Two weeks ago in Edinburgh’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery, I sought out a painting I have long wanted to see. Amidst the elaborately attired kings and queens, politicians, scientists and poets is the image of a young man in a sealskin suit holding an upright harpoon. He is neither Scots-born nor of Scots descent, but an Inuk born in Greenland. He is also probably the only former stowaway among the Portrait Gallery’s luminaries,
His name is John Sakeouse, and he was – from the time of his arrival in Edinburgh’s port of Leith until his death – one of the city’s best loved and most celebrated citizens. Fittingly, his portrait in the Gallery hangs at eye-level so that we seem to greet him face to face. His gaze is clear and far-seeing, the set of his head proud. That he feels very much present to us is in large part due to the skill of the artist, Alexander Nasmyth, who was Sakeouse’s friend and teacher.
By the time the two met, Sakeouse was already a man of rare accomplishment and daring. He was born in Disko Bay off the Davis Strait where British and Dutch whalers took anchorage each year. An expert hunter and kayaker, he was baptized by resident missionaries who likely encouraged his skills as a draughtsman. But at age 18, distraught because the mother of the woman he loved would not consent to their marriage, he turned his back on his home and set out to sea in his kayak. He may have been obsessed with the idea of becoming a qivittoq, the Greenland Inuit word for a man stripped of his name and his past life, a solitary wanderer who communes only with animals and spirits. He was lovelorn, in despair and seeking a kind of living death upon the open sea.
That fate was transformed by the sudden appearance of a whaling ship, The Thomas and Ann, on her return journey to Leith. His decision to smuggle himself and his 16-pound kayak on board must have been instantaneous. He was probably helped by seamen on the whaler sympathetic to his plight.
There is a variation of his story that has Sakeouse boarding The Thomas and Ann in secret while it was still anchored at Disko Bay. But it is the first version – of a man severed from the woman he loves, engulfed in despair, vowing his own isolation from all humankind – that I find most satisfying. All that follows in his life, the vast distances he traversed geographically, socially and psychologically, demands a generative myth at its heart. By throwing off the crabbed, alien existence of the qivittoq, he opened his own horizon to a world in which he would find fame and an ancient city’s undying affection.
When Captain John Newton discovered the stowaway, he was so impressed by the young man’s desire to study drawing and see the country from which the missionaries came, he agreed to take him. It was in the waters of Leith harbour that John Sakeouse first captivated the people of Edinburgh soon after his arrival. Captain Newton helped him advertise displays of his nautical skills, and the money collected covered the cost of his lodging and food. Hundreds of residents of Edinburgh attended these events, enthralled by Sakeouse’s speed in the kayak, his ability to roll it “turning turtle”, and re-emerge immediately unharmed. His mastery of the bird dart and harpoon drew gasps from the elegantly dressed women who came to watch and from the men and boys who thronged the roofs of the harbour buildings for a better view. He could spear and split a ship’s biscuit bobbing on the waves at 30 yards.
In September he won a taxing race against six oarsmen in a whaling boat. With his exceptional strength and muscular build, he was able to complete the 10-mile course in just 16 minutes, far outstripping his competitors.
A genial and modest man, he soon fitted into his new home. He loved to walk, exploring the world of the harbour and the streets of Edinburgh. I imagine him striding the Royal Mile from the Castle on its volcanic base down to the Palace of Holyrood where Mary Queen of Scots once danced. I see him in the Grassmarket smiling at the shepherds, then wandering up through the Cowgate and the grounds of Greyfriars Kirkyard. He climbs Calton Hill and the escarpment of Arthur’s Seat for the aerial views of the city’s soaring spires that lure the eye to look ever farther beyond.
Compared with the tiny community of Disko Bay with its scattered wooden homes, Edinburgh must have seemed to him at first overwhelmingly vast and disorienting, its stone buildings wider and taller than the greatest of the ships he had seen. Because he was a brave and adventurous man, he sailed through this disorientation, as sleekly as in his kayak. In this case, he sailed by walking.
