Sunday, 27 April 2014
The Empire’s Only Eskimo Soldier
I just purchased a copy of The Wide World, 1918, Vol.2. Just at the beginning I came across this interesting true story. A little research has inclined me to reproduce it in this blog. John Shiwag is also described in Wikipedia.
The author is named William Lacey Amy, and may also be known as Luke Allan—he may be Canadian. He is not included in Wiki—I will do more research./drf
The Empire’s Only Eskimo Soldier.
By Lacey Amy.
ILLUSTRATED BY ERNEST PRATER, AND FROM PHOTOGRAPHS.
From The Wide World magazine, July 1918. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, April, 2014.
Many strange races are to be found fighting under the Union Jack to-day, but the British, Army possesses, or rather it did possess until the other month, only a single Eskimo fighting man, John Shiwak. In the following narrative the writer tells how he met John whilst travelling to
Labrador. For an Eskimo he proved to be a
man of remarkable character and of some scholastic attainments, for he kept
diaries, wrote poetry and books, and was a clever artist, photographer, and
musician. When war broke out John heard the call, became a soldier of the King,
and died fighting for the flag in . His life-story forms a
remarkable human document. France
IT was in the summer of 1911 that I first met John Shiwak. But to have met him once was to remember him always. Seeking new out-of-the-world places in and around
Canada, I had picked on the bleak coast of Labrador. At St John’s, the quaint capital of
Newfoundland, I boarded a little mail steamer that ran twice a month—seldom
more than five times a year—“down” the semi-settled coast of Newfoundland for
five hundred miles, and then another five hundred far off to the North, into
the birthplace of the iceberg, along the uncharted, barren, rugged shores of a
country God never intended man to live in—Labrador.
Yet it was a pleasant trip, one to look back upon with no shuddering memories, but with a dreamy halo of unreality dimming its thousand unwonted sights and events, a composite picture that frays off round the edges, and centres about one lone figure—John Shiwak, the Eskimo.
We were a motley crowd on board. The transient passenger-list consisted of the Woman-who-worries and myself, three professional world-vagrants who travelled as most people work, a mysterious newly-married couple whom none knew better at the end than at the beginning. And below decks bunked a score of
Newfoundland fishermen and fish merchants on their way to
the great cod grounds along the Labrador.
And there was John.
I was aware of him first as he sat at the Newfoundlanders’ table in the dining saloon, never uttering a word, watching with both eyes every movement at the table of the “foreigners.” He was the nattiest man on board. Evidently he had invested in a new wardrobe in
and his muscular, short, straight-standing figure did each garment fullest
justice. Twice a day he appeared in different array—in the mornings usually in
knickers and sealskin moccasins.
Not a word did I ever hear him speak to another. He would appear on deck for half an hour twice a day, lean over the railing where he could hear us talk on the after-deck, and disappear as silently as he came. I set myself the task of intruding on his reticence, of breaking his silence. In truth it was a task! Observing him one day watching the unloading of salt into the small boats that play the part of wharves on the
coast, I leaned on the railing beside him and made some trivial inquiry about
the scene of the bustle. His reply was three words, and then silence. To my
second inquiry after several minutes the reply was two words. And then he
turned away. I was almost discouraged.
Then one night we stopped in the sudden darkness that falls in that quarter long after ten of an August evening to pick up a missionary and his family and household goods. Suddenly there broke from the outer darkness the shuddering howl of a wolf, followed by a chorus of howls. I raised myself to listen, peering into the darkness of the sea where were only scores of tiny islands, and, beyond, scores of towering icebergs.
“The Labrador Band,” explained a quiet voice beside me, modest to the verge of self-depreciation but with a twinkle in it somewhere.
It was John Shiwak. And the ice was broken. “The Labrador Band” is the term applied to the howling huskies, most of whom are set down on islands during their summer months of uselessness, where they can do no harm and are out of the way.
Far into the morning John and I sat then in the dirty, deserted bow, as the ship felt its way through the islands on its northward crawl. By the pitch of the boat we knew when the islands ceased to screen us from the swell outside. Now and then an icy breath registered an iceberg somewhere about; and once a disturbing crackling far outside, and a great plunge, told of a
monster that had yielded at last to the wear of sun and wave. Not a sound of
life broke the northern silence save the quiet voice of the captain on the
bridge above, and the weird howls of hungry or disturbed huskies, only one
stage removed from their wolf-life of past generations. And in those hours I
learned much of John Shiwak’s immediate history.
He was a hunter in the far interior by winter, a handy-man in his district by summer. The past winter had been a good one for him—a silver fox-skin, for instance, which he had disposed of to the Hudson’s Bay Company for four hundred and sixty-nine dollars, or just over ninety pounds sterling. And on the strength of such unusual profits he had gone down to St. John’s, Newfoundland, whence all good and bad things come to Labrador—and whither all good and bad things from Labrador go—and had plunged himself into the one great time of his life. His memory of that two weeks of civilization had congealed into a determination to repeat the visit each summer. And I knew that the dissipations of a great and strange city had had nothing to do with its attractions.
