Item of the Day: Account of the Russian Discoveries between Asia and America.

Full Title: Account of the Russian Discoveries between Asia and America, to which is added, the conquest of Siberia, and the history of the transactions and commerce between Russia and China. By William Coxe. London: Printed by J. Nichols, for T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1780.

[The following passage is excerpted from a passage in Appendix I entitled: Extract from the journal of a voyage made by Captain Krenitzin and Lieutenant Levasheff to the Fox Islands, in 1768, 1769, by order of the Empress of Russia—they sail from Kamtchatka—arrive at Beering’s and Copper Islands—reach the Fox Islands—Krenitzin winters at Alaxa—Levasheff upon Unalashka—productions of Unalashka—description of the inhabitants of the Fox Islands—their manners and customs, &c.]

The inhabitants of Alaxa, Umnak, Unalaksha, and the neighboring islands, are of a middle stature, tawny brown colour, and black hair. In summer they wear coats (parki*) made of bird skins, over which, in bad weather, and in their boats, they throw cloaks, called kamli, made of thin whale guts. On their heads they wear wooden caps, ornamented with duck’s feathers, and the ears of the sea-animal, called Scivutcha or sea-lion: they also adorn these caps with beads of different colours, and with little figures of bone or stone. In the partition of the nostrils they place a pin, about four inches long, made of the bone, or of the stalk of a certain black plant; from the ends of this pin or bodkin they hang, in fine weather and on festivals, rows of beads, one below the other. They thrust beads, and bits of pebble cut like teeth, into holes made in the under-lips. They also wear strings of beads in their ears, with bits of amber, which the inhabitants of the other islands procure from Alaxa, in exchange for arrows and kamli.They cut their hair before just above the eyes, and some shave the top of their heads like minks. Behind the hair is loose. The dress of the women hardly differens from that of the men, excepting that it is mad of fish-skins. They sew with bone needles, and thread made of fish guts, fastening their work to the ground before them with bodkins. They go with the head uncovered, and the hair cut like that of the men before, but tied up behind in a high knot. They paint their cheeks with strokes of blue and red, and wear nose-pins, beads, and ear-rings like the men; they hang beads round their neck, and checkered strings round their arms and legs.

In their persons we should reckon them extremely nasty. They eat the vermin with which their bodies are covered, and swallow the mucus from the nose. Having washed themselves, according to custom, first with urine, and then with water, they suck their hand dry. When they are sick, they lie three or four days without food; and if bleeding is necessary, they open a vein with lancets made of flint, and suck the blood.

Their principal nourishment is fish and whale fat, which they commonly eat raw. They also feed upon sea-wrack and roots, particularly the saran, a species of lily; they eat a herb called kutage, on account of its bitterness, only with fish or fat. They sometimes kindle fire by catching a spark among dry leaves and powder of sulphur: but the most common method is by rubbing two pieces of wood together, in the manner practiced at Kamtchatka,** and which Vaksel, Beering’s lieutenant, found to be in use in that part of North America which he saw in 1741. They are very fond of Russian oil and butter, but not of bread. They could not be prevailed to taste any sugar until the commander shewed it home to their wives.

The houses of the islanders are huts built precisely in the manner of those in Kamtchatka, with the entry through a hold in the middle of the roof. In one of these huts live several families, to the amount of thirty or forty persons. They keep themselves warm by means of whale fat burnt in shells, which they place between their legs. The women set apart from the men. . . .

* Parki in Russian signifies a shirt, the coats of these islanders being made like shirts.

** The instrument made us of by the Kamtchadals, to procure fire, is a board with several holes, and turned about swiftly, until the wood within the holes begins to burn, where there is tinder ready to catch the sparks.

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Filed under 1780's, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel

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