Beothuks of Newfoundland

Lady Edith Blake did well at what was expected of a governor’s wife in late 19th century Newfoundland. But teas with local society ladies were not her priority. She preferred researching and writing about her new home.

Edith and Henry Blake arrived in St. John’s in 1887 and left in December 1888. During that short time, Lady Edith delved into the history of Newfoundland.

Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class, Edith Osborne Blake was friends with Anna Parnell, sister of Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell. So she knew how the English were seen by those they colonized, and why. But she remained true to her origins, and believed that things could work out for an empire of disparate peoples.

Lady Blake had a hopeful, perhaps naive, view of the importance of the individual in the colonizing effort. If men like John Guy and Richard Whitbourne had been in charge, perhaps it would have been different with the Beothuk, she opines (Jan. 2). Colonization is colonization is colonization, one might say. But she looked at the results of individual actions and beliefs.

I wonder how the local burghers reacted to her characterization of the early settlers of Newfoundland, likely their forebears (Jan. 2). “Deserters from the navy, refugees from Ireland, reckless and unruly characters of all kinds…” If they got past that, they would have seen a very good point she makes, of a vicious circle of maltreatment. English law, she says, “decreed that a man’s life paid the penalty of the theft of a sheep.” Therefore, “it appeared simple justice… to punish petty larceny on the part of the natives with death.”

Lady Blake repeats the story about the reason for enmity between Beothuk and Mi’kmaq: a feast that ended in slaughter (Jan. 8). It already had great circulation by the time she was in Newfoundland, and was told and retold for many more decades. It has the elements of an urban legend – “short neat plots that involve a series of odd events or unlikely coincidences followed by a twist ending” that “reflect the anxieties and beliefs” of a society, according to Encyclopædia Britannica. This story does that for the British settlers, and also exonerates them in the extinction of the Beothuk. ‘See, it wasn’t us!’ it says. And, like urban legends, no one has ever found the friend of a friend to whom this happened. A good scary story, without an iota of evidence ever found to back it up.

Despite maybe buying into the “Mi’kmaq Mercenary Myth”, as Dennis Bartels calls it, Lady Blake allows for other histories. “So entirely ignorant were the white inhabitants of the coasts of the interior of the island, that possibly the Mic-macs had effected a permanent settlement in the country long before their presence was suspected” (Jan. 3). Even at the time of her writing she says, “the interior remains as much as ever ‘terra incognita.’”

“The Beothuks of Newfoundland” was published in The Nineteenth Century (Kegan, London, Dec. 1888) but I cannot find that online. It was also serialized in the St. John’s Evening Telegram from December 26, 1888 to January 17, 1889. You can read it at MUN digital archives (all are on page 4). Below are excerpts that relate to Mi’kmaq, Beothuk and British settler interactions.

Beothuks of Newfoundland, by Edith Blake

Dec. 28 1888 “‘ingenious and tractable'”

…The next notice, with any details, that we find of the natives of Newfoundland is in the time of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who, on the 5th of August, 1583, landed in the harbor of St. John’s, where lay several fishing vessels of other nations, and took possession of Newfoundland in the name of Queen Elizabeth… Two eye-witnesses of this ceremony, Captain Hayes of the ‘Golden Hind’ and Captain Richard Whitbourne of Exmouth, have left descriptions of the aborigines as they found them. The latter had during a period of forty years made numerous voyages to Newfoundland, and from his ‘chamber at the sign of the gilded cocke in Paternoster Row in London’ in 1622 wrote a discourse to prove how ‘worthy and beneficial a plantation may there be made.’

He says :—“The natural inhabitants of the country, as they are but few in number, so are they something rude and savage people, having neither knowledge of God nor living under any kind of civil government. In their habits, customs, and manners they resemble the Indians of the continent, from whence (I suppose) they come. They live altogether in the north and west part of the country, which is seldom frequented by the English. But the French and Biscanics (who resort thither yearly for the whalefishing, and also for the cod-fish) report them to be an ingenious and tractable people (being well used): they are ready to assist them with great labor and patience in the killing, cutting, and boiling of whales, and making of train oil, without expectation of other reward than a little bread or some such small hire.”

