October 28, 2005

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Nov. 2, 1860 — A Fortuitous Meeting

Tookoolito and Ipiirvik with Charles Francis Hall. “Whence came this civilization refinement?” the explorer wondered.
“Good morning, sir.”

Charles Francis Hall, neophyte Arctic explorer, looked up from his desk where he was recording the events of Nov. 2, 1860. He had not expected to hear a female voice aboard the whaler, George Henry, anchored in Cyrus Field Bay off the coast of Baffin Island.

“The tone,” he wrote, “instantly told me that a lady of refinement was there, greeting me. I was astonished. Could I be dreaming? Was it a mistake? No! I was wide awake and writing. But, had a thunder-clap sounded on my ear, though it was snowing at the time, I could not have been more surprised than I was at the sound of that voice.”

Even less was he expecting the sight he saw as he trained his eyes toward the source of this pleasing voice. A flood of light from a skylight in the main cabin silhouetted his visitor in the doorway. He could make out a shadowy figure in a multi-cultural costume, a dress with heavy flounces, a jacket of caribou fur, and a “kiss-me-quick” bonnet. At first he could not make out her features, but he soon discerned, to his surprise, that the lady was Inuit. She extended an ungloved hand to Hall. “Whence,” thought the explorer, “came this civilization refinement?”

She entered the cabin at his invitation. And then he realized. This was Tookoolito, whom the whalers called Hannah and spoke of with such respect. He had, in fact, been hoping to meet her. Her husband followed her into the cabin. His name was Ipiirvik — though Hall spelled it Ebierbing — but the whalers knew him as Joe, a skilled ship’s pilot often in the employ of whaling masters.

Tookoolito, Hall noted, “spoke my own language fluently.” Ebierbing — whom Hall described as “a fine, and also intelligent-looking man” did not speak the language as well as his wife, yet Hall was able to talk with him “tolerably well.” They told the explorer about their visit to England seven years earlier, recounting that they had dined with Prince Albert — a “very kind, good man,” Ebierbing said. He described Queen Victoria as “quite pretty.” Tookoolito said of the queen: “I visited her, and liked the appearance of her majesty, and every thing about the palace. Fine place, I assure you, sir.”

Hall talked at length with Tookoolito. He recorded his first impressions thus: “I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanour. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”

Hall realized, of course, that this Inuit couple could be of great assistance to him in his efforts to learn the fate of the lost Franklin expedition, the mission that had brought him north on this shoe-string venture and which would drive him for the next decade. He took the couple on as his interpreter and guide. Two weeks later, he wrote, “I feel greater confidence... in the success of my mission since engaging these two natives. They can talk with me in my own vernacular, are both smart, and will be useful each in the department they will be called upon to fill.”

On his first meeting with them, aboard the George Henry, Hall asked Tookoolito if she would like to live in England again. She replied courteously, “I would like very well, I thank you.” Then he got right to the point. “Would you like to go to America with me?” he asked. “Indeed I would, sir,” came the ready reply.

This brief but auspicious visit would forever change the lives of Hannah and Joe. In 1862 they would travel to America with Hall, then, a few years later, accompany him on a five-year journey to Hudson Bay and the central Canadian Arctic in search of the remains of Franklin and his party. In between expeditions, they lived in a two-story frame house that they purchased on the outskirts of Groton, Connecticut. Later they would be part of the ill-fated Polaris expedition, and survive the amazing drift of 19 people on an ice floe from northern Greenland to the North Atlantic. They became the most well-travelled Inuit of their time.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

October 21, 2005

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Oct. 21, 1741 — Almost Anonymous: The Death of Inuk Charles


In the mid-1700s the Hudson’s Bay Company conducted a vigorous fur trade into the interior of Canada. These were wild times, and the Cree Indians and Inuit were frequently in a state of war, their traditional enmity for each other augmented by the desire to dominate in trade with the white men.

