Horrifying, Deadly... Complicated
Here is what happened that evening, according to the original Journal kept by John R.
After dinner the captain made him a present of a double barrel musket, with which he was much delighted and went on shore. Our people were employed as usual until [a few days later] when the chief came on board with nine pair of ducks as a present to the captain, and told him that the double barrel musket was not a good one and that he had broken the lock; Captain Salter was very angry, called him a liar, took the musket and threw it down into the cabin. The chief returned to the shore very angry and the captain took no more notice of what had happened.
That was his first mistake. It was not long after this angry encounter that Maquinna returned to the ship; Captain Salter having completely forgotten about the gun incident....
Nootka Spirit Bird Mask
Maquinna came alongside with a considerable number of his chiefs and men in their canoes. He had a whistle in his hand, and over his face a very ugly mask of wood representing the head of some wild beast. He appeared to be remarkably good humoured and gay, and whilst his people sung and capered about the deck, entertaining us with a variety of antic tricks and gestures, he blew his whistle to a kind of tune which seemed to regulate their motions.
All of this seeming entertainment was actually a ceremonial preparation for the revenge massacre that would soon follow, taking the captain and crew of the Boston completely by surprise. Unbeknownst to the white men who were ignorant and even condescending toward Indian cultures, it was traditional to utilize masks as a bridge to the spirit world. In their belief system, a mask enabled the wearer to shift between the earthly and spirit worlds, thus gaining the extraordinary power needed for success in such things as war, hunting, healing.
Nootka Wolf Mask
The natives seized every man and likewise the captain, threw him over the quarter deck, and killed every man with his own knife taken out of his pocket, and cut off their heads and threw their bodies overboard. Hearing a noise on deck, I went and got my musket, and ascending the stairs was caught by the hair of the head, by three of the natives. One of them struck at me with an axe and cut my forehead, but having short hair, their hands slipt and I fell down the steerage. The Chief, observing it was me, told them all not to hurt me, for that I was an armourer and would be of great service to him. I lay in a depolorable state being very weak in consequence of the loss of blood from the cut I received. After they had ... murdered the men that were in the boat they brought their heads which amounted to twenty-five and placed then in a right line on the quarter deck. ... The chief called me on deck and told me that I must be his slave and work for him and he would spare my life to which I of course assented. The chief then told me to look at all the people's heads that were placed in a line at which sight the reader can better imagine what were my feelings than I can describe them.
Nootka Mask (Courtesy of Bonhams Fine Art Auction House)
This most horrifying and deadly part of the story does not need any elaboration from the narrative version and is told most starkly and powerfully by the journal's direct and minimal description. As John says, it would be impossible to put into words, the horror that he felt that day seeing his captain's and his crewmates' bloody heads, and being forced by Maquinna to identify them excruciatingly, one at a time, all the while knowing that his immediate fate was to become a prisoner and slave of Maquinna.
He must have wondered if this was a fate worse than death. But at that very moment, survival was all that John could think about. He was adaptable and a good communicator; the dim hope of escape was out there on the horizon; he knew he would have to use all his resources and keep his wits about him. He couldn't know that it would be nearly three years spent amongst the Nootka tribe, where he would learn their ways and essentially become one of them, even as his only goal was to get away from them.
It was going to get complicated.
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