Friday, April 3, 2020

The Orkney Telescope, Part 2: William Simpson

The Ocean Nymph
William Simpson’s career can be traced through the Hudson Bay Company Archives online, via the Servants contracts (employees of HBC were termed “servants” of the company). He first signed up in 1845, the exact same year that saw Erebus and Terror at Stromness on their way to the Arctic.  He was nineteen or twenty years old when he signed his contract for five years at £20 per annum. His occupation was “slooper” and his work location York Factory.  The next few contracts show a steady rise from Assistant Schooner Master Boatbuilder in 1853 to Slooper Master Carpenter in 1857 on £45 pa with free passage for his wife to York Factory and a grant of 50 acres at the Red River Settlement.

His final contract with HBC, dated 1866, was slightly different. His work location was Chesterfield Inlet (previously it had always been York Factory) and he was assigned to the ship Ocean Nymph on a salary of £75 per annum.  Unusually for servants' contracts, there was an additional hand-written paragraph which was not available to view online, but the HBC archivist kindly transcribed it for me:
“To conduct the trade with Esquimaux and other natives during the voyage of the said Company’s ship Ocean Nymph to Chesterfield Inlet and during the wintering at that place or elsewhere in the said Company’s territories of Hudson’s Bay … the said William Simpson hereby binds himself to obey all orders that he may receive during the said voyage to Chesterfield Inlet, or elsewhere the said wintering grounds of the said ship, from the Captain of the Ocean Nymph” 
A microfilm copy of Captain James Taylor’s log of the Ocean Nymph for 1866-1867 is available to view at the National Archives.  The barque Ocean Nymph set out from London’s West India Dock on 8th June 1866 and journeyed via Stromness to Churchill, Hudson’s Bay.  William Simpson joined the ship as Trading Master, along with Norman the Interpreter and Whaling Master Alexander Hay. The main aim was to establish demand for a new trading post midway up Hudson’s Bay, but also whaling whenever the opportunity arose.

By mid-September they reached Marble Island where they wintered, but it was by no means a happy ship. From the beginning there was tension between the Captain and the Whaling Master, & James Taylor’s log entry for Monday 19 November was just one example of numerous complaints:
“Mr Alex Hay still continues as disagreeable as he possibly can be, he uses very irritating language, I am provoked by him so much sometimes that I find it very hard to keep my hands off him” 
The feeling was mutual. Alexander Hay’s log book is littered with complaints about the Captain, calling him proud, ignorant, silly, and a disgrace to the company.

By January 1867 the situation was becoming worse. William Simpson was suffering from scurvy  “very bad, his right leg all Blue about the knee”. Fortunately Captain Parker of the Orray, an American whaling ship in the vicinity, came to the rescue with a gift of pickled turnips, believed to be a grand cure for the scurvy. Simpson recovered, but then suffered the loss of 10 bottles of Port Wine which mysteriously disappeared from his cabin. At least he fared better than his shipmate Thomas Saunders, who lost all the toes off one foot and part of his little finger.

After months trapped in the ice with  no ice saw, five canisters of powder on 20th June failed to release the ship but a further twenty-one blasts the following day set her free & they were able to progress north.

Trading took place whenever there was an opportunity.  A trading shop was set up on deck & on 20th September 1866 Simpson, Norman, the Mate & 4 men set off by boat for the Main Land “to go a trading with the Natives …” returning four days later with deer & salmon.
All visits to the ship were recorded in the log. On 3rd February 1867:
“About noon two Natives came across on the Drift Ice, their feet were wet through … they are out of ammunition, tobacco etc. We have had them in the Cabin all the evening, gathering all the information we could concerning the trade …”
These particular individuals were stranded on the ship for about five days due to bad weather, “devouring bread and molasses at no small rate”.

