Tag Archives: Peter Kalm

Kalm cracks wise about the Irish

I finally finished Peter Kalm’s narrative about his two year trip through the American colonies.  In almost 700 pages, Kalm covers a wide range of subjects but one thing that’s missing is any hint of humor.

Then, out of the blue, he writes this in between a discussion of changes of the Swedish language in the colonies and the introduction of an Indian Catechism among the native population:

“Irish Bull.”  An Irishman had recently written a letter to a fellow countryman, in which he had also enclosed a copy of the same letter, with the postscript that he was sending both, for fear that in these troublous times one might be lost, and it the original didn’t arrive the copy might.

Where did this cheap shot come from?  There’s nothing else in Kalm’s work that suggests he had something personal against the Irish but he also doesn’t present this as something he heard from others.  Someone at work suggested that perhaps the typesetter of the document was English and figured he could sneak a jab at the Irish in without anyone noticing.

Scaring the bejeezus out of Kalm

More on Peter Kalm and his travels through North America:

October 22, 749.  Here, Peter and some companions (French guides who he had never met before) were traveling through the wilds of Northern New York, returning from a trip to the French colony of Canada and on his way back to Philadelphia.  The weather was extremely unhelpful, delaying the waterborne portion of his trip for days.  I imagine sitting around in the same uninhabited area for days at a time, while the days are getting shorter and colder, among people who you are barely acquainted with and knowing that there remains a long way to go to the next settlement would begin to wear on anyone’s nerves.

Tales of Horror. During the evenings my companions were busy telling one another how they had gone forth in the last  war to attack the English; how they had had Indians among and how they had beaten to death the enemy and scalped him.  They also told how the natives often scalped the enemy while he was still alive; how they did the same thing with prisoners who were too weak to follow them, and of other gruesome deeds which it was horrible for me to listen to in these wildernesses, where the forests were now full of Indians who to-day might be at peace with one another and to-morrow at war, killing and beating to death whomsoever they could steal upon.  A little while ago there was a crackling sound in the woods just as if something had walked or approached slowly in order to steal upon us.  Almost everyone arose to see what was the matter, but we heard nothing more.  It was said that we had just been talking about scalping and that we could suffer the same fate before we were aware of it.  The long autumn nights are rather terrifying in these vast wildernesses.  May God be with us!

I can almost picture Kalm sitting around the fire with his compatriots, scribbling away furiously in his notes and trying like hell not to hear the stories about ambushes in the middle of the night and scalping the unsuspecting.  I’m guessing he didn’t sleep that well that night.

Kalm’s ghost story

This continues my occasional writing about Peter Kalm‘s (the 18th century Swedish botanist, naturalist and blogger*) travels in the American colonies between 1748-1750.  Given we’re fast approaching the Halloween season, I thought it appropriate to bring the one instance (so far) of Kalm’s reporting on the supernatural in his wonderful book.

The following is an excerpt he made from some newspaper archives he reviewed while in Philadelphia during the winter of 1749.

A Curious Phenomenon.  The American Weekly Mercury N. 122, Newport, Phode Island, March 30, 1722.  There has lately a surprising appearance been seen at Narraganset, which is the occasion of much discourse here, and is variously represented; but for the substance of it, it is a matter of fact beyond dispute, it having been seen by abundance of people, and one night about 20 persons at the same time, who came together for that purpose.  The truth, as near as we can gather from the relations of several persons, is as follows.  This last winter there was a woman died at Narraganset of the small pox, and since she was buried, there has appeared, upon her grave chiefly, and in various other places, a bright light as the appearance of fire.  This appearance commonly begins about 9 or 10 of the clock at night, and sometimes as soon as it was dark.  It appears variously as to time, place, shape and magnitude, but commonly on or about the grave, and sometimes about and upon the barn and trees adjacent; sometimes in several parts, but commonly in one entire body.  The first appearance is commonly small, bbut increases to a great bigness and brightness, so that in a dark night they can see the grass and bark of the trees very plainly; and when it is at the height, they can see sparks fly from the appearance like sparks of fire, and the lieness of a person in the midst wrapt in a sheet with its arms folded.  This appearance moves with incredible swiftness, sometimes the distance of a half a mile from one place to another in the twinkling of an eye.  It commonly appears every night, and continues till break of day.  A woman in that neighbourhood says she has seen it every night for these six weeks past.

