The Beothuk Expedition
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: