Port Dick near Cook’s Inlet
This work offers a view of the large group of Alutiiq Indians, carried by a fleet of canoes, who were encountered by Captain George Vancouver and his fleet at Port Dick, Alaska, on 16 May 1794. The former are seen, as if from the deck of one of the latter's ships, against the backdrop of a vast wilderness and an immense sky. The ocean, the hills rising to a distant mountain range, and the sky form a series of horizontal bands, one above the other, which are anchored by a single vertical band, implied by the peak of an island (or headland) that juts out of the ocean and by the column of cloud rising above it. The island, which dominates the scene, is carefully rendered: the contours of its face—the rocks, crevices, and ridges—are well defined, and trees can be made out on its surface. A fleet of about 30 canoes are visible—some have just emerged from behind the left-hand side of the island; while, on the right-hand side, others have begun the journey back to shore. But most are moving slowly from the left- to the right-hand side of the design, while their occupants gaze at the newcomers. A few have stood up and, with furs in their hands, are signaling their interest in trade.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
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"Port Dick, near Cook's Inlet" [or "Port Dick, with a fleet of Indian canoes," as it is described in "A List of the Plates"] is taken from the third volume of George Vancouver's A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World (1798), where it faces page 150.
Captain George Vancouver led a 4½ year "Voyage of Discovery," "the longest in the annals of British exploration, covering an estimated 65,000 miles" (Barnett 15)—from England to the Cape of Good Hope, New Holland [Australia], Van Diemen's land [Tasmania], and New Zealand, then the Tahitian and Sandwich [Hawaiian] islands, and the North-West coast of America, before travelling back to England via Cape Horn. The primary tasks of the expedition were "to settle the details of a disagreement between Spain and Britain over who was to have the right to exploit the resources of the Pacific" (Fisher and Johnston 10); survey the North American coast, "from 30° to 60° north latitude" (Lamb, "Vancouver's Charts," 99); and ascertain the existence of any navigable communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans" (Vancouver, title page).
"Port Dick, near Cook's Inlet" depicts a specific moment during this long expedition. On Friday, May 16, 1794, while sailing from Cook's Inlet to Prince William's Sound, Vancouver was surprised to find in these seas a group of Indians in canoes. No doubt they were just as surprised to find him! As "there could not be less than four hundred Indians present," and the majority of these were grown men, Vancouver concluded that the tribe to which they belonged must . . . be a very considerable one." "These good people', he writes, "conducted themselves with great propriety" (3: 150, 151), and
instantly and very willingly entered into trade, and bartered away their hunting and fishing implements, lines and thread, extremely neat and well made from the sinews of animals; with bags ingeniously decorated with needle work, wrought on the thin membrane of the whales intestines (3: 150).This was not an isolated event. Vancouver's survey was conducted from small boats and consequently his cartographic work was punctuated by "constant, if brief, encounters with the many different peoples living on the north-west coast." Vancouver "would eventually come into contact with all of the six major language groups on the north-west coast: Wakashan, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Eyak-Athapaskan and, far to the north, the Chugach" (Rigby, van der Merwe and Williams 106). As Robin Fisher remarks: "The coast was not a new world; its civilizations were as old as Europe's . . . and their cultures were dynamic and evolving at the point of contact" (199; see also Miranda).
Alutiiq People of Southern Alaska.
Captain George Vancouver (1757-98).
Henry Humphrys (sometimes spelled Humphries; 1774-99)—midshipman on the Discovery and eventually master of the Chatham; creator of the sketch on which this image is based (Henry 103).
William Alexander (1767-1816)—the professional artist who was engaged to "improve" Humphrys' sketches.
Benjamin Thomas Pouncy (d. 1799)—engraver.
John Vancouver (d. 1828?)—who prepared A Voyage for publication, with the help of Peter Puget, after the death in May 1798 of his brother George.
Peter Puget (1765-1822), Lieutenant of the DISCOVERY.
Port Dick, Alaska, United States of America
A sketch taken on the spot by Henry Humphrys (May 16, 1794), now held by the Hydrographic Department, Ministry of Defence, Taunton, England. It is reproduced on page 106 of John Frazier Henry's Early Maritime Artists.
This image depicts the encounter between Captain George Vancouver's expedition and a large group of Alutiiq Indians, as it might have been seen from the deck of Vancouver's ship—although it is important to add that the observer is here being observed by the Alutiiq Indians, and that this evokes a point-of-view (and corresponding picture) not captured by Humphrys' sketch, the finished engraving or Vancouver's prose.
The image also takes as its subject the impressive natural landscape that forms the backdrop to this scene: an island (or headland) peak, which dominates the picture; a low range of hills rising to a distant mountain range, its peaks covered with snow; banks and rising columns of clouds, which echo the mountains below. These features provide an objective record of the landscape near Port Dick, while also evoking the "stupendous barrier mountains" that, as Vancouver explains, made it impossible to find, at any point south of Cook's inlet, a "navigable" passage from the west to the east coast of America (3: 505).
