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MACKAY, JOHN, assistant ship’s surgeon; fl. 1785–87.

Little is known of John Mackay’s life until late in 1785. At that date he embarked with an expedition which was sailing from Bombay (India) under the leadership of Madras merchant James Charles Stuart Strange* to trade with the coastal Indians of present-day British Columbia. According to Alexander Walker*, who took part in the venture and who later interviewed him, Mackay was a native of Ireland who had received some medical training but had enlisted in the service of the East India Company as a private soldier. He had been selected for the voyage because he had sufficient medical background to act as surgeon’s assistant on board the snow the Experiment, accompanying the Captain Cook, which carried a fully qualified surgeon. Strange had originally planned to leave a garrison of soldiers at Nootka Sound but decided on the spot against such an establishment because of its potential cost. Instead he left one man, John Mackay.

Later accounts of Mackay, based on scanty information, have tended to inflate his medical background. There is no doubt that in his journal Strange exaggerated Mackay’s credentials; it was hardly in his interest to admit that the one individual left behind on his departure from the sound in July 1786 was not particularly well qualified. According to Strange, Mackay was a bright young man who had already won the affection of Nootka chief Muquinna by curing the chief’s child of scabby hands and legs, and “as his [medical] Practice encreased, his Consequence in the Eyes of these people could not fail daily to gain ground.” Nevertheless, Strange demonstrated a distinct lack of confidence in Mackay, emphasizing that he was supplied only with drugs which would not prove poisonous. Mackay was also left with full provisions, large quantities of seed, a pair of goats, as well as books, ink, and paper so that he might record “every Occurrence, however trivial, which might serve to throw any Light on our hitherto confined knowledge of the Manners, Customs, Religion & Government of these people.” It was a golden chance for ethnography.

Unfortunately Mackay did not prove to be an ideal choice. He agreed to remain at Nootka Sound largely to avoid returning to the ranks in India, and in Alexander Walker’s opinion, he was a man with “neither much Education nor much understanding.” Captain George Dixon, who met Mackay in 1787, concurred, describing him as a “very ignorant young fellow . . . possessed of but an ordinary capacity.” The difficulties were nevertheless not entirely of Mackay’s making. The first problem was that Muquinna had insisted that Strange leave Mackay a musket and ammunition, since the natives viewed their guest principally as a smiter of the enemy. They also demanded that Mackay be left a red coat because such a garment would in itself awe their opponents. Strange tried to impress upon them that the gun was powerful only in the hands of a white man, but Mackay failed to capitalize on this advantage. A month after the departure of the Bombay vessels, the Sea Otter (Capt. James Hanna) called at Nootka Sound. Mackay was reported “healthy and contented, dressed and living like the natives”; indeed Mackay later recalled that by the time of Hanna’s visit he had begun “to relish dried fish and whale oil,” and was extremely “satisfied with his way of life.” The Nootkas proudly displayed the gun to the Sea Otters crew, an understandable gesture to the Europeans who had first used firearms against them a year earlier. The Indians soon persuaded Mackay to let them examine the gun. He even dismantled the lock. Pieces were handed around, admired, and promptly vanished.

Despite the loss of his weapon, Mackay continued to be well treated until one day he inadvertently broke a taboo by stepping over the cradle of Muquinna’s child when it was situated in front of the door. The chief chased him out of his house and assaulted him. For some weeks Mackay was forced to remain outdoors, his banishment prolonged by the child’s death soon afterwards. Eventually he was given a but and fed, but he never regained Muquinna’s patronage. The writing instruments were destroyed shortly after by another chief; the goats died through neglect. When the village moved inland for the winter, Mackay was not fed on the journey and kept himself alive by eating all his garden and grain seed. Whatever skill in medicine he may have had, the women would not let him practise; they had their own remedies. Without his gun he was of no value in hunting, and he was left behind with the women and children whenever the men went food gathering. Naturally he came down with the bloody flux and spent a miserable winter.

In June 1787 the Imperial Eagle (Capt. Charles William Barkley*) moored in Friendly Cove and, according to the lost diary of Mrs Barkley (Frances Hornby Trevor), Mackay soon appeared on board, dressed only in a sea-otter skin and filthy beyond belief. Although Captain Dixon, who arrived in August, reported that Mackay had little command of the Nootkas’ language – hardly surprising since he had spent most of his residence in disgrace – Mackay was able to help Barkley gain a cargo of 700 skins from the village. He was obviously eager to leave and apparently did so with Dixon aboard the King George. Upon his arrival in Canton (People’s Republic of China), Mackay claimed that he had been forcibly removed and that given “a free choice he would not have quitted his station. . . .” By the time he returned to India he was drinking so heavily as to be nearly incomprehensible. Shortly after his interviews with Walker in Bombay (apparently some time in 1788), Mackay vanished. He probably soon died, his American experience a curiosity rather than a significant source of knowledge for others.

J. M. Bumsted

National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), Dept. of Manuscripts, mss 13778, p.4; 13780, pp.262–78, 313. Provincial Archives of B.C., G.B., India Office, East India Company, Madras records, 1785–95, James Strange to Archibald Campbell, 22 Feb. 1788 (transcript); John Walbran, “The cruise of the Imperial Eagle” (typescript). [William Beresford], A voyage round the world: but more particularly to the north-west coast of America . . . , ed. and intro. George Dixon (London, 1789; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1968), 232–33. [James Strange], James Stranges journal and narrative of the commercial expedition from Bombay to the north-west coast of America . . . (Madras, India, 1928; repr. 1929), 21, 23. Cook, Flood tide of empire, 102. F. W. Howay, “The voyage of the ‘Captain Cook’ and the ‘Experiment,’ 1785–86,” British Columbia Hist. Quarterly (Victoria), V (1941), 285–96. W. K. Lamb, “The mystery of Mrs. Barkley’s diary: notes on the voyage of the ‘Imperial Eagle,’ 1786–87,” British Columbia Hist. Quarterly, VI (1942), 31–47.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “MACKAY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackay_john_4E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackay_john_4E.html
Author of Article: J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article: MACKAY, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1979
Year of revision: 1979
Access Date: April 16, 2014