Who was Albert One-Eye?

Taissumani: 2007-06-22

By Kenn Harper

Last week I introduced Albert One-Eye, an Inuk from James Bay who was hired by the British Admiralty to act as interpreter on a Franklin search expedition under Sir John Richardson and John Rae.

In August of 1848, Albert was with Richardson and Rae in the Mackenzie Delta, and, according to Richardson, had no great difficulty in understanding and making himself understood by the Inuit there. The explorer's narrative tells little about the interactions between Albert and the Inuit of the delta, but one anecdote is perhaps instructive about the delicate work of being an interpreter.

In answer to Richardson's questions about whether any white men had been seen in the area, one man told him that a party of white men were living on Richard's Island. But he didn't know that Richardson had been there the previous day. Richardson instructed Albert to tell the man that he knew he was lying.

"He received this retort with a smile," wrote Richardson, "and without the slightest discomposure, but did not repeat his assertion." Albert probably conveyed Richardson's doubts about the man's truthfulness with considerably more tact than the explorer himself recounted it in his memoirs, for the role of an interpreter among his fellow Inuit, especially those distant and unknown, required diplomacy and discretion.

Early the following year, writing from Fort Confidence, their winter quarters at the north-eastern corner of Great Slave Lake, Rae informed Governor Simpson of his plans to reach the Coppermine River. The crew would include Albert, once again described as "a very fine lad" and "fit for any of the duties of a labourer."

The men who traveled as part of such an expedition, with its attendant dangers, received a salary much higher than Albert had ever earned at a Hudson's Bay Company post. His was a whopping 35 pounds per year. Still, he was the lowest paid of any of the crew, everyone else earning 42 pounds and the steersman 45 pounds.

The party left Fort Confidence on June 7. They reached the Arctic coast in early July, and Albert found no difficulty in communicating with the Inuit they met there. But ice prevented them from crossing to Victoria Island where, the Coppermine Inuit reported, there lived Inuit who had never seen white men before. The party returned to Bloody Falls and began to travel up the Coppermine River on their return journey to Fort Confidence. Then, on August 24, tragedy struck.

They had successfully manoeuvred their boat up the dangerous part of the rapids and had reached an area where the current was strong but the river smooth. Rae thought it was safe to take a loaded boat up the river, with some of the men on shore tracking with a small line. "When halfway up some unaccountable panic seized the steersman," wrote Rae, and "he called on the trackers to slack the line, which was no sooner done sufficiently far, than he and the bowsman sprung on shore, and permitted the boat to sheer out into midstream [where] the line snapped, and the boat driving broadside to the current was soon upset."

John Rae and Albert ran down the bank of the river, expecting the boat to get caught in an eddy. The boat passed close to where Albert stood waiting, and he managed to hook it by the keel with an oar. Rae ran to help him and snatched a pole from the water and jammed it into a broken plank. He called to Albert to hold on with him.

Either Albert didn't hear him, or thought he would be of more assistance on the capsized boat. He sprung onto the bottom of the boat just before the current carried it towards the head of a little bay. Rae thought Albert was safe there, but in less than a minute he saw the boat come out of the protection of the bay, driven by the current, and sinking gradually beneath the water.

The last John Rae saw of Albert was the young man attempting to leap from the boat to the rocks. But he missed his target and disappeared into the water, "nor did he rise again to the surface."

John Rae placed the blame for Albert's death solely on James Hope, the Cree steersman, whom he described as "a notorious thief and equally noted for falsehood."

In 1848, Rae had been promoted by the company to be in charge of the Mackenzie River District, with his headquarters at Fort Simpson. He was to take up this post as soon as his service with Richardson was at an end, and he had hoped to retain Albert there as an employee. Recognizing the young man's abilities, Rae noted that "he would be useful in the event of it becoming desirable to have any negotiations with the Esquimaux at the mouth of the McKenzie (sic)," and he hoped "to make him in every way a most useful man to the Company."

The tragedy ended these well-intentioned plans. "This melancholy accident has distressed me more than I can well express," wrote Rae. "Albert was liked by every-one, for his good temper, lively disposition and great activity in doing anything that was required of him. I had become much attached to the poor fellow…"

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 [email protected]

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