Friday, 1 October 2010

Saved by a walrus - in the footsteps of Archibald Lang Fleming

When we first moved as a family to Oldham, on the slopes of the Pennines, we were told by our neighbours that we wouldn't last one winter. There's nothing like a warm welcome to the North of England for Southern softies! To be fair, they were almost right, though by sheer brute force, ignorance & many layers of clothing, we eventually managed 9 winters & even became accepted & assimilated into this tough northern tribe.

I've been reading this morning of a feat of endurance in the North of Canada which makes our northern sojourn look like a Sandals holiday. Archibald Lang Fleming arrived amongst the Eskimos as a missionary in 1909. Ok, he was a hardy Scot from Clydebank, but nothing can have prepared him for the extremes of this kind of living. Remember,these were the days of Empire, when British explorer types set off up a mountain or into the Amazon armed only with a machette, a tweed jacket & a fine handlebar moustache!

Fleming needed more than a tweed jacket as he joined a people group who had maintained their existence for generations through the most precarious balance of hunting, skill & sheer fortune, in a climate which would finish off Europeans in a week.

Acclimatisation? Well, Fleming got straight on with it. That first winter of 1909 he spent living in a small igloo with 2 other Eskimo families! Stephen Neill in his 'History of Christian Missions' quotes Fleming as follows-
'Life in a crowded hut has many disadvantages. The foetid atmosphere was sickening, & the acrid smoke from the blubber lamps was an aromatic disinfectant, though when it caused us discomfort the hole in the roof was cleared & a better circulation of air was created.......What Commander Peary wrote of Eskimo dwellings was true. 'A night in one of thses igloos, with a family at home, is an offence to every civilised sense.'


Fleming is not famous amongst missionaries or explorers. There is probably a statue to him somewhere, but I don't know where. Even his Wikipedia page is brief! This man was a giant, the kind who counted his own comfort & even his life nothing, for the sake of seeing distant people reached with the gospel. Jim Elliot rightly gained attention decades later, but Fleming also was 'no fool, who gave the things he cannot keep to gain what he would never lose.'

That first, terrible winter of 1909, the whole settlement were days from starvation, their lives hanging in the delicate climatic balance. At the last, the wind changed, & hunters were able to find walrus to eat. Fleming survived, & persevered, discovering a brotherhood with the Eskimos through their shared adversity which drew them together.

By the time of his death in 1953, Fleming was known as 'Archibald the Arctic' & upwards of 80% of the indigenous Eskimo peoples of Canada were faithful Christians.It seems winter approaches again as I look out of my window today. I wonder what glorious opportunities exist for those of us who are ready to follow Fleming's example in our modern context?

3 comments:

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  2. Archibald Fleming was my father's great-uncle, related by marriage through my father's Great-Aunt Gracie. On one occasion
    my father traveled with his "Uncle Archie" into the Arctic, riding on sledges and spending nights in "ice houses". He returned to explore the McKenzie River.
    Uncle Archie is a family hero. His legacy of adventure and his tenacity in ministering to others is alive and well within my father's life. It has been far reaching, living within genarations of descendants also.

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  3. Wow Marion, thanks so much for posting that! I was so impressed with his story that I pondered writing a full biography. How amazing to hear from one of his relatives!
    If you are aware of any other written sources relating to Uncle Archie, I would love to hear about it. Maybe you could email me on steve@nlceg.co.uk

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