February 2017 – The Violence of Transnationalism and Indigenous Women’s Resistance

Bernadette Andrea for the SSEMW Blog

This famous engraving of Pocahontas was rendered by Simon van de Passe during her visit to London in 1616.

The first indigenous American woman in England was not Pocahantas (“Matoaka alias Rebecca daughter to the mighty Prince Powhatan”), who journeyed to London in 1616 and died in Gravesend on the south bank of the Thames Estuary in 1617,[1] but Ignorth, an Inuit woman Martin Frobisher captured on his second voyage in search of the Northwest Passage and transported to Bristol, where she died in 1577.[2] Her life thus signals a history of contact – and, ultimately, colonialism – that extends the subject of early modern women and transnationalism into what historian Merry Weisner-Hanks identifies as “the global turn” in gender studies.[3] Ignorth – the Inuktitut word for “woman” that the English sailors assumed was her name – was not the first Inuit woman or girl from the northern regions of what is now Canada who was forcibly brought to Europe. A woman and a child kidnapped by French sailors in “Terra Nova” (the New World, possibly Labrador) was transported to Zeeland (the Netherlands) in 1567. A contemporary observer recorded in Dutch:

I, Adriaen Coenenzoon, saw a wild woman with a child, and one could see them for money. This woman was dressed in the same manner as this wild man [an Inuit man Frobisher captured in 1576, who died the same year in London], with seal skins with the hair on the outside and the child was dressed in the same way. She had no language or did not want to speak. Also, I saw this woman in The Hague at the inn of the Mill where the woman’s masters’ lived and had her on display.[4]

An Inuit woman and her daughter, captured by French sailors and brought to the Netherlands in 1567. Woodcut by Matthäus Franck.

Several broadsides in German, with woodcuts of the woman and child, circulated to promote the exhibition. They add that the woman was twenty years old and the child was her seven-year-old daughter.[5] During her captivity, she learned to speak some French or perhaps some Basque. Due to her notoriety, her image was extensively distributed, showing the traditional facial tattoos of Inuit women, as well as her native garb with a hooded parka. She drops out of the historical record after this episode, her ordeal becoming an occasion for early ethnography of the northern regions, linked to proto-colonial profiteering.

Ignorth, who followed in this anonymous woman’s wake, figures prominently in the records of the Frobisher voyages, which were narrated in several versions. The earliest published, A true reporte of the laste voyage into the West and Northwest regions . . . Written by Dionyse Settle, one of the companie in the sayde voyage (1577), offers the first, and most famous, printed account of her capture:

Two women, not being so apt to escape as the men were, the one for her age, and the other being incombred with a yong childe, we tooke. The olde wretch, whome divers of our Saylers supposed to be eyther a Divell, or a Witche, plucked off her buskins [boots], to sée, if she were cloven footed, and for her oughly [ugly] hewe and deformite, we let her goe: the young woman and the childe, we brought away.[6]

In the second published narrative, A True Discourse of the late voyages of discoverie, for the finding of a passage to Cathaya, by the Northweast, under the conduct of Martin Frobisher Generall (1578), George Best adds that an English arrow had

pierced through the childs arme, whereupon she [the child’s mother, who sought refuge behind some rocks] cried out, and was take[n], & our Surgeo[n], meaning to heale hir childs arme, applyed salves ther[e]unto. But, she not acquainted with such kinde of surgerie, plucked those salves away, & by co[n]tinuall licking with hir owne tongue, not muche unlike our dogges, healed uppe the childes arme.[7]

Here and elsewhere in this account, Best likens the Inuit to animals; yet, his description also inadvertently gives voice, and perhaps a resistant form of agency, to the woman as she heals her child through traditional – and effective – means. As Inuit oral history documents, “[s]ome people were born with the gift of healing,” which meant (among other things) “[t]hey could cure cuts and other wounds by licking the affected area.”[8] When her male companion was on his deathbed in England, he also refused English medical practices – in his case, bloodletting – inscribing another act of resistance in an otherwise lethal narrative of captivity.

Ignorth and her son, captured by Frobisher’s men and brought to England in 1577. Drawing by John White.