The James Bay Cree frequently conducted raids against the Inuit of the East Main, as the east coast of James Bay was called. On one of these raids, in 1736, a group of about 50 Indians killed five Inuit men and 15 women, and took 10 children captive.

We know the fate of only one of those unfortunate children. A ‘Young Eskemoe Boy’ was taken to Albany, on the west side of James Bay, and kept in servitude there for a time. His parents may have been among those killed in the raid. Then the HBC bought him from his Indian captors, in return for one pound of “Brazil tobacco,” one gallon of brandy, and one and one-half yards of blue broadcloth.

Sent from Albany to Moose Fort (the present-day Moose Factory), the young man, now, in effect, a slave of the HBC, was given the name “Charles” and put in the care of Captain Christopher Middleton.

Middleton had joined the HBC as a young man in 1721. During his career, he made a total of 16 voyages to Hudson Bay and visited all the company’s main posts. A keen navigator, he made observations on magnetism and experimented with methods to calculate longitude. The same year that Charles was placed in his care, Middleton earned a distinction, rare among seamen, by being elected a fellow of the Royal Society for his contributions to navigation.

In 1738, Middleton took Charles back to England. A letter from Moose Fort, addressed to the London Committee of the HBC, reported: “Upon the request of Captain Middleton I have sent your slave home, the Escomay boy, he [Middleton] saying how serviceable he will be in informing them relating to the trade in the Straits relating to the whalebone...”

This was a reference to trade in Hudson’s Strait, farther to the North, where Inuit traded annually with the company’s ships. The trade was for more than just whalebone (baleen), though; the Inuit also provided skins, narwhal tusks, seal and whale oil. Apparently, it was hoped that Charles would be a help in expanding this trade.

For the next three years Middleton was responsible for the well-being of Charles. The HBC periodically reimbursed him for the boy’s care. These were tough years for Captain Middleton. He had been befriended by Arthur Dobbs, a member of the Irish House of Commons, who had a long-standing interest in finding the Northwest Passage.

On March 5, 1741, Middleton received a commission in the Royal Navy, and resigned from the HBC. In June he left England in command of the first British naval expedition to search for a Northwest Passage.

With Middleton no longer an HBC employee, someone else had to take responsibility for the company’s slave. On March 26, Charles was brought to a company sub-committee and given to the secretary to care for. That spring he left again for Hudson Bay, this time aboard a ship commanded by George Spurrell. The Committee’s instructions to Spurrell were to “cause the Indian [Inuit] Ladd to tell them [the Inuit] they must Endeavour to get what Whalebone, Oil and Furs they can against the next year.” Spurrell’s ship, the Seahorse, visited Churchill in July and York Factory in August. It returned to London on October 3.

The story of Charles ends abruptly. Later that month the records of the HBC note simply that on October 21, Captain Spurrell was reimbursed £3 15s. 8d. for ‘Physick and funeral Charges for Charles the Compys. [Company’s] Esquemay boy.’

Where and how Charles died is unknown, although the reference to funeral charges would indicate that he died back in England, rather than on the voyage.

An almost-anonymous Inuk, his brief and incomplete story has been pieced together from the scattered references found within the records of a secretive trading company intent on preserving and extending a monopoly. Consider what we don’t know about him. We don’t know his real name or place of birth, anything about his parents, whether or not he had siblings, his date or place of death, nor his final resting place. Indeed, it is a small miracle that we know anything about him at all.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

October 14, 2005

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Oct. 15, 1872 — Adrift on an Ice Floe


Captain George Tyson, a member of the ill-fated Polaris Expedition, and a survivor of a harrowing 196-day voyage on a drifting ice-floe.
In 1871, the Polaris Expedition, under the leadership of Charles Francis Hall, left the United States for the North Pole. The expedition would end in tragedy for its commander. Having stopped for the winter at Thank God Harbour on the west coast of northern Greenland, opposite Ellesmere Island, Hall died there the following spring. [But more of his death in another column.]

