The Beothuk Ex­pe­di­tion

The Compass - - OPINION - Harold N. Walters

Guess what here’s a scarcity of in Derek Yet­man’s “The Beothuk Ex­pe­di­tion?” [Break­wa­ter Books] There’s a scarcity of Beothuks, es­pe­cially live ones. Other than a mur­dered Beothuk woman and a kid­napped child who is never ac­tu­ally seen, there’s only Tom June, a young man who has lived most of his life among the white man.

If I had re­viewed my New­found­land his­tory be­fore read­ing Yet­man’s book I wou l d h av e kno w n tha t John Cartwright’s ex­pe­di­tion to Red In­dian Lake would not lead to an en­counter with the Red In­di­ans. It is the ex­pe­di­tion it­self — as the ti­tle sug­gests sure — and the men who com­prise it that are im­por­tant. The elu­sive Beothuks are al­most myth­i­cal in this novel.

John Cartwright’s search for the Beothuks is a Heart of Dark­ness tale. The trail of the ex­pe­di­tion is a de­scent into the dark­ness of men’s hearts; into the fright­en­ing, unimag­in­able aware­ness of how ca­pa­ble men are of be­hav­ing in­hu­manely to each other.

In Au­gust, 1786 Gov­er­nor Hugh Pal­liser as­signed Lt. John Cartwright the task of mak­ing con­tact with the Beothuk, of es­tab­lish­ing friendly re­la­tions be­tween the In­di­ans and Euro­peans. Per­haps guided by mis­placed good in­ten­tions, Pal­liser of­fered a re­ward to any­one who would bring him a liv­ing Beothuk in order that the In­di­ans could be shown the white man’s good will.

There is some­thing in­her­ently wrong with this pic­ture, id­den it b’ys? Let’s nab a free-spir­ited no­mad, hold him in cap­tiv­ity and ship him off to the Sovereign King to prove the English are good guys.

Even with­out re­view­ing our New- found­land his­tory we all know how such an en­counter was likely — and ul­ti­mately did — turn out. Was New­found­land the only place in the Western World that geno­cide was per­pe­trated?

Nar­ra­tor Jonah Squibb and his ship­mates are part of the group that John Cartwright leads on the trek into the wilder­ness of the Ex­ploits River re­gions, all the way from the Bay of Ex­ploits to the shores of Red In­dian Lake. It is through Jonah’s eyes that we come to rec­og­nize the dark­ness dwelling in men’s souls — men whose greed, seem­ingly with­out any com­punc­tion, al­lows them to bar­barize and tor­ture their fel­low hu­mans.

Oh, by the way, you’re likely to colour me stunned, but I didn’t re­al­ize that there were two Cartwrights — John and Ge­orge — and for a spell I was mixed up as to who [whom?] Pal­liser was giv­ing in­struc­tions. Lt. John led the ex­pe­di­tion. Brother Ge­orge, kind of a dandy more in­ter­ested in shoot­ing things than es­tab­lish­ing a ben­e­fi­cial connection with the Beothuks, was a mem­ber of the ex­pe­di­tion.

Re­mem­ber that pic­ture of Ge­orge Cartwright, mus­ket on his shoul­der and lead­ing his blind-folded dog in your Grade Five [?] his­tory book? Well, he’s the only Cartwright brother — I’m not go­ing to be silly enough to even men­tion Hoss or Lit­tle Joe — who was in my nog­gin un­til I read this book.

Thanks Derek, for help­ing me colour that bit of in­for­ma­tion inside the lines of my ig­no­rance.

Here’s a scrap of New­found­land his­tory I did know. The fa­mous Cap­tain Cook who even­tu­ally met his demise at the hands of some ram­bunc­tious in­hab­i­tants of the Sand­wich Is­lands, once sailed in New­found­land wa­ters. I knew that. I didn’t know he named Joe Batt’s Arm for a rel­a­tive of his wife’s — that’s Cook’s wife, not Joe Batt’s.

Segue — I don’t think Gov­er­nor Hugh Pal­liser was a man to cuss in pro­fan­i­ties, blas­phemies or sac­ri­leges. He curses only once in the pages of The Beothuk Ex­pe­di­tion. “Blis­ter my tripes!” he swears. That’s cer­tainly a colour­ful ex­ple­tive, es­pe­cially when you con­sider that tripes are — and I looked this up — “the rub­bery lin­ing of the stom­ach of cat­tle or other ru­mi­nants, used as food.”

Pos­si­bly I’m wan­der­ing off topic but, hey, the path less trod, eh b’ys?

My fa­ther cursed brim­stone; his brother cursed more like Pal­liser — “That would vex Satan,” was the strong­est swear­ing I ever heard him ut­ter. OK, back to the beaten path. Derek Yet­man’s “The Beothuk Ex­pe­di­tion” is an en­ter­tain­ing, in­for­ma­tive his­tor­i­cal novel well worth read­ing. It even has a teeny-weeny love story. And it isn’t in­tim­i­dat­ingly lengthy — just 200 or so pages which is long enough for any yarn.

But I wouldn’t say that where Stephen King could hear me.

Thank you for read­ing. Harold Walters writes from Dunville. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing:

gh­wal­ters@per­sona.ca

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