Charles Francis Hall meets with Inuit witnesses
Another tale was told of this visit, but it wasn’t written in the log until months later, in August, when the Ocean Nymph was in Repulse Bay. A meeting with Charles Francis Hall, who was also in Repulse Bay, prompted the extra story:
“The first two natives that visited us in winter came from far up Chesterfield Inlet they came on 3rd Feb. When we were asking them concerning Mr Hall if they had seen him they said no, but said they had seen two white once before long ago, I asked a good deal about it but could get little satisfaction and not knowing of any expedition with two men on it, I thought it was we did not understand them properly or some such thing and paid no much attention to it yet thinking it rather strange. When we asked what got the white men at last they said they went away and got capsized and drowned in a boat or canoe I can not remember which and Norman our Interpreter says they said the two men were looking for, or trying to get to other white men or “Cabloonacks”  There is several men in the ship who remember it as well as me among whom is Mr Simpson …”
Before the Ocean Nymph reached Repulse Bay, they were given information on Charles Hall by a couple of whaling boats, so they knew all about his trip to Pelly Bay, his wintering at Repulse Bay & his resolve to return to King William Island the following year. They also learned of his collection of Franklin relics,  “silver spoons “Captain Crozier” names on etc” And even better, when they arrived at Repulse Bay, Charles Hall was eager to trade:
 “4pm Mr Hall the American explorer came on board and stopped till 8pm. He’d had a crew of Natives Males and females belonging to Repulse Bay, all but one who belonged to Cumberland Gulf, he brought us part of a deer, and tried to persuade me if we were here he would get the natives to bring us some more. He wanted to get many supplies from us saying he would give an order on Mr Grinnell … I told that I would supply him only by way of exchange for whalebone or oil. He said he would exchange (but I am doubtful) he wanted an Almanack for next year. I left him one …exchanged 1000 lbs of bread (1 cart of 2nd), 1 Cask of lager, 1 bag of Coffee, 1 Cask of Pork, remainder of Can of Pipes, and several smaller articles as per Mr Simpsons Account from the trading goods, for 248 Ibs of whalebone with Mr Hall. I have consulted with Mr Simpson about the goods and as we are of opinions that he is not trading any thing whatever in opposition to the Company we let him have the little he wanted”
They also gave Hall an old sledge “which is all broken and out of order.”

Interestingly, trade with an English ship, for hatchets, knives, saws, powder-horns, daggers, and smaller articles, was noted by Hall & included by Nourse in his Narrative of the Second Arctic Expedition made by CF Hall 1864-69, and the mention of a Nautical Almanac confirms this as the Ocean Nymph.

News of the Franklin Expedition was clearly of great interest & James Taylor’s log included further details gleaned from Hall:
 “Mr Hall had a long story about having traced “Captain Crozier” as far as the head of Chesterfield Inlet with one attendant trying to reach Churchill, and said he had got some relics of the Franklin expedition from the natives, some thing about a boat being found bottom upwards & buried in mud, full of dead bodies and stores and much interesting news if it be true … learned from the natives of some Cache, or some thing the natives say is built of stones tied together, which is understood to be cemented, as the natives have tried to break into it but cannot. Some are of opinion it may be Records, or it may be Sir John Franklins Grave others say …”
After a few days of trading, the Ocean Nymph left Repulse Bay on 8th August. No whales had been caught during the voyage & this had caused huge vexation between the Captain & the Whaling Master. The Captain’s final report on reaching Gravesend on 30th September summed up his own experience:

                           “So this very miserable and unsuccessful Voyage has ended”

And what of the Telescope?  William Simpson, Master Trader, in his final year with the Hudson Bay Company having signed up the year the Franklin Expedition sailed, was in a prime position to purchase a decent Franklin relic when the opportunity arose, and who could possibly resist a telescope?  As a private transaction it would never have been noted down in the official log, and any sensible person would have squirrelled it away in a cabin well out of sight of both his shipmates and Charles Hall. William Simpson certainly believed it to be a genuine Franklin Expedition relic, even if the proof remains elusive.

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