MACKAY, John




Author Tags: 1700-1800, Alcohol, First Nations

If anyone was ever in an ideal position to provide a reliable opinion as to whether or not the Mowachaht ate human flesh beyond ritualistic (symbolic) cannibalism, it was John MacKay—the first European to learn that Vancouver Island is an island and also a man who has been described as the first resident practicing physician on the Northwest Coast.

Captured by Maquinna in the early 19th century, the famous John Jewitt (‘White Slave of the Nootka’) was not the first year-round European resident of British Columbia. That distinction belongs to MacKay, a surgeon’s assistant aboard a 350-ton trading vessel from Bombay called the Captain Cook, commanded by Henry Laurie. It reached Nootka Sound in 1786 along with the 100-ton Experiment, commanded Henry Guise. Both these ships were under the direction of James Strange, who raised the flag of King George III and claimed the land for the British Crown.

Sometimes referred to as an Irishman, or an Irish-born Scot, MacKay arrived at Nootka on June 27, 1786. Due to an illness described as ‘purple fever’, MacKay was left behind to live with the Mowachaht Chief Maquinna in 1786-87. According to the journal of James Strange, Maquinna promised that "my doctor should eat the Choicest Fish, the Sound produced; and that on my return, I should find him, as fat as a Whale."

MacKay also opted to stay at Nootka Sound because he had somehow managed to cure Maquinna’s only daughter Apenas of a ‘scabby disease.’ Initially the grateful Maquinna ensured the quasi-physician was well-treated. MacKay regained his health and initially adapted well. Supplied with two goats, some seeds, an impressive red uniform and a gun, MacKay was given ink and paper to record ‘every Occurrence, however trivial, which might serve to throw any Light on our hitherto confined knowledge of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Government of these people’. But the first amateur ethnologist in B.C. proved inadequate to the task after elderly Chief Kurrigham tore up his writing materials. MacKay nonetheless felt sufficiently well-entrenched, having been promised a wife by Maquinna, to decline an offer from Captain Hanna in 1786 to leave Nootka Sound ahead of schedule. MacKay told Hanna that he was confident his supercargo James Strange would make the necessary arrangements to retrieve him, as promised.

MacKay should have accepted Captain Hanna's offer. MacKay allowed the Mowachaht to dismantle his musket, then he was unable to retrieve the pieces. “Deprived of this powerful Weapon of respect,” Alexander Walker reported, “he became less formidable, and less secure.” More trouble arose when he unwittingly stepped over the cradle of Maquinna's child, thereby breaking a local taboo. MacKay was beaten and banished for weeks. When Maquinna's infant died, MacKay was exiled from Maquinna’s house to survive on his own. “It was impossible after this,” reported Walker, “to recover the Confidence and esteem of Mokquilla.” When the village moved for the winter, MacKay was barely able to feed himself. MacKay was reportedly reduced to a daily meal of seven dried herrings' heads washed down with whale oil. He ate the seeds in his possession and came down with the 'bloody flux'.

In the spring, still ostracized, and forced to adopted native dress, he mainly had dealings with women and children. “His Skill in Medicine stood him in little stead,” said Walker. “This Profession too was in the Hands of their Women, whose knowledge of Simples and Herbs, Mackoy mentioned to be extensive.” MacKay witnessed a horrible massacre of about 12 captive men on the beach, later described at length by Walker when the two men met in Bombay.

Upon the arrival of the Imperial Eagle in June of 1787, MacKay reportedly looked and smelled so much like an Aboriginal that Captain Charles Barkley's wife, Frances Barkley, shunned his company. To escape privation, MacKay gladly agreed to serve as Captain Barkley's guide, translator and sales agent to help him acquire sea otter furs. MacKay reportedly looked and smelled so much like an Indian that Frances Barkley, the Captain's wife, shunned him. Trading went well. Trouble only arose when two more English ships arrived at Friendly Cove about one month later and discovered that Barkley had obtained the best pelts at the best prices. Having embarked from England before the Imperial Eagle had left Ostend, the crews of both the Prince of Wales and the sloop Princess Royal were already feeling disadvantaged. Both ships had been delayed due to scurvy. The captains of the Prince of Wales and the sloop Princess Royal were not charitably disposed to learn the Imperial Eagle had not only been renamed and refitted at a foreign port, it was flying under Austrian colors to avoid paying the high fees demanded by the monopoly of the East Indian Company. Taking umbrage, Captains Colnett and Duncan noted the fundamental role that MacKay had played at their expense. The brother of the owner of the Prince of Wales, a certain 'Mr. Etches', was on board the expedition, in charge of cargo, and it was Etches who reported to Captain George Dixon about MacKay's complicity. Upon hearing the news of illegal trading, Dixon felt obliged to take MacKay back to Canton in irons, and charge him with poaching—if he could catch him.

Captain George Dixon's journal recorded the biased views of 'Mr. Etches.' about John MacKay. “His name is John M'Key; he was born in Ireland... The Sea Otter under Captain Hanna, from China, arrived at King George's Sound in August, 1786, and that Captain Hanna offered to take him on board, which he refused, alledging, that he began to relish dried fish and whale oil, was satisfied with his way of life, and perfectly contented to stay 'till next year, when he had no doubt of Mr. Strange sending for him: that Captain Hanna left the Sound in September. That the natives had stripped him of his cloaths, and obliged him to adopt their mode of dress and filthiness of manners; and that he was now a perfect master of their language, and well acquainted with their temper and disposition. He had made frequent incursions into the interior parts of the country about King George's Sound, and did not think any part of it was the Continent of America, but a chain of detached islands... Mr. Etches (from whom I had this intelligence) assured me that no great dependence could be placed on M'Key's story, he being a very ignorant young fellow, and frequently contradicting himself; but that entire credit might be given to that part of it respecting his adopting his manners of the natives, as he was equally slovenly and dirty with the filthiest of them all. His knowledge of the language was greatly short of what he boasted; neither was he very contented in his situation, for he gladly embraced Captain Berkley's offer of taking him on board, and seemed delighted to think he was going to leave so uncomfortable a place: however, admitting him to be possessed of but an ordinary capacity, he certainly must be better acquainted with the people here, from more than a year's residence amongst them, than any occasional visitor could possibly be; and there can be no doubt but that Captain Barkley found him extremely useful in managing his traffic with the natives.”

