The thread about John Sakeouse; hunter, explorer, artist, interpreter, kayaker, friend of Leith and the first Inuit in Scotland

The registers of the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh record that on 17th Feb 1819 a man was interred there, having died 3 days previously from fever. They say he was 22 years old, although nobody was exactly sure. What they do not say is that he was far from the land of his birth and that he was a truly remarkable man. He was John Sakeouse and this is his story.

John Sakeouse, a portrait by Amelia Anderson, engraved by W. & D. Lizars. CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland
John Sakeouse, a portrait by Amelia Anderson, engraved by W. & D. Lizars. CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

John was well known in Edinburgh and Leith, infact it was fair to say he was something of a celebrity, for he was a unique character in the city; he was a Kalaaleq , an Inuk from West Greenland, and was the first of his people to travel to Scotland. He was born around 1797 in Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland at a latitude of 69° North. We do not know his name in his native language, but he grew up in an area where Danish missionaries were active and from them he took the biblical names Johannes Zakaeus; John Zacchaeus (also Anglicised to Sackhouse, Saccheuse, but he signed himself Sakeouse so we shall go with that.) From the missionaries he learned about the bible and had a knowledge of and interest in Christianity. He also learned of the world beyond his horizon and picked up a little English.

Icebergs Disko Bay. Cc-by-SA 3.0 Algkalv
Icebergs Disko Bay. Cc-by-SA 3.0 Algkalv

John had wanted to satisfy a curiosity as to what was over the horizon and beyond the land of his birth, and he wanted to learn about art. He may have been further motivated by being unlucky in love and rejected by the mother of a potential bride. But his reasons were his own and using his own initiative and ingenuity in May or June of 1816 he took to his kayak and paddled out to a whaling ship that was getting ready to depart the Davis Strait. Using his basic English, he managed to convince the crew to help him stow away and the seamen took pity and smuggled not just John but also his kayak aboard. Once he was safely over the horizon he announced his presence to the master of the ship; who either offered or threatened to turn around and put him ashore, but John was obviously a persuasive communicator and the master, John Newton, was convinced to take him home with him. That ship was the Thomas and Ann, it was owned by Peter Wood and Company of Leith, and that port was its destination. That is how on the 15th August 1816, John Sakeouse came to Scotland “with 11 fish” and it’s special passenger.

The Leith Greenland whaler "Raith", also owned by the Woods and a contemporary of the "Thomas and Ann". A model in the collection of Trinity House, Leith.
The Leith Greenland whaler “Raith”, also owned by the Woods and a contemporary of the “Thomas and Ann”. A model in the collection of Trinity House, Leith.

On the long journey back to Leith, he earned his passage by assisting the seamen in their duties and occupied himself in improving his English.Standing between 5 foot 6 and 8 inches tall, with a head of thick black hair, he was of stocky build and impressed his hosts with his great physical strength, his dexterity and also his gentle nature and eagerness to learn. When the Thomas and Ann finally arrived back in Leith, news of his presence seemed to spread like wildfire and large crowds assembled wanting to catch a glimpse of this unusual visitor. The crowds prevented Master Newton from unloading his precious cargo of whale, so he had Sakeouse taken ashore and lodged in his house in the Timber Bush area. The crowds simply followed and gathered outside Newton’s house instead.

But although John had never seen this many people in his life, he hadn’t come to Scotland to hide himself away. So he took himself and his kayak down to the new Wet Docks, lowered himself into them and with great showmanship put on an hour long display of his proficiency and dexterity in it. He thrilled the crowds by being able to roll his boat over at will, paddle it while inverted and roll it back upright again “in the twinkling of an eye… and scuds off as if nothing had happened“. A ship’s biscuit was floated on the water and from 30 yards he would hit it – and split it – with his harpoon.

John Sakeouse in his kayak, from an engraving by W. & D. Lizars,  CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland
John Sakeouse in his kayak, from an illustration by Amelia Anderson, engraved by W. & D. Lizars, CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

His show was an instant hit, and it was put on each day for the crowds. Handbills were printed and money was collected. On Thursday 5th September, a grand race was organised; John against the best whaling boat and six of the best crew that Leith had to offer. “A vast assemblage of persons of all ranks were collected at Leith. The piers, windows and roofs of houses and the decks and rigging of the vessels, were crowded with spectators; and the water from the harbour to near the Martello Tower was covered with boats, filled with Ladies and Gentlemen.” They set off from the end of the pier, the course being around the Martello Tower and back again; John was the clear winner, taking just 16 minutes.

