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Anna Jane Vardill

Extracts from an Arctic Navigator’s Journal

To the Editor of the European Magazine.


I thank you for the attention bestowed on my Portfolio, and am happy to administer food to the reigning curiosity of the public, by communicating some intelligence from Spitzbergen, which the fortunate rencontre of an American vessel with one of our ships on the northern voyage of discovery enabled me to receive. My friend, who has the honour of belonging to one of those philosophical crews, writes thus:

“Knowing that your profession gives you taste for the civil institutions rather than the natural history of other kingdoms, I shall trouble you with very few seamen-like references to our soundings and surveys before we touched this frightful coast. Between 22 deg. 40 min. E. longitude, and 77 deg. 51 sec. N. latitude, we saw an enormous iceberg, or floating field of ice, approaching, which induced our ship to take refuge in a cove so spaciously and securely sheltered with broad rocks as to promise us a kind of rest. Two or three of us were permitted to go on shore: and if the intense chill and the thick white fog which usually precede an ice-island had not deadened our feelings and our sight, we might have observed with philosophical precision the progress of this monstrous mass, bristled with stony fragments and trunks of trees. The aspect of the bleached coast where I and my two companions landed, was such as superstitious mariners ascribe to the dead-man’s Isle of Desolation; but we had wallets well-filled, strong spears, fire-arms, and good fur cloaks. The shore presented a range of columns with a sort of pediment banging over them, resembling in a gigantic proportion those of Staffa. While one of my companions endeavoured to take notes of their bulk and height, the youngest and most active spied an opening of such extent and depth, as to justify a Scotch speculation that there are habitable regions in the centre of the earth. And if we had doubted that this interior recess was inhabited, we should have been convinced by the sight of an eagle carrying a dead child to its eyrie. We took courage, or I might say hope, to find some hospitable creatures of our own species; and provided with a few torches of bituminous matter, entered this natural archway. It led us, according to our best calculation, nearly two hundred yards; and both our courage and curiosity would have failed, had not a creature like the squirrel-ape of Asia suddenly appeared, and frisked before us. We were surprised to see an animal whose delicate form and elegant colours have been pronounced by naturalists peculiar to torrid climates, in a region so gloomy and desolate. But while we were deliberating on the prudence of returning, its familiar pranks seemed to promise the vicinity of man, and the scarlet streaks on its silvery back guided us onward when our torches began to fail. A few flickerings of the Aurora Borealis, seen beautifully at the end of this very long and dark avenue, encouraged us still more to go onwards, as our retreat seemed straight and secure. We reached the outlet at last, and saw, with such delight as you may well conceive, a plain about a mile in diameter, fenced on all sides by a kind of natural wall, formed by perpendicular steeps, whose summits, white and shining with indissoluble snow, served to reflect and multiply the glorious lights of the north pole. Their bases were green, with shrubs and fruit-trees, which grew in this warm recess, sheltered from the keenness of arctic winds, and beautified by a throng of the silver butterflies peculiar to these regions. In the centre we found a hamlet, or cluster of houses, built of the whale’s ribs, with sufficient strength and symmetry; and our arrival was welcomed by a groupe of persons, whose fair complexions and English features were most interesting to our national feelings. We might have expected blue eyes and silken hair in this polar circle; but unless we had remembered the Welsh tradition of Prince Madoc’s emigration to North America, we could not have hoped to meet kindred countenances. We expressed our pacific intentions by those gestures which are understood in all nations, and these people graciously answered us by tying down the top-most branches of a fir-tree towards the ground; but you will hardly conceive my surprise and regret when we found them dumb; however, they shewed us tablets of stone, bequeathed to them, as far as we could understand their pantomime shew, by the first founder of their colony. Dr. Caconous, my learned companion, assured me that the characters resembled the most ancient Greek, and were a part of our own Septuagint translation of the sacred Book. This and various testimonies of their hospitality induced us to send back one of our party to the cove where the ship remained, there to notify our adventure. Our deputy returned with information that our stay must not exceed forty-eight hours, as the circular recess we had thus discovered in the bosom of the ice promised no farther inlet into this desolate country, and our voyage could not be longer delayed. Believe me, my dear friend, for you know my physiological zeal, I employed these hours most assiduously; and as circumstances must be reserved till I write in a warmer climate, you must content yourself with such extracts from my journal as relate to important facts.