Further on the same writer says: “It (Trinity Harbor) is near such a great bay lying on the north side of it, to which place no ships repair to fish, partly in regard of sundry rocks and ledges lying even with the water and full of danger, but chiefly (as I conjecture) because the savage people of that country do there inhabit; many of them secretly every year come into Trinity Bay and harbor in the night-time purposely to steal sails, lines, hatchets, hooks, knives, and such-like… which people, if they might be reduced to the knowledge of the true Trinity indeed, no doubt but it would be a most sweet and acceptable sacrifice to God, an everlasting honor to your Majesty, and the heavenliest blessing to those poor creatures, who are buried in their own superstitious ignorance… If, therefore, near the harbor of Trinity it were inhabited by some of your Majesty’s subjects, I see no reason to the contrary but that a speedy and more certain knowledge might be had of the country, by reason those savage people are so near, who, being politely and gently handled, much good might be wrought upon them, for I have had apparent proofs of their ingenuous and subtile dispositions, and that they are a people full of quick and lively apprehension.”

I have quoted at length from Whitbourne as his testimony is valuable as showing the apparently tractable and docile disposition of the native Indians previous to the intercourse with the British! Later on we shall see how the ‘pious work’ of redeeming them from barbarism was effected.

Captain Hayes bears similar evidence as to the natives; he says, ‘The savages are altogether harmless.’

Jan. 2 1889 “the shortsighted policy”

John Guy, afterwards Mayor of Bristol, in 1610 established a plantation or colony at Cupid’s Cove in Conception Bay. One of the patentees of Guy’s grant was the famous Sir Francis Bacon. Guy met with the natives, whom he found friendly and with whom he established a trade in furs. For two years he persevered in the attempt to colonise, when scurvy—the scourge of many of the early attempts at colonizing— broke out, and several of his company died, which induced Guy to abandon his purpose and return to England, only a few individuals, who thought they might make some profit by continuing there, remaining in the country.

Well would it have been for the unhappy natives if men like John Guy and Whitbourne had established permanent hold on the country, but before long the shortsighted policy that too often rules in England induced the British Government to discourage and even to forbid colonization in Newfoundland. Prompted by a handful of interested merchants, England endeavored to keep the island as a mere fishing station, which she believed would prove a nursery for her navy. In spite, however, of stringent rules to that effect, it proved impossible altogether to prevent settlers from establishing themselves on so large an island, but instead of the advent of respectable and energetic colonists, it became ‘a sanctuary for men that broke in England.’ Deserters from the navy, refugees from Ireland, reckless and unruly characters of all kinds who dare not return to their own country, sought an asylum in Newfoundland. There was no government; every man could do what seemed good in his own eyes, provided it did not interfere with the fishery regulations laid down by the ‘fishing admiral,’ as the master of the first fishing vessel from England, Wales, or Berwick that entered a harbor on the opening of the fishing season was termed. The English statute-book was then disgraced by the sanguinary code which decreed that a man’s life paid the penalty of the theft of a sheep, or the stealing of a cow; and no doubt to rough and ignorant men, as were for the most part those skippers of fishing vessels, it appeared simple justice, while invested with the brief authority of a fishing season, to punish petty larceny on the part of the natives with death. We know that the Red Indians, hitherto only acquainted with implements of stone or bone, did not resist the temptation of occasionally purloining such inestimable treasures as a steel knife, or iron hatchet and fishhooks. Probably if any trifling article were missed, the first Indian seen was shot in revenge. After a time it became the habit on the part of the fishermen to shoot an Indian whenever they got a chance. Cupidity added to the zest for shooting Indians, as they often wore rich furs, and the French and English furriers deliberately shot the natives to obtain possession of their deer and fox skin robes. Not many years ago persons were still living on the north-western coast who had been in the habit of boasting of the number of ‘head’ of Indians they had killed, the record of such murders being scored on their gun-stocks.…