An exhibition of some of his artefacts was put on in a dockside warehouse, described as “two sea unicorn’s horns, the skulls of a sea horse and bear, the ear of a whale and the preserved skin of a black eagle“. The money these ventures raised helped support him financially; to provide him with the food and clothes that he needed to get through the winter in Scotland until he could return home the following season when the whalers went north again. By the end of August news of him had spread the length of the country; with newspapers not just in Scotland and London, but all across England, in Belfast and in Dublin relating the story of “the Esquimaux* now at Leith“.

* = the French term which was in written use at the time in the press for Inuit. The Scottish whalers used the term “Yackie”, in some contemporary accounts he refers to himself as “Yakee”, a term he undoubtedly picked up from the whalers.

Lodging with Newton and his family, when John was not putting on his displays he attended to studying English in “which he made considerable progress“; he learned to play the flute a little and to dance. He told his hosts that he had received some schooling in his childhood, had some basic knowledge of the wider world and historical facts and had heard of an elephant – but never having seen one was “much delighted” when shown a picture. He had not, however, seen or heard of a cow and on first encountering one fetched his harpoon with which to defend himself from this strange beast. He sat for portraits, was taken to the theatre, and was the toast of the evening soirées of Leith and Edinburgh, comfortably ingratiating himself with all who met him.

John Sakeouse’s handwriting, from an engraving by W. & D. Lizars, CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

In the spring of 1817, the Leith whalers set out again for the Davis Straits and John was with them, once more on board the Thomas and Ann. Newton was under strict orders from his employer, Peter Wood, that John was to be “treated with the greatest kindness” and returned to where he had been picked up, and not to return with him unless John explicitly desired to. On reaching his home however, John was distressed to find that his only living relative, his sister, had died over the winter. On learning that she had believed him dead and had died of a broken heart, he returned to Newton and made it known that he wished to stay with them and “revisit his country no more.” And so it was in September 1817 once again the newspapers in Edinburgh reported that the Thomas and Ann had returned to Leith and once more it had a special passenger aboard. And once again, this exciting news was reprinted from Inverness to London and from Cambridge to Belfast.

That winter, John exhibited the selfless kindness to others for which he was knows. Enjoying he snows that had fallen, and walking far beyond Leith, he came across two young children whom he observed “to be suffering from the cold“. He took off his sealskin jacket, wrapped the pair of them in in it and carried them safely home to Leith. He refused all attempts at a reward, not thinking himself having done anything remarkable. It was on another winter walk that John’s adventures took an interesting new direction, for who should he by chance bump in to but one Alexander Nasmyth; pupil of Alan Ramsay and one of Scotland’s foremost landscape and portrait painters at that time. Nasmyth recognised John by his dress, and having once drawn a set of native clothing that had been brought to Scotland he was keen to ingratiate himself. He invited John up to Edinburgh and had him sit for a portrait in return for providing him with drawing lessons. Nasmyth got his painting, now part of the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, and John got his lessons, proving to have a natural talent and be a quick learner. He was the first Inuit to recieve formal art training, although he came from a rich artistic culture.

John Sakaeus (Sakeouse) by Alexander Nasmyth, c. 1817, CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

It was through the well connected Nasmyth that John’s life took its next turn; he was introduced to the naval explorer Captain Basil Hall and his father, Sir James, the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The Halls were aware that the Admiralty was preparing an expedition to search for a Northwestern Passage, under fellow Scot Capain John Ross (later Sir John), and were quick to realise that having a native guide who could also act as a translator could prove invaluable to the mission. The Halls wrote to Sir John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, who agreed with them and asked for John to be sent to London if he was willing. John seems to have turned down offers of payment for his services, and was keen to join the expedition so long as it was not a ruse to send him back to the land of his birth.