Best finally posits a motive, if only post hoc, for the abduction of the woman: “Having now got a woman captive for the comforte of our man, we broughte them both togither, and every man with silence desired to beholde the manner of their méeting and entertaynement, the whiche was more worth the beholding, than can be well expressed by writing.” The Englishmen’s voyeuristic motive for bringing the man and woman together, who did not seem to have any previous acquaintance, is foreclosed through the woman’s resistance, who “at the first verie suddaynely, as though she disdeyned or regarded not the man, turned away, and beganne to sing, as though she minded another matter.”[9] From the perspective of the Inuit, as recorded in their oral histories, “[s]ongs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices.”[10] What the woman sang, therefore, the English could not know on several levels. After communicating directly with each other, the two adult captives joined efforts in trying to escape and ultimately to survive their transport to England:

the man brake up the silence first, and with sterne and stayed [staid] countenance, beganne to tell a long solemne tale to the woman, whereunto she gave good hearing, and interrupted him nothing, till he had finished, & afterwards, being growen into more familiar acquayntance by spéech, were turned togither, so that (I thinke) the one would hardly have lived, without the comfort of the other.

As Best concludes, “yet did they never use as man and wife, though the woman spared not to do all necessarie things that apperteyned to a good huswife indifferently [impartially] for them both, as in making cleane their Cabin, and every other thing that apperteyned to his ease.”[11]

Ignorth, hailing from an isolated community in the “New World,” did not carry the necessary immunities against Eurasian diseases; within six weeks of her arrival in England, she “was troubled . . . with boils, which broke out very densely on her skin” and from which she died shortly thereafter, to cite the report of the attending physician, Dr. Edward Dodding.[12] However, she clearly was meant as a display, and perhaps as a gift for Queen Elizabeth I, as suggested by Dr. Dodding’s response to her male companion’s death: “I was bitterly grieved and saddened, not so much by the death of the man himself as because the great hope of seeing him which our most gracious Queen had entertained had now slipped through her fingers, as it were, for a second time.”[13] Her child, the last survivor, was rushed towards the queen’s palace during his final illness and died en route.[14] Despite these displacements and traumas, as I argue at length elsewhere, this Inuit woman emerges as a historical agent, and not just an object of investigation, in the records of the Frobisher voyages and their aftermath.[15]

[1] This famous engraving of Pocahontas was rendered by Simon van de Passe during her visit to London in 1616. The Latin inscription around the oval reads in full: “MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS: PRINC: POWHATANI IMP: VIRGINIÆ.” The inscription below the oval reads: “Matoaks als [alias] Rebecka daughter to the mighty Prince Powhatan Emperour of Attanoughkomouck als [alias] [V]irginia converted and baptized in the Christian faith, and wife to the wor[shipfu]ll Mr. Joh. Ralff [John Rolfe].”

[2] Variants of the woman’s name include Egnock and Egnoge, on which see “Appendix 7: The Eskimo Words in Frobisher’s Voyages,” in Vilhjalmur Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher. In Search of a Passage to Cathay and India by the North-West A.D. 15768, 2 vols. (London: Argonaut Press, 1938), 2:233-36.

[3] Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, “Early Modern Gender and the Global Turn,” in Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces in the Early Modern World, ed. Weisner-Hanks (Farnham, Eng.: Ashgate, 2015), 55-74. For more, see Weisner-Hanks, “Early Modern Women and the Transnational Turn,” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7 (2012): 191-202, and “Crossing Borders in Transnational Gender History,” Journal of Global History 6 (2011): 357-79.

[4] William C. Sturtevant and David Beers Quinn, “This New Prey: Eskimos in Europe in 1567, 1576, and 1577,” in Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays, ed. Christian F. Feest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 61-140, citing 136. The passage continues: “And I heard all that the landlady, called Anna Pouwels, said to that wild woman while showing her some [religious] statues, of which some were gilded and some were painted . . . . And Anna Pouwels pointed and said, ‘Look, put your hands together, this is your Lord, your God,’ and while she was pointing to the statue, the wild woman shook her head and raised her head up and put her hands together. From this it seemed that she had some knowledge of God in heaven. Thus it seemed to me in any case by watching her.” For a full transcription of the Dutch “Description of Eskimos by Adriaen Coenen,” see Sturtevant and Quinn, “This New Prey,” 132-35; for an English translation, from which I draw, see 135-37.

