In the Arctic Seas Part 2

{JULY, 1857.}


We were not destined to get to sea that evening. The 'Fox,' hitherto during her brief career, accustomed only to the restraint imposed upon a gilded pet in summer seas, seemed to have got an inkling that her duty henceforth was to combat with difficulties, and, entering fully into the spirit of the cruise, answered her helm so much more readily than the pilot expected that she ran aground upon the bar. She was promptly shored up, and remained in that position until next morning, when she floated off unhurt at high water, and commenced her long and lonely voyage.

Scarcely had we left the busy world behind us when we were actively engaged in making arrangements for present comfort and future exertion.

How busy, how happy, and how full of hope we all were then!

On the night of the 2d of July we passed through the Pentland Firth, where the tide rushing impetuously against a strong wind raised up a tremendous sea, amid which the little vessel struggled bravely under steam and canvas. The bleak wild shores of Orkney, the still wilder pilot's crew, and their hoarse screams and unintelligible dialect, the shrill cry of innumerable sea-birds, the howling breeze and angry sea, made us feel as if we had suddenly awoke in Greenland itself. The southern extremity of that ice-locked continent became visible on the 12th. It is quaintly named Cape Farewell; but whether by some sanguine outward-bound adventurer who fancied that in leaving Greenland behind him he had already secured his passage to Cathay; or whether by the wearied homesick mariner, feebly escaping from the grasp of winter in his shattered bark, and firmly purposing to bid a long farewell to this cheerless land, history altogether fails to enlighten us.


From January until July this coast is usually rendered unapproachable by a broad margin of heavy ice, which drifts there from the vicinity of Spitzbergen, and, lapping round the Cape, extends alongshore to the northward about as far as Baal's River, a distance of 250 miles.

Although it effectually blockades the ports of South Greenland for the greater part of the summer, and is justly dreaded by the captains of the Greenland traders, it confers important benefits upon the Greenlander by bearing to his shores immense numbers of seals and many bears. The same current which conveys hither all this ice is also freighted with a scarcely less valuable supply of driftwood from the Siberian rivers.

About this time, one of my crew showing symptoms of diseased lungs, I determined to embrace the earliest opportunity of sending him home out of a climate so fatal to those who are thus affected; and having learnt from Mr. Petersen, who had quitted Greenland only in April last, that a vessel would very soon leave Frederickshaab for Copenhagen, I resolved to go to that place in order to catch this homeward-bound ship.


It was necessary to push through the Spitzbergen ice, and we fortunately succeeded in doing so after eighteen hours of buffeting with this formidable enemy; at first we found it tolerably loose, and the wind being strong and favorable, we thumped along pleasantly enough; but as we advanced, the ice became much more closely packed, a thick fog came on, and many hard knocks were exchanged; at length our steam carried us through into the broad belt of clear water between the ice and land, which Petersen assures me always exists here at this season.

The dense fog now prevented further progress, and as evening closed in I gave up all hope of improvement for the night, when suddenly the fog rolled back upon the land, disclosing some islets close to us, then the rugged points of mainland, and at length, lifting altogether, the distant snowy mountain-peaks against a deep blue sky.

The evening became bright and delightful; the whole extent of coast was fringed with innumerable islets, backed by lofty mountains, and, being richly tinted by a glorious western sun, formed an unusually splendid sight. Greenland unveiled to our anxious gaze that memorable evening, all the magnificence of her natural beauty. Was it to welcome us that she thus cast off her dingy outer mantle, and shone forth radiant with smiles?--such winning smiles!


A faint streak of mist, which we could not account for, appeared to float across a low, wide interval in the mountain range; the telescope revealed its true character,--it was a portion of the distant glacier.

We found ourselves upon the Tallard Bank, 30 miles north of our port, having been rapidly carried northwards by the Spitzbergen current.

_July 20th._--This morning the chief trader of the settlement, or, as he is more usually styled by the English, the Governor, came off to us, and his pilot soon conducted us into the safe little harbor of Frederickshaab. I was much gratified to learn that we were just in time to secure a passage home for our ailing shipmate.

For trading purposes Greenland is monopolized by the Danish government; its Esquimaux and mixed population amount to about 7000 souls. About 1000 Danes reside constantly there for the purpose of conducting the trade, which consists almost exclusively in the exchange of European goods for oil and the skins of seals, reindeer, and a few other animals.