In his conversation there was the solemnity of a man who does much thinking in vast silences. Everything was presented to me in the vivid succinctness, that delights the heart of an editor. John’s life had been filled with the essentials. So was his comment on life. When we parted for our berths I was conscious of a series of pictures that lacked no necessary touch of a master hand, but repetition in the stilted language and phrasing of civilization was impossible. The wonderful gift of nature was John’s, and the marvel of it grew on me through the night hours.
Next morning I smiled at him from our table, and when we few wanderers collected as usual on the after-deck, there was John a few yards away leaning on the rail. I went to him, taking the Woman-who-worries, but after a few monosyllabic words he took advantage of our interest in some scene on shore to glide away. But an hour later he was there again, and thereafter he adopted us as his friends. For the next two days we separated only for meals and sleep. And on the night of the second day as we swung a little into the open to make the
Inlet, a storm arose. And through the storm a tiny row-boat bobbed
up to us in the moonlight, poised for minutes in the flush of a great danger as
it struggled to reach us without crushing against our sides, and then quietly
dropped aboard us two Moravian missionaries. And it was John who seemed to know
just what to do to make the boarding possible. The missionaries recognized him
and rewarded him with a smile and thanks, but John appeared unmoved. A moment
later he was standing beside me in silence, held by the same strange affinity
that had been working on me.
Early the next morning we cast anchor far within the inlet before Rigolet. And as we glided into position John and I were talking. In his manner was a greater solemnity than ever. I believe now it was the knowledge that in an hour or so his new friend would pass from his life.
“Can you read?” he inquired. And the unusual embarrassment of his manner impressed me. Then, “Can you write?” And when I modestly admitted both accomplishments, he hesitated. I did not try to draw him out. In a moment he explained. “I can, too.” There was pride in his tone. I recognized it quickly enough to introduce my commendations with the proper spirit. “And I write much,” he went on. “I write books.”
Having received my cue, I succeeded in finding out that his “books” were diaries filled through the winter months of his long season in the interior.
“Will you read my books?” he asked me, anxiously.
We climbed over the side together and sat in the little row-boat that was to take us to the
Hudson Bay quay. As soon as we landed,
John led me off, past the white buildings of the Company, past several
ramshackle huts that looked as if a mild wind would make loose lumber of them,
and stopped before one, a shack more solid-looking than the others. He paused
before entering. It was but one of his expressive movements that meant more
than words. I was not to follow farther; he did not wish me to see within. I
read into it that it was not shame, but a fear that I might not understand his
methods of life. Inside, a few half-hearty words were uttered, and John’s voice
replied quietly; and presently he appeared with two common exercise books in
his hand. These he handed to me and together we repaired to an ancient Eskimo
burying-ground where we need fear no interruption. It would be a couple of
hours before the boat would leave.
But someone shouted. The missionary who had boarded our boat two days before wanted help to unload his household goods, and John, the always ready, supplied the want. And that was the last word I had with John Shiwak.
I seated myself on the steps to the factor’s house and opened one of the books. The first thing I saw was a crude but marvellously lively drawing of a deer. With only a few uncommon lines he had set down a deer in full flight. Therein were none of the rules of drawing, but in his untrained way John had accomplished what better-known artists miss. “This is a deer,” underneath, was but the expression of first principles. And on the second page was a stanza of poetry. Unfortunately, it is not at hand, but this dusky son of Nature had caught from his mother what he had never read in books. There were rhythm and metre and rhyme, and there was unconscious submission to something working within. I began to read.
It was all about his past winter back there in a frozen world alone. I read on, until I heard shouts from the direction of the pier. There are more attractive dangers than being marooned on the coast of
so with the diaries I started for the steamer, thinking to meet John there. But
on the way we passed his row-boat returning to the shore with its last load. I
could only shout that I had his books; and his reply was a slow nodding of the
head; and then a shipping of his oars for a brief moment as he turned and
watched us drift apart.