The amusements of this singular people bear a very remarkable affinity to ours: an affinity which proves, notwithstanding the opinions of Messrs. Buffon, De Luc, and Cuvier, that language is by no means a necessary conveyance and accompaniment of social feeling. For during our short stay there, we witnessed what was considered a festive meeting, to which all the members of this colony (called by our learned friend the Neonousites) were summoned by our conductor, the ape before-mentioned, who seemed instructed to act the part of master of the ceremonies. And here it is proper to observe, for the information of naturalists, that his surface or skin, which had first attracted us by its dazzling colours, was embellished by paint, as indeed were the faces of all our new acquaintance. The male inhabitants, for we saw no difference in attire or manner in any, wore broad and rigid belts made of the whale’s integuments, and cassocks of bear’s-skin; but we, being aware of the intended festivity, obtained from our ship a supply of bonnets with abundant feathers for the gentlemen, and sundry long skirts richly brocaded for the ladies; I grieve for the honour of our sex to add, the former chose the largest half. The assembly met in three apartments constructed round one of the hot-wells, or boiling springs as naturalists call them; and we learned from these people’s written institutes, that the whole pleasure and business of the assembly consisted in striving how to increase and endure the intolerable heat. It is true there were several erections of green sod, and I could not avoid admiring with what ingenuity these colonists have taught certain black foxes, and an equal number of elegantly shaped creatures called amicas, or fair marmosetts as we name them in Asia, to throw pieces of spotted shells at each other for the amusement of the spectators. And dances very much resembling our European waltzes and quadrilles were performed by the black beavers and young moose-deer, whose slow gait and fantastical bounds were often pleasantly contrasted; and well exemplified the thought of that wise ambassador, who asked, when he saw our dances, if we had no servants or tame animals to perform such labours for us. But the most remarkable particular, and the most strikingly similar to English society, was, that all the rational animals being dumb, the above-mentioned foxes and marmosetts were instructed to make an agreeable and constant murmur, which marvellously resembled the indistinct congregation of sounds heard at a metropolitan fête. I must not omit to add, that this murmur or buz was most marked when two or three birds placed there on purpose began to sing or scream. They seemed to be birds of the gull species.

But another circumstance claimed peculiar notice from us, as philosophers no less intent on moral than physical discoveries. This colony of Neonousites has schools for the instruction of females, but you will start to hear that young children are employed to give lessons to the old. In this remote region, probably because the aged are supposed to lose their faculties in these stupifying and incessant frosts, the young employ themselves in tutoring and disciplining their parents. Those unhappy creatures who have offspring labour unremittingly in sawing fir and striving to rear fruits or harvests, whilst their children spend fifteen or sixteen years in learning how to slide down a hill of ice with feathers on their heads and empty shells in their hands. Yet there is one particular which manifests some discretion and decorum. Their most beautiful females always sit within a door guarded by a tough thick web, which, when taken out, resembles a leathern purse. And they have also a door with hinges like the valves of an oyster or muscle, which opens and shuts if the metal which touches it is magnetic. I request you to communicate this fact to the members of our college, and urge them to consider its resemblance to what we know of the great South American spider, so celebrated for the strength of its nets. Their marriages are whimsically metaphorical. The bride stands on a pyramid of snow, and the bridegroom on one of smoking ashes. If the melting of the snow quenches the heat, or if the embers cease to burn before the snow dissolves, the omen is considered unprosperous. But if they decrease in the same proportion, it is an augury of happiness;[1] and as both parties are dumb, I suppose there are no provisions for alimony or separate maintenance. Courtships for the same reason are managed with becoming brevity, and not much deception; but I specially admired the allotment of time for weeping at a funeral. It lasts precisely as long as the mourner can count a hundred pieces of copper coin into his purse.

