First Nations trading ventures brought to life in new release adventure novel

Posted: July 31, 2015 in Into the Americas
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In the following excerpt from our new adventure novel Into the Americas, we describe trading between the Mowachaht tribe and unscrupulous white traders in Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, in the early 1800’s.

Into the Americas (A novel based on a true story)

In the skies above North America’s west coast, amongst the clouds, a bald eagle glided in lazy circles. With her magnificent white head and tail feathers, and her six-foot wingspan, she was the queen of her domain as she made use of the thermals that rose from the unseen terrain below.

The clouds parted to reveal a village – one of many populated by the indigenous people of the remote Northwest Pacific region. Nootka village was bordered by rugged, forest-covered hills which rose up out of the sea. Comprised of twenty or so large, wooden lodges, it was home to the Mowachaht tribe, one of the twenty-five Nuu-chah-nulth indigenous groups that occupied the region’s craggy coastline. A two-masted schooner lay at anchor offshore, safe for the moment in an inlet with the unlikely name of Friendly Cove.

Distance was no problem for the eagle whose sharp eyesight could distinguish any object from another, even if those objects were little bigger than a pinhead. Right now, her eyes were focused on a Chinook salmon swimming between the schooner and shore. The eagle flattened her wings and dove head first, extending her wings moments before she struck the water. Talons extended and now in a shallow dive, the eagle grasped the salmon and, with a few mighty beats of her wings, rose sluggishly skyward with her catch.

The eagle’s labored flight took her directly over the village. If any of the villagers had been waiting for her, with bow or musket primed, they’d have shot her down easily for she was as yet barely higher than the colorful totem poles that lined the shore. Fortunately for her, eagles were sacred to these people and so they ruled the skies with impunity.

A trade was going down with a dozen crewmen from the schooner. Unkempt and ill disciplined, the crewmen were typical of the freebooters who visited these shores in increasing numbers. They carried with them an assortment of weapons and were clearly no strangers to violence.

Armed Mowachaht warriors, ever-mindful of bad experiences they’d had with other European traders, kept a wary eye on the visitors. Most were armed with muskets, some carried blunderbusses and a few bore traditional weapons, including clubs, spears and tomahawks.

The traders had come to exchange muskets for sea-otter pelts. Much sought-after, the beautiful pelts fetched a princely sum in the civilized world – especially in London and in Macau, China. Consequently, Nootka village and the sound named after it was an increasingly popular port of call for traders intent on filling their ships’ holds with the bounty of the New World.

Most of Nootka’s fifteen hundred residents were present to observe the trade, which was being conducted on a sandy beach in front of the village. Trading, especially with visiting Europeans, was a highlight of their short, hard lives. More so after the long winter months – as was the case on this pleasant spring day.

Among the Mowachahts, the common or untitled people wore sealskin and coarse cedar bark clothing, which afforded protection from the constant rain in these parts. The chiefs and men and women of high ranking wore animal skins and colorful capes or, in rare cases, the pelt of the sea-otter.

Headmen invariably wore the striking black sea otter pelt. It extended to the knees and was fastened around the waist by a wide band of colorful, woven cedar bark. The warriors wore square-cut, yellow mantles with holes cut for the arms – similar to those worn by the commoners except theirs were dyed red and were more basic.

Absent from the trading activities were the Mowachahts’ slaves. Acquired in raids on neighboring tribes, the slaves were readily identifiable as such as they collected firewood and performed other menial tasks in and around the village. Though they spoke the same Wakashan language as their Mowachaht masters, their appearance was quite different: each bore the physical characteristics of his or her tribe. Some were lighter skinned, others darker; some were tall and slender, others short and stocky; some male slaves were bald or wore their hair short, others wore their hair in long ringlets; most wore raggedy sealskin clothing while some were near-naked. Their number included almost as many females as males – the former more often than not serving as sex slaves as well as manual workers.

Above the beach, the Mowachahts’ lodges extended to the tree line. They were a sprawling collection of wooden dwellings, the remnants of a Spanish trading outpost vacated some years earlier. Smoke from cooking fires curled up into the sky from strategically placed openings in the lodges’ roofs.

The totem poles – some even taller than the surrounding fir trees – towered over the lodges.

On the beach, there was an air of tension as the schooner’s master, Captain Alvin Walsh, an abrasive New Yorker with a well deserved reputation for dishonest trades, bargained with a group of headmen. Foremost among the latter was Maquina, chief of the Mowachahts. Tall, bronze and muscular, the middle-aged Maquina cut an impressive figure in his ceremonial cloak. Feathers protruded from his long, black hair, which he wore as a bun on top of his head. Like all the headmen, white down covered his head and shoulders, conveying the impression of falling snow.

Captain Walsh’s steely gaze was fixed on the bundles of pelts that lay at his feet while Maquina’s hawk-like eyes were fixed on a dozen new muskets stacked end-to-end in an open casket. The casket lay on top of five identical unopened caskets.

Hard-nosed bartering had begun soon after the traders had stepped ashore earlier in the day and, to both parties, it seemed a successful trade was no closer. Tempers were becoming frayed.

Maquina pointed at the caskets and, in broken English, said, “Maquina say…five pelts…one musket.”

Walsh shook his head. “One musket…ten pelts.” He appeared ready to depart, a shrewd strategy he’d fine-tuned years earlier when trading watered-down whisky to the East Coast tribes.

The chief quickly nodded to his opposite, indicating they had a deal. Walsh gestured to his men who immediately began scooping up bundles of pelts.

Maquina intervened. “Try musket first,” he said.

Walsh cursed under his breath as he motioned to his men to hold off for the moment. He then selected a musket from the open casket and handed it to Maquina. The shrewd chief ignored the offering and selected another musket. He expertly primed it and fired it into the air. The shot echoed throughout Nootka Sound. Still suspicious, Maquina broke open another casket. He tested a second musket with the same result. Satisfied, he made the faintest of hand gestures to his warriors who immediately uplifted the caskets and carried them away.

A relieved Walsh motioned to his men to resume gathering up the pelts. Under Maquina’s penetrating gaze, the captain appeared tense and he exhorted his men to hurry.

There was good reason for Maquina’s suspicion. The Mowachahts – like all members of the wider Nuu-chah-nulth community – had been short-changed, and worse, by European traders. As the number of visiting trading vessels increased, so too had the number of unsavory incidents. The indiscriminate shooting of villagers by drunk or disgruntled traders was becoming almost commonplace and the rape and mistreatment of women even more so.

And so it was with some malevolence that Maquina and his people observed these latest traders as they ferried their trade items back to the waiting ship.

You have been reading an excerpt from INTO THE AMERICAS (A novel based on a true story). To read more go to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Into-Americas-novel-based-story-ebook/dp/B00YJKM51E/

Into the Americas (A novel based on a true story)

 

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