Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 15, 2012 - 10:06 am

Taissumani, Sept. 14

The Inuit of Greenland, 1656

An illustration from <I>The History of the Caribby-Islands</i> by the French Protestant missionary Charles de Rochefort, published in English in 1666. (HARPER COLLECTION)
An illustration from The History of the Caribby-Islands by the French Protestant missionary Charles de Rochefort, published in English in 1666. (HARPER COLLECTION)

In June, I wrote about a very early description of Inuit use of the kayak, published in an unlikely place, a book about the Caribbean.

Charles de Rochefort, a French-speaking Protestant minister in the Caribbean, published his book about that region’s geography and people in 1658. It was published in English as The History of the Caribby-Islands in 1666.

As well as its unexpected description of kayaks and their use, it also contained sections on the Inuit and on narwhals. De Rochefort describes a voyage to Davis Strait made by a Dutch captain, Nicholas Tunes, in 1656.

Tunes wanted to “discover some new Commerce in the Northern Parts,” and encountered Inuit on the coast of West Greenland. De Rochefort, who never himself ventured north, described the people that Tunes saw.

The first part of his description is especially noteworthy because he describes two apparently distinct types of Greenlanders:

“...the Country is inhabited by two forms of Inhabitants, who live together in perfect friendship and good correspondence: Some are of a very high stature, well-shap’d in their bodies, of a pretty clear complexion, and very swift in running: The others are much lower, of a dark Olive-colour’d complexion, and well proportioned as to their members, save that they have short and big legs. The former spend their time in Hunting, whereto their activity naturally inclines them, while the latter employ themselves in Fishing: Both kinds have their teeth very white and close, black hair, lively eyes, and their faces such as that there can no remarkable deformity be observ’d in them: They are all of them so vigorous, and of so healthy a constitution, that many of them being above a hundred years of age are very active and laborious.”

This description is all the more remarkable when one considers the disappearance of the old Norse colony in Greenland, perhaps a century earlier.

There is no universal acceptance of any of the theories of what became of the Norse settlers, but many believe that at least some of them intermarried with the local Inuit population. Perhaps one of de Rochefort’s “two forms of Inhabitants” is a reference to the descendants of that union. 

De Rochefort went on to describe the character of the Inuit:

“In their ordinary conversation they seem to be of a cheerful humor, courageous and confident: They love those strangers who visit them, because they bring them Needles, Fishing-hooks, Knives, Hedge-bills, Wedges, and all the other Implements of Iron they have need of, which they so highly esteem that they will give their cloths, and what they account most precious for them, but they have such an aversion from all novelty, as to feeding and clothing, that it were hard to induce them to admit of any change in either: nay though they are one of the poorest and most barbarous Nations under the Sun, yet do they think themselves the most happy, and best provided for of any; and they are so well conceited of their manner of life, that the civilities of all other people are accounted by them unbeseeming, savage, and extremely ridiculous actions.

“This high esteem they have conceiv’d of their condition contributes not a little to that satisfaction and tranquility of mind which is legible even in their countenances: besides that they are not disturb’d by any vain designs which might interrupt their quiet: They know nothing of those gnawing cares and pinching distractions wherewith the inordinate desire of wealth torments the greatest part of mankind. The conveniences of fair and sumptuous buildings, the fame attending gallant actions, the delights of great entertainments, the knowledge of excellent things, and what we think most advances the pleasure and enjoyments of life, having not yet found the way into these Countries, their thoughts accordingly are not troubled about the acquisition thereof; but to get those things which are precisely necessary for their subsistence and clothing, with as little trouble as may be, is the end of all their consultations and designs.”

The Dutch captain, from whom de Rochefort’s report originated, also noted the strong attachment the Inuit had to their native land, and the missionary reported it this way:

“They desire not to see any other country besides that they were born in, and if a tempest or other accident chance to cast them upon some other, they perpetually sigh after their own, and are never quiet in their minds till they have recover’d it. If they are deny’d or too long delay’d that favour, they will attempt it with the hazard of their lives, exposing themselves to the Sea in their little Vessels without any other guide than the Stars, by which they regulate their course.”

As is often the case, language and religion were of immediate interest to the Europeans who encountered these Inuit on the Greenland coast. De Rochefort wrote:

“Their Language hath nothing common with any other in the World. There is a Vocabulary of it, but not to be publish’d till there be a further discovery made of these parts, what is said thereof being only by way of digression.

“Nor hath it yet been observed what religion they have among them; but from their looking towards the Sun, and their pointing at him with a certain admiration, lifting up their hands on high, it is inferr’d that they account him a God.”

Next Week – More from de Rochefort’s account.

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 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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