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Research shines light on Beothuk-Anglican relations

Posted on: February 15, 2016 8:00 AM
The Revd Dr Joanne Mercer, rector of the Parish of Twillingate, stands beside Gerald Squires’ statue “The Spirit of the Beothuk” in Boyd’s Cove, Newfoundland. The statue depicts Shanawdithit, the last known living member of the Beothuk people.
Photo Credit: The Anglican Church of Canada
Related Categories: Americas, Canada, History, indigenous

Two hundred years ago, a C of E priest, the Revd John Leigh, arrived in New Foundland, Canada, as a missionary with SPG (which later became USPG before becoming the United Society). Shortly afterwards, skirmishes between settlers and the Indigenous Beothuk people left several people dead, including the local tribal chief Nonosabasut. Leigh took care of the chief's wife, Demasduit, and raised concerns about the treatment of the Beothuk people. Ten years later, the Beothuk were extinct - the victims of cultural genocide. Now, as the anniversary of Leigh's arrival in Canada approaches, trans-Atlantic research is casting fresh light on the Beothuk and the role played by the Revd John Leigh in cataloguing their language, as Matt Gardner from the Anglican Church of Canada reports.

Alongside the legacy of cultural genocide against the Indigenous peoples of Canada, embodied in the residential school system, is the tragic history of what some scholars consider to be a case of full-fledged genocide. The Beothuk, the Indigenous people of Newfoundland, were declared extinct in 1829 following the death of their last known living member, Shanawdithit. The annihilation of a people due to starvation, disease, violence and competition for resources, and the loss of virtually their entire culture, followed centuries of encroachment by European settlers.

In 1819, an armed band of men journeyed into central Newfoundland seeking a Beothuk group accused of stealing their property. During the resulting skirmish, several Beothuk people were killed, including Nonosabasut, the man believed to be the chief of the tribe.

His wife, Demasduit, was captured and brought to the town of Twillingate. There she was put in the care of the Revd John Leigh, an Anglican priest and missionary who in 1816 had become the area’s first resident clergyman and who voiced concerns about the treatment of the Beothuk.

Demasduit lived with Leigh for a subsequent period, during which they constructed a vocabulary of approximately 180 Beothuk words, translating them into English as an aid to communication with the Beothuk, particularly for missionary work. That vocabulary forms the base of much of the surviving knowledge regarding the language and culture of the Beothuk.

2016 marks the 200th anniversary of Leigh’s arrival on the island, while 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Demasduit’s capture. Researching the story in advance of the former anniversary, the Revd Dr Joanne Mercer, rector of the Parish of Twillingate, found the historical accounts raised more questions than answers.

“It’s sort of like one line in history – she was put in his care,” Mercer noted. “Nothing really about why.”

Mercer’s interest in answering these and other questions eventually grew into a full-scale research project. Taking place over three years from 2016 to 2019, the project brings together a group of scholars from Newfoundland and the United Kingdom to look at the relationship between Demasduit and Leigh – and by extension, the broader interaction between the Beothuk and Anglican tradition.

“A story we struggle with”

For Mercer, the extinction of the Beothuk people is a topic that remains fully relevant today. As a theologian, she seeks to understand that history in terms of reconciliation and how to strive for justice centuries after the destruction of an entire people.

“I think it’s still a story we struggle with. . . We’re reconciling ourselves with a piece of history and with a story that sometimes people are uncomfortable with,” Mercer said. “But I do still think it’s an important piece of work that we really have to work through.

“It’s a part of our identity and our history. . . So many of the attitudes that were dominant in the culture of the time enabled the situation in which the Beothuk became extinct. . . Work that’s being done across our national church has the potential to bring healing to our historical understanding and to ourselves in many ways.”

One of the first people Mercer reached out to was colleague Dr Suzanne Owen, senior lecturer in theology and religious studies at Leeds Trinity University and the University of Chester, UK, who first learned about the Beothuk while doing field work with the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland for her PhD.

In Owen’s view, the questions raised by Leigh and Demasduit’s brief mentions in historical texts (“How did Leigh get involved in the incident? Did Anglicans have a theological interest in the Beothuk?”) posed a unique opportunity for insight into early church-Indigenous relations from a religious and theological perspective – one which could uncover untold aspects of the Beothuk story.

