Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Samuel Black's Bag (PRM 1893.67.183)

PRM 1893.67.183

Some objects pull you back to them every time you see them, no matter how many years you’ve looked at them. For me, this is one such object. It’s an embroidered and beaded cloth bag made for Samuel Black, from Aberdeen in Scotland, who became a fur trader in western Canada. He had two successive wives—probably the daughters of senior fur traders and their Aboriginal wives—and a number of children. Although his marriages  were not legitimated in church, he abided by the fur trade custom of marriage ‘according to the custom of the country,’ which involved treating an Aboriginal or Metis woman as a legitimate wife. His will was contested by his Scottish family, who saw his children as illegitimate.

Black was not an easy man. George Simpson, the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, described him as 'the strangest man I ever knew...A perfectly honest man and his generosity might be considered indicative of a warmth of heart if he was not known to be a cold blooded fellow who could be guilty of any Cruelty and would be a perfect Tyrant if he had power...Has not the talent of conciliating Indians by whom he is disliked'. In fact, he was murdered by an Aboriginal man in early 1841. Nevertheless, some woman loved him enough to make him this extraordinary bag. It has his name on one side—extraordinary in itself, because at least one of Black’s daughters signed various documents with the x that indicates illiteracy, and it seems likely that none of his 'country' family was literate. Even more extraordinary is the design worked on the reverse of the bag, on the side worn next to the body: a heart motif. This is not the usual urn and spray of flowers motif one usually sees on such items; hearts are uncommon. Made probably by one of Black’s daughters of mixed ancestry, I think it means what most of us would think it means: it’s a symbol of love.

Detail, reverse, PRM 1893.67.183

And so, in exquisitely tiny stitches, the colours faded but still gorgeous, this woman’s embroidery still speaks: of love, of the bridges between cultures, of a life that moved from Scotland to fur posts and Aboriginal camps. When we say of museum objects, ‘it’s Cree’ or ‘it’s Chinese’ or ‘it’s Scottish,’ we don’t often think of such complex cultural paths. Our lives often have them, though, and it’s a reminder that people have always loved across cultural boundaries.

I’ve written more about the bag in various places:

2009 ‘Material Culture, Identity, and Colonial Society in the Canadian Fur Trade’. In Maureen Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds., Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies. Ashgate.

1999.  “ ‘Many Tender Ties’: The Shifting Contexts and Meanings of the S BLACK Bag.” World Archaeology, 31(2), fall 1999, 288-302.

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