William Combe: Writer
Describes Things Not Seen
Combe, whose ghostly activities as amanuensis for books of travel
in North West America was a master of a prose style well suited to
the writer was circumscribed by the rules of debtor's prison to a
narrow area bordering the King's Bench Jail in London, his mind
roamed the world and conjured memorable detail in scenes he had
not actually witnessed.
to this elegant, albeit bankrupt, Estonian as he describes for
John Meares the launch of The North West America, the
first vessel to go down the ways in the Pacific Northwest. The
year was 1789, the place Friendly Cove on Nootka Sound.
"The presence of
the Americans, Robert Gray and the crew of the Lady Washington
ought to be considered when we are describing this important
crisis which, from the labor that produced it, the scene that
surrounded it, the spectators that beheld it, and the commercial
advantages, as well ad civilizing ideas, connected with it, will
attach some little consequence to its proceeding, in the mind of
the philosopher, as well as in the view of the politician.
was not of long duration.On the firing of a gun the vessel started
from the waves like a shot. Indeed she went off with so much
velocity, that she nearly made her way out of the harbor; for the
fact was that not being very much accustomed to this business, we
had forgotten to place an anchor and cable on board to bring her
up. The boats, however, soon towed her to her intended station.
"Tianna (a six
foot five inch Hawaiian prince who Meares was taking back to the
island from China) was on board the vessel at the time of her
being launched; he not only saw but may be said to have felt the
operation as it if had been the work of enchantment, and expressed
astonishment by capering about, clapping his hands and exclaiming,
"myty, myty," the word most expressive in the language
of the Sandwich Islands to convey wonder, approbation and delight.
carpenters who had helped assemble the vessel were in almost equal
degree of astonishment. Nor were the natives of the Sound, who
were present at the ceremony less impressed by a series of
operations, the simplest of which was far above their
comprehension. In short, this business did not fail to raise us
still higher in their good opinion, and to afford them better and
more correct notions than they hitherto possessed of the
superiority of civilized over savage life."
racial attitudes, of course, were those of Georgian England. They
show up again in a passage from his other famous work on the
Northwest, "Mackenzies Voyages," in which he describes a
wild run down a tributary of the Fraser on June 13, 1793.
pushed off, and had proceeded but a very short way when the canoe
struck, and notwithstanding all our exertions, the violence of the
current was so great as to drive her sideways down the river, and
break her by the first bar.
"We had hardly
regained our situation when we drove against a rock which
shattered the stern of the canoe in such a manner that it held
only by the gunwales, so that the steersman could no longer keep
his place. The violence of this stroke drove us to the opposite
side of the river which is but narrow, when the bow met the same
fate as the stern.
"At this moment
the foreman seized on some branches of a small tree in the hope of
bringing up the canoe, but such was their elasticity that in a
manner not easily described, he was jerked on shore in an
instance, and with a degree of violence that threatened his
"We had no time
to turn from our won situation to inquire what had befallen him;
for in a few moments we came across a cascade which broke several
large holes in the bottom of the canoe and started up all the
bars, except one behind the scooping seat.
accident, however, had not happened, the vessel must have been
irretrievably overset. The wreck becoming flat on the water, we
all jumped out, while the steersman who had not recovered from his
fright called out to his companions to save themselves.
superseded the effects of his fear, and they all held fast to the
wreck; to which fortunate resolutely we owed our safety, as we
should otherwise have been dashed against the rocks by the force
of the water, or driven over the cascades.
"We were forced
several hundred yards, ever hard on the verge of destruction, but
at length arrived in shallow water and a small eddy, where we were
enabled to make a stand. This alarming scene with all its terrors
and dangers occupied only a few minutes, and in the present
suspension of it, we called to the people on shore to come to our
"The foreman had
escaped unhurt from the extraordinary jerk with which he was
thrown out of the boat, and just as we were beginning to take our
effects out of the water he appeared to give his assistance. The
Indians, when they saw our deplorable situation, instead of making
the least effort to help us, sat down and gave vent to their