WALKER, Alexander

Author Tags: 1700-1800

"The Savage, who is nevertheless dishonest, pretends to be Scrupulous, and exact in his dealings." -- Alexander Walker

Ensign Alexander Walker sailed with Captain James Charles Stewart Strange to Nootka Sound eight years after Captain Cook’s visit. As fur traders, only James Hanna had preceded them in 1785. “While Strange’s Journal is concerned with trade and self-justification,” editors Robin Fisher and J.M. Bumsted have suggested that, “Walker’s account is the product of the scientific curiosity that brought so many explorers to the Pacific.” Some of the Chinook vocabulary that evolved along the Pacific Coast can be traced to the initial contacts between the Nuu-chah-nulth and the first efforts to communicate by interpreters such as Walker in 1785. His original journal was lost but he reconstructed his account between 1813 and 1831. That work remained unpublished until 1982. Re-discovered in the Scottish National Library in the late 20th century, the diaries reflect Walker’s sometimes condescending perspective in 1785 and 1786 as he struggled to bridge the language barrier amid earnest efforts to learn.

“[Nootka],” he believed, “is nearly... deficient in pronouns, and entirely wants the Article. For instance, Mokquilla [Chief Maquinna]... in place of expressing himself in this way, I killed a Sea Otter, he would say, Mokquilla kakhsheetl quotluk, Mokquilla kill Sea Otter. The want of personal pronouns is sometimes supplied by signs. We often observed these People at a loss for words to explain their sentiments, particularly in subjects that were not immediately before their senses, or when they talked of past or future events. We may trace in those circumstances the speech and simplicity of Infants. A Savage is Man in a state of Infancy. These Americans speak in short sentences, and one word seems frequently to express a compleat proposition. They showed no desire to become acquainted with any more of our language than the words, Copper and Iron. But they were prevented from acquiring even these, by a total inability of pronouncing the letter R; in place of which they already substituted L.”

Walker’s transcriptions into English of the dialect known as Mowachaht are accurate enough to allow contemporary speakers of the language to identify most of the words he recorded. For example, Kishkiltup is strawberry; Klooweekmubt is tasteless red berry; Takna is child; Keymeess is blood; Wakoo is urine. More than a dozen Nuu-chah-nulth dialects are spoken between Bamfield and Cape Cook on Vancouver Island. The two Nuu-chah-nulth groups at Nootka Sound were the Mowachaht and the Muchalaht. The Vancouver Island Tribal Council adopted the name Nuu-chah-nulth in 1980 to refer to all indigenous people who have inhabited the west coast of Vancouver Island. It means "all along the mountains."

Walker's journal also contains one of the earliest written accusations that some of Maquinna's people were cannibals. He, like other sailors and traders, was offered a severed hand as an item of great value. After Walked enquired as to its purpose, the woman offering the hand bit into Walker's arm. Spanish and English expeditions often recorded how the legs and arms of children were brought to their ships for sale. Walker surmised cannibalism at Nootka was not "for the sake of food" but "was apparently confined to the devouring their Enemies and probably some choice bits only were selected." Historian and editor Robin Fisher has concluded, "Clearly the Nootka did engage in ritual cannibalism for dramatic effect. Arm biting and the display of hands and skulls of slain enemies were all part of Nootka ceremonial. But this does not mean that human flesh was actually devoured."

Alexander Walker was born on May 12, 1764 in Fife, Scotland, the eldest of five children, and the son of a Church of Scotland minister who died in 1771. Although he was able to attend university, the poverty of his family forced him to work as a cadet for the East India Company. Promoted to Ensign in 1782, he fought versus Hyder Ali in Malabar, distinguishing himself when he offered to surrender as a hostage. Walker was encouraged to accompany James Strange's proposed expedition by the Bombay Council. He later wrote, "I thought that I could not employ myself better, than visiting a Country little known, which might afford many objects of curiousity." Walker was not much impressed by his captain but refrained from overtly criticizing Strange in his journal. Walker later had a distinguised career as a soldier and administrator in India, participating in a campaign to eradicate female infanticide with the governor of Bombay. He matured into a scholar of Hinduism, publishing several papers, and increasingly defending the rights of indigenous peoples. He passed a decade in retirement on an estate in the Scottish Border Country before serving as Governor of St. Helena (1822-1828). He died in 1831.

[Also see Charles Bishop entry]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
An Account of a Voyage to the North West Coast of America in 1785 & 1786


An Account of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America in 1785 & 1786 by Alexander Walker (D&M 1982). Edited by Robin Fisher and J.A. Bumsted

[Photo: Friendly Cove from the air]

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "1700-1800" "Chinook"