Very witty… sometimes downright absurdly ridiculous… exciting and well described. This… tale… of an earnest and enquiringly Doctor, a lazy but courageous Viscount, and their formidable Canadian guides attempting to map a route to the Canadian goldfields will absorb the long winter nights and infuse them with a spirit of old time adventure.
15 Nov 2017
A real bit of North American adventure is served up by real life explorer E.C. Coleman in Northwest Passage Overland. A story of Victorian adventure in the wilderness of western Canada. This epic but at the same time quirky tale of the team of an earnest and enquiringly Doctor and a lazy but courageous Viscount attempting to map a route to the Canadian goldfields should be able to fill those long winter nights.
The journey took place in fairly rollicking fashion and to be honest, it continues that way, even in icebound winters or threatened with starvation there is an unmistakable flare to the proceedings. Gaffs abounded, sport plentiful and hardships taken lightly, although at times their suffering was quite acute. The group hunted, rode , bickered and rowed their way into the wilderness, which in the 1860’s was still a very hostile place to put yourself. The expedition was far from professional, at times it seems like someone just woke up and said “Shall we take a jaunt across Canada today” and left as if to go for a walk in the park, leaving an indefinite return date at their clubs before setting out.
The exciting course of the book doesn’t let up. It’s a true Wild West adventure, except it’s wild north – west. Out there in those days you were useful if you were good at trading or hunting, and were usually referred to as some would speak about dogs and horses. Pure bloods, half breeds and various sizes and ages of ‘savage’, etc. You could be killed for a tot of rum, or a good looking horse. Buffalo and fur were big business, and Metis hunters could kill animals by the dozen. Hunting buffalo from astride, firing antique flintlock muskets at the gallop. Civilisation existed in the form of remote cabins and scattered forts that seem the antithesis of the John Ford idyll.
Despite the unprepared (grown up famous five on the trail) nature of what went on, the expedition, is instructive for a number of reasons. It shows the Canadian frontier at a time when focus was pulled to the United States by the Civil and Indian Wars. The people they glimpsed and met on the way show the interesting state of this as yet mostly untamed country. Through buffalo hunts we see that the game is still relatively rich in Canada. The rivers are filled, up to a point, with steamers and scattered water traffic. The banks are often not as empty as it might be expected. Hudson’s Bay company employees abound, as do parties of wandering Indians and Metis.
The interactions with the Indians during the expedition is particularly interesting. Wether or not they are accurate is hard to gauge as, a British doctor and member of the nobility were only able to observe at face value what was going on. But they range from purely narrative curiosities, such as an Indian chief getting an unexpected boxing match, to finding themselves awash amidst a tense treaty negotiation to numberless examples of Indians being almost addicted to trading things like a boy in junior school. Moreover the travellers reveal a sobering fact about the state of the tribes along the U.S./Canadian divide. They were more or less happy to sell everything they had, or travel vast distances to obtain three main things; alcohol, guns and horses and naturally assumed all white-men would provide such things, willingly or not.
At one point the expedition found themselves all but besieged by a clamouring mob of people all demanding Rum. No sooner than having greeted someone, if we are to believe witnesses, and the book is mainly based on a narrative of the journey, (based in itself on a journal kept by Dr. Cheadle) an Indian would ask for Rum. It is no mistake either that most of the Indians encountered took the whitemen for traders or hunters rather than explorers, because that is mostly the only white people who came that far west. Poignantly, one particular warrior, having obtained his liquor earlier in the day, returned that night with a host of other clamouring addicts and drunkenly pressed his upper clothes on the whites expecting more rum in return. When he was refused, he was so distressed that he promptly vomited on his wife.
This was the screwball, macabre state of things. The country was already being appropriated and tainted by the western world. By and large the English were babes in the wood, kept alive by less inebriated Indians and somber Metis, who on many occasions displayed their skills at hunting and bushcraft. Negotiating rivers, northern winters, bears, forest fires, and some of the most insufferable additions to an expeditionary team ever to disgrace the name of explorer, this hopelessly underprepared group blazed an arduous trail to cut out the middle-man (The USA) in the the long hike west to the goldfields, and accidentally plotted the route for the railways that followed.
I supppse the idea of two outsiders, attendeded by a few tough guides, and after a point, one woman, travelling into the unknown sounds like something to be found in a tired mid 20th century Hollywood B – plot, however that does sum up broadly the main cast of this real epic. Wether or not everything the adventurers retolled can be relied on I don’t know. Some of it sounds too unbelievable, and the author isn’t particularly interested in the investigation of such claims. The book is written in a linear, fairly matter of fact way. Very witty when describing the sometimes downright absurdly ridiculous exploits of the Doctor and the Viscount, exciting and well described.
If you’re looking for something a little different to read, I highly recommend Northwest Passage Overland.