I never saw him again. During the six years that followed I received from him a half-dozen letters a year or less, all there was time for in the short two months of navigation along the
Labrador. I wrote him
regularly, sending him such luxuries as I thought would please him—a camera and
supplies, heavy sweater-coats and other comforts, books, writing paper,
pencils, and a dictionary. From him there came mementoes of his life—a
beautiful fox-skin for a rug, with head and claws complete; a pair of wooden
dolls made entirely by the Eskimo and dressed in exact replica of the seal-skin
suits of the farthest North; a pair of elk-skin moccasins; a pair of seal
gloves. It was significant of John’s gallantry that most of these gifts were specifically
for the Woman-who-worries. For me he was ever on the look-out for a Polar
bear-skin, and had planned a trip farther North to get one, when other events
But, best of all, each summer there came out to me his diaries. Diaries have small prospect of breaking through my prejudices, but John’s invariably inaugurated a period of seclusion and idleness until I had read to the last word. They were wonderful examples of unstilted, inspired writing. They started with his hunting expedition in the late fall (September, in Labrador) into the interior by the still open waterways; and through all the succeeding eight months, until the threat of breaking ice drove him back to civilization with his fur-laden sleigh, they recorded his daily life, not as a barren round of uneventfulness, but as a teeming time of throbbing experience. He felt everything, from the leap of a running deer to a sunset, from a week’s crippling storm to the capture of the much-prized silver fox, from the destruction of his tent by fire to the misfortune of pilfering mice. And he had the faculty of making his reader feel with him. In a thumbnail dash he could take one straight into the clutches of the silent
Now and then he broke into verse, although in his later diaries this
disappeared, perhaps under the goad of more careful register. Breathlessly I
would read of the terrible Arctic storms that fell on him all alone, hundreds
of miles from the nearest human being. And the joys and disappointments of his
traps bore almost equally for the moment on the one to whom he was telling his
And John had taught himself to read and write from the scraps of paper that reach the coast of
From his diaries I gathered bits of his life. He had left home when only ten years of age to carve his own fortune, but his father and beloved little sisters were still to him his home, although he never saw them now. He was everyone’s friend, grateful for their kindnesses, always ready to help, contemptuous of the lazy Indian, whom he hated. In the summer he fished, or worked for a Grenfell doctor—all a mere fill-up until the hunting season returned. But always there was a note or incomplete existence in his writings, of falling short of his ambitions, of something bigger within the range of his vision. Even before I waved farewell to him that day, I had him in my mind as the subject for a sketch, “John, the Dissatisfied.”
Throughout his diaries were many gratifying references to the place I had strangely attained in his affections—communings with himself in the silent nights of the far North. And each summer his letters almost plaintively inquired when I was coming to Labrador that he might take me up the
Hamilton River to the Grand Falls
where Hubbard lost his life. Even in his last letter, written from a far
distant field, he reintroduced our ancient plans. Once he informed me in the
simplest language that he had in mind a liveyere,
or native girl for his future home, and asked me to send her a white silk
handkerchief with “F” in the corner. John was growing up. During his last
summer in Labrador he was much absorbed in an ambition, to set up as a Labrador merchant, but he had not the money.
During the first three years of our friendship he embarrassed me much by proposing each summer to come out to visit me; and in one letter he had almost made up his mind to come to me in
and throw himself into competition for the future with the white man. I funked
the issue each time. I had no fear of his ability to hold his own in work of
brain or hand, but the Eskimo in civilization seemed too large a responsibility
for one man to assume. At every landing-place in Labrador
was, at the time of my visit, a notice threatening with a fine of a hundred
pounds anyone inducing an Eskimo to leave the country. It was a result of the
dire consequences of the Eskimo encampment at the Chicago World's Fair, in
1893. And I could not rid myself of the solemn warning of an Indian chief
friend of mine against the risk.
Once a letter arrived from John in midwinter.
The familiar handwriting on the outside was weirdly unnatural at that season of the year, for I knew the
Labrador was frozen in
impenetrable ice. Inside I learned that a courier was coming out on snowshoes
overland, through those hundreds of miles of untracked snow wastes of Quebec. I replied
immediately. And his diary the next summer told of his joy at the receipt in
midwinter of a letter from his friend. A pair of hunters, on their way in to
their grounds somewhere beyond John, had carried his letter from the little
village on the river and left it in one of his huts.
During the fall of 1914 my letters to him were going astray. His arrived regularly, always bemoaning my negligence. A dozen times I wrote on alternate days. The summer of 1915 opened with his diaries and more letters of lonesome plaint. Through June and July they continued. Not a letter of mine was he receiving, although his reached me as usual. Then one day came his despairing effort. On the outside he had written in his most careful hand: “If anyone gets this and knows where Mr. Amy is, please send it to him.” Thereupon I wrote to friends in
St. John’s to get in
touch with John at any cost.
In a couple of his letters he had mentioned his desire to be a soldier, but I had dismissed it as one of his ambitions blocked by his race. In the one my acquaintances were to forward to me he announced that he had enlisted and was going to
I ask you to consider that. An Eskimo, a thousand miles from the nearest newspaper—no outside life but the Newfoundland fisherman and for only seven or eight weeks of the year, no industry but hunting and fishing, eight months in the snowbound silences of the most desolate country on earth! And John Shiwak, the swarthy little Eskimo, was going to fight for his country whose tangible benefits could mean nothing to him! Young men in the heart of things cannot read this without blushing—surely! Within the little Eskimo was burning that which puts conscription, and strikes, and shirking beyond the pale.
