When I came on shore, the swarthy natives all stood around and sung in their fashion; their clothing consisted of the skins of foxes and other animals, which they dress and make the skins into garments of various sorts. Their food is Turkish wheat, which they cook by baking, and it is excellent eating. They always carry with them green tobacco, which is strong and good for use. They appear to be a friendly people.
It is as pleasant a land as one need tread upon; very abundant in all kinds of timber suitable for shipbuilding, and for making large casks or vats.
Yet as Mr Juet is right in saying . . . as we lay at anchor behind a sheltered sandy hook, five of our men took the ship’s boat and sailed the Narrowing of islands and into a large anchorage. As they returned, about a dozen natives in two canoes attacked the boat and with an arrow through the throat killed the leader, John Colman.
A few days on, the people of the country came aboard. They showed signs of love, gave us tobacco and wheat, and departed. How far can we trust each other? How can we avoid all intent of treachery?
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Two weeks out of the St George for the south, and I’m still preoccupied with our meeting the people of the new land, this new race and civilization. So much food for thought was this encounter that in a perfect, unhurried world, I’d have our ship put to sea for a thousand days so that I could process this fantastic exchange. So wondrous were the Algonquin that I’ve thought this place may be as fascinating as Cathay.
Juet has been mulling it over too, but for him the encounter has generated sheer terror. At dinners in my cabin, he wants to talk exclusively of weapons: cannon, knives, and hooks.
I confess I’ve indulged him, as he goes on about “besting the new people.” His every imagining relates to better catching to kill every beast, fowl, and fish. I’ve never seen him smile more than when he talks of sailing as a teen and seeing his captain then beating a sailor. Along the sandy coast, he spoke incessantly of firing grape into the Algonquin’s wigwams.
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Now I have seen the savages. Ship’s mate Juet calls them that: savages, uncivilized people of the woods, fierce. In my journeys now I’ve seen icebears and walrus and maybe mermaids … although reports of these always follow extra grog rations for the crew. On the docks I’ve seen men like Pernomo—very gentle souls—from the warm Spice Indies. But now I’ve seen savages. Real ones . . . of the woodlands. Self-assured, fearless outlandish men in their own camps, sailing and paddling their own waters in vessels of their hands and design.
A few speak French. Francais! But that makes them no more French than they would be if they spoke English . . . or Dutch. I’m glad some speak French, for otherwise we’d have no idea what they want; no one of our crew speak their tongue.
What they want is clear–
—trade . . . their beaver pelts and info about gold, silver, and copper to trade for our beads, metal knives and hatchets, and red gowns. Of this latter, we carried none and had to use force to stop them from climbing our rigging to take our VOC flag. Juet says we must not trust them and keeps his knife always in his hand.
But Juet trusts no one and never has. In fact, I know he mistrusts me.
I watch these woodlands men eat from our table, drink our grog. I’ve shared finfish and shellfish with them and watched their group rules. I study how they watch us, study us. I suspect they have their own civilization and language—confound us that no one speaks it!. Of course, I write that here never to share with Juet, who even now is scheming treacherous business with the savages.
(Painting: retouched image of George Caleb Bingham’s The Storm, 1850)
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Déjà vu . . . déjà vu. That’s the term coming to mind. Only last year we followed the Norwegian shore. I know its tricky winds and my crew have seen the denizens of its waters . . . from spouting whales, feeding puffins, and at least one frolicking mermaid. I can’t be sure I’ve seen her, but my dreams of her are quite vivid. I sense she knows me and guides our ship. Maybe her destiny and mine are somehow intertwined. Maybe what Cathay offers me, it also offers her. My obsession is hers too, ours shared.
As we climb the latitudes I spend much time on the quarter deck with the spyglass and cross-staff. Taking readings and looking for Nord Kap is what the crew thinks, and of course that’s what Mr Juet and I are doing, but in my case . . . .in my case, I’m imagining that our mermaid also guides. I watch all signs of nature, including the supernatural ones At at such point that she suggests in her inimitable non-verbal communication that we turn for the isthmus of Smith and Champlain, then that we certain shall do, VOC be damned.
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