In the summer of 1871, the Polaris broke free from her icy prison. With Hall dead, Captain Sidney Budington had abandoned any idea of continuing farther north. But although the ice had broken up, it had not cleared, and the Polaris was unable to break away from the floe. She spent most of the summer and fall locked in drifting ice, moving slowly southward. Thirty-three people were on board: German and American sailors, a German scientist, and Inuit from Baffin Island and Greenland.

Then, on Oct. 15, a strong gale from the north changed everything. The ship was nipped in the ice. A detailed account of the events comes from the hand of the ice-master, George Tyson, veteran of many whaling voyages to the Arctic. Tyson wrote: “The pressure was very great. The vessel did not lift much... she bore it nobly. I was surprised at her great strength.”

But the engineer reported that the vessel was leaking, the water gaining on the pumps. When Tyson reported this to Budington, the captain yelled to “throw everything on the ice!” They would abandon ship.

Tyson: “Instantly every thing was confusion, the men seizing every thing indiscriminately, and throwing it overboard... I got overboard, calling some of the men to help me, and tried to move what I could away from the ship, so it should not be crushed and lost.”

Back on the ship, still held fast to the floe by ice anchors, Tyson found that the engineer’s report of rising water in the hold had been a false alarm. There was no need to abandon ship. Tyson immediately returned to the ice to try to save the provisions.

Tyson: “While so engaged, the ice commenced cracking. Very shortly after, the ice exploded under our feet, and broke in many places, and the ship broke away in the darkness and we lost sight of her in a moment.

“It was snowing at the time also; it was a terrible night... the wind was blowing strong from the south-east; it was snowing and drifting, and was fearfully dark; ...so bad was the snow and sleet that one could not even look to the windward. We did not know who was on the ice or who was on the ship; but I knew some of the children were on the ice, because almost the last thing I had pulled away from the crushing heel of the ship were some musk-ox skins; they were lying across a wide crack in the ice, and as I pulled them toward me to save them, I saw that there were two or three of Hans’s children rolled up in one of the skins; a light motion of the ice, and in a moment more they would either have been in the water and drowned in the darkness, or crushed between the ice.

“We did not dare to move about much... for we could not see the size of the ice we were on, on account of the storm and darkness. All the rest but myself — the men, women, and children — sought what shelter they could from the storm by wrapping themselves in the musk-ox skins, and so laid down to rest. I alone walk the floe all night.”

Their floating platform was a nearly circular piece of ice, about four miles in circumference. Tyson did a tally and found that, besides himself, there were 18 people on the ice, including all of the Inuit: Hannah and Joe Ebierbing and their daughter, and Hans Hendrik and his family. Tyson surmised, correctly as it turned out: “I do not think any body was lost last night. I think all that are not here are on the ship.” He added: “I should think they would soon be coming to look for us.”

The following day, when the ship had not appeared, Tyson wrote: “Why does not the Polaris come to our rescue? This is the thought that now fills every heart... The gale had abated; it was almost calm. I looked around upon the company with me upon the ice... Now, to feed all these, I saw that we had but fourteen cans of pemmican, eleven and a half bags of bread, one can of dried apples, and fourteen hams; and if the ship did not come for us, we might have to support ourselves all winter. Fortunately we had the boats.”

Thus began one of the most amazing survival stories in the annals of Arctic history. Nineteen men, women, and children, adrift on an ice floe, survived for 196 days while their floe drifted slowly southward through Smith Sound, Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and into the North Atlantic. They were rescued April 30, 1873 by a Newfoundland sealer, the Tigress, without loss of life, thanks largely to the leadership of Tyson and the hunting prowess of the Inuit men of the expedition, Joe Eierbing and Hans Hendrik.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

October 7, 2005

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Oct. 12, 1892 - The Disappearance of Bjorling and Kallstenius


The expedition of Bjorling and Kallstenius is one of the most little-known of Arctic expeditions. Mounted on a shoe-string budget, it was the type of expedition that many young adventurers dream of, but few are foolhardy enough to attempt. It came to a tragic end only a few months after it started.