The Esquimaux are not subject to Danish laws, but although proud of their nominal independence they are sincerely attached to the Danes, and with abundant reason; a Lutheran clergyman, a doctor, and a schoolmaster, whose duty it is to give gratuitous instruction and relief, are paid by the Government, and attached to each district; and when these improvident people are in distress, which not unfrequently happens during the long winters, provisions are issued to them free of cost; spirits are strictly prohibited. All of them have become Christians, and many can read and write.

Have we English done more, or as much, for the aborigines in any of our numerous colonies, and especially for the Esquimaux within our own territories of Labrador and Hudson's Bay?

Greenland is divided into two inspectorates, the northern and southern; the inspector of the latter division, Dr. Rink, had arrived at Frederickshaab upon his summer round of visits only the day previous to ourselves. He came on board to call upon me, and after Divine service I landed, and enjoyed a ramble with him over the moss-clad hills. Our first meeting was in North Greenland, in 1848; we had not seen one another since, so we had much to talk about. Dr. Rink is a gentleman of acknowledged talent, a distinguished traveller, and is thoroughly conversant with the sciences of geology and botany.


Unfortunately for me his excellent work on Greenland has not been translated into English.

We were kindly permitted to purchase eight tons of coals, and such small things as were required; the only fresh supplies to be obtained besides codfish, which was abundant, consisted of a very few ptarmigan and hares, and a couple of kids; these last are scarce. Some goats exist, but for eight months out of the year they are shut up in a house, and even now--in midsummer,--are only let out in the daytime. We also purchased of the Esquimaux some specimens of Esquimaux workmanship, such as models of the native dresses, kayaks, etc., also birds' skins and eggs. I saw fine specimens of a white swan, and of a bird said to be extremely rare in Greenland,--it was a species of grebe, _Podiceps cristatus_, I imagine. Frederickshaab is just now well supplied with wood: besides an unseaworthy brig, the wreck of a large timber-ship lay on the beach, and an abandoned timber-vessel, which was met with between Iceland and Greenland in July by Prince Napoleon, drifted upon the coast 30 miles to the northward in the following September.


[12] A list of them and their subscriptions to be given in Appendix.


Fiskernaes and Esquimaux--The 'Fox' reaches Disco--Disco Fiord--Summer scenery--Waigat Strait--Coaling from the mine--Purchasing Esquimaux dogs--Heavy gale off Upernivik--Melville Bay--The middle ice--The great glacier of Greenland--Reindeer cross the glacier.


_23rd July._--Sailed the day before yesterday for Godhaab. The fog was thick, and wind strong and contrary, but the current being favorable we found ourselves off the small out-station of Fiskernaes, when early this morning our fore topmast was carried away; this accident induced me to run in and anchor for the purpose of repairing the damage.

After passing within the outer islets, the Moravian settlement of Lichtenfels came in view upon the right hand; it consists of a large, sombre-looking wooden house, over which is a belfry, a smaller wooden house, and about a dozen native huts, roofed with sods, and scarcely distinguishable from the ground they stand on, even at a very short distance. The land immediately behind is a barren rocky steep, now just sufficiently denuded of snow to look desolate in the extreme. A strong tide was setting out of the fiord, as we approached, and anchored in the rocky little cove of Fiskernaes; here we were not only sheltered from the wind, but the steep dark rocks within a ship's length on each side of us, reflected a strong heat, whilst large mosquitoes lost no time in paying us their annoying visits. This remote spot has been visited by the Arctic voyagers, Captain Inglefield, R.N., and Dr. Kane, U.S.N., and still more recently by Prince Napoleon. Dr. Kane's account of his visit is full and very interesting. Cod-fishing was now in full activity, and the few men not so employed had gone up the fiord to hunt reindeer.


The solitary dwelling-house belongs, of course, to the chief trader, and is a model of cleanliness and order; built of wood, it exhibits all the resources of the painter's art; the exterior is a dull red, the window-frames are white, floors yellow, wooden partitions and low ceilings pale blue. The lady of the house had resided here for about eight years, and appeared to us to be, and acknowledged she was, heartily tired of the solitude. She gave me coffee, and some seeds for cultivation at our winter quarters; these were lettuce, spinach, turnips, caraway and peas, the latter being the common kind used on board ship; usually they have only produced leaves on this spot, but once the young peas grew large enough for the table. I expressed a wish to see the interior of an Esquimaux tent. Petersen pulled aside the thin membrane of some animal, which hung across the doorway, and served to exclude the wind, but admitted light, for, although past midnight, the sun was up. Some seven or eight individuals lay within, closely packed upon the ground; the heads of old and young, males and females, being just visible above the common covering. Going to bed here, only means lying down with your clothes on, upon a reindeer skin, wherever you can find room, and pulling another fur-robe over you.

