Sunday, September 23, 2012

Arctic Blackface

Peter Carney and others have brought up the question of the well-known "Black Men" story reported to Charles Francis Hall.  One possible explanation would be an onboard celebration of Guy Fawkes day, which would involve the blackening of faces as a reference to Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Another explanation, however, might be worth considering: that the men were dressed up for a blackface "minstrel" show for the entertainment of the crews.

We know very well that, following William Edward Parry's success with shipboard theatricals enlivening the long winter darkness, all British naval ships in Arctic service were provided with theatrical props, costumes, and scripts.  One of the features of these shows, we also know, was male cross-dressing into female character.  Such broad burlesque seemed to be just the stuff to warm the hearts of the men on a cold Arctic night.  So why not blackface minstrelsy, which was in fact wildly popular in both the US and Britain from the late 1840's through the 1870's -- just the time of Franklin and the Franklin searches, and the voyages of Charles Francis Hall.  And indeed we have evidence that just these sorts of shows were staged aboard Arctic ships.  The first is from CF Hall's first book, "Life Among the Esquimaux, and describes a minstrel performance aboard the whaler "George Henry":
THEATRICALS ON BOARD THE GEORGE HENRY
The following night, November 26th, "theatrical" performances took place on board the George Henry, The cabin was filled to its utmost capacity with Innuits and the ship's crew. "Jim Crow," the son of Artarkparu, occupied the centre of the cabin, and was performing on the "keeloun," while the other Innuits were seated all around, the female portion singing to the music. I made my way to the little after cabin, and there seated myself so as to have a full view of what was going on. 
The keeloun was accompanied by a tambourine made by Mr. Lamb. Another instrument was a triangle, a steel square pendent from a tow string, and struck with an ii-on spoon. The keeloun was played in turn by Annawa, Ooksin, Koojesse, and young Smith, a là negro ! While Annawa was going through the " sweating " process, playing the instrument and dancing the ridiculously wild figures that are indispensable, according to Innuit ideas, his music being accompanied by a full chorus of native female voices, there came bouncing into the very midst a strapping negress, setting the whole house in a roar of laughter. It was young Smith dressed in this character. The tambourine was passed into his hands, and he soon did full justice to the instrument, his or her sable fists soon knocking a hole through the whale's liver skin with which it was covered. 
When Smith first entered some of the Innuit women were much frightened. Jennie, the angeko, was seated near me, and she tried to put as great a distance as possible between herself and the negress, believing the apparition to be an evil spirit. But all shortly became reconciled to the stranger, especially when Smith resumed his place, playing and shouting, Innuit-like, and making so much fun that all our sides ached with laughter. Even the singing women were obliged occasionally to give way and join in the merriment. 
The negress was next called on to act as drummer. Ooksin held the keeloun while ske performed "Yankee Doodle," "Hail Columbia," and other pieces, with admirable skill and effect, using two iron spoons for drum-sticks. The finale was a dance by two Innuit ladies and two of the ship/s crew, the music being furnished by Bailey with his " viddle."
Then this from Elisha Kent Kane's narrative of the First Grinnell:
December 25. Ye Christmas of ye Arctic cruisers. Our Christmas passed without a lack of the good things of this life.  Goodies we had galore ; but that best of earthly blessings, the communion of loved sympathies, these Arctic cruisers had not. It was curious to observe the depressing influences of each man's home thoughts, and absolutely saddening the effort of each man to impose upon his neighbor and be very boon and jolly. We joked incessantly, but badly, and laughed incessantly, but badly too ; ate of good things, and drank up a moiety of our Heidsiek ; and then we sang negro songs, wanting only tune, measure, and harmony, but abounding in noise ; and after a closing bumper to Mr. Grinnell, adjourned with creditable jollity from table to the theatre. 
So clearly, on at least two occasions -- and doubtless many more -- Arctic voyagers of the mid-nineteenth century regaled one another just as they would have had they been "home." Oh, and what of the photograph at the top of this post?  Why that's just "Bones," "Jim Kroo,""Squash," and "Cinders," members of the "Dishcover Minstrel Troupe" aboard RF Scott's Discovery in 1902.

4 comments:

  1. What a delightful post, with such vivid descriptions! Russell, do you know which shanties and forebitters would have been popular among Franklin's men? "The Gauger" probably would have been a fun one to act out!

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  2. Thanks for the kind words!

    I'd like to know as well what sort of songs might have been sung aboard "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the only one I know for sure is the doggerel version of Barry Cornwall's "The Sea" which is in the "Peglar" papers. I will be down in Mystic CT, though, to read from my novel this Thursday, and many of my friends down there are deeply schooled in sea chanteys, so I will ask around!

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  3. I have to recognise that, though my common sense attracts my mind towards the "traveling" and unhappy version of the "blackfaces" episodie, my imagination prefers the other. I like to think on that the people there having a good time, singing and being really happy for at least a few hours. And if you think it deeply..., What a strange meeting could have been!, poor Inuits being alarmed by the singing and their disguises of the English people.

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  4. The story of the “black men” was told to Hall by an Inuit woman named Ookbarloo. (Page 204 of “Unravelling”) She was from the Arvilingmiut Inuit near Repulse Bay and had cousins in the Boothia Peninsula.

    The lone Inuit visitor was offered food when he went to the ship and he visited the ship on multiple occasions over some length of time.

    The three “shouts” sound British in origin. I would associate three cheers with men who are in good spirits. A black-face show or some other kind of celebration would make sense. Perhaps the men took the opportunity to play a kind of prank or joke on an unsuspecting visitor. The specific detail of three cheers makes this story appear authentic. It must have some basis in an actual event but I’m not certain it relates to Franklin’s expedition.

    Hall recorded that the Inuit thought the black men lived among the coals so coal dust is also a real possibility.

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