Farley Mowat and his Love Affair with the “Noble Savage”

That Farley Mowat’s death and a beached whale in Newfoundland made national headlines at the same time last week caused Your Working Girl to sit up and take notice.

She admits to being in a bit of a mood lately. Living in a city governed by a petulant junkie mayor, watching the most progressive provincial budget in eons go down the drain because the “people’s party” just can’t bring themselves to support it, observing the federal government peddling the blackest of irony with its “Fair Elections” Act and bearing witness to the apparent intervention-free kidnapping of more than 300 Nigerian teenage girls makes her want to turn her face to the wall.

But the death of one of Canada’s most celebrated writers and the beached whale story broke through the ambient noise in Your Working Girl’s head simply because of its symmetry.

Indeed, it was the treatment of a beached whale that turned this ‘beloved’ Canadian writer against the ‘noble savages’ of Burgeo, Newfoundland – the savages he once exalted – and drove him from its shores forever.  Your Working Girl remembers hearing the stories as a child – there was this mainlander, a famous one, who went to live with the people on the south coast. Then he wrote a book about them saying how bad they were, calling them savages – calling us savages.

Your Working Girl realizes now in her well-examined life that commentary such as Mowat’s, although not solely Mowat’s, contributed to the well polished chip that crawls up on her shoulder every now and then. It’s the reason she’s ready to put up her dukes when she perceives anyone turning up their noses at, not only Newfoundlanders, but at anyone who may not have had the benefit of an upbringing which included the knowledge that Brie cheese is served at room temperature.

For a time, though, it was a love story.

Mowat and his wife, Claire, arrived in Burgeo, a remote fishing community more than 300 km southwest of Port aux Basques, in 1962 seeking an escape from what he called the “bitch goddess of Progress.”

No fear of Progress in Burgeo in 1962, “bitch goddess” or otherwise.

Diesel-powered electricity had just arrived that year. Water and sewer were still years away, a process that wasn’t complete until 1980. There were no roads only coastal boats to serve the community.

Yet Burgeo had had its experiences with occasional celebrity guests. In 1520, the Portuguese explorer Joaz Fagundez first discovered the Burgeo Archipelago. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert lost one of his ships just after it passed through. In 1796, Captain James Cook witnessed an eclipse of the sun as he was, sensibly, mapping the area. At the time of Farley Mowat’s arrival, in 1962, the population was roughly 1,500.

The people of Burgeo, he wrote with love’s first glow, had “a remarkable tolerance for other human beings, together with qualities of generosity towards one another and towards strangers in their midst which had surpassed anything I’d ever known before except, perhaps, among the Eskimos.”

“They are an Antean people, adamantine, indomitable and profoundly certain of themselves … among the last inhabitants of this planet who still appear to possess the answer to that nagging question ‘who am I.’”

Through their years in Burgeo, the Mowats engaged in community life.

The first road link appeared in Burgeo when the Mowats were residents. According to The History of Burgeo by Dion Dicks, it came in the form of a bridge to Small Island in 1967 because of “a request [made] by a famous writer to the Premier of the province at the time, Joey Smallwood. The writer was Farley Mowat.

Mowat caused a stir in other ways too. According to Newfoundland writer, Harold Horwood, Mowat alarmed local fisherman when he paraded around wearing nothing but boots.

But, as with all great infatuations or, perhaps, the inevitable result of parading around wearing nothing but your boots, the bloom began to fall from the rose.

The History of Burgeo indicates that in 1967:

“Dr. Mike and Ann Calder and Mr. Farley and Claire Mowat were all on the old library boardalong with Jauanita Stone, Harriet Cossar, and Ephriam Matthews. The Mowats walked off the board when a decision on the design for the new library was made. Mr. Mowat submitted a design for the new library that was much the same design as the old library. Dr. Ann Calder submitted a design that was chosen and is the design of the current library. Mr. Mowat did not like the fact that his design was not chosen and left the board. The first library was replacedwith the new one because it was far too small and was in disrepair.   It was about 1/3 of the size of the current library and it was only one room.”

Martina Seifert writes in her book Rewriting Newfoundland Mythology  that “after living in outport reality for a while … [Mowat’s] hymns changed into a lament for the vanishing outport culture. Calling the noble characteristics ascribed to Newfoundlanders “an illusion,” Mowat concluded that he had failed to “glimpse the heart of darkness beating black within the present hour.”

Then the relationship was over. Finished.

“Mowat’s love affair with the hardy people of Newfoundland, whom he had once described as the “last primordial human beings left in our part of the world,” shattered after the primordial instincts of some fisherman took over when killing a trapped whale in a tidal pond near Burgeo,” Seifert writes.

There are versions of what happened to the whale in Burgeo in 1967, but the last word is Mowat’s best-selling novel, A Whale for the Killing. Casting himself in the role of savior and his neighbours in the role of barbarians, Goodreads describes the book thus:

“A plea for the end of commercial hunting of the whale, this moving account blends all the tension of the life-and-death struggle for one animal’s survival with the drama of man’s wanton destruction of life-bearing creatures and the environment itself.”

“Looking at Mowat’s presumptive posture outlined above, one is almost inclined to agree with Patrick O’Flaherty’s biting remarks that this author seems to travel the world looking for an “image of himself as a hairy primitive combatting mechanization and technology,” writes Martina Seifert, “and that all of Mowat’s books are ultimately about himself as he “cannot seem to get beyond the pleasures of his own uniqueness.””

An excerpt from The History of Burgeo speaks more plainly:

The writer … Farley Mowat wrote several pieces during his stay at Burgeo about the people and the land. One such piece did not please the citizens of the community.   A Whale for the Killing was a story that Mowat published after a few of the residents of Burgeo killed a whale that was trapped in a gut near the town. The citizens of Burgeo were extremely angry over this unwelcomed publicity and Farley Mowat felt it would be best if he left Burgeo, so he did.”

Sandy Tam Photography-Gail01Gail Picco is an award-winning charity strategist and thought-leader widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press recently published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World. She works as a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and is Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival.

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  1. jerry bennett says:

    is there any place one can get a copy of the movie the whale for the killing??

  2. Three or more floors and no fireplace for me. Instead

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