Being dumb, you will easily suppose, no lawyers are requisite; but the profession flourishes notwithstanding this obstacle. If any person considers himself robbed or aggrieved, he applies to one or two persons called the civilians of this colony; and as eloquence is unknown here, a blind fox is brought into their court of justice, and that advocate is deemed most skilful who can make him drink through the longest straw. Another and apter way of deciding a suit is this. The judge drops two oysters on the heads of the plaintiff and defendant, and he whose head is hard enough to crack the shell, is pronounced victorious. But if the case is not decided in twelve months, the parties’ attornies are publicly whipped—a practice which might be useful in Europe. The same chastisement is inflicted on physicians when their patients die. One of the rarest and most pleasant peculiarities among these people is, that they never absolutely die. The funeral ceremonies are performed during a man’s last illness, that he may enjoy the pomp of these honours; but he is not interred, and his physicians, when the breath of life has forsaken him, perform certain operations similar to our galvanic battery, and excite the muscular system so powerfully, that though the intellectual spirit is gone, he is fully capable of the employments most usual here. I do not find that they take this trouble with their wives when defunct; but as the petrifying power of this keen air acts speedily on the lifeless frame, their deceased beauties are soon converted into statues, which are splendidly attired in feathers and cockle-shells, and, being duly painted, fill their former places in public assemblies with great effect, and can hardly be distinguished from the living.

Their household arrangements deserve attention and imitation even in Europe. Knowing the fatigue of regulating human domestics by precept or example, they have availed themselves of that surprising instinct which may be called reason without will in animals. Therefore they employ the large shaggy dog peculiar to northern lands as their porter and errand-carrier; and his fidelity far surpasses any biped’s employed in that capacity. The beaver, so skilled in heaping up or carrying timber, is their ordinary household drudge; and as fish is the principal article of their diet, a number of tame pelicans act as clerks of the kitchen. It is really admirable to observe with what quietness and expedition these purveyors perform their duty, and sometimes rob each other’s pouches with an alacrity altogether human. As the custom I am going to mention is not much unlike one which now prevails in civilized nations, you will not refuse to believe that mothers in this colony abandon their offspring in their infancy and childhood. They employ a set of sleek handsome animals, of the tiger-cat or hyæna species, to nurse and rear their children during the first six or seven years; an office which they are apt to execute with all the capricious cruelty of their nature; but the parents have an idea, that as human creatures are sure to deserve chastisement in some part of their lives, it is wisest and most safe to give them an ample sufficiency at first. Notwithstanding the ungracious habits and unkindness of their nurses, these children acquire all their subtle instincts, and especially a remarkable fondness for dress; as one of the whims of this colony is to equip its domestic animals in the utmost finery; and we were highly amused when we were waited upon at dinner by a white bear in a coat and hat which we had given his master; and saw the pelican-cook strutting in a bonnet of the French shape, which concealed its long beak and large pouch admirably.

Their meals are regularly taken about the same time as in England, and are certainly more suitable to a climate where there is very little night, than to ours in which the fashionable season has hardly any day. There is, as I have told you, no conversation at their parties; but a number of bats are employed, who fly from house to house with the news of the day written on their broad leather wings, which answer the purpose of our morning and evening papers perfectly well. I took some pains to discover whether they have any poets or novellists, but could only find one fragment or sketch of a romance, which is preserved with extraordinary care, as a relic left by the first founders of this colony. I judge from its style, language, and other circumstances, that it cannot be of great antiquity; and when you have read my extract, which I annex as well as I could decypher and comprehend such a perplexed MS. you will certainly concur in my opinion, that this colony must have been transplanted from Europe much more recently than the Norwegians in 1406, or the great Briorn who emigrated before (as Swedish historians say) the three stars shone in the West.


Chapter 1. The Battle of Shrewsbury. Lord Craggycliff commands King Henry’s hussars, and is slain by the wind of a bullet.

