Taissumani, April 20
A Missionary and His Lover, Part 2
Last week I wrote about Julian William Bilby, missionary to the Inuit, who lived on Blacklead Island near present-day Pangnirtung.
Bilby left Blacklead for England in 1905. The following year another missionary, E. W. T. Greenshield, escorted Bilby’s girlfriend, Annie Sikuliaq, to Scotland on the annual supply vessel. Bilby awaited her arrival there.
In November Edmund James Peck, the elder statesman of Arctic missionaries, wrote that “the Eskimo woman whom he [Bilby] had promised to marry has arrived safely with our brave young brother Greenshield. Mr. Bilby doubtless thinks as I do myself… that our damp home climate would never suit her so he speaks of going to Canada.”
Indeed, Bilby now had a more serious problem. Out of a job and with a fiancée to support, he needed to find work and he wanted it to be as a missionary. Peck was an advocate for the young man and suggested that he write to the Bishop of Moosonee to ask for a position for himself and for Annie, whom he described as “a most intelligent and useful woman.”
Peck thought that the mission should find him work, “he having repented of his offence.” It is not clear to what offence Peck was referring. He had violated mission policy by taking up with Annie. But the more serious crime, in Peck’s view, was probably his offensive behaviour to the whalers.
And then Bilby confounded matters. Annie was in poor health. The climate of Norwich, where they lived with or near Bilby’s mother, clearly did not agree with her. And the long-discussed marriage still had not happened.
And then the unthinkable. The young couple decided not to marry after all. No-one knows whose decision this was. It may well have been mutual.
Bilby’s problem now was how to get Annie safely back to far-off Blacklead Island. He certainly could not simply send her alone as the only woman aboard a whaling ship. And she didn’t speak English. Crawford Noble was not sending a ship out in 1907 but a rival, Robert Kinnes of Dundee, was.
But whaling was a tight-knit fraternity and Kinnes undoubtedly knew the reputation that accompanied Bilby. He refused to allow passage for the missionary and Annie.
Somehow the two made it to Reykjavik. There they met, almost certainly by pre-arrangement, with a Scottish whaler that had been fishing off the east Greenland coast. The Scotia put in to port in the small Icelandic community on July 31, to take on coal and pick up mail destined for the CGS Arctic, a Canadian sovereignty vessel that had wintered in the High Arctic.
Capt. Tom Robertson – nicknamed “Coffee Tam” because of his adamant refusal to allow alcohol aboard any ship he commanded — took the star-crossed couple on board and left for Baffin Island on August 3. Bilby later praised him lavishly for his kindness.
The vessel reached the mouth of Cumberland Sound on the 17th of the month but ice barred their passage, so Robertson set his course for Durban Island, Broughton Island and Cape Hooper. At Hooper he learned from Inuit that the Diana had left the day before, having taken one small whale, but that the rest of the Scottish fleet was “clean” – whalers’ parlance for not having taken any whales. Turning southward again, the Scotia finally reached Blacklead Island on Sept. 1.
Bilby wrote, “...after much trouble & expense & anxiety I have got my friend safely back again with her relatives. She is much stronger now and better than she was in England & her relatives are very pleased with the care that has been taken with her & the help given.”
And then another problem. Capt. Robertson had no room to take Bilby back to Scotland. The missionary would have to spend the winter in Cumberland Sound. But Robertson had only a minimum of stores that he could sell him. It was not appropriate for him to stay in Blacklead Island where Annie would live.
Ironically then, Bilby, who had railed against co-operation with traders, had to move in with the new agent that Robert Kinnes was setting up in Kekerten, assisting in the trade and doing whatever teaching he could. At the time Blacklead was home to 157 Inuit, Kekerten to 140.
In 1908, Rev. Greenshield travelled to Cumberland Sound on a Dundee vessel, the Queen Bess. He visited the Inuit in Blacklead Island, administered the sacraments to those who had been baptized, and found Bilby at Kekerten, willing to stay on for another year if he could get enough food. But the Queen Bess carried no extra supplies and Bilby left for England with Greenshield.
Greenshield also learned something else at Blacklead Island. Annie Sikkooleak had passed away in November of 1907, less than three months after returning home.
Writing of her, Greenshield said, “Our friend whom he [Bilby] was anxious to marry was called to her rest shortly before Xmas. The old trouble from which she was suffering in England re-asserted itself in an acute form, & the end came soon. I am led to believe that it was a triumphant death.” This nonsense is missionary-speak for “she died a Christian.”
Julian Bilby eventually re-appeared as a missionary at Lake Harbour, and later in Bombay, India. He lived out his final days at a parish in England where he died in 1932 at the age of 61. Presumably, his death too was “triumphant.”