*I say Kalm was a blogger only slightly tongue in cheek.  It seems to be a stylistic method of writing (in days long past) that incorporates many of the same techniques that now are regarded as a model for good blog writing.  I’m also thinking of the letters of the younger Pliny and some of the works of Machiavelli in this category but I’m sure there are scads of such works.

If I’m correct, I wonder if this might lead to a resurgence of interest in the style of writing and therefore and increase in reading such works.  Gee, that would be great.

Kalm digs chicks from Montreal

Peter Kalm’s memoirs continue to entertain.  In between talking about lead and silver ore deposits and lime kilns, he has a two page diversion describing Canadian women.  Apparently, living up to all the negative stereotypes about the French, they take a great deal of pleasure laughing at everyone who doesn’t speak the language fluently.  But then he gets to some good stuff:

One of the first questions they [Canadian women] put to a stranger is whether he is married; the next, how he likes the ladies in the country, and whether he things them handsomer than those of his own country; and the third, whether he will take one home with him.

Wow.  Sounds like Canada was a happenin’ place.  But, hold on there cowboy.  Don’t go picking up the first girl who bats her eyes and sends an ‘Oh, la la‘ your way.  According to Kalm:

There are some differences between the ladies of Quebec and those of Montreal; those of the latter place seemed to be generally handsomer than those of the former…The ladies of Quebec, especially the unmarried ones, are not very industrious.  A girl of eighteen is reckoned very poorly off if she cannot enumerate at least twenty lovers.

So, if anyone ever perfects a time machine, buy a ticket and set it for Montreal circa 1749.

Don’t mess with the Esquimaux

I’m still reading Peter Kalm’s journal of his extended travels through colonial America and I continue to find interesting bits of information throughout.  Case in point, his treatment of the Inuits, or as he calls them, the Esquimaux.  Apparently they were not much liked by either Europeans or other Native Americans.

He says that in Esquimaux lands…

“…it is not advisable for Europeans to go on shore, unless they be numerous, for the Esquimaux are false and treacherous and cannot suffer strangers amongst them.  If they find themselves too weak, they run away at the approach of strangers; but if they think they are an over-match for them, they kill all that come in their way, without leaving a single one alive.”

“If they [Europeans] are ship-wrecked on the Esquimaux coasts, they may as well be drowned in the sea as come safe to the shore…[t]he European boats and ships which the Esquimaux get into their power are immediately cut to pieces and robbed of all their nails and other iron…”

Now, Kalm is no knee-jerk anti-Indian who believes that ‘the only good injun is a dead injun.’  He has spent numerous time discussing the positive attributes of various aspects of Native American culture (with the exception of their living quarters which he describes as overwhelmed with fleas, bed bugs and other stinging insects) and compares without prejudice, the Europeans who have adopted the Native American lifestyle and the dearth of interest among Native Americans in taking up the lifestyle and culture of Europeans.  So, I have to reject the idea that Kalm is attempting to stir up emotions in order to rally some sort of anti-Inuit pogrom.

I also find it interesting that this perception about the Inuits was also shared by many Native Americans.

“This inhuman proceeding of the Esquimaux against all strangers is the reason why none of the Indians of North America ever give quarter to the Esquimaux if they meet them, but kill them on the spot, though they frequently pardon their other enemies, and incorporate the prisoners with their nation.”

Inuit territory wasn’t particularly welcoming to Europeans so I can’t imagine that there would have been much demand to colonize their land even if they were friendly.  I wonder however, if their hostility was an additional factor in allowing them to get a better outcome than Native American populations that got decimated while being pushed across the country.  Does violence pay off when two cultures meet?