Jan. 3 1889 “that so little was then known”

…Sir William Dawson, F.R.S., informs us, in his interesting work on ‘Fossil Men,’ that the Mic-macs of Nova Scotia have traditions of a primitive people whom their ancestors had driven from Nova Scotia into Cape Breton, and pursued into Newfoundland across the comparatively narrow sea separating the two islands. In 1768 Mr. John Cartwright made an expedition into the interior of Newfoundland. He had been told by a Red Indian boy, named ‘June,’ that a people called by the boy ‘Canadians’ possessed the western shores of the Great Lake, over sixty miles long, which is now known as Red Indian Lake. On the eastern shores of this lake a great part of the Beothuk tribe had their headquarters. ‘June’ also said that his people held no intercourse with the Canadians, and that they saw no signs of each other during whole winters. Cartwright did not explore the western shores of the lake, so that we know nothing as to the tribe to which these ‘Canadians’ belonged. So entirely ignorant were the white inhabitants of the coasts of the interior of the island, that possibly the Mic-macs had effected a permanent settlement in the country long before their presence was suspected.

It seems singular that so little was then known of an island that had nominally been a British possession for a couple of centuries. However, after the lapse of more than another hundred years the coasts alone have been thoroughly explored. One or two enterprising travellers have indeed visited the great lakes and rivers, but except to them and a few hunters and trappers, the interior remains as much as ever ‘terra incognita.’ No Beothuk has been seen alive since 1828, but it is just possible that a few individuals of the persecuted tribe may still drag on a life of concealment and misery in the great trackless forests, or hiding like wild beasts amid the unknown rocks and barrens of the northern portion of the island, of which, till the coming of the white men, they had been the free and happy owners. The more probable supposition, however, is, that if any remnant of the race escaped the barbarity of trappers and fishermen, it returned across the straits of Belle Isle to seek a refuge in the vast interior of Labrador.

Sir Richard Bonnycastle mentions being, in 1831, in the Bay of the Seven Islands in Labrador, when the inhabitants were greatly alarmed by ‘the sudden appearance amongst them of a fierce-looking people of whom they had neither knowledge nor tradition,’ and who were different from the Montagnais with whom they sometimes traded. Professor Jukes, when residing in Newfoundland, was told of a body of ‘strange men in red deer skins having been seen on the Labrador coast.’ James Howley, Esq., F.G.S., Geological Surveyor to the Newfoundland Government, whose unwearying researches have brought to light and preserved many valuable Beothuk remains that otherwise would have perished, and whose authority on all matters relating to theories and facts concerning the island and its aborigines is of great value, is of opinion, that if any representatives of the people remain, they must have migrated to the coast opposite the Belle Isle Straits.

Jan. 5 1889 “shudder over the barbarities”

The Beothuks, it is said, were on friendly terms with a tribe of Indians from Labrador, whom they named ‘Shaunamuncs.’ … Most probably they were Nasquapee or Montagnaie Indians, both of which tribes still inhabit Labrador. With this friendly tribe some kind of trade was carried on, and they are said to have mutually visited each other’s countries in former days. The stone hatchets and celts used by the Beothuks are supposed to have been supplied by the Shaunamuncs…

After Europeans began to settle in Newfoundland the intercourse between the Shaunamuncs and the Red Indians must have become more and more difficult to maintain, and as the latter were now able to purloin the metal axes and knives of the invaders, it would be of less importance to them to maintain a trade for stone ones. As their white enemies gained a greater extent of the coast, the Beothuks were hemmed more and more into the interior, till at length their position became one of complete isolation.

We are wont to shudder over the barbarities inflicted on the Indians by their Spanish conquerors, and to deplore the cruelty with which the native races are still too frequently treated by our American cousins; but no Spanish freebooter or Yankee could show more utter disregard for the life of an Indian than did Britishers in Newfoundland.