[5] For a translation from the German, see Sturtevant and Quinn, “This New Prey,” 130-31. For the original German, see Walter L. Strauss, The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1550–1600: A Pictorial Catalogue, 3 vols. (New York: Abraris Books, 1975), 1:135, 201, 376.

[6] Dionyse Settle, A true reporte of the laste voyage into the West and Northwest regions, &c. 1577. worthily atchieued by Capteine Frobisher of the sayde voyage the first finder and Generall. With a description of the people there inhabiting, and other circumstances notable. Written by Dionyse Settle, one of the companie in the sayde voyage (London: Henry Middleton, 1577), sig. Cv; Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 2:17. I have adjusted the archaic u/v and s/long-s letterforms in my quotations from these sources.

[7] George Best, A True Discourse of the late voyages of discouerie, for the finding of a passage to Cathaya, by the Northweast, vnder the conduct of Martin Frobisher Generall: Deuided into three Books (London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578), 2:23-24; Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 1:68.

[8] John Bennett and Susan Rowley, eds., Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut (Montreal, Québec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 210. James Watt and Ann Savours observe that “[s]aliva may well have been more beneficial than the apothecary’s salves, because it contains antimicrobial substances such as lysozymes which dissolve bacteria and factors which help the skin to grow” (555). See Watt and Savours, “The Captured ‘Countrey People’: Their Depiction and Medical History,” in Meta Incognita: A Discourse of Discovery, Martin Frobisher’s Arctic Expeditions, 1576–1578, ed. Thomas H.B. Symons, 2 vols. (Hull, Québec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1999), 2:553-62.

[9] Best, A True Discourse, 2:25; Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 1:69.

[10] Bennett and Rowley, Uqalurait, 106, citing the elder Uqpingalik [Orpingalik], of the Arviligjuarmiut Inuit. Another important study that foregrounds oral histories from the Inuit to assess the histories of English voyages in search of the Northwest passage from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century is Dorothy Harley Eber, Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

[11] Best, A True Discourse, 2:25; Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 1:69.

[12] Neil Cheshire, Tony Waldron, Alison Quinn, and David Quinn, “Frobisher’s Eskimos in England,” Archivaria 10 (1980): 23–50, citing 41. For the original Latin report, see Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 2:135-37.

[13] Cheshire et al., “Frobisher’s Eskimos,” 41; “a second time” refers “to the fact that the previous Eskimo man, brought back on the 1576 expedition, had also perished before he could be exhibited at court” (48n11).

[14] Cheshire et al., “Frobisher’s Eskimos,” explains that “[t]he child is referred to as ‘him’ because the information that it was a boy is contained in one of the two other surviving references” (30). English and French sources called him Nutaaq or Nutioc, which is a variant of the Inuktitut word for baby. French reports listed his age as fifteen months, on which see “Appendix 8: The Eskimos Brought to England by Frobisher,” in Stefansson, ed., The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 2:237-39. For a recent commemoration at his gravesite, see Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016), 222-25.

[15] See Bernadette Andrea, “‘Travelling Bodyes’: Native Women of the Northeast and Northwest Passage Ventures and English Discourses of Empire,” in Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies: Gender, Race, and Sexuality, ed. Ania Loomba and Melissa E. Sanchez (London: Routledge, 2016), 135-48, and Chapter Two of The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

Bernadette Andrea is the Celia Jacobs Endowed Professor in British Literature, University of Texas–San Antonio. She is the author of The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2017), and Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2007). She edited and introduced the critical edition, English Women Staging Islam, 1696–1707: Delarivier Manley and Mary Pix (Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, University of Toronto, 2012), and co-edited (with Linda McJannet) the collection Early Modern England and Islamic Worlds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Her co-edited collection (with Patricia Akhimie), Traveling/ Travailing Women: Early Modern England and the Wider World, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.


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1 Response to February 2017 – The Violence of Transnationalism and Indigenous Women’s Resistance

  1. Alden Vaughan says:

    This interesting information but is discussed more fully in Alden T. Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776 (Cambridge University Press, 2006; pb with corrections, 2008).

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