 

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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