Cartwright says:— “The Red Indians have no intercourse with Europeans, except an hostile one, which there is great reason to think is founded on their part upon a just, and to an uncivilised people, a noble resentment of wrongs. On the part of the English fishers, it is an inhumanity that sinks them far below the level of savages. The wantonness of their cruelties toward these poor wretches has frequently been almost incredible.”

Jan. 8 1889 “no means of enforcing”

…When at length a government was established, which was not till 1728, when the first governor was appointed by the Crown, it must not be supposed that such proceedings were approved; probably the Government was altogether ignorant of what was going on, for when Mr. Cartwright, in 1768, brought the cruel treatment of the Red Indians under the notice of governor Sir Hugh Palliser, he issued a proclamation to the effect that, it having come to the knowledge of the King that his subjects in Newfoundland “do treat the said savages with the greatest inhumanity, and frequently destroy them without the least provocation or remorse: in order, therefore, to put a stop to such inhuman barbarity, and that the perpetrators of such atrocious crimes may be brought to due punishment, it is his Majesty’s royal will and pleasure that I do express his abhorrence of such inhuman barbarity, and I do strictly enjoin and require all his Majesty’s subjects to live in amity and brotherly kindness with the native savages in the said island of Newfoundland. I do also require and command all officers and magistrates to use their utmost diligence to discover and apprehend all persons who may be guilty of murdering any of the said native Indians, in order that such offenders may be sent over to England to be tried for such capital crimes as by the statute of 10 & 11 William III for encouraging the trade to Newfoundland is directed.”

After Sir Hugh Palliser’s time a similar proclamation was issued by succeeding governors for many years, but to no effect. There were no means of enforcing in the interior, or at any considerable distance along the coasts, the provisions of a proclamation issued at St. John’s. So persecution and slaughter of the Red Indians continued, till at the present day the race is generally regarded as extinct.

According to Whitbourne the French were at first on friendly terms with the Beothuks, who assisted them in fishing and preparing oil. What led to a rupture of friendly relations is not very clear, but about the middle of the last century the French offered a reward for the heads of Red Indians.

After the English had made themselves masters of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, the governor of Newfoundland was alarmed at receiving information that parties of Mic-mac Indians were coming over from Cape Breton and establishing themselves in Newfoundland. All through the war these Indians had been efficient and faithful allies of the French, and it was supposed that the latter were now using them to further designs upon Newfoundland. Accordingly the governor issued orders to the Mic-macs to withdraw from the island, which seems to have met with little attention, for the Mic-macs instead of retiring effected a permanent settlement in the colony, maintained their friendly relations with the French, and before long availed themselves of every opportunity of obtaining the offered reward for the heads of Beothuks.

At first the Mic-macs and the native Indians are said to have been on friendly terms; if so, we may conclude that the tribes entered into some alliance together, as no less an authority than Schoolcraft says that “an Indian nation regards themselves as at war with all others not in actual alliance.” Unhappily some of the Mic-macs, tempted by the hope of reward from the French, privately shot two of the Red Indians, and were descending a river near St. George’s Bay with the heads hidden in their canoe, when they chanced to fall in with a party of Beothuks. The latter, with the usual hospitality of Indians, ignorant of the treachery of which the Mic-macs had been guilty, invited them ashore to a feast. The Mic-macs accepted the invitation. Whilst preparations were in progress for the entertainment, some of the children of the tribe examined the canoe of the visitors, discovered the concealed heads, and confided the secret to their people. No notice was taken of the discovery till each Mic-mac had taken his place at the feast, seated between two of the Beothuks, who at a given signal turned on their guests and slew them. After this the two tribes fought whenever opportunity offered; the Micmacs, being supplied by the French with firearms, of course had the advantage.


In the final five parts, Lady Blake looks in detail at what was known of the Beothuk way of life. She concludes with the capture of Demasduit and Shanawdithit.

See “No Hothouse Flower” to read more about Edith Blake’s life and work. The photographs of the celt and museum collection card are from the National Museum of the American Indian. As a side note, the only portrait of a Beothuk person painted from life, that of Desmasduit, was done by an earlier Newfoundland governor’s wife, Lady Henrietta Hamilton.

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