MacKay was never prosecuted by Captain Dixon. He succeeded in reaching the Orient with Captain Barkley, then made his way to India. One of his former shipmates, Alexander Walker, found him in Bombay in 1788, much the worse for wear, a shattered man besotted with alcoholism. Nonetheless MacKay was the first European to reside with at Nootka during an entire winter when the Mowachaht held their most important ceremonies at Tahsis, so Walker sought whatever information he could gain. Walker reported, “He was of the opinion that they did not actually devour their captives and slain enemies. They only washed their hands in their blood and tasted it. The dried hands he insisted were preserved as trophies and charms... The testimony of McKoy [MacKay] must be admitted of superior weight to our cursory observations and it at least leaves the fact in doubt whether these people are really cannibals.”

A less than sympathetic interviewer, Alexander Walker contrived the following recollection of his conversation with MacKay in Bombay.

Q: How long did the Savages remain at Friendly Village after the departure of the Vessel?

A: The Savages remained about three weeks at the Village, after the departure of the Vessels from the Sound.

Q: Whither did they proceed after they quitted the Village?

A: They directed their course up the Sound, about Thirty Miles, distant from where the Vessels were Moored.

Q: When did they return to the Village?

A: They returned no more to the Village at the Mouth of the Sound until the Close of the ensuing Winter.

Q: What motives had they for leaving the Sea Coast?

A: Their motives for leaving the Sea Coast were to provide a more comfortable retreat in the Winter, and also to supply themselves with a large kind of Fish resembling make and size a Salmon, which came up the Rivers to Spawn, and which they take in vast quantities; it is these Fish when Smoke dried without Salt, and Porpoise Oil, that constitute their Food when the Severity of the Season will not admit of their going out of doors. Their Amusements are few, and may be considered rather Trials of Strength than of Skill.

Q: What Animals did the choose to obtain on their hunting incursions?

A: The Animals most commonly taken on their hunting parties are Bear, Mousedeer, Racoon, and Martin. The Skin of which is next in Estimation to that of the Sea Otter; the Bear is harpoon’d, and some times intraped, which is done by placing a double row of Stones about 2 feet High in a Semicircular form with a cross bar in the Centre, which falls on his Neck when he pulls the bait that is made fast to it by a string, at which time they take the advantage to rush out in a body and soon dispatch him.

Q: How do they catch the Sea Otter?

A: The Sea Otter is exceedingly shy and confined to the Water. Its’ food is on Fish; when it is wounded by the Arrow his utmost endeavours are to free himself from it, while in the mean time the Natives strike him with a harpoon before he goes down under the Water.

Q: What became of the Goats left with you?

A: The Goats left me by Mr. Strange died during the Inclemency of the Season for want of Food.

Q: What Accidents befell you during the time you staid among these People?

A: I was taken ill about the Middle of October with a flux, which continued for near 3 Weeks, and before I had regained my strength was attacked with a putrid Fever, which I cannot with any degree of certainty tell how long it lasted, being deprived of my Senses, nor do I know in what manner the Natives had treated me.

The diseases in general with which they died of arose from indigestion, the Women especially are more subject to Complaints in the Bowels than either Men or Children, (which I suppose proceeds from eating heartily and taking little exercise).

Q: Can you give an Account of any Institutions which appeared to you remarkable?

A: Their Marriage Ceremonies are performed by addressing the Chief of the district to which they belong at the same time accompanied by a small present, (of either Copper or Iron) informing him of the object of choice which he fails not to [procure] them. Their Women seldom or ever prove incontinent to their Husbands, nor <….> do I think in case they did so would it make any material difference to them. They believe in a future state of existence.

Q: Did the Women appear under restraint in the particular above mentioned?

A: I am well convinced the Modesty of their Women proceeds rather from a Principal of the Mind, than a fear of their Husbands.

It is an uncommon Circumstance for Girls to be [naked] before Marriage.

BOOKS (concerning MacKay)

A Voyage Round the World: But More Particularly to the North West Coast of America (London, 1789). Published by George Dixon.

Strange, James. James Strange's Journal and Narrative of the Commercial Expedition from Bombay to the Northwest Coast of America with an Introduction By A. V. Venkatarama Ayyar (Madras, India: Government Record Office, 1928).

Strange, James. Records Of Fort St. George James Strange's Journal And Narrative Of The Commercial Expedition From Bombay To The Northwest Coast Of America (Seattle: Shorey, 1972). Reprint.

Strange, James; Hosie, John; Howay, F.W.; Ayyar, A. V. Venkatarama. James Strange's Journal And Narrative Of The Commercial Expedition From Bombay To The Northwest Coast Of America (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1982). Reprint.

Walker, Alexander. An Account of a Voyage to the North West Coast of America in 1785 & 1786 (Douglas & McIntyre, University of Washington Press, 1982). Reprint.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2004]"Irish"