Eskimo Life/Chapter 16

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 327-340


The purpose of our mission and of our work of civilisation in Greenland was, in the first place, to win honour for ourselves before God and man, and secure our own salvation in the other world; and, in the second place, to benefit the natives. But what have we done?

Let us first look at the purely material side. It might seem at first sight as if we ought to have been able to bring to a people like this, living practically in the Stone Age, many things that would aid them in their hard fight for existence. As a matter of fact, this has been by no means the case. The things that were of most importance for them, their weapons and their hunting implements, were in no way susceptible of improvement at our hands. It is true that we brought them iron, which is useful for harpoon-points and knives; but the Greenlanders were not entirely ignorant of it before, and, can, besides, get on quite well without it. They fitted their harpoons with points of hard ivory or stone, they made their knives of the same material, and caught, in those days, a great many more seals than they do now.

But have not our firearms been of great advantage to them? Quite the reverse. The rifle, for example, has enabled them to perpetrate terrible slaughter among the reindeer, merely for the sake of a small and momentary gain. This went so far, that on the narrow strip of naked, broken country which stretches along the west coast, no fewer than 16,000 reindeer were killed every year, only the skin, as a rule, being taken and sold to the Europeans, while the flesh was left behind to rot. Of course, this presently led to the almost total extermination of the animals, and hunting almost entirely ceased because, as it was explained, 'the reindeer had left the coast.' In former days, when they hunted with bow and arrow, they could kill all that they required, but the slaughter was never so great as seriously to diminish the numbers of the reindeer.

For marine hunting, too, the rifle has been the reverse of an advantage. When there are many seals in the fiord, they are frightened by the shots and set off to sea, whereas harpoon-hunting is carried on in silence. Moreover, it is, of course, easier to kill seals with the rifle than to harpoon them, and
Eskimålif, sid 191.jpg
therefore the rifle has led to a decline in skill with

the harpoon. And yet the harpoon remains of supreme importance; for while the rifle hunter must stop at home in rough weather, the harpoon hunter can go out in all weathers and support his family. Harpoon hunting, too, is the more rational method, the wounded animal being almost always secured; whereas of seals wounded by the rifle, at least as many escape and die to no purpose as are secured and brought home.

Nor has the shot-gun been of real service. In many districts it has tempted the inhabitants to devote themselves more to the easier bird-shooting than to seal-hunting, which is and must be the pursuit upon which depends the very existence of the Eskimo community; for the seal provides flesh, blubber, both for food and fuel, and skins for kaiaks, boats, tents, houses, clothes, boots, and so forth—nothing can replace it. Another evil is that, by help of the shot-gun, the Greenlanders are enabled to kill so many birds of certain species (for example, eider-ducks) that their numbers are yearly decreasing; and this will soon lead to great misery, for bird-hunting has now become the chief means of support of many families. At Godthaab, for example, the inhabitants live upon it during the greater part of the winter, there being few capable seal-hunters. In earlier times, the Eskimo killed birds with his throwing-dart. It, too, was an effective weapon, and the birds he wounded he secured; when he now sends his small shot scattering in among a flock of eider-duck, who can reckon how many are destroyed without doing any good to anyone?

No, we certainly cannot flatter ourselves that we have perfected his methods of hunting; we have only introduced disturbance into them, the full extent of whose ruinous results we cannot even yet foresee.

But worst of all is the irreparable injury which all our European commodities have done to him. We have, as I have shown, been so immoral as to let him acquire a taste for coffee, tobacco, bread, European stuffs and finery; and he has bartered away to us his indispensable sealskins and blubber, to procure all these things which give him only a moment's doubtful enjoyment. In the meantime his woman-boat has gone to ruin for want of skins, his tent likewise, and even his kaiak, the essential condition of his existence, will often lie uncovered on the beach. The lamps in his house have often to be extinguished in the winter, because the autumn store of blubber has been sold to the Company. He himself must go on winter days clad in European rags instead of in the warm fur garments he used to have. He has grown poorer and poorer, the delightful summer journeys have for the most part had to be abandoned for want of woman-boats and tents, and all the year round he has now to live in confined houses where contagious diseases thrive and play worse havoc among the population than they ever did before. To show how great the decadence has been in certain districts, I may mention that at a place near Godthaab where a few years ago there were eleven woman-boats,[1] there was now only one, and that one belonged to the missionary.[2]

