Eskimo Life/Chapter 17

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
CONCLUSION
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 341-350

CHAPTER XVII
CONCLUSION

Let us cast a backward glance over the foregoing chapters, and mark what lesson they teach us.

They show us a people, highly gifted by nature, which used to live happily, and, in spite of its faults, stood at a high moral standpoint. But our civilisation, our missions, and our commercial products have reduced its material conditions, its morality, and its social order to a state of such melancholy decline that the whole race seems doomed to destruction.

And yet, as we have seen, it has been more kindly and considerately dealt with than any other people under similar conditions. Is not this a serious warning for us? And if we look around among other primitive peoples, do we not find that the result of their contact with European civilisation and Christianity has everywhere been the same?

What has become of the Indians? What of the once so haughty Mexicans, or the highly gifted Incas of Peru? Where are the aborigines of Tasmania and the native races of Australia? Soon there will not be a single one of them left to raise an accusing voice against the race which has brought them to destruction. And Africa? Yes, it, too, is to be Christianised; we have already begun to plunder it, and if the negroes are not more tenacious of life than the other races, they will doubtless go the same way when once Christianity comes upon them with all its colours flying. Yet we are in no way deterred, and are ever ready with high-sounding phrases about bringing to the poor savages the blessings of Christianity and civilisation.

If we look at the missions of to-day, do we not almost everywhere learn the same lesson? Take for instance a people like the Chinese, standing on a high level of civilisation, and therefore, one would suppose, all the better fitted to receive the new doctrine. One of 'the most enlightened mandarins in China, himself a Christian, and educated at European universities,' writes in the North China Daily News an article about the missionaries and their influence, in which, among other things, he says: 'Is it not an open secret that it is only the meanest, most helpless, most ignorant, necessitous, and disreputable among the Chinese who have been and are what the missionaries call "converted"? ... I ask whether it cannot be proved that these converts—men who have thrown away the faith of their childhood, men who are forbidden by their teachers to show any sympathy, or indeed anything but contempt, for the memories and traditions of our ancient history—whether it cannot be proved that these men, as soon as they have had to relinquish the hope of worldly gain, have shown themselves to be worse than the worst of the common Chinese rabble? The missionaries are ready enough to tell their hearers that the mandarins are a parcel of idiots who believe in heavenly portents and all such nonsense, while the very next day they will probably be telling the same listeners that the sun and moon really stood still at the command of the Hebrew general, Joshua.' As to the alleged beneficence of the mission towards the natives in the way of relieving poverty and misery, the writer asks: 'Can it be shown that this assistance affords even the barest equivalent for the money which the Chinese Government has to pay for the protection of the missionaries? I believe that the interest alone of these immense sums would be sufficient to support a much larger staff of skilful European doctors and nurses.... Let it be shown what proportion of the millions which compassionate people in Europe and America subscribe for the China missions really goes to the relief of misery. Let it be shown how much goes to the support of the missionaries and their wives and children, to the building of their fine houses and sanatoriums, to postage and paper for their voluminous rose-coloured reports, to the expenses of their congresses, and many other things. ... Is it not an open secret that the whole mission is nothing but a charitable foundation for the benefit of unemployed persons in Europe and America?' He further asks whether it is not notorious that the missionaries, 'with their high opinion of their own infallibility, are often intrusive and arrogant, and apt to mix themselves up, with self-imposed authority, in matters that do not concern them? If anyone doubts that the missionaries, taken as a whole, are inclined to these vices, let him study and note the tone and spirit of their own writings.'

This account of matters forcibly reminds us, in many particulars, of what we have just seen in Greenland. The main difference is that when the Chinese offer resistance to the missionaries who have come among them uninvited, they are not simply cuffed and flogged. Recognising the evils that threaten them, they 'beg the foreign powers, in the interests of China as well as of America and Europe, to recall the missionaries,' and having begged in vain, they then try to expel them by force; whereupon these gentlemen, who have come to preach the Gospel of Peace, call upon their Governments for protection, and are supported by gunboats and troops who direct a destructive fire of shells and grape-shot upon the natives, and secure for the pious missionaries a sanguinary compensation for the harm done to their goods and gear, as though it had never been written: 'Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses' (Matthew x. 9).

In all this we recognise the race which, when China sought to protect itself against the ruinous opium-poison, forced it, by means of a bloody war, to open its harbours to the noxious traffic, in order that Europeans might grow rich while the Chinese social fabric was being undermined—from first to last a piece of such shameless scoundrelism that no language has words adequate to describe it. The Eskimos, unfortunately, do not seem to be so far wrong in thinking the Europeans a corrupt and dishonourable race, which ought to come to Greenland in order to learn morals.

