A Methodological Reconsideration of Early English-Indigenous Communication in Sixteenth Century Northeastern America
In August 1576 five men serving the Elizabethan explorer Martin Frobisher disappeared following an Inuk guide at Baffin Island. Over the next two years the English tried various methods of communication with the Inuit – including miming, drawing, writing and kidnapping “interpreters” – but were unable to recover their lost men or even learn their fate. During this frustrating period English-Inuit relations deteriorated steadily from friendliness to bloodshed. Frobisher’s experiences with the South Baffin Inuit illustrate how limited communication could be between European explorers and Indigenous peoples during early contact and offer a unique glimpse at the mechanics of how this nonverbal communication functioned. Despite its centrality to understanding early contact, studies specifically focused on the initial experiments with nonverbal communication are rare. Many historians gloss over the subject, assuming miming occurred and that little can be discerned about this process. However, a close reading of certain explorer narratives reveals descriptions of how these makeshift exchanges took place. These texts also indicate the types of assumptions made by communicators when creating and interpreting messages and the preconceived notions that produced such assumptions. This dissertation examines communication in three English ventures in sixteenth century Northeastern America: The Frobisher Encounters with the South Baffin Inuit (1576-8), The Davis Encounters with the Greenland Inuit (1585-7) and the Roanoke Encounters with the Carolina Algonquin (1584-7). This study will serve as a point of departure for researchers to consider the uncertainties surrounding early communication and the implications this has for both methodological approaches and traditional historiographical interpretations.