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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 28, 2012 - 12:27 pm

Taissumani, Sept. 28

The Inuit of Greenland, 1656 (Part 3)

An illustration showing a Greenlandic woman and child, from the English translation, published in 1656, of a book written by French missionary Charles de Rochefort. (HARPER COLLECTION)
An illustration showing a Greenlandic woman and child, from the English translation, published in 1656, of a book written by French missionary Charles de Rochefort. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Charles de Rochefort, French-speaking missionary to the Caribbean, completed his description of the Inuit of Greenland, to which my last two articles have been devoted, with a discussion of the Inuit women, their clothing and their customs.

De Rochefort never set eyes on the people whose habits he described in so much detail, basing his account entirely on reports taken back to Europe by a Dutch merchant, Captain Nicholas Tunes.

“The young women differ not much in their cloaths from the men; but the more ancient are commonly clad with the skins of certain great Birds, whose feathers are white and black, and very ordinary in those parts. These women have the art to slay them so neatly, that the feathers stay in the skin: These cloaths reach but to half the leg. They are girt with a thong of leather, at which instead of keys there hang a great many little bones as sharp as any bodkins, and about that length. They wear neither Bracelets, nor Neck-laces, nor Pendants, nor mind any ornament, save that they make a gash in each cheek, and fill it with a certain black colour, which as they think adds very much to their beauty.

“While the men are a hunting or fishing they [the women] stay at home, and employ themselves in making of Cloths, Tents, Baskets, and such things as are necessary about the house. They are extreamely fond of their little ones, and if they be forc’d to change their habitations, or to accompany their husbands in some journey, they either carry or lead them where-ever they go, and to recreate them by the way, and quiet them when they cry, they have little drums cover’d with fishes bladders, on which they can make as good Musick as any on the Taber. They also beat them to frighten away the Bears, and other wild Beasts which wander up and down near the Caves where these Savages pass over the Winter with their families, and about the Tents where they are lodg’d in the Summer. Among the Sculps [illustrations] of this Chapter there is the pourtraiture of one of these women, to which we refer the Reader for further satisfaction.”

He expressed some interest in the social organization of Greenlandic society, writing as follows:

“Though these poor Barbarians cannot be imagin’d to study much Policy, yet have they among them petty Kings and Captains, who preside in all their Assemblies. They advance to these dignities those who have the handsomest bodies, are the best Hunts-men, and the most valiant.  These wear the richest Skins and more precious Furs than their Subjects…

“They have not the invention of building houses. But in the Summer they live in the fields under Tents of Leather, which they carry along with them to be pitch’d where they think it most convenient. And in the Winter their abode is in Caves, which are naturally made in the Mountains, or they have taken the pains to make such.

“They neither Sow nor Reap and kind of Grain in order to their subsistence: Nor have they any Trees or Plants bearing fruits fit to eat, unless it be some Straw-berries,... But indeed their livelihood depends wholly on their Fishing and Hunting. Fair water is their ordinary drink, and their most delicate entertainment, as to drink, is the blood of Sea-dogs, and that of Deer, and other Land-creatures…”

Like most who have commented on the early life of the Inuit, the outsider was fascinated by reports of the darkness of winter and the hardships of life during that season. He wrote,

“The Winter being so long and hard in this Country, the Inhabitants must needs suffer great inconveniences during that season, especially that tedious night which keeps them in two whole months. But besides that in case of necessity they endure hunger a long time, they have this foresight that in the Summer they dry some part of their fishing and hunting, and lay it up with as much Fat and Suet as they can get together, in order to their subsistence during that comfortless time.  Nay some affirm they are so successful in their hunting by Moonlight, that they are seldom destitute of fresh meat, even during this long Eclipse.”

This almost ended Charles de Rochefort’s fascinating digression into the life of the Greenlanders. He also wrote about a narwhal that was found washed up on the shores of a Caribbean island. But the rest of his lengthy work is taken up with what his title would lead one to expect, life in the “Caribby Islands.”

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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