The Earliest Eskimo Portraits.

By Kaj Birket-Smith

If the medieval artists naively depicted Christ and his apostles as well as the gods and heroes of Antiquity in the costumes of their own age, it is not astonishing that they also dressed exotic nations in the same manner. When after the great geographical discoveries a veritable flood of travel books appeared, the engravers sat comfortably in their workshops furnishing the descriptions with illustrations which, at the most, showed some consideration for the text, but just as often originated wholly in the imagination of the artist himself.

To this class of pictures belongs the earliest attempt to draw an Eskimo, which was published 1539 in the extremely rare Carta Marina by the Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus and 16 years later in his great work on the Northern Peoples (1). It shows a bearded Greenland "pygmy" wearing a broad-brimmed hat and engaged in a spear fight with a good-sized European. Apparently the artist was not as honest as his younger colleague who depicted the encounter between the Eskimo of Hudson Strait and the Danish North-west Passage Expedition in charge of Jens Munk 1619-20: since he was ignorant of the style of Eskimo dress, he simply represented them as naked as they had left their mothers' womb (2).

From the period between the publication of these two pictures we have, however, three others which should be considered the first authentic portraits of Eskimo. The earliest one, to which Professor J. F. Jameson, Washington D.C., called my attention many years ago, is kept in the University Library of Ghent included in an unpublished work by the well-known Flemish painter Lucas de Heere (3). According to Bibliotheca Belgica it is a paper manuscript in folio, numbering 129 leaves with 195 coloured pictures. They start with the high-priest Aaron and some personalities from Roman Antiquity, then proceed to a somewhat greater number of more or less contemporaneous types and end with Turks, Ethiopians and, last of all, a picture inscribed Homme sauuage amen‚ des pais Septentrionaux par M. Furbisher L'an 1576. To my knowledge it has been published only twice (4) and in both cases in places which are not likely to be known by ethnologists, for which reason it is again reproduced here. It will be seen immediately that it represents an Eskimo standing in half profile with a kayak paddle and an arrow in his right hand and a bow in his left. On the sea in the background there is a kayaker and a roughly drawn European ship.

The Eskimo whose features have thus been preserved for posterity was, as it appears from the legend, taken to England by the famous seafarer Sir Martin Frobisher. After many years' futile efforts Frobisher succeeded in organizing a

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private expedition in quest of a North-west Passage, and in 1576 he left the Thames with two small vessels and a pinnace. During the voyage Greenland was sighted, but on account of the drifting ice he was prevented from landing and therefore continued westward, where he entered the fjord which is now named after him.

At that time only one of the ships was left. The smallest vessel had disappeared in a gale off Greenland, and another had deserted and returned to England. In the beginning of the stay in Frobisher Bay the expedition had friendly intercourse with the Eskimo, who bartered fresh trout, sealskin and bearskin clothes, etc., for mirrors, bells and other trifles; but then the incident occurred which resulted in the kidnapping of one of the natives. The event is told exactly alike, only at somewhat different length, in two accounts of the voyage (5), and in spite of the fact that neither of them is the work of an eyewitness there is no reason to doubt their veracity.

One day five members of the crew went ashore in the ship's boat, and afterwards nothing was seen or heard of them. Frobisher remained at anchor in the same place the whole day and the following night, and the next morning he passed the camp of the Eskimo blowing a trumpet and firing a gun over the tents. Nothing happened, however, and so he dropped anchor again, this time in a bay in the neighbourhood. As next day there was still no sign of his men, he decided to kidnap some Eskimo from a place where they knew nothing of what had happened and where therefore they were supposed to be more confident [!] . After three days' futile search for inhabited places he returned to the place where the boat had disappeared, but only to find it completely deserted. This fact had a highly depressing effect on his mind, because he realized the impossibility of recovering his men "and most of all other was oppressed with sorrow that he should return back agayn to his cuntry bringing any evidens or token of any place whereby to certify where he had byn."

While was thus absorbed in sombre reflexions, a number of native boats were seen approaching the ship, which was immediately put in a state of defence. The Eskimo however, suspected mischief and kept their distance. Only a single kayaker, who incidentally was the man who had first been on board the ship, came closer and made signs of peace, inviting the sailors to go ashore. Frobisher answered in a similar manner and ordered his men to withdraw, whereupon he threw a shirt and sundry other things able to float into the sea. The current carried them to the kayaker, who fished them out of the water and plucked up courage sufficient to receive a bell from Frobisher's hand. One of the sailors tried to take hold of the kayak with a boat hook, but the Eskimo became aware of his intention and in due time shoved off in safety. Again, Frobisher made an attempt to entice him by throwing a bell so that it fell into the water, and when after that he stretched out his hand with another bell, the Eskimo eventually came so near that Frobisher quickly caught hold of his hand and wrist and pulled both man and kayak on board.