In London, John ingratiated himself with his usual ease, and – having taken it with him – as usual thrilled the crowds with kayaking and harpooning displays in Deptford Docks. A trick that went down very well was to throw his harpoon, which he could do with great accuracy over 50 yards, and then follow it up with smaller “darts” with which he could hit the handle of the floating harpoon, time after time. Captain Ross and the Admiralty wasted no time in engaging John’s services, however it nearly wasn’t to be; in late March a stranger, who may have been an agent for the Aquatic Theatre, attempted to lure him away from the expedition and onto the stage, with offers of money and a considerable quantity of alcohol. The usually sober John almost succumbed to temptation, but on recovering his faculties and suffering his hangover thought better of it, apologised to Ross for his change of heart and stayed firmly on board and away from the dockside taverns thereafter. The Admiralty quietly ordered that he was to be kept on board and away from strangers thereafter.

Ross’s expedition departed London on board a small fleet of hired Hull whaling ships on 18th April 1818. Ross led on his flagship Isabella, with Captain Buchan on the Dortothea, Lieutenant Parry on the Alexander and the ill-fated Lieutenant Franklin on the Trent. Their search was for the Northwest Passage and the Bering Strait beyond, and part of the expedition intended to strike out for the North Pole. Their journey would find none of those destinations, but would take them further north than any British navigator had yet been.

“Portraits of the Vessels of the Polar Expedition of 1818”, an illustration by John Ross © Royal Museums Greenwich.

The convoy arrived off Greenland in mid-June. By the end of the month, they reached 70° North. This was Disko Bay, the land where John – or Jack as the sailors had taken to calling him – had been born 19 or 20 years before. John took take to his kayak, returning with specimens of birds for the expedition’s scientists, and also with a party of local Inuit he had contacted. Acting as a translator, he negotiated for a larger party of them to return with the gift of a dog sled for Ross. They were invited aboard for coffee and biscuits and shown around, had their portraits taken and further gifts were exchanged. An impromptu cèilidh was then held on the deck, with the Inuit dancing Scottish Reels with the seamen to the music of their fiddler. Ross describes John as acting as the “master of ceremonies”, calling out the dances. Catching the attention of a young woman in the Inuit party, “by far the best looking of the group“, John was given a lady’s shawl by one of the officers to present to her. She returned his affections with the gift of a ring, and Ross was in “no possible doubt [he] had made an impression on her heart“.

After the ball concluded with more coffee, the guests departed and John was permitted to escort them home and perhaps return with more specimens for the expedition. It was at this point however that he suffered an unfortunate accident; demonstrating a gun to some of the Inuit, he over-filled it with gunpowder under a mistaken assumption that he described himself as “plenty powder, plenty kill. Letting the weapon off, he could not handle the recoil and broke his collar bone. A search party had to be sent out to retrieve him when he did not return to the ship.

Ross's ships (one ship is in the distance, on the right of the image) in the land of John's birth at Disko Bay, an illustration by Andrew Skene, an officer and artist on the expedition
Ross’s ships (one ship is in the distance, on the right of the image) in the land of John’s birth at Disko Bay, an illustration by Andrew Skene, an officer and artist on the expedition

They did not linger here and continued north into Baffin Bay, intending on making an anti-clockwise navigation in search of the North West Passage. Ross made an illustration of his little flotilla as it moved carefully through the ice at 70°44′ North. They pressed on and at 75°25′ North they reached a bay that the Greenlanders call Qimusseriarsuaq. Although whalers had been here before, they hadn’t troubled to give it an English name, so Ross Christened it Melville Bay, after Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the man who had given Ross his first commission and a son of Edinburgh (for whom Melville Street is named).

"Through the Ice, June 16 1818, Lat. 70° 44' N.", an illustration by Captain Ross
“Through the Ice, June 16 1818, Lat. 70° 44′ N.”, an illustration by Captain Ross

The were able to sail as far north as 75°55′, before becoming trapped in the ice at the start of August and could go no further. It was with a great deal of skill, hard work and luck that they were able to extricate the Isabella and the Alexander, and now headed west around the top of Baffin Bay. An illustration made by Captain Ross shows this desperate scene.

Perilous Situation of the Isabella and the Alexander, illustration by Captain Ross
“Perilous Situation of the Isabella and the Alexander”, illustration by Captain Ross

Soon they were heading south again and on August 9th 1818, the Isabella and the Alexander came to what Ross called Prince Regent Inlet. Here, at 75°55′ North, 65°32′ West, and with the unique help of John Sakeouse, they made first contact with what Ross called the Arctic Highlanders: the native Inughuit.