Fiskernaes appeared to be a sunny little nook, yet all the people we saw there were suffering from colds and coughs, and many deaths had occurred during the spring. The boys brought us handfuls of rough garnets, some of them as large as walnuts, receiving with evident satisfaction biscuits in exchange.

By next morning we were able to put to sea, and early on the day following arrived off the large settlement of Godhaab; it is in the "Gilbert Sound" of Davis, and appears in many old charts as Baal's River. Almost adjoining Godhaab is the Moravian settlement of New Herrnhut. Here it was that Hans Egede, the missionary father of Greenland, established himself in 1721, and thus re-opened the communication between Europe and Greenland, which had ceased upon the extinction of its early Scandinavian settlers, in the 14th century.


A few years after Egede's successful beginning the Moravian mission still existing under the name of New Herrnhut was established. At present the Moravians support four missions in Greenland; they are not subject to the Danish authorities, but are not permitted in any way to trade.

As we were about to enter the harbor, the Danish vessel--the sole object of our visit--came out, so not a moment was lost in sending on board our invalid and our letter-bag, and in landing our coasting pilot. This man had brought us up from Frederickshaab for the very moderate sum of three pounds; he was an Esquimaux, and, as the brother of poor Hans, Dr.

Kane's unhappy dog-driver, was received with favor amongst us, and soon won our esteem by his quiet, obliging disposition, as also by his ability in the discharge of his duty; he was so keen-sighted, and so vigilant, it was quite a comfort to have him on board during the foggy weather, for he could recognize, on the instant, every rock or point, even when dimly looming through the mist. We were not long in discovering that his absence was a loss to us.

When passing out to the north of the Kookornen Islands, the wind suddenly failed, and at the same time a swell from to seaward reached us; we therefore had considerable difficulty in towing the ship clear of the rocks; for nearly half an hour our position was most critical.


_July 31st._--Anchored at Godhaven (or Lievely), in Disco, for a few hours. I presented a letter from the Directors of the Royal Greenland Commerce to the Inspector of North Greenland, Mr. Olrik, authorising him to furnish us with any needful supplies. Our only wants were sledge-dogs and a native to manage them. We soon obtained ten of the former, but were advised to go into Disco Fiord, where many of the Esquimaux were busy in taking and drying salmon-trout, and where some would most probably be obtained.

I was much pleased with Mr. Olrik's kind reception of me, and soon found him to be not only agreeable but well informed; born in Greenland, of Danish parents, he is thoroughly conversant with the language and habits of the Esquimaux, and has devoted much of his leisure time in collecting rare specimens of the animal, vegetable, and mineral productions of the country. I came away enriched by some fossils from the fossil forest of Atanekerdluk, also with specimens of native coal.

It was here I met with the late commanders of the whalers 'Gipsy' and 'Undaunted,' of Peterhead, which had been crushed by the ice in Melville Bay, five or six weeks previously; all the other whalers had returned from the north, along the pack edge, and passed south of Disco. They said that the ice in Melville Bay was all broken up, and that they thought we should find but little difficulty at this late period in passing through it into the North Water.


Leaving Godhaven in the afternoon with a native pilot, we found ourselves some 10 or 12 miles up Disco Fiord at an early hour next morning. After despatching the pilot to announce our arrival to his countrymen at their fishing station, 7 or 8 miles further up, the Doctor and I landed upon the north side to explore.

The scenery is charming, lofty hills of trap rock, with unusually rich slopes (for the 70th parallel) descending to the fiord, and strewed with boulders of gneiss and granite. We found the blue campanula holding a conspicuous place amongst the wild flowers. I do not know a more enticing spot in Greenland for a week's shooting, fishing, and yachting than Disco Fiord; hares and ptarmigan may be found along the bases of the hills; ducks are most abundant upon the fiord, and delicious salmon-trout very plentiful in the rivers. Formerly Disco was famed for the large size and abundance of its reindeer; but for some unexplained reason they now confine themselves to the mainland.

Chapter end

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