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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Farfarers - Before the Norse

Reviewed: April 30, 2004
By: Farley Mowat
Publisher: Anchor Canada
509 pages, $22.95

There are, I guess, two things that one can say for certain about Farley Mowat. The first is that he is tenacious. When he latches onto a notion he may pursue it for years. The second is that he’s not afraid to change his mind about something.

Back in the mid-1960s Mowat wrote a book called Westviking, in which he put forward a view, which was far from the accepted wisdom transmitted in public school at the time, that the Vikings arrived in, and explored parts of, North America long before the explorers of the later era of European expansion, who got all the credit for it.

Though controversial at the time, the core ideas behind his theory are generally accepted wisdom these days, and the L’Anse au Meadows site in Newfoundland is considered proof of that thesis.

Mowat wasn’t content to let the matter rest there, though. Even while he was producing Westviking he was aware of some information that didn’t fit his theory. He mentions some of it in his recent book, High Latitudes, the personal chronicle of several journeys he took in the Arctic in the sixties, but the scholarly meat of the matter is here in this book which first appeared in 1999.

Briefly put, Mowat believes that there was another group of people,, pretty much forgotten by history, whom he calls the Albans, after one of the ancient names for Britain. The Albans made their fortunes from the sea. They mined the white gold of the ivory trade, following the annual migrations of such sea beasts as the walrus and certain types of whales. They made use of just about everything connected with their prey, including skin, bones and meat. Their relatively large, seaworthy vessels were covered in hides and plied the northern seas in search of their livelihood.

The Albans were chased from their traditional territories in Europe and Britain by successive waves of Celts, Romans, Norse and other tribes, who were, themselves, often acting in response to population pressures on their southern boundaries. Their search for safe havens from which to trade led them to Iceland, then Greenland, and finally to the province we now call Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Norse, who come off rather badly in this book compared to the way Mowat wrote about them in Westviking, followed after them, in some cases several centuries later, harrying them on the sea, driving them from their land bases and chasing them into hiding.

In some cases they simply died out. In some cases, they were actually in parts of the western lands before the arrival of first nations groups. In some cases they were wiped out by conflict, while in others they intermarried with the aboriginals and vanished into the general population.

What they left behind are some legends, some stone erections that are of a different type than those made by first nations and Inuit groups in North America, and settlement sites where the remnants of their houses resemble a pattern that can still be seen in some of the northern British islands. What is unique about these is that they were formed by building up low walls upon which an overturned skin-hulled boat was placed to form the roof during the winter seasons. There are signs of these constructions, and of the beacons, at various places across northern Canada.

Mowat’s contention here is that the last racial remnants of these Albans can be found in the part of Newfoundland where he believes they ultimately settled for safety, and that the people who call themselves Jackos are part of that heritage, combined with later settlement by the M’ikmaws from Cape Breton, Acadians fleeing the English expulsion orders, the remainder of the Beothuks, who had been the original Newfoundland native group, and the Dorset people who predated the Innu in the region.

All of this is highly speculative, of course, and Mowat has built up a narrative which combines several of his lifelong interests (the sea harvest, northern people, Arctic exploration) with his sense of what makes a good story. I’m sure there are gaps and lapses in the logic, but he tells a compelling tale.

And then there’s his track record. Details may get lost in the storytelling, but Mowat was the first Canadian writer to get a handle on how wolves work in the ecosystem (Never Cry Wolf), on the relationship between the Inuit and the caribou (People of the Deer), on the history of humanity’s relationship with the oceans (Sea of Slaughter) and, of course, on the role of the Vikings in pre-European North America, as I mentioned earlier in this review. His work inspires other to do research, Some of his claims stand up and others don’t. DNA tests in Nunavut last year seem to suggest that Mowat’s Alban theory doesn’t work in that territory, but it’s just one test series, and it was actually spurred by the claims of explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who wrote about blue-eyed Eskimos (as they were called then) in his journals early in the 20th century.

It remains to be seen what will be discovered in the future, though the scientists who ran those tests went so far as to say that their results had the potential to “reveal new chapters in the history of humanity.”

I venture to suggest that Farley Mowat will be less surprised than some of the rest of us.

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