Alfred Bjorling was a Swedish botanist, only 21 years of age. Yet he had already built a considerable reputation. Two years earlier he had been botanist on an expedition to Spitsbergen. The following year, he had attempted an impossible journey from Godhavn, Greenland, by row-boat to Melville Bay.

In 1892 he was determined to undertake a botanical investigation of Ellesmere Island. His companion would be a 24-year-old zoologist and fellow Swede, Evald Kallstenius. The two scientist-adventurers travelled first to St. John’s where they bought a small schooner, the Ripple, for only $665, recruited a 21-year-old Dane as captain and two locally-hired men as crew. They took this tiny vessel through treacherous ice to Godhavn in less than a month. The plan was for a summer investigation of Ellesmere Island and a quick return that fall to Godhavn. Unfortunately nothing turned out as planned.

The expedition made it as far as the easternmost of the Cary Islands, a group of tiny islands off the coast of northern Greenland, southwest of the present community of Qaanaaq. In 1875, George Nares, leading a British expedition, had left supplies cached there, and Bjorling intended to use them. On Aug. 17, after the party had loaded stores from the cache onto the Ripple, the ship ran ashore, perhaps under the pressure of drift ice. Undaunted, Bjorling and his companions made an attempt to go north to Foulke Fiord in the small sloop they had purchased at Godhavn, but the attempt was unsuccessful and they returned to the scene of their shipwreck.

Stranded on the Carey Islands with no means of going south, with winter coming on and the hours of daylight noticeably decreasing, the logical next step would have been to use their boat to make for the Greenland coast, plainly visible and only about 60 kilometres away. There they would almost certainly have met Inughuit who could have insured their survival through the winter. In fact, before he left Godhavn that summer, Bjorling had written that, “If a wintering should be necessary, I will resort to the Eskimos in North Greenland or the Danes on the west coast.”

When Bjorling wrote those words, he had not anticipated that a wrecked ship would thwart his plan to reach Ellesmere Island. And he was a man known for his determination and stubbornness. Now, more than ever, he resolved to visit Ellesmere Island.

In his last written message, left on the Carey Islands, he wrote, “Forced by bad weather to linger on this island for a long time, I now set out on the tour to the Eskimos... on Ellesmere Island. As I hope that a whaler will visit Cary Island next summer to rescue me and my companions, I will try to reach this island again before July 1.” He added, “We are now five men, of which one is dying.” The note was dated Oct. 12, 1892.

And then the expedition, one man short, vanished into the west, four men in a tiny sloop heading vainly toward unknown Ellesmere Island. They were never heard from again. Did they make it? No trace of them or their tiny vessel has ever been found on the Canadian shore. Had they reached it, they would certainly have perished, for no Inuit lived on that coast to assist them. Instead, they almost certainly went to watery graves in the frigid depths of Smith Sound.

In June of the following year, Capt. Harry McKay of the Scottish whaler Aurora spotted a wreck on the easternmost of the Cary Islands. He landed and discovered the Ripple, embedded in the winter’s snow and ice. A man’s body was found nearby, buried under a pile of stones. McKay quickly gathered the relics he could find, including Bjorling’s final message.

Among the items McKay recovered were a few pages from a book that Bjorling had taken with him on his ill-fated expedition. That book was “Three Years of Arctic Service,” by A. W. Greely, who had lost so many men to starvation on the Ellesmere coast a decade earlier. One wonders if Bjorling had bothered to read it. If he had, it is all the more inexplicable why he should have made for Ellesmere instead of the more accessible Greenland coast.

Back home in Sweden, the families of two young scientists grieved their loss. Their mourning was not made any easier by their remembrance of the tactless remarks of another Swedish polar explorer, A. E. Nordenskiold, who wrote in a letter to the Kallstenius family even before the young men’s fate was known, “When young men go in search of adventures, they will have to take the perilous consequences of their action.”

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.