But do not the missions elsewhere produce better results? Scarcely. Statistics have recently been published as to crime in India, which east grave doubts upon the benefits resulting from missionary enterprise. As to Africa I can find no statistics, but from all I can learn it appears that there, too, the results of the missions are nothing to boast of. African travellers are, I believe, unanimous in declaring that the native converts to Christianity are by no means those whom they prefer to take into their service or to rely upon in any way. And Norway, too, contributes its hundreds of thousands[1] yearly to the missions both in Africa and India! Have we so much superfluous wealth that we cannot employ this money to better advantage at home? The desire to help these poor savages whom we have never seen, and whose needs we do not know, is no doubt a noble aspiration; but I wonder whether it would not be nobler still to help the thousands of unfortunates whose necessities we have daily before our eyes? Since we are bent on doing good works, why not begin with those nearest to us? Then, when all at home were beyond the need of assistance, it would be time enough to look abroad and inquire whether there are not else where others who need our help. 'Charity begins at home.'

I am by no means arguing that all missionary enterprise must necessarily be hurtful; but I am of opinion that in order to be really beneficent it must fulfil conditions which, in our time, are almost beyond attainment. In the first place, it demands such a number of noble, self-sacrificing, and altogether remarkable men as we cannot hope to find all at one time. One may come to the front, perhaps two or three, but there can be no steady supply of them. And then we must remember that so many evil influences follow in the wake of a mission, that the most ideal missionaries can neither hold them aloof nor repair the damage they do to the natives. So the result is always the same in the end.

Are we never, then, to open our eyes to what we are really doing? Ought not all true friends of humanity, from pole to pole, to raise a unanimous and crushing protest against all these abuses, against this self-righteous and scandalous treatment of our fellow-creatures of another faith and at another stage of civilisation?

The time will come when posterity will sternly condemn us, and these abuses, which we now hold consistent with the fundamental principles of Christianity, will be branded as profoundly immoral. Morality will then have so far developed that men will no longer consider themselves justified in swooping down upon the first primitive people that comes in their way, in order to satisfy their own religious vanity and to do 'good works' which shall minister to their self-complacency, but which may or may not be beneficial to the race in question. Then only competent and in every sense well-equipped people will take upon themselves to study the life and civilisation of another race in order to see whether it needs our assistance, and if so, in what way it can best be accorded; and if the result of the inquiry is to show that we can do them no good, they will be left alone. But before that time comes, most of such races, even of those which now survive, will have been swept away.

If we ask, in conclusion, whether there is no hope of salvation for the Eskimo community, every one who knows the circumstances will be forced to admit that the only expedient would be for the Europeans gradually to withdraw from the country. Left to themselves, and freed from subversive foreign influences, the Eskimos might possibly recover their old habits of life, and the race might yet be saved. But this possibility must doubtless be regarded as merely Utopian, at any rate for many a long day to come. In the first place, it would be a severe blow to the vanity of a European state to have to give up an experiment in civilisation which it has once begun, and which it has recorded in large letters to the credit side of its account in the other world; and in the second place it would be useless for the

Danish colonies to withdraw unless the ships of other

Eskimålif, sid 261.jpg

NORTHERN LIGHTS—'THE DEAD AT PLAY'
nations could be restrained from trading with the

natives and importing European commodities, especially brandy.

But apart from their intercourse with us, another danger threatens the Eskimos: to wit, the alarming decrease in the number of seals. This is not due to their own fisheries, in which the 'take' is infinitesimal in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of newly born seal-whelps which the European and American sealers slaughter every year, especially upon the drift-ice off Newfoundland. Here it is again the white race which injures the Eskimo; but even if he knew of it, he would not have the power to set any limits to the abuse; his voice cannot make itself heard. Yet seal-hunting is an industry with which our society could very well dispense, while for the Eskimo the seal means life itself.

Thus we find this loveable people inevitably destined either to pass utterly away or to decline into the shadow of what it once was. But the Greenlander bears up cheerfully, and is perhaps happier than we are apt to be; he does not realise his own ruin, and does not hate us, but gives us a friendly welcome when we come to him.

Greenland was once an excellent source of revenue to the Danish Government; but that time is past. Now the Royal Greenland Company and the mission cost large sums every year, and the sums will grow ever larger. Is it to be expected that the Danish Government will keep this going for ever? Would it not be better and wiser for us first to recall our outposts, and then gradually to withdraw the colonies and hand over the warehouses and buildings to the natives? In my own opinion, the very best thing we could do in the end would be to pack up all the stores, put them and the traders on board the Company's nine ships, and set sail with the whole back to Denmark. This will have to be done sooner or later, but perhaps not until there are no natives left behind to inhabit the land. The lifeless numbness of the inland ice will extend to the margin of the sea, where only the mournful wail of the seagulls will be heard along the unpeopled shores. The sun will rise and set and waste its glory over a deserted land. Only once in a while will some storm-driven ship skirt the desolate coasts. But in the long winter nights the dead will dance in shimmering sheets of light over the eternal silence of the snowfields.

THE END.

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  1. Crowns, the krone being equal to 1 s. 1+12 d.—Trans.