Birket-Smith. The Earliest Eskimo Portraits 7

Fig. 1. Eskimo from Frobisher Bay, drawn by Lucas de Heere 1576. (Courtesy of the University Library, Ghent.).

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Two or three days later the expedition put out to sea and returned to England. It is told that when the unfortunate captive understood his hard lot "for very choller and disdain, he bit his tong in twayne within his mouth: notwithstanding, he died not thereof, but lived untill he came to Englande, and then he died of colde which he had taken at sea." One of the authors of the accounts of this voyage, probably a certain Michael Lock, who saw the Eskimo himself, described him as being strongly built and stout, with a very broad face and small eyes, rather shortlegged, with long, black hair tied in a knot at his forehead and a short, black beard. His skin colour was "a dark sallow" and his expression "sullen and churlish and sharp withall." Apart from the latter feature, which is, of course, easily explained, this description shows a typical picture of an Eskimo--in fact more characteristic than the tall and slender figure in de Heere's drawing.

It is, nevertheless, this man whom de Heere saw and included in gallery of folk types. At the time when Frobisher undertook his voyage, de Heere was living in England. Originally, he had been a Roman Catholic and followed Philip II, but later he joined the protestant movement and was exiled in 1568 the Duke of Alba. He fled to England, where he commanded no little respect both Queen Elizabeth and his own countrymen, who some years after his arrival elected him an Elder of the Netherland community in London. When the famous "Pacification" in Ghent made it possible, he returned to his native town in 1577. He died in 1584, only 50 years of age.

Thanks principally to the writings of Franz Boas (6), the present-day Eskimo of southern Baffin Island are, on the whole, rather well known. This circumstance enables us to prove that certain details in the dress have changed since the 16th century. On de Heere's picture the jacket has a roundish hood and a long tail, whereas nowadays the jackets in this region have rather pointed hoods and are cut off straight or at most provided with a small dorsal flap, besides often having a short slit in front. The triangular throat piece of the jacket must be a misunderstood representation of the extensions of the hood running down into the front part of the body; such "hood-yokes" do not occur in modern men's jackets on Baffin Island, whereas they are common in Greenland (7). The peculiar way of arranging the hair mentioned by Lock was still used by the Iglulik Eskimo in the early 19th century and by the extinct population of Southampton Island in the beginning of this century (8). Neither the double-paddle nor the sinew-backed bow are particularly remarkable, and the kayak is too roughly drawn to allow any conclusions.

As mentioned above there are two other pictures originating from the same period and likewise representing Eskimo brought to England by Frobisher. Both are attributed to John White, best known for his travels as cartographer and draughtsman in Virginia (or, to be correct, northern North Carolina) and for his water-colours of the natives there, which, together with those of the French artist Jacques Le Moyne, are the first authentic pictures of North American Indians.

Birket-Smith. The Earliest Eskimo Portraits. 9

Fig. 2. Eskimo from Frobisher Bay, probably drawn by John White 1577. (Courtesy of the British Museum).

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I am much obliged to Mr. P. H. Hulton, Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, for calling my attention to these pictures, which are now in that Department, and for supplying much valuable information about them.

They are drawn on paper, the height of both figures being 22.5 cm. The man, who has a somewhat distorted sinew-backed bow in his hand, is dressed in a costume similar to that of de Heere's Eskimo except for the fact that the jacket is shorter in front. The grey colour of the jacket and trousers suggest that they are made of sealskin. The woman carries a child on her back inside the wide hood in the ordinary Eskimo manner. Her face tattooing shows the common female pattern consisting of lines spreading fan-wise on the chin, horizontal cheek lines, and a double-curve on the forehead. In contradistinction to the man's jacket, her coat has a short flap in front, and her boots are high, reaching above her knees, such as the women's boots on Southampton Island and in Greenland (9). Coat and boots alike are brownish-grey and probably made of sealskin. Strange to say, the navel of both the man and the woman shows in a most absurd manner through the thick fur of the clothing. On the other hand the artist has hit the Eskimo character of the faces far better than de Heere. Notwithstanding the inevitable differences due to the subjects, the style of drawing shows a striking likeness to White's later pictures of the North Carolina Indians now in the British Museum and used as originals for the illustrations in de Bry's famous work on America (10).

In this case also we have to do with natives taken by Frobisher to England. His second voyage, carried out in 1577 and described by Dionise Settle and by George Best (11), who took part in it as lieutenant of the commander-in-chief, visited the same region as his first expedition in order to bring back a load of ore discovered on that occasion and supposed to contain gold, though actually it turned out to be worthless iron pyrites. Besides, Frobisher still entertained some hope of finding his lost sailors.

