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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic November 09, 2012 - 10:53 am

Taissumani, Nov. 9

Arctic Secrets: Jamie Florence at Bylot Island – Part 4

KENN HARPER
Niqquq, on the left, was the wife of Jamie Florence during the time he spent on Bylot Island. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Niqquq, on the left, was the wife of Jamie Florence during the time he spent on Bylot Island. (HARPER COLLECTION)

By the summer of 1918, Jamie Florence had spent two years at the Arctic Gold Exploration Syndicate’s trading post at Sannirut – Button Point – on Bylot Island.

He had been provisioned for one year, and so his second year had been one of privation. He was used to life in the Arctic. As a boy not quite a teen he had first gone to Cumberland Sound on a whaling ship. As he grew to adulthood, returning regularly to the sound, the Inuit gave him the name Surusiviniq – the one who used to be a child.

The Inuit of northern Baffin Island knew this name, but they gave him another one, usually calling him simply Jimiruluk.  Depending on the context, that could mean “Poor Jimmy” or “Poor Little Jimmy.”

In the summer of 1918, Capt. Murray had made a valiant attempt to reach Button Point with supplies for the unfortunate Florence, but ice conditions in Davis Strait turned him back.

Fortunately Murray was able to make contact with some Inuit along the coast and gave them a parcel and letters to deliver to Florence when they had a chance. It was spring of the following year before they made the delivery. Looking out over the ice one day, Florence saw a group of Inuit making toward his hut.

When he was finally back home in Peterhead, he told his daughter about it, and so her account continued:

“The parcels which had been packed with so much care had been opened by the Eskimos and most of the nice things eaten. All the tobacco was gone, but the little that was left was very welcome. Dozens of letters, photos and newspapers gave him something to read for a long time. He was then able to explain to the natives how he came by his accident and the reason for being alone. They soon sent on the glad news to other natives that the white man was still alive. They returned to work for him again.”

This was indeed high drama with which to entertain a wife and child in Peterhead on his eventual return. But it was nothing more than an elaborate ruse. Jamie Florence certainly spent three miserable years at Button Point, and the gunshot wound to the thigh is verified by Inuit accounts.

But the Inuit never abandoned him. They continued to trade sporadically at his post, and some lived there. Robert Janes, who was about his own age, even visited him occasionally, as did the much younger Wilfrid Caron. 

But Jamie Florence had a secret, one that he desperately wanted to keep from his wife and family back home in Peterhead. He had taken an Inuit mistress.

She was Niqquq, a favourite of traders both before and after Florence’s time. She was barren, and so Florence left no children behind in the Arctic. Inuit remember, however, that he liked children, and he and Niqquq temporarily adopted a young Inuit girl to live with them at Button Point. He treated the child just as if she were his own daughter.

Of course, it was not unusual for a white man in the Arctic to take an Inuit woman as his “wife.” Whaling captains did it. Traders did it. So did the police and a few missionaries.

The “wives” were often married to Inuit men, usually good hunters, and had families of their own, sometimes augmented by the addition of a little one whose hair might be a touch fairer than his or her siblings. These children were loved, as all children were, and sometimes even favoured.

The marriage was one of convenience – for both parties. Yet, no matter how long it lasted, it almost always ended when the white man came no more to the Arctic.

Each of the traders in the Pond Inlet area in 1918 had a “wife” in the north. Janes’s was Kalluk, and that relationship ended with his attempt to leave the north, which resulted in his death.  Caron’s wife was Panikpak. And Jamie Florence’s was Niqquq. These relationships were widely known in the north. But they were kept secret from loved ones in the south.

It was his relationship with Niqquq that Florence had attempted to conceal from his family in Peterhead by concocting the elaborate fiction of almost three years in the Arctic without human companionship.

The Albert finally reached Florence’s post in 1919, and he left the north for good. Niqquq, of course, remained behind in northern Baffin Island. After the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a trading post in Pond Inlet in 1921, she found employment and companionship at the post. She eventually left Pond Inlet for Labrador with a company employee and never returned. 

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


 

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