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Jewitt, John R.

Surrey (B.C.), Heritage House Publishing, 1987. 126pp, paper, $8.95. ISBN 0-919214-51-7. CIP

Reviewed by Adele Case

Volume 15 Number 6
1987 November

When the account of John Jewitt's "adventures and sufferings" was published in 1815 it was read avidly by a public eager for first-hand knowledge of the manners and pursuits of the Indians of the North-West. The rich trade in the pelts of the sea otter drew merchant ships like a magnet, and the Nootka Indians were no doubt seen as primitive hunters, to be exploited while profits were so attractive. White Slaves of the Nootka now reads as a disappointing, self-serving narrative, its very title hinting at the ingrained prejudice and small-mindedness of the sailor-author. As a skilled blacksmith, and listed on the ship's company as armourer, Jewitt was helpful to the Nootka Sound "savages" during his captivity from March 1803 to July 1805. Slave though he was, he ate, was housed, and for a time dressed in much the same fashion as other members of Maquina's tribe. At one point he speaks of being forced to gather wood, but this was for a short period of his confinement. He was certainly befriended and defended by Chief Maquina, and was allowed to live in company with the chief's children. Maquina unwisely believed Jewitt incapable of duplicity, and it was this error in judgement that made possible Jewitt's repatriation (while the chief was held as hostage) in 1805. Jewitt's talent for hyperbole appears twice in the frontispiece of his published journal, wherein he states he was the "only survivor," (though the Boston's sailmaker shared his ordeal), during his captivity of "nearly three years."

The one dispassionate and balanced section of the book is found in the introduction to the narrative supplied by the Provincial Museum of B.C., and it does contain a wealth of detailed information. The complex sub-groupings of the Nootka Indians are clarified, and their hunting and gathering customs are succinctly summarized. We also learn of the specializations of various groups in tool-making, weaving, or even the manufacture of ornaments.

Following the Jewitt narrative, an appendix with details of his post-Nootka life gives further evidence of his propensity for self-advancement, indeed for showmanship. His book, purporting to be an exact journal of his time with the Indians, provided him with the impetus to become an entertainer. He peddled copies of his book, sung a song entitled The Poor Armourer Boy (though he was twenty at the time of the Boston incident), and by dressing in a facsimile of Nootka garb he appeared on the stage, living an itinerant life. He had been badly wounded during the massacre of most of the Boston's crew, and it seems likely this injury contributed to his view that he was a victim of "Dire scenes of horror on a savage shore, In which, a witness sad, a part I bore." The actual journal never seems to be a faithful reporting of day to day happenings. Rather, it seems slanted to appeal to American audiences who were thrilled more by gore and violence than by the unvarnished truth.

Maquina was an important personage on the Northwest coast, and even in Jewitt's exaggerations he gives the chief credit for dealing fairly and generously with his "white slaves," to the point of placating those who would have dealt harshly with the sailors. Far too often, though, Jewitt criticizes without considering the merits of the alternative Indian methods. One instance is his often-spoken disgust with the Indians' food preparation methods, now generally accepted as being suitable and adequate in the circumstances. It is unfortunate this historically important narrative is written from such a narrow horizon, and by such a snob.

The Jewitt narrative is set in close print, too dense to permit browsing. The style is archaic, and would have more appeal to the researcher, keen anthropologist, or anyone with an interest in curiosities. The many photographs in black and white are of comparatively recent date, so do not suit the text as well as the fine drawings that enliven the museum introduction to the journal. After a close reading, one cannot but wish that prisoners of present-day terrorist factions could be as well treated as John Jewitt was.

Adele Case, Britannia S.S., Vancouver, B.C.
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