Canada _Beothuk _Demasduit

A portrait of Demasduit painted in 1819 by Henrietta Hamilton.
Photo: Library and Archives Canada

“Most academics researching the subject do so from historical or cultural perspectives,” Owen said.

Another scholar involved in the project is Dr Hans Rollmann, religious studies professor at Memorial University. A former professor of Mercer’s at Memorial University and Queen’s College, St. John’s, as well as a colleague when they both taught at the latter for a number of years, Rollmann encouraged Mercer’s efforts to learn more about Leigh.

Dr Hans Rollmann, religious studies professor at Memorial University, calls the Revd John Leigh “the driving force behind the institutionalization of Newfoundland Anglicanism, seeing how important local leadership would be for the isolated priests living on the island.” It was Leigh who convinced Bishop Robert Stanser of Nova Scotia of the need to have an ecclesiastical commissary in Newfoundland, taking on the position shortly before his own death from illness in 1823.

Leigh was interested in the fate of the Beothuk, the island’s Indigenous people, whom he sought to rescue “from their miserable state.” As Memorial University linguistics professor John Hewson wrote of Leigh, “His was one of many humane voices urging an end to the hostilities between the white settlers and the Beothuk, and he was the first clergyman to express publicly an interest in evangelizing them.”

Details are sparse on the relationship between the Beothuk and the Church of England in Canada, as it was known at the time. Among the strongest evidence of interaction are the two known English-Beothuk vocabularies produced by Anglican priests Leigh and the Revd John Clinch of Trinity, Newfoundland.

Of the 350 known words of Beothuk, more than 200 may be found in Leigh’s vocabulary, constructed with the Beothuk woman Demasduit following her capture.

As part of her ongoing research project on Leigh and Demasduit, the Revd Dr Joanne Mercer, rector of the Parish of Twillingate, and her colleagues are conducting extensive archival research into Leigh’s correspondence with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), who sponsored Leigh’s work in Newfoundland. Mercer and her team hope to locate a foundational document from the SPG giving specific instructions about missionary interaction with the Beothuk.

Regarding the available early writings, Mercer noted that though there was much commentary about wanting to evangelize the Beothuk, “that was never successful.” Even after Demasduit was brought to the rectory and stayed with Anglican clergy, and the capture of subsequent Beothuk such as Shanawdithit who had interactions with bishops, there is no record of conversion.

From the historic perspective of the SPG, persecution and violence of settlers towards the Beothuk created their own dangers for missionary work.

“The SPG was reluctant to get involved in service to the Beothuk because of the existing controversy about their treatment by local settlers, although one of the original mandates of the SPG had been a ministry to Aboriginals,” Rollmann said.

Three-year research project

The project to learn more about Leigh and Demasduit is now well underway, thanks to an influx of funding. Along with a conference grant from the J.R. Smallwood Foundation for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, the Anglican diocese of Central Newfoundland is making a $5,000 grant drawn from its Anglican Church of Canada Resolution Corporation refund to help with research and staging events.

This April, Mercer and Owen will meet in St John’s, Newfoundland to conduct archival research and collate their findings thus far. Public events later in the year coincide with the 200th anniversary of Leigh’s arrival. Throughout the summer, the Parish of Twillingate will host the same Truth and Reconciliation exhibit previously hosted at St James Cathedral in Toronto, augmenting it with the story of the Beothuk people.

In the autumn, Mercer plans to hold a public lecture at the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove, Newfoundland to showcase some of their research following an anticipated gathering of academics in St John’s. That research will continue until 2019, the 200th anniversary of Demasduit’s capture.

The large number of people who regularly visit the Beothuk Centre, who have reached out to folklore researchers claiming to have had encounters with Beothuk, or who claim to have Beothuk heritage themselves, is a testament to the lingering effect of a “story [that] still haunts our memories,” Mercer said.

“This whole idea of a people who have become extinct . . . is a very haunting kind of story. . . It is a type of story that fascinates people as to how this could ever happen.”