The first meeting with the Eskimo was quite friendly, but then Frobisher and his ship's master, Christopher Hall, "went apart unto two of them, meaning, if they could lay sure holde upon them, forcibly to bryng them abord, with intent to bestowe certain toyes and apparell upon the one, and so to dismisse him with all arguments of curtesie, and retaine the other for an interpreter." The attempt failed, and the two Eskimo, quickly recovering their bows and arrows, "so fiercely, desparately and with such furie assaulted and pursued our generall and his maister, being altogether unarmed, and not mistrusting their subtilities [!], that they chased them to their boats, and hurte the generall in the buttocke with an arrow..." However, some of the British soldiers hurried to their rescue, and one of them, a Cornishman, overtook one of the Eskimo and showed him "such a Cornishe tricke, that he made his sides ake against the grounde for a moneth after. And so being stayed, he was taken alive, and brought away, but the other escaped."

About two weeks afterwards there was a regular fight with the Eskimo, of

Birket-Smith. The Earliest Eskimo Portraits. 11

Fig. 3. Eskimo woman from Frobisher Bay, probably drawn by John White 1577. (Courtesy of the British Museum.)

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whom five or six were killed and one Englishman was dangerously wounded. At length the Eskimo fled "saving two women, whereof the one being old and ougly, our men thought she had bin a divell or some witch, and therefore let her go [Dionise Settle even adds that "the old wretch... had her buskins plucked off to see if she were clouen footed"]: the other being young, and combred with a suckling childe at hir backe, hiding herselfe behinde the rocks, was espied by one of oure men, who, supposing she had bin a man, shot through the heare of hir head, and pierced through the child's arme, whereupon she cried out, and was taken, and our surgeon, meaning to heale hir child's arme, applyed salves therunto. But, she not acquainted-with such kinde of surgerie, plucked those salves away, and, by continuall licking with hir own tongue, not much unlike our dogges, healed uppe the child's arme."

On September 23rd, a month after leaving Baffin Island, the flagship returned to Milford Haven in Wales, the two other vessels arriving at Bristol and Yarmouth respectively some time afterwards. The man died apparently shortly after the return of the expedition. He was attended by one Dr. Edward Dodding, who wrote a Latin report "of the Sicknesse and Death of the Man at Bristoll wc Capt. Furbisher brought from the North-West: And of the Nature of the Woman of that Contrie yet Livynge," published in Collinson's edition of Frobisher's voyages.

There can be no doubt that these two captives are the persons pictured by White. Whether he took part in the expedition himself cannot be stated with absolute certainty. His name does not appear in the list of "Suche Gentlemen and Others as Wente the First and Second Voyage wth Martin Frobisher..., etc.", but since it includes 25 names only and 143 persons were onboard the squadron (12), this omission does not prove much. He might, perhaps, have met the Eskimo in Bristol before the man died, and it might even be argued that he did not see them in their native dress, as otherwise he would not have made the preposterous mistake of indicating their navels. In favour of his participance is, on the other hand, his own statement in a letter to Richard Hakluyt, 1593, that the 1590 voyage was his "5th and last", which, as he was in Virginia 1587 and possibly accompanied Amadas and Barlowe in 1584 (13), leaves room for at least two former voyages; but far too little is known of his life before he went to Virginia to allow any definite conclusions on these premisses. The most convincing evidence comes from a volume of drawings in the British Museum (Sloane MS 5270) originally in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It includes copies of the pictures of the two Eskimo already described, and another of the Eskimo man seen from behind. Of particular interest is, however, a drawing showing an Eskimo paddling in a kayak in an ice-filled sea; behind him appears a European boat flying the English flag and manned with sailors who are firing their muskets at four Eskimo discharging arrows from a rock, and in the background there is a naze with an Eskimo camp and several kayaks. Mr. Hulton has kindly supplied the following information about the volume in question: "This contains a number of copies of the John White drawings .

Birket-Smith. The Earliest Eskimo Portraits. 13

and a larger number of copies of lost drawings by him. The drawings can be dated c. 1610 and Sloane discovered them in the possession of descendants of the artist. The copies might well have been done by a son of John White. It may reasonably be assumed that the Fight with the Eskimo is, like others, a copy of a lost White.