Chapter 2. King Henry IV. dines with Lady C. in Grosvenor-square, on his return from Shropshire. Ward and Frescali arrange the supper and orange-trees. Lady C. dismisses the heroine, Starchissa, her orphan protegée, because she asked Lord John of Lancaster for an ice-cream.

Chapter 3. The heroine writes a sonnet to a tea-kettle in the ruins of Twenty-ghosts’ Abbey, and sees a Knight with fair hair and large eyes carrying mouse-traps. They fall in love of course.

Chapter 4. Owen Glendower, the celebrated magician, assures Starchissa that the mouse-trap knight is Hotspur’s son and heir in disguise.

Chapter 5. Sir Eglamour de Mousetraps informs his beloved, that Lord Craggycliff’s last codicil provides an annuity for his wife’s protegée, and advises her to claim it.

Chapter 6. Starchissa, in her way to Doctors’ Commons, sees Prince John of Lancaster driving the Mail-Coach, and to conceal herself takes a place inside.

Chapter 7. Lord C.’s ghost appears in the shape of a Proctor, and announces that the annuity is left to Lady Craggycliff’s orphan lap-dog of the same name.

Chapter 8. Sir Eglamour de Mousetraps declares himself married to the Queen of Noland; and Starchissa having written an ode with a gold pencil, in a damp grotto, expires.

* * * * * * * *

I think you will consider me justified in supposing these fair-haired inhabitants of an ice-valley, ab origine English: especially as they have not yet lost their fondness for emigrating. At a certain period of the year, this singular atmosphere gives every object a blue tint; an operation which our natural philosophers have explained very satisfactorily as a necessary consequence of certain vapours, and nitrous particles. When this period arrives, the colony having no means of changing their abode on land, amuse themselves with a short voyage or change of scene on the back of a kraken which visits this coast; and are much gratified by their abode on it, though the floating island which its back affords is covered only with sand and sea-weeds. But this monstrous fish is not without its due portion of sagacious instinct; and by means of his large suckers, draws in so great a quantity of the supplies they bring with them, that the poor travellers are compelled to return home half famished. In addition to this wandering propensity, I trace some traits of English character in their disproportioned number of lawyers and physicians. They have also a common class of thieves who resemble ours, because they are openly educated for that avocation, and pursue it without disguise. But their prison-regulations are new, and deserve your notice as a civilian. Instead of imprisoning rogues, they only shut up honest men, that (as they profess) they may know where to find them, and prevent them from becoming thieves. This wonderfully lessens the number of prisoners, and the trouble of the police, since prevention, saith our law, is easier than cure.

All these indications of sagacity and discretion induced Professor Cacanous, my literary companion, to consider from what imperfect conformation of organs these people’s want of speech could proceed. And as both science and humanity impelled him to ascertain and remedy it if possible, he procured the aid of our surgeon’s mate; and having enticed one of the natives into a secure part of the long avenue which leads to their tenements, he began to examine his pericranium according to the rules of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim. From the outline of the os frontis, he concluded the organ of communication was not sufficiently developed; and being a practical proficient in the science, he seized the poor native, and prepared to make an incision into his skull, intending to rectify and enlarge the cell of the brain. He was on the point of the experiment, when his patient made a violent effort to escape, and begged for mercy in very articulate English. Our surprise was great, but pleasant; and he assured us, that, according to their national institutes, they were only dumb at home. He offered to teach us their peculiar idiom; confessing, however, that they studied all languages more than their own. We should have embraced his kindness eagerly; but the captain of our ship notified that our leave of absence was expired, and interrupted this newly-opened intercourse by demanding our immediate return on board. Still, as our passage through Baffin’s Bay is very doubtful, we shall probably sail back by the same course, and renew our acquaintance with this hospitable colony, whose origin and traditions may afford us some amusement.


(To Be Continued)

  1. This seems a relic of the Jewish tradition, that a wife’s proper Hebrew name signifies water, and her husband’s fire. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 74, September 1818, pp. 193-197