On the one hand, this landscape evokes the natural sublime that anchors the world to which the Alutiiq Indians have momentarily emerged and to which they will return. On the other hand, it evokes a land at the furthest reaches of empire, and as such subject to exploration and colonization. The economic opportunities this might entail are flagged by the furs held in the hands of the Indians, a synecdoche for the fur trade described enthusiastically by Vancouver in an appendix to A Voyage (3: 498-500), even though in his account of events at Port Dick he notes with surprise that the Indians did not offer furs for trade. The focus on trade, propriety, landscape, and the unknown, frame the scene in ways likely to appeal to a diverse European audience, and as such problematize the objectivity that the design claims.
This engraving is based on a sketch, created in the moment being depicted, of an encounter with people considered at that time by Europeans to be ‘exotic and mysterious" (Payne 173), who lived in a region (the Pacific) that has been described as "the Eighteenth Century's ‘New World'" (Frost). In this guise it illustrates a narrative characterized by its author, George Vancouver, as "a plain unvarnished" account of "transactions and circumstances as appeared to be worthy of recording by a naval officer," which might instruct, even though it should fail to entertain" (xxix). Much of the significance of the first devolves from its interpolation in the second.
Each of the first three volumes of A Voyage of Discovery include designs, like "Port Dick, near Cook's Inlet," that by re-presenting key events and places mentioned in the narrative, as if they were being viewed from the deck of Vancouver's ship, simulate for readers/viewers the experience of discovery. The Atlas, which comprises the book's fourth volume, extends this effect, by interleaving a sequence of maps of the northwest coast of America, which evoke a sense of global space, with profiles of the same coast, which create a sense of particular place. The play between narrative and view, map and profile, space and place, helps readers/viewers to coordinate Vancouver's actual with their own imagined journey around the globe. The views, profiles, maps, and "unvarnished" narrative that comprise A Voyage of Discovery—its complex interleaving of science and aesthetics, the abstract and the particular, the global and the local—form a paper machine able to conjure a scene so vast it exceeds the ability even of the panorama to encompass.
It is therefore no contradiction to conclude that "Port Dick, near Cook's Inlet" echoes some of the chief preoccupations of Romanticism (a fascination with the natural sublime, non-European cultures, multiple worlds, perspectivism, imagination, the particular, and so on), while also being a work of Enlightenment science, addressed to professional men (navigators, traders, colonists, and so on), which attempts to complete the cartographic work begun by James Cook (1728-79) in his second and third voyages to the Pacific.
This image illustrates Vancouver's written account of the Alutiiq Indians he encountered at Port Dick. At first sight it functions like a photograph—it is a simple snapshot, drawn as accurately as possible, while the event was unfolding. But claims of immediacy and objectivity must be tempered by the knowledge that Henry Humphrys was a midshipman, whose sketch was "improved" and then engraved back in Europe by William Alexander, who took no part in the voyage of discovery, and that the finished design addresses European preoccupations and conforms to a range of European conventions for the representation of natural landscapes and indigenous peoples.
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Crowell, Aron L., Amy F. Steffian, Gordon L. Pullar. Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 2001.
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Fisher, Robin and Hugh Johnston. "Introduction." From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver. Eds. Fisher and Johnston. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993. 6-18.
Frost, Alan. "The Pacific Ocean—the Eighteenth Century's ‘New World'." Captain James Cook: Image and Impact: South Seas Discoveries and the World of Letters. 2 vols. Ed. Walter Veit. Melbourne: Hawthorne Press, 1972-79. 2: 5-32.
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Lamb, W. Kaye. "Vancouver's Charts of The Northwest Coast." Explorations in the History of Canadian Mapping: A Collection of Essays. Eds. Barbara Farrell and Aileen Desbarats. Ottawa: Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives, 1988. 99-111.
Miranda, Louis and Chief Philip Joe. "How the Squamish Remember George Vancouver." From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver. Eds. Robin Fisher and Hugh Johnston. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993. 6-18.
Payne, Anthony. "The Publication and Readership of Voyage Journals in the Age of Vancouver, 1730-1830." Enlightenment and Exploration in the North Pacific, 1741-1805. Eds. Stephen Haycox, James K. Barnett, and Caedmon A. Liburd. Seattle, WA: Published for the Cook Inlet Historical Society in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art by the University of Washington Press, 1997. 176-86.
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Wing, Robert C., with Gordon Newell. Peter Puget: Lieutenant on the Vancouver Expedition, fighting British naval officer, the man for whom Puget Sound was named. Seattle, WA: Gray Beard Pub., 1979.
"Port Dick, near Cook's Inlet." Plate XIII [listed as Plate II in the list of Plates included in this volume] in A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World; in which the coast of North-West America has been carefully examined and accurately surveyed. Undertaken by His Majesty's Command, principally with a view to ascertain the existence of any navigable communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans; and performed in the years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795, in the DISCOVERY Sloop of War, and armed tender CHATHAM, under the command of Captain George Vancouver. In three volumes. London: Printed for G. G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row; and J. Edwards, Pall-Mall, 1798.