... It would certainly seem that the subject might represent a skirmish on one of Frobisher's voyages. There is a connection between this drawing and the wood-cut frontispiece to Settle's account of Frobisher's 1577 voyage, De Martini Forbisseri Angli Navigatione in Regiones Occidentis et Septentrionis, Nuremberg, 1580. I think the French edition has the same frontispiece." The point is that this picture can hardly have been made by a person who has not actually been on the spot. It is true that the kayak differs slightly from the modern craft of southern Baffin Island, having a more roundish man-hole somewhat like that of the Greenland kayaks, but the tents, though rather roughly drawn, seem to be of the characteristic ridge-shaped Baffin Island type, quite different from that of the eastern shores of Davis Strait. Everything taken into consideration, there may therefore be reason to suppose that John White actually did accompany Frobisher on his second voyage

Be this as it may, the change in the costumes is of some ethnological importance. It has already been mentioned that the single "hood-yoke" still occurs in Greenland, and that the high women's boots are characteristic of the same region. The latter also occurred on Southampton Island, where likewise the men gathered their hair in a bunch on the forehead. Now, it is a well-known fact that the Southampton Islanders were the last descendants of the bearers of the Thule Culture in the Central Eskimo area, where otherwise it was replaced more or less by a recent and more "continental" culture during the last few centuries, while in Greenland it has survived with slight modifications to our day. It seems a reasonable conclusion, therefore, that the peculiar features of dress pictured by both de Heere and White are characteristic of the Thule Culture and still existed in southern Baffin Island at the close of the 16th century. In this way the old drawings are of interest also to the ethnologist, apart from being evidence of a period when the methods of intercourse with primitive peoples differed from those of our time.


  1. Historia de Gentibvs Septentrionalibvs. II, ch. 11. Romae 1555. Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina was long considered lost, until a copy was discovered in Munich 1886. Part of the map, including Greenland, is reproduced in A.A. BJØRNBO: >>Cartographia Groenlandica.<< Meddelelser om Grønland. Vol. XLVIII. København 1912. Pp. 268f.
  2. JENS MUNK: Navigatio Septentrionalis. Københaffn 1624. Engl. transl. in Danish Arctic Expeditions 1605-20, ed. C.C.A. Gosch. Hakluyt Soc. London 1897. 2 vols.
  3. Theatre De Tous Les Peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits, et ornements diuers, tant anciens que modernes diligemment depeints au naturel Par Luc Dheere, Peintre et Sculpteur Gantois.
  4. In The Magazine of Art, 1891, p. 358, and (by the present author) in Tilskueren, København 1931, p. 313. [p.14]
  5. GEORCE BEST: A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie for Finding a Passage to Cathaya, by the Northwest..., etc. London 1578. Reprinted in RICHARD HAKLUYT: The Third and Last Volume of the Voyages, Navigations, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation..., etc. London 1600. It is likewise included in RICHARD COLLINSON: The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher 1576-78. Hakluyt Soc. London 1867. In this work Collinson has also published an anonymous account, apparently by Michael Lock. Christopher Hall's account (in Hakluyt, Op. cit. and JOHN PINKERTON: A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World. Vol. XII. London 1812) mentions the kidnapping but gives no particulars.
  6. FRANZ BOAS: >>The Central Eskimo.<< Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. Washington 1888. FRANZ BOAS: >>The Eskimo of Baffin Land and Hudson Bay.<< Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. Vol. XV. New York 1901-07.
  7. KAY BIRKET-SMITH: >>The Caribou Eskimos.<< Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition. Vol. V. Copenhagen 1929. Pt. 2, pp. 82ff.
  8. G.F. LYON: The private Journal of ... London 1824, p. 3 THERKEL MATHIASSEN: >>Archaeology of the Central Eskimos.<< Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition. Vol. IV. Copenhagen 1927. Pt. 1, p. 274. BOAS 1901-07, p. 475.
  9. MATHIASSEN, Op. cit. p. 274. KAJ BlRKET-SMITH: >>The Greenlanders of the Present Day.<< Greenland. Copenhagen & London 1928. Vol. Il, pp. 97, 103, 105.
  10. None of White's drawings are signed, but that they are his work has been convincingly proved by Mr. Hulton in E. CROFT-MURRAY & P.H. HULTON: Catalogue of Drawings in the British Museum by British Artists and Foreigners working in England. (In print).
  11. Dionise Settle's account is published in HAKLUYT: Op. cit., p. 47ff., and reprinted in PINKERTON: Op. cit. I have not had access to the Latin translation, Nuremberg 1580.
  12. COLLINSON: Op. cit., p. xii.
  13. CROFT-MURRAY & HULTON: Op. cit. Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe explored the coast of North Carolina 1584 in two vessels fitted out by Sir Walter Raleigh.


After this paper was set up, Mr. Hulton has kindly sent me a photograph of the Sloane copy of White's picture showing the Eskimo man seen from behind. The most remarkable feature of that costume is the two dorsal hood-yokes, which to my knowledge do not occur in any modern Eskimo jackets.

KAJ BIRKET-SMITH Ethnographical Department, National Museum, Copenhagen, October,1958.