Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Researching the Beothuk Harpoon

Beothuk Harpoon Head, Mary March Museum
In the workshop, I'm back to making sets of Beothuk and Intermediate period reproductions for various branches of the Provincial Museum and Provincial Historic Sites.  Some of these reproductions are familiar, for example, a Beothuk bow and arrow is going to the Mary March Provinicial Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor, but others will be new reconstructions based on fresh evidence.  One of the pieces that I'm especially excited to be working on is a Beothuk harpoon.  There are a handful of Beothuk harpoon heads and Shawnadithit, the last known Beothuk woman, left us a drawing and description of what she called "a-a-duth", the Beothuk sealing harpoon or seal-spear.

Beothuk Harpoon Head,
 Mary March Museum
My plan is to make a full-sized reproduction of the harpoon drawn by Shawnadithit with an iron bladed harpoon head, like those on display in the Mary March Provincial Museum.  During the last year of her life, Shawnadithit lived in St. John's under the care of William Eppes Cormack.  Cormack made notes on the Beothuk harpoon that appear to caption the drawing made by Shawnadithit and his knowledge of the implement seem to be based on conversations with her.  Likewise, James P. Howley's discussion of Beothuk harpoons is also provided as a caption to her drawing when it was published in his 1915 book, "The Beothucks or Red Indians." Howley's description is a combination of Cormack's writings and his own interpretation of Shawnadithit's drawing.  Both of the passages below can be found published in Howley 1915.

Shawnadithit's drawing: Sketch VIII, detail below

Manuscript of W.E. Cormack's, apparently written after his last expedition in search of the Red Indians.

The spears were of two kinds, the one, their chief weapon, was twelve feet in length, pointed with bone or iron, whenever the latter material could be obtained, and was used in killing deer and other animals. The other was fourteen feet in length and was used chiefly, if not wholly, in killing seals, -- the head or point being easily separated from the shaft, -- the service of the latter being indeed mainly, to guide the point into the body of the animal, which being effected, the shaft was withdrawn, and a strong strip of deer skin, which was always kept fastened to the spear head was held by the Indian, who in this manner secured his prey. This method of taking the seals may be compared to that of taking the whales. The handle of the harpoon being chiefly to guide the point, to which the cord is attached, into the body of the animal and then hauling against it until the fish is exhausted. The Esquimaux adopt a similar plan the point of their harpoon or spear being somewhat different in form.
I believe the Beothucks derived the idea of this harpoon from the Eskimos, who are adepts in its use, are known to have possessed it a long time, and who moreover, depend more upon the seal and walrus for their livelihood than the former had any occasion to do. It is a most ingenious weapon, and while the general structure is the same, that of the Beothuck was slighter and more neatly constructed. It was called by them a-aduth.
-W.E. Cormack ca. 1828 

a-a-duth or Spear for Killing Seals 12 feet long (bone) (iron)
amina Deer Spear (iron)
Sketch VIII

This figure is followed by two full length spears, one for killing Seals the other for Deer. The first called "A-aduth," is represented as being 12 feet long (?). It consists of a long straight wooden handle, to which is affixed, at one end an iron point of a triangular shape set in a bone socket. This socket is not permanently attached to the handle but is kept in its place by a long string, one end of which passes through two holes bored through the bone and securely tied, while the other end is brought along the handle, passing over a notch at the further end, and thence back to about the middle of the handle where it would appear to have been grasped by the operator. The bone socket, where it meets the handle is forked and has a groove cut in it, into which the end of the handle is inserted, the string being then drawn tight, and firmly grasped by the hand tends to keep the point in its lace while striking the animal, But immediately the spear head enters its body, the string is released and the spear separated from the handle, which remains in the hand, while the ample coil of line shown, allows full play to the animal in diving. The spear head is tied in such a way that so soon as it penetrates the skin and flesh of the seal and a strain is put upon it by the exertions of the wounded animal, it turns crossways in the wound which prevents its being withdrawn. The whole contrivance is one of a most ingenious character, and I have little doubt the idea was borrowed from the Eskimo, who appear to have been the originators of this kind of weapon. It only differs from that of the latter people in being more slightly and delicately made, in having a triangular instead of a leafshaped iron point, and in the absence of the float or drag attached to the opposite end of the line. I would surmise from this that the Beothuck did not pursue the seals in his canoe, on the water, as the Eskimo does, but speared them on the ice, or in their blow holes. This seems the more probable from the fact that their frail birch bark canoes were ill adapted for the pursuit of the animal in its native element.

-James P. Howley 1915

Can you even
see this from
12 feet away?
There is some discrepancy in the accounts on the lengths of the deer spear and the harpoon; Howley and Shawnadithit's drawing say that the harpoon was 12 feet long, while Cormack suggests that 12 feet is the length of the deer spear and that the harpoon was actually 14 feet long.  Either way, that is a very long harpoon.  I intend to make the reproduction at least 12 feet long, although for the sake of transportation and storage, I will make the shaft in two parts that can be broken down and reassembled.  I'm looking forward to this, I have to admit I'm having a tough time visualizing the mechanics of a 12 foot harpoon, so this will be a learning experience for me, too.

Photo Credits: 
1-2: Tim Rast
3-4: Details of Shawnadithit's Sketch VIII from Howley 1915

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