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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic October 20, 2012 - 9:23 am

Taissumani, Oct. 19

Arctic Secrets: Jamie Florence at Bylot Island – Part 1

Capt. Henry Toke Munn, a British eccentric who set up a fur trading post on Bylot Island in 1914. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Capt. Henry Toke Munn, a British eccentric who set up a fur trading post on Bylot Island in 1914. (HARPER COLLECTION)

In 1914 a British eccentric, Capt. Henry Toke Munn, established a fur trading post at Sannirut on Bylot Island near present-day Pond Inlet. Whalers and traders called the place Button Point. For a fur trading enterprise, Munn’s company had an unusual name, the Arctic Gold Exploration Syndicate, for Munn was also obsessed with finding gold in the eastern Arctic as others had in the Klondike.

Munn was not a seafarer and the “captain” in his name was a military title earned in the Boer War in Africa. To the Inuit he was known as Kapitaikuluk – the little captain.

But there was another captain who figures in this story. He was Capt. Joseph-Elzear Bernier, and he had recently retired from the service of the Canadian government where he had captained the exploration and sovereignty ship, Arctic.

The Inuit had bestowed a name on him as well – Kapitaikallak. It meant “the stocky captain,” for Bernier was a powerful, barrel-chested man. In the same year that Munn built his post at Sannirut, Bernier opened a rival post at Pond Inlet.

Munn himself wintered at Sannirut that first year, in company with a Dundee whaler, Cummins Taylor. The following year both men returned to Europe, and were replaced by a man from Peterhead, Scotland — James Booth. He remained only one year.

In 1916 he was replaced by another Peterhead man, Jamie Florence. Munn outfitted him with provisions for only one year.

The same day that Florence arrived in northern Baffin, another independent trader, Robert Janes, also arrived and built his own trading post at Tulukkaan, the mouth of the Patricia River. The field was becoming quite crowded – there were now three rival trading posts in a relatively small area, all competing for the trade of a small Inuit population.

Munn’s man, Jamie Florence, was 46 years old when he arrived at Button Point. But this was not his first experience of the Arctic. In fact he was totally at home in the north. He had sailed on whalers out of Peterhead since he was 12.

For some years he had been agent at Kekerten station in Cumberland Sound, working for the Cumberland Gulf Trading Co. There, the Inuit called him Surusiviniq — the one who used to be a child — an appropriate name for an adult whom they had known since he was a boy. He was thoroughly familiar with the Inuit of Baffin Island and experienced in trading with them.

In 1917, with war raging in Europe, Munn’s little ship, the Albert, was unable to reach the company’s posts in the Arctic, despite being captained by a veteran Arctic whaler, Capt. John Murray. (He also had an Inuktitut name – Nakungajuq – the cross-eyed one.)

Jamie Florence had to spend an unexpected second year in the Arctic on slim rations. The next year was a bad year for ice and Capt. Murray had difficulty reaching his first stop, the company’s post on Southampton Island.

Eventually he made it, and picked up Capt. Munn, who had been there for two years. From there the Albert went to Cumberland Sound, before making an attempt to reach northern Baffin Island.

Heavy ice prevented Capt. Murray from finding a passage north along the Baffin coast and, recognizing the lateness of the season and the food shortages he was experiencing aboard ship, he gave up his efforts to reach Button Point.

Had he reached his destination, both Jamie Florence and the Inuit would have been disappointed with the ship’s cargo, for war was still raging in Europe when Murray attempted to provision his small ship, and the Defence of the Realm Act regulated the export of foodstuffs and other commodities. Trade goods were in short supply.

Murray reluctantly turned the little craft south through Davis Strait and skirted the Labrador coast. Munn had decided to winter her in Halifax and to outfit there the following year. Presumