Subtitled The Story of James Evans and the Invention of
the Cree Syllabary Alphabet, Roger Burford Mason’s biography
of the nineteenth century missionary to northern Canada and the
inventor of a written language for the Cree people is scholarly
and engaging. This is not a conventional biography: Mason skips
in fairly perfunctory manner over Evans’s childhood in Hull and
his courtship. It is really the story of Evans’s conviction that
the native American people should be educated, a conviction which
brought him into conflict with the might Hudson Bay Company, whose
acquisitiveness resulted in massive over-hunting, subsequent movement
of people, and the degradation of the Indian population.
Evans’s mission covered a vast tract of land which he travelled
in a light tin canoe of his own invention – the canoe glittered
in the sun and the Indians called it his "Shining Island".
Evans’s invention and innovation turned to ways of communicating
the Bible to the Cree, known as "the exact people" because
of the purity of their language. His simple syllabary system better
approximated their speech than the Roman alphabet, and could be
modified for languages other than Cree. Its use spread as Evans,
strongly opposed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, began to print in
the new alphabet.
In all this work, Evans’s modesty and industry shines through,
and his acceptance of poverty. An acquaintance wrote of visiting
Evans and his wife Mary, who only had a little flour to eat:
To render this more palatable and nutritious, as they thought,
it was mixed with fish spawn and eaten like pancakes, which was
partaken of not only with resignation but with gratitude and cheerfulness.
James Evans was literally a man who made a sport of hardship and
Evans was of course motivated in his difficult work – long journeys
took him away from his wife and their daughter for months at a
time – by his mission to convert the Indians. But his work as
an educator was also fired by his concern at the facile destruction
of Indian way of life by vested interests. Evans wrote to his
brother in England, of the need for Indians to be able to read
and write, with great feeling:
I have written to the Hudson’s Bay Company Commission headquarters
in London asking for permission to import a small printing press,
fully aware of their policy to allow no such device into their
territory. They doubtless fear that the spread of knowledge will
endanger their hold on the hunters. But I beg you to use all your
persuasive powers to make the Company Committee see the evil there
is in keeping these people in ignorance. The fur traders cannot
hope to monopolize this great land for ever; they must give way
to immigration. What then of the Indian? The people must be prepared
to meet settlement.
With our benefit of hindsight, Evans’s prescience and passion
seems all the more moving.
The governor general of Canada wrote of Evans
…the fact is, the nation has given many a man a title and a
pension, and then a resting-place in Westminster Abbey, who never
did half so much for his fellow creatures.
Evans died in England at the age of forty-six. He had been accused
of having sexual relations with Indian women and was recalled
to England to answer the accusations by the annual Methodist conference.
The evidence suggests that these accusations were fabricated by
Evans’s enemies. He was found to be innocent by a court in Canada,
and completely exonerated by the Methodist conference. But the
strain of these proceedings must have sadly affected Evans, and
he died of a stroke after speaking about his mission in a church
in Hull. He was buried in Hull, in a church which was subsequently
left derelict, bombed during World War Two, and struck by lightning.
In 1954 Evans’s remains were taken from the Hull church to Canada
where they were reinterred by the Cree among whom, as a local
newspaper wrote, "the name of James Evans is still revered".
Evans never sought recognition or fame, but the fact that Cree
people gathered to honour him one hundred years after is death
is the most telling of testimonies, and Roger Burford Mason’s
account of this life is a fitting and erudite tribute.
Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith