Taissumani: Nov. 2, 1860 — A Fortuitous Meeting
“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.