Inspired by Civilisations: First Contact

In the first of two episodes presented by David Olusoga, the latest instalment of BBC’s Civilisations explored the moments in history where Europe first encountered other cultures across the world. These interactions, some peaceful, others destructive, had lasting impacts on global civilisations, sparking artistic energy and developments inspired by these encounters.

A new display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will explore the encounters and actions that remade Scotland’s place in the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Examining the lives and careers of Scots during this first age of globalisation, it will look at their influence and achievements while also confronting the darker and more controversial side of this complex and sometimes troubling period.

One of the works included in the display is a portrait by the Scottish painter Alexander Nasmyth of John Sakeouse, an Inuit who settled in Scotland in the early nineteenth century. The story behind this portrait is one of migration, settlement and cultural exchange.

Alexander Nasmyth, John Sakeouse, 1792 - 1819, About 1816

Originally from Jacob Sound on the coast of the Davis Strait in Greenland, John Sakeouse came to Scotland in 1816, having stowed away on the British ship Thomas and Ann . Accounts state that he was interested in travelling to Britain to learn the English language, intending to become a missionary. The ship docked in Leith in August of that year and the young man immediatley became a source of curiosity for the local population.

Although this event was not the first time an Inuit had travelled to Scotland, it is undoubtedly the first documented example where they had come of their own free will. From the 16th century onward there are documented cases of Inuit  people being abducted by Europeans as ‘scientific’ specimens and exhibited in Norway, Denmark and Holland. The Greenland Company of Denmark were even instructed in 1636 to supply Denmark with “a pair of young persons, born in this country, about 16, 18 or 20, whom one could here teach the fear of God, language and literary skills to the salvation and welfare of the said land for all time”. There are also accounts of British sailors abducting Inuit people; Martin Frobisher’s expedition to the Arctic region brought captives to England in 1577.

Despite bans on the practice which were in place by the 1720’s, abductions continued. However, when nearing their home ports,sailors would put captives over the side in a kayak to avoid punishment from the authorities. Such actions could explain cases of Inuit encounters and sightings in Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeen during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fortunately for John Sakeouse, his experiences were far more favourable than that of the captives who preceded him. He settled into the Leith community, drawing crowds to the harbour who were interested in the young Inuit and his prowess on the water, as reported by the Edinburgh Courant in September 1816:

His celebrity status led to the engraver Amelia Anderson making portrait drawings of him, which were engraved and made available for sale shortly after his arrival. He met Alexander Nasmyth the following year, soon after the artist had been commissioned to produce pictures of Inuit costume. Arrangements were made for John to sit for a portrait by Nasmyth, for which he travelled from Leith to Edinburgh. During these sittings, Nasmyth was made aware of John’s own skill in drawing and painting, offering him lessons. Other Scots provided help with teaching John in English and writing in exchange for lessons in the Inuit language.

Nasmyth also helped secure John a place on the 1818 Ross expedition to locate the North West Passage. As well as being a valued translator and mediator, he also painted a series of watercolours which later illustrated Captain Ross’s account of the expedition.

Amelia Anderson & William Home Lizars and Daniel Lizars John Sakeouse, 1797-1819. Eskimo whaler and draughtsman About 1816
After John Sakeouse, First communication with the natives of Prince Regents Bay, dated 1818.
Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich, Licensed (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

After the expedition, John spent some time in London but soon returned to his adoptive home in Leith. Tragically, he died a few months later of typhoid at the age of 22. The exact site of his burial in Leith is unknown, yet this portrait remains to testify to his fascinating life and this positive encounter between the Inuit and the Scots.

The Remaking of Scotland | Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860, opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in June 2018. Admission Free.

Civilisations continues on BBC2, Thursdays at 9PM.

5 April 2018