It was the Inughuit who spotted them first. By the time Ross’s lookouts spotted them in return, they took these men far out on the ice to be stranded whalers, and made for them. As they approached, they realised that they were natives travelling on dog sledges. When they came within shouting distance, John attempted to call to them in his language, but the men took to their sleds and fled. Boats were sent out and some gifts left on the ice for them. Ross also had the men make up a large flag showing the image of the sun and the moon, with an outstretched hand holding a spring of a native shrub in the manner of an olive branch (this western metaphor would of course have been completely lost on them.) This was run up a pole in a prominent position on the ice, to which was also affixed a bag of gifts and a large outline of a hand pointing to the ships.

The next morning a larger party of men returned with 8 sleds, stopping on the ice a mile short of the ships. The flagpole enticed the men and their sleds closer, but they remained cautiously 300 yards distant, apparently in conversation. It was at this point that John stepped in. Taking a bag of gifts, and a white flag (another hopeless symbol for communicating with people who had never encountered white men before), John strode out on the ice. Dressed in the garb of a western sailor, they had no idea who he was, or what his act of removing his hat meant, and as he approached they pulled a knife on him, implored him to be on his way and made it clear that they could kill him if needs be. In return, the ever placid John offered them a British-made knife in his possession, tossing it to them. On examining it, the men were impressed and pulled their noses, a sign of friendship. John pulled his nose too, and a rapport was formed. John now presented them with a string of beads and showed them a chequered shirt. This was not just the first time the Inughuit had met white men, it was their first exposure to a Kalaaleq, a western Greenlander. After some initial difficulty, John recognised their dialect as one an old woman who once nursed him had spoken, and was slowly able to communicate. Using his natural talents and the tuition in Western art acquired from Alexander Nasmyth, John would paint a picture to capture this scene, presenting it to Captain Ross.

First Communication with the Natives of Prince Regent Bay, as John by John Sackheouse and Presented to Captain Ross, Augsut 10th 1818
First Communication with the Natives of Prince Regent Bay, as John by John Sackheouse and Presented to Captain Ross, August10th 1818

John, wearing the blue jacket, with his arm held in a sling and wearing a beaver cap, is seen holding the chequered shirt while two Inughuit inspect the other gifts he has presented them with, one of whom may be holding up one of the mirrors with which they were presented and which caused them wonder and delight. In the foreground, Captain Ross and Lieutenant Parry offer other gifts, receiving narwhal tusks in return. Another man is arriving on his dog sled, and two others are in the distance admiring the ships and a boat which had been hauled onto the ice for repairs. The Inughuit had never before seen a ship; indeed they were not seafaring people, had never seen a kayak and had no word for it, living entirely on the land and using dog sleds for travel and hunting. So it was with some difficulty that they were eventually enticed aboard onto these winged “Islands of Wood” (they had never before seen a shrub with a trunk wider than your finger, so the ships timbers were an incredible sight for them). The men were given a tour of the ship, before being convinced to sit in chairs (something they had never seen and whose purpose they did not understand) to have their portraits taken. They were offered ships biscuit, salt beef, plum pudding and Aquavit, all of which they thoroughly disliked.

Ervick, one of the Inughuit who met the Ross Expedition in 1818, an illustration by Captain Ross
Ervick, one of the Inughuit who met the Ross Expedition in 1818, an illustration by Captain Ross

With John acting as interpreter, they were able to learn that the Inughuit did not count beyond ten, that their knives were fashioned from iron extracted from a rock in the mountains, that they lived in family units by a form of mutual agreement between the husband and wife, but had sent their women and children into the mountains to safety; the menfolk had come forth only to ask the interlopers to leave. They had a chief – Tulloowah – to whom other families gave a tribute. They had no organised religion, but each family had a “sorcerer” who could be called upon to commune with the weather or supplies of animals for food. They had no concepts of weapons or war, or of lands and people beyond their own. They assumed that the white-faced Europeans must be some sort of ghost whose ships had flown down from the air. Before leaving, the Inughuit were presented with planks of wood that they had expressed a desire in possessing.

The Inughuit returned a few days later on the 13th of August and again on the 14th. This was a different party than those they had met before, and had come forth after seeing the gifts that the first had returned with and having received assurances that the “Islands of Wood” and their ghostly residents were not an immediate threat. More gifts were exchanged, and the leader of the party helped himself to Ross’s telescope, shaving razor and a pair of scissors, which Ross was pleased to overlook. Before their final departure, Ross gave them a portrait of the Prince Regent as a present for “their king”.