In the early spring of 1915 I came to
Within a week I had found where the Newfoundland Regiment was in training.
John’s reply to my letter is too sacred to publish. There was joy in every line
of it. “I have nothing to write about,” he said, in his simple way. And then he
proceeded to impress me with a mission in life I had scarcely appreciated. But
he was in Scotland, and I
was in London.
And travel in England
was discouraged. Within a very few weeks he was on his way to France, full of
ardour. And just before he went he sent me a picture of himself in khaki, on
the back the message, “This is for you.”
Almost every week, and sometimes twice a week, I heard from him. He was not liking the life. There was something about it he did not understand—this killing of men week after week—and his modesty and reticence, I fear, made him a prey to more assertive fellow-soldiers. He wrote me that his comforts were stolen when he was in the line, not complainingly but sadly. I sent him duplicates which never reached him. I wrote to him to appeal to his commanding officer. And thereafter, for months, for some strange reason, no letter of mine was received by him. His petitions for news of me drove me to measures that put me once more in touch with him. Once he was sick in hospital "with his neck", but apart from that he was in the lines every time his battalion was on duty. And after eleven months without leave he suddenly reached Blighty.
It was characteristic of our merely spiritual propinquity that I had left for Devon on a holiday trip only two days before his joyful announcement arrived, and when his wire reached me on a Friday night there was no train to bring him to me and return him before Monday night ; and he was due in
Scotland on Monday. I hastened back
from Devon to catch him on his way through to France, but the letter he sent me
from somewhere in London neglected to include his address, and I could not find
him before his leave was up that night.
His letter of regret, written from Folkestone, as he waited for the boat to
France, is by
me. “I hope we will meet again somewhere,” he said, and I imagined a tone of
hopelessness rang in it.
Upon his return to
sorrow came to him. He had induced two other Eskimos to join up with him, but
they had not been able to stand the life, and were sent home. But his real
grief was the death in action of his hunting mate who had often shared his
winters in Labrador, a white man. “I am the
only one left from Labrador,” he moaned. And
the longing to get back to his old life peeped out from every line. But to my
sympathy and an effort to brighten him, he replied: “ I am hanging on all right. The only thing to do is to
stick it till it’s over.”
It is through misty eyes I read his letters of those last three months. The duration of the war was wearing on him. He had no close friends, none to keep warm the link with his distant home. In September he lamented: “ I have had no letters from home since July. There will be no more now till the ice breaks.” And in his last he longed again for the old hunting days.
that had never satisfied his ambitions, looked warm and attractive to him now.
He wondered what the fur would be for the coming winter, what his old friends
and his people were doing, how the Grenfell doctor had managed without him.
I had been sending him books and writing paper, small luxuries in food and soldiers comforts. “It is good to know I have two friends,” he thanked me. (The other was a woman near his training camp in
“I don’t think a man could be better off.”
Simple, grateful John! He complained of the cold; and I dispatched a warm sweater-coat and a pair of wool gloves.
That was in mid-November. A month later an official envelope came to me. Inside was my last letter. On its face was the soulless stamp, “Deceased.” More sympathetic hands had added: “Dead,” “Killed,” “Verified.”
It was a damp-eyed sergeant who told me of his end, this native of
the only Eskimo to lay down his life for the Empire.
“He was a white man.” he whispered. Would that John could have heard it! It happened in the Cambrai tank drive. The tanks were held up by the canal before Masnieres, and John's company was ordered to rush a narrow bridge that had unaccountably been left standing. John, chief sniper for the battalion, lately promoted to lance-corporal, the muscular man of the wilds, outpaced his comrades. The battalion still argue which was the first to reach the bridge, John or another. But John reached the height of the little arch and turned to wave his companions on.
It was a deadly corner of the battle front. The Germans, granted a breathing space by the obstacle of the canal, were rallying. Big shells were dropping everywhere, scores of machine-guns were barking across the narrow line of protecting water. And just beyond the bridge-head, in among the trees, the enemy had erected platforms in tiers, bearing machine-guns. As John stood, his helmet awry, his mouth open in shouts of encouragement unheard amid the din, the deadly group of guns broke loose. That was why the bridge had been left.
The Eskimo swayed, bent a little, then slowly sank. But even as he lay they saw his hand point ahead. And then he lay still. And they .passed him on the bridge, lying straight and peaceful, gone to a better hunting-ground than he had ever anticipated.
And my thoughts of John Shiwak, the Eskimo, are that he must be satisfied at last.
A reproduction of a portion of John Shiwak’s letter from the Front to the Author. Although only an Eskimo. John was a writer of poetry, an artist, and a photographer—probably the most educated of all Eskimos.
The battalion still argue which wag the first to reach the bridge, John or another. But John reached the height of the little arch and turned to wave his companions on.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.