Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.
A photograph. A cold and harsh place. The Moravian Church Mission ship the Harmony somewhere on the Labrador coast. Ice hardens the earth between the mission buildings.
The date is 1907. Each year mission ships would sail from Greenland Dock in Rotherhithe to Stromness in Orkney to take on water and crew, waiting for a break in the Westerlies, beating out through the Hoy Sound for the voyage to St. John’s in Newfoundland, then north up the Labrador coast to the mission stations beyond Hamilton Inlet.
Makkovik. Hopedale. Zoar. Nain. Okak. Hebron. Ramah. Killinik.
The largely German missionary Brethren re-mapped the land with bleak toponyms and Biblical typologies that settled over the coast like a prophetic fog. And the echoing voice of the prophet Jeremiah was heard in Ramah:
Lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.
A photograph, the philosopher Roland Barthes suggested, is a spectrum that registers the spatio-temporal slippage between the operator of the camera, the thing observed and us, the spectator, and we are forced to address the terrible thing at the heart of the image – the spectral presence of something that has gone forever. Each image a haunting. A small disturbance in flow of time.
Moravian Church Mission ships had shuttled back and forth across the North Atlantic World since the 1770s, stitching European and Inuit lives together in complex entanglements.
Henry Linklater of Graemsay in Orkney was captain of the Harmony between 1863 and 1896. On each voyage westwards from Stromness the Harmony set out fat with catechisms and missionaries and Manchester goods, but came back largely empty, unlading her shimmering iridescent ballast of Labradorite rock on the shores of Inner Holm near Stromness, bringing home the harvest from the stony mission fields of Nunatsiavut.
In 1901 the Moravian Church refitted another vessel and re-christened her Harmony, the fifth and final boat of that name to supply the missions. Her new skipper, Captain Joseph C. Jackson, carried a camera, leaving us with an extraordinary visual ethnographic record of the hybrid settler-Indigenous communities that grew up on the Labrador coast.
A photograph of schoolchildren, taken at sea, their pinched faces registering the roll and pitch of the Harmony as she makes her way between the mission stations. Settler children. Inuit children. Dual-heritage children with fathers from Scotland or Norway or Nova Scotia. Hybrid lifeways. Seal children sewn into the sleek dappled skins of harbour seal and harp seal, the fur running down the body, gut sewn, shedding all the waters of the world.
The seal’s gift to the hunter. The mother’s gift to the child.
Another photograph. Three young Inuit girls. Susi and Sara and Martha bunched together tightly, squinting into a low-angled winter sun. Captain Jackson has positioned them against the stern rail of the Harmony. He has told them about the importance of remaining still.
They stand on the master ship, its bowsprit touching the circumference of the world. They hunch their shoulders and wait – a long exposure.
There is no date assigned to the photograph. I search around for clues to the girls’ identities, try and pick them out in other dated photographs, to fix them in time. I feel that if I just knew when the photograph was taken, then perhaps there was a way to warn them? To tell them to not go on the ship. Tell them to warn their parents. Tell them to hitch up the dog teams, leave everything and go before the next season, before the Harmony returns.
Setting out from St. John’s late in the season in October 1918, Captain Jackson arrived in Hebron on the 27th October 1918, sending a message to the Moravian Bishop to tell the Inuit not to go to the front of the ship where they had a sick crew member in quarantine.
A report from the Moravian journal Periodical Accounts from 1919 recorded the devastation that flowed in the Harmony’s wake in the winter of 1918:
Immediately after the departure of the Harmony, from Hebron – even, in fact, before the Harmony left – the natives showed sign of having contracted the Spanish Influenza from a sick sailor. Captain Jackson had forbidden the natives to visit the crew’s quarters, warning them of the infectious nature of the sickness, but they paid no heed to him. The result was that in the course of about nine days nearly two-thirds of the Hebron congregation were corpses.1
Another photograph. The Harmony at Okak.
A picture without people.
As the pandemic took hold, survivors tried to flee to remote hunting camps, spreading the epidemic along the coast. The starving sled dogs, driven mad with hunger, tore apart both the dead and the dying. The Periodical Account of 1919 continues:
In Okak and at several of the sealing-places the dogs played havoc with the corpses. At Sillutalik (Cut Throat) 36 persons died, but only 18 remained to be buried. The only visible remains of the others were a few bare skulls and a few shank-bones lying around in the houses.2
One survivor, interviewed in the 1980’s, recalled how as a young girl she had cradled her cousin while they waited for rescue.
My little cousin lived for quite a while, I don’t know for how many days. I think I starved him to death. Because I didn’t know how to feed him. He would say ‘Teetoo teetoo’ because he wanted tea. I was holding him in my lap one evening and then I laid him by my side. As soon as I laid him down, the dogs attacked him. They tore him to pieces. But I think he was still alive. This is one thing that haunts me. Even to this day.3
The death rates in these communities were some of the highest ever recorded during the deadly second wave of the global 1918 influenza pandemic. Indigenous communities that had already suffered from epidemics of measles and chickenpox were largely abandoned to their fate by the settler colonial government of the Dominion of Newfoundland. In Okak, 207 people died out of a population of 263. The entire male population was wiped out leading to the settlement’s abandonment in 1919. At Hebron 140 people died out of a population of 222.
These old photographs hesitate between worlds. They register a belatedness by succeeding some lost reality they re-present. But they also repeat that re-representation for successive recipients, opening up the possibility of renewal. As works of art they present us with ‘a message whose sender and destination are constantly shifting.’4
Looking backwards, we need to be mindful of Eve Tuck’s warning of the dangers of damage centred narratives that reinscribes ‘a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless’, pathologizing forms of research in which colonial ‘oppression singularly defines a community.’5
Looking forwards, these photographs represent sites of anachronic and mnemonic potential for indigenous communities. Initiatives like Library and Archives Canada Project Naming6 are enabling the re-inscription of the photographic archive by communal memory. Digital repatriation projects like the digitization of the Jette Bang photographic archive7 by the Danish Arktisk Intitut8 have re-enfolded archival sources back into the intangible cultural heritage of Inuit communities in Kalaallit Nunaat.
Memory is a cargo, carried by communities and these archival photographs both enable the work of memory and also open up the possibility of conversations across time.
During the recent global pandemic, First Nation and Inuit communities across North America suffered disproportionately from Covid-19, with death rates twice that of the white settler population. Deprivation, unemployment, lack of medical insurance and inadequate health care infrastructure determine poor health outcomes. Heavy handed medical campaigns against tuberculosis amongst the Inuit in Canada and the genocidal policies of the indigenous residential school system have all led to a deep mistrust of government, leading to low vaccine uptake in Inuit Nunangat, with one exception:
In the five Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut, as of July 30, 2021, 79.5 per cent of the eligible population of 2056 had received two doses of the vaccine; 89.3 per cent had received at least one dose. Some Nunatsiavut communities have very high vaccination rates: in Makkovik, 86.6 per cent of its eligible population of 254 is fully vaccinated, and 97.6 per cent have had at least one dose.9
Written off by missionaries and anthropologists as doomed to inevitable extinction through disease and assimilation, for these communities the intergenerational memory of the 1918 influenza pandemic has inoculated them against the predations of the future and enabled them to respond more effectively to the threat of Covid-19.
These old photographs, like ghost ships, seldom bring us what we want. They seem to offer us hope of renewal. But they also wound us. Sometimes they are hard to look at. And in the end, they will eventually drop below the horizon of living memory and slowly settle into the undisturbed sediments of the archival deep.
And all that will remain, sailing upon the darkened shoals of time, will be the devious-cruising whaler the Rachel, looking for her missing children, and finding only orphans.