They now pressed further south and west, coming to Lancaster Sound at 74°19½’ North 78°33′ west at the end of August where he took a fateful decision. Imagining that he could see distant mountains (they were actually a mirage), he was convinced that there was no way further through by sea and turned around against the wishes of his subordinate Parry. So convinved was Ross, that he named this distant range – the Croker Mountains – and made a detailed landscape illustration of them.

Lancaster Sound, as seen from HMS Isabella, 3PM, August 31st 1818. By Captain Ross
Lancaster Sound, as seen from HMS Isabella, 3PM, August 31st 1818. The distant range of the Croker Mountains was a mere mirage. By Captain Ross

Ross now headed south along the western edge of Baffin Bay, taking detailed meteorological and astronomical observations, collecting geological and animal specimens and otherwise occupying the expedition now with science rather than their stated goal of seeking the North West Passage. By the end of September they were at Resolution Island at 61°30′ North and well out of the Arctic Circle, and Ross decided to end operations for the season and head for home. A month later, on October 29th, they sighted Foula, the westernmost island of the Shetland Archipelago. On November 14th they dropped anchor for the last time, in Grimsby Roads, and Ross set off at once for London and their Lordships of the Admiralty with his logs, journals, charts and letters.

Ross, unfortunately, did not find the hero’s welcome that he might have imagined. Instead, his subordinate officers challenged his decision to turn around in Lancaster Sound, and Parry was vehemently and publicly sceptical of the grounds on which Ross made that decision. The Admiralty were convinced by Parry and his conspirators that Ross’s findings were not to be trusted, and they organised an expediction for the following year, led by Parry, and on which Ross was not invited. The press lampooned him, a particularly scathing satirical cartoon showing him pompously leading his crew, all mutilated by frosbite, carrying back nothing but specimens of animals and rocks. The implication was clear; Ross’s expedition had been a failure and the scientific results and objects he returned with were worthless.

Landing of the Treasures or Results of the Polar Expedition!!! By George Cruikshank © The Trustees of the British Museum
Landing of the Treasures or Results of the Polar Expedition!!! By George Cruikshank © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ross publicly praised John Sakeouse as “very intelligent and willing to learn as well as being grateful to those who instruct him. A man on whom the utmost dependence may be placed“. The satirist – George Cruikshank – unfortunately did not treat him with the same respect and credit that he merited. Instead he showed him as a deeply racist stereotype, a savage called “Jack Frost”, carrying a narwhal tusk, wearing a fur skirt, and clutching an album of his drawings. The sailors to his right, on wondering “what will they do with Jack Frost“, suggest he should have his throat cut and be stuffed. This was a sad end to the important expedition, and a cruel way to dismiss the contributions of John Sakeouse, which no other man could have made.

John Sakeouse, shown as the savage "Jack Frost".
John Sakeouse, shown as the savage “Jack Frost”.

John did not stay long in London, and asked to be returned to his friends in Leith. Parry – although contemptuous of Ross – recognised the importance of John and arranged that he should be included again in the 1819 expedition. Unfortunately this was never to be.

John took ill at the start of the year with “a violent inflammation in the chest“. John Newton, the whaling master who had first been convinced to bring John to Leith, and his family nursed John through his illness. At first he seemed to improve, and despite doctor’s orders to the contrary – soon felt well enough to venture out in the search of fish, which he brought back to his lodgings to cook for himself.

A few days later however, he had relapsed into fever. He told his companions that his late sister had come to him in a fever dream and called to him, and that he knew now that he was dying. Calling for his Catechism – in the Danish language that he had been tutored in by missionaries – he grasped it “till his strength and sight failed him, when the book dropped from his grasp, and he shortly afterwards expired“. All of Leith mourned his loss, and a respectful funeral was arranged in the Canongate Kirkyard and paid for by his friends. “He was followed to the grave by a numerous company, among whom were not only his old friends and patrons from Leith, but many gentlemen of high respectability in this city“. His final resting place is not marked, but was given as “in the area 8 feet south of Fraser’s ground and 4 feet from the north walk“.

Approximate location of the grave of John Sakeouse. © Self

His possessions, including his sealskin clothing, were left to Captain Ross, who donated them to the Museum of the University of Edinburgh.

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