The statistics of population in Greenland during recent years may at first sight seem encouraging. For example, the number of natives on the west coast was, in 1855, 9,644, while in 1889 it was 10,177. But we must not lull our conscience to sleep with these figures; they are unfortunately deceptive, and the figures of the intervening years will show that the population fluctuates very greatly. In 1881 it was no more than 9,701, and in 1883 only 9,744 (thus showing an increase of only 100 since 1855). In 1885 it had risen to 9,914, and in 1888 to 10,221; but then it fell again in 1889 to 10,177. I have no later statistics. These figures, in which increase and decrease alternate, show that the state of things can not be healthy. It ought not to be forgotten, too, that Hans Egede, a century and a half ago, estimated the population of the west coast at 30,000. This is probably a large over-estimate, but there is an enormous margin between 30,000 and 10,177. Assuredly this people is sailing with 'a corpse in the cargo.'[3]

Disease has of late years increased alarmingly. It is especially the Greenlanders' scourge, consumption, or more properly tuberculosis, which makes ever wider ravages. There can be few places in the world where so large a proportion of the population is attacked by it. It is not quite clear whether we imported this disease into Greenland, but most probably we did; and at any rate, as I have several times pointed out, our influence has in more ways than one tended strongly to promote the spread of this and other contaoious diseases.[4] Tuberculosis is now so common that it is almost easier to number those who are not attacked by it than those who are. It is remarkable, however, what a power of resistance the natives show to this disease. They are sometimes so far gone in it while young as to spit blood copiously, and yet survive to a good age. I have even seen excellent hunters who had consumption, and who would one day lie abed spitting blood, and a few days later would be out at sea again. This power of resistance is probably due in part to the amount of fat they consume, and especially to the blubber which is admirably adapted to fortify them against the disease. It is proved, too, that people at the Colonies, who consequently live largely upon European fare, are most apt to succumb to it. As a rule, however, it reduces their strength all round, so that those attacked by it can do little for themselves; and it is clear that this must hamper the activities of so small a community. An epidemic disease such as smallpox, which we have of course also imported and thereby greatly thinned the population, is much to be preferred; for it kills its victims at once, and does not keep them lingering like this slow, sneaking poison.[5]

We see, then, that the result of our influence upon the Greenlanders' material circumstances has been a continuous decline from their former well-being and prosperity towards an almost hopeless poverty and weakness.

Many will admit this, but object that it was really to raise the level of their spiritual life and culture that we went to Greenland, and that this cannot be done save at the expense of their temporal welfare. Let us, then, look a little at this side of our activity. Many people think that a highly developed and civilised community can be fashioned at one stroke out of so unpromising material as a primitive race. This is a great mistake; human nature is not to be transformed at the good pleasure of individuals. It is, indeed, capable of modification; but the development always occur s slowly, like development in nature as a whole. We must not imagine, therefore, that we have the right, as we have done in Greenland and in other places, to swoop down upon a primitive race with our civilisation and impose it upon them. 'Try to fit a hand with five fingers into a glove with four,' says Spencer, 'and the difficulty is strikingly like the difficulty of implanting a complex or composite idea in a mind which has not a correspondingly composite faculty.'

The only change which can be brought about with any sort of rapidity among a primitive race is the change towards degeneration and ruin. Such a change, in the spiritual sphere, sets in as soon as we attempt to impose ethical conceptions upon a people at a stage of cultivation different from our own. This is precisely what we have achieved among the Eskimos. When, for example, in contempt of their own laws and ordinances, we have sought to impose upon them our conceptions of property, which are undeniably fitted for a more developed but less neighbour-loving community than that of Greenland, how can we expect to bring about anything but confusion and ruin? Their whole social scheme was arranged to fit their primitive socialistic conceptions of property, and as their habits of life are irreconcilable with the new and foreign conception, degeneration is inevitable. And as with the idea of property, so is it with all the other ideas which we have sought to implant in them.

To take one more example: How baneful to them has been the introduction of money! Formerly they had no means of saving up work or accumulating riches; for the produets of their labour did not last indefinitely, and therefore they gave away their superfluity. But then they learned the use of money; so that now, when they have more than they need for the moment, the temptation to sell the overplus to the Europeans, instead of giving it to their needy neighbours, is often too great for them; for with the money they thus acquire they can supply themselves with the much-coveted European commodities. Thus we Christians help more and more to destroy instead of to develop their old self-sacrificing love of their neighbours. And money does still more to undermine the Greenland community. Their ideas of inheritance were formerly very vague, for, as before mentioned, the clothes and weapons of a dead man were consigned with him to the grave. Now, on the other hand, the introduction of money has enabled the survivors to sell the effects of the deceased, and they are no longer ashamed to accept as an inheritance what they can obtain in this way. This may seem an advantage; but, here, too, their old habit of mind is upset. Greed and covetousness—vices which they formerly abhorred above everything—have taken possession of them. Their minds are warped and enthralled by money.

