William Ouligbuck, John Rae’s Interpreter

Taissumani: 2008-11-28

By Kenn Harper

Last week I wrote about how the explorer, John Rae, rushed in print to the defence of his Inuit informants when the writer, Charles Dickens, suggested that the information they had provided Rae was a pack of lies.

Among other points he raised, Rae defended the integrity of his interpreter, William Ouligbuck.

The date of William Ouligbuck's birth is unrecorded, but it was sometime around 1831, for he was probably the boy referred to in 1843 by Letitia Hargrave, wife of a Hudson's Bay Company employee, as being a little scamp about 12 years of age who spoke 10 languages. Although the lad went on to become a capable interpreter, surely this is an overstatement of his linguistic abilities. His birthplace is likewise unrecorded. He could have been born in Ungava Bay while his father, known simply as Ouligbuck and originally from the Kivalliq region, was employed by the HBC there. Ouligbuck the elder eventually transferred back to Churchill and his son spent most of his youth there.

While still a teenager, young Ouligbuck accompanied his father on John Rae's expedition of 1846-47. Mischievous teens were a reality in the 1840s as much as they are today, and Rae described him as an "incorrigible thief." Later, in 1853, while preparing for a surveying expedition that doubled as a search for the men of the missing Franklin expedition, Rae again needed an interpreter. Ouligbuck the father had died the previous year, and Rae said he would prefer not to employ the son, whom he considered "one of the greatest rascals unhung." But Inuit who could interpret in English were not exactly in abundance a century and a half ago, so Rae reluctantly hired William Ouligbuck.

In one of his reports Rae wrote that Ouligbuck was prone to bouts of sulkiness, that he lied when it suited him, and that he was not particularly honest. But he also described him as a good interpreter, and this was the quality that Rae was looking for. At the end of the expedition, when Rae landed Ouligbuck at Churchill, he referred to him simply as his "good interpreter Wm. Ouligbuck."

Perhaps the young man had matured during the expedition. One thing is certain. Once Rae was back in England, he would brook no criticism of his interpreter. He defended him at length in his letter to Dickens's magazine, Household Words.

"William Ouligbuck speaks English fluently," he wrote, "and, perhaps, more correctly than one half of the lower classes in England and Scotland.

"As I could not, from my ignorance of the Esquimaux tongue, test William Ouligbuck's qualifications, I resorted to the only means of doing so I possessed. There is an old servant of the company at Churchill, an honest trustworthy man, who has acquired a very fair knowledge of both the Esquimaux character and the Esquimaux language. This man informed me that young Ouligbuck could be perfectly relied on; that he would tell the Esquimaux exactly what was said, and give the Esquimaux reply with equal correctness; that when he had any personal object to gain, he would not scruple to tell a falsehood to attain it, but in such a case the untruth was easily discovered by a little cross-questioning. This description I found perfectly true."

Rae went on to state that there was little possibility of William Ouligbuck misunderstanding the dialect of the Inuit he had questioned, for "the natives of Repulse Bay speak precisely the same language as those of Churchill, where young Ouligbuck was brought up."

Dickens had stated that interpreters were prone to exaggeration, especially if they perceived the possibility of reward. Not so, said Rae, who concluded his defence with this assertion: "That ninety-nine out of a hundred interpreters are under a strong temptation to exaggerate may be true. If so, my interpreter is the exception, as he did not like to talk more than he could possible help. No doubt had I offered him a premium for using his tongue freely he might have done so; but not even the shadow of a hope of a reward was held out."

William Ouligbuck was paid at the rate of 20 British pounds per year for his assistance to Rae. Later, he received an unexpected reward for his work. The Admiralty awarded John Rae an 8,000-pound reward for ascertaining the fate of Sir John Franklin's expedition and an additional 2,000 pounds to be divided among his men. Ouligbuck's share of the reward was 210 pounds, a fabulous bonus equal to ten years salary.

William Ouligbuck worked sporadically for the HBC at Churchill in subsequent years, for he was able to interpret

in Inuktitut, English, Cree and Chipewyan. Periodically he left to live the traditional life of a seal hunter, but always he returned. He retired from company service on June 1, 1894, and died sometime during the winter of 1895-96.


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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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