It was on one of those walks that Sakeouse met Alexander Nasmyth who offered to give him drawing lessons. Nasmyth painted Sakeouse wearing his sealskin jacket and with a look of the open sea in his eyes. Sakeouse was in fact soon to find himself once again sailing the waters of the Davis Strait. Another of his Edinburgh friends, the eminent scientist Sir John Hall, recommended him to the British Admiralty as an interpreter on the 1818 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Sakeouse agreed to go, but only on condition he not be left in Greenland, but allowed to return to Edinburgh. He sailed on commander Captain John Ross’s flagship Isabella, as a paid supernumerary.
Although Captain Ross failed to find the elusive passage to the Pacific, his expedition was a success of in terms of mapping and discovery. For his part, Sakeouse bravely fulfilled his mission, going out on to the ice alone to meet with a group of northern Greenland Inuit − the Inughuit – who were alarmed by the apparition of the expedition’s ships. He approached the group bearing gifts and two white flags. The Inuit brandished their hunting knives, threatening to kill him. Their languages were similar enough that he was able to reassure them he was a man like them, with a mother and father, despite his strange naval top hat and white breeches. They asked about the ships. What were these strange creatures? He explained they were houses made of wood, come out of the south, beyond the land of the ice.
After that first encounter, the northern Greenland Inuit stayed away two days. When at last they returned, Sakeouse persuaded them to go aboard and meet the Captain and his officers. All these details we can see in his watercolour “First Communication with the Natives of Regents Bay, as Drawn by John Sakeouse and Presented to Captain Ross, August 10, 1818.” His precision in depicting the anchored ships in full rigging, the surrounding glaciers and sporting whales vividly conjures up the setting. Yet it is in portraying the human drama that Sakeouse excels.
He shows us the courage in his lone approach toward the frightened Inuit, carrying his gifts and two white flags. In his sailor’s top hat, navy jacket, white breeches and knee-high boots, he stands, a proud yet non-threatening figure. His portrayal of the meeting between the Inuit in their parkas and the British naval officers in their ceremonial uniforms and cocked hats conveys their eventual ease in one another’s company as they smile and join hands. My favourite details of his watercolour are the Inuit’s sled dogs, and the figure in a sled, thrown back in his seat by the dogs’ onward rush. This person wears white breeches, a naval jacket and knee-high boots. It appears this is Sakeouse himself, exhilarated at being reunited with the sled dogs of his own culture. His delight in observing and capturing a full range of human character and emotion is evident in this work. Engraved copies of his vibrant depiction of this historic encounter are today held by Library and Archives Canada and the Royal Museums, Greenwich.
After Captain Ross’s expedition returned to London, the Admiralty offered to pay for Sakeouse’s continuing art lessons with Alexander Nasmyth, as well his tutoring in English. He had sadly less than a year left to wander the streets of Edinburgh and Leith, greeting his friends and showing particular kindness to children. Despite his prodigious strength, he contracted typhoid, which he may have caught in London where there was an epidemic. His old friends Captain and Mrs. Newton nursed him lovingly and for a time it looked as if he would recover. But he suffered a relapse and died on Valentine’s Day, 1819, just 22 years of age.
The city’s newspapers reported that he was followed to his grave by a “numerous company, among whom were not only his old friends and patrons from Leith, but many gentlemen of high respectability in this city.” His obituaries praised his kindness, recounting the occasion he had led home two children lost one snowy day in Leith, and given them the coat off his back.
In his two years in Edinburgh, he had become a legendary figure, admired and cherished for his skills, strength, modesty and gracious, gentle manner. I thought of him when I visited Leith and saw the Royal Yacht Britannia, now permanently docked in the harbour, and one of the U.K.’s most popular tourist attractions. It pleased me to picture John Sakeouse in his kayak, outstripping the massive yacht, with its gargantuan steam engines and 250-man crew. He sweeps by them, swift as a bird, and unencumbered.