Let us, however, look at another aspect of the case. Our true aim, I suppose, was, after all, to make them a cultivated people, and open up to them a wider range of spiritual interests. But even if we could actually attain this end, must it not necessarily be perilous in the highest degree to give a people like the Eskimos new interests which may divert them from the one thing needful—the duty of providing for themselves and their families. It is vaunted as a brilliant achievement that the majority of the natives of the west coast can now both read and write. Unfortunately for them, they can; for these arts are not to be learned for nothing, and they have indeed to pay dear for their acquirements. It is self-evident that an Eskimo cannot possibly devote his time to these branches of knowledge and never theless be as good a hunter as when he had only one interest in life, and learned nothing except hunting and the management of the kaiak.[6] We have direct evidence of the fact that skill with the kaiak has declined, in the many accidents which have happened of late years. Formerly, according to Rink, no more than fifteen or twenty deaths in kaiak-hunting occurred during the year; but in 1888 and 1889 there have been thirty-one fatal kaiak accidents each year.

The chief aim of all education must surely be to make the rising generation good and capable citizens of the community in which their lot is cast. But in what way does an Eskimo become a capable citizen of his little community? Since hunting and fishing are the sole means of supporting existence assigned by Nature to this community, it follows that he can become a capable citizen only by acquiring the greatest possible skill in these pursuits. Of what profit, then, to the Eskimo, is his ability to read and write? He assuredly does not learn hunting by help of these arts. It is true that by means of the few books he possesses he may gain information as to other and better countries, unattainable conditions and alleviations, of which he before knew nothing; and thus he becomes discontented with his own lot, which was formerly the happiest he could conceive. And then, too, he can read the Bible—but does he understand very much of it? And would it not do him just as much good if the matter of it were related to him, as his old legends used to be? There can be no doubt that the advantage is dearly bought. We must bear well in mind that the Eskimo community lives upon the very verge of possible human existence, and that a concentrated exertion of all its energies is necessary to enable it to carry on the fight with in hospitable nature. A little more ballast and it must sink. This is what is already happening, and all the wisdom in the world is of no avail.

The upshot, then, of European activity in Greenland has been degeneration and decadence in every respect. And the only compensation we have made to the natives is the introduction of Christianity. In so far we have achieved a happy consummation, for, in name at least, all the Greenlanders of the west coast are now Christians. But the question seems to me to be forced upon us whether this Christianity, too, is not exceedingly dearly bought, and whether the most ardent believer ought not to have some doubts as to the blessings it has conferred upon this people, when he sees how it has cost them their whole worldly welfare?

What part of Christianity is most to be valued, its dogmas or its moral teaching? It seems to me that even the best Christian must admit that it is the latter which is of enduring value; for history can teach him how variable and uncertain the interpretation of the dogmas has always been. Of what value, then, have these dogmas, which he understands so imperfectly, been to the Eskimo? Can anyone seriously maintain that it is a matter of essential moment to a people what dogmas it professes to believe in? Must not the moral laws which it obeys always be the matter of primary concern? And the Eskimo morality was, as we have seen, in many respects at least as good as that of the Christian communities. So that the result of all our teaching has been that, in this respect too, the race has degenerated.

And lastly comes this question: Can an Eskimo who is nominally a Christian, but who cannot support his family, is in ill-health and is sinking into deeper and deeper misery, be held much more enviable than a heathen who lives in 'spiritual darkness,' but can support his family, is robust in body, and thoroughly contented with life? From the Eskimo standpoint at any rate, the answer cannot be doubtful. If he could see his true interest, the Eskimo would assuredly put up this fervent petition: God save me from my friends, my enemies I can deal with myself.

  1. That a man should have a woman-boat, which was formerly the general rule, is now regarded as a conclusive proof of exceptional wealth and capability; for he must of course catch many seals in order to have enough skins for it. Compare ante p. 85.
  2. It must be mentioned, however, that accidental circumstances, such as the removal of some good hunters to other places, had contributed in some measure to this great falling off.
  3. An allusion to the well-known nautical superstition.—Trans.
  4. For instance, by causing the natives to wear worse clothes, and to live all the year round in their damp, insanitary houses, where the germs of disease find the best possible soil to flourish in, by introducing European articles of diet, and so forth.
  5. It is strange that the Greenlanders have in great measure escaped syphilis, which is usually one of the first gifts we confer upon those primitive people whom we select as subjects for our experiments in civilisation. It is found only in one place, Arsuk in South Greenland, where they try to isolate it. It is only of recent years that it has been introduced, but from what I hear it appears to have spread, and it seems probable that it will continue to do so, and in course of time affect the whole population.
  6. Just as I am sending this to press there appears Gejerstam's Kulturkampen i Herjedalen, in which the author argues, as I do, that our school teaching has been the ruin of the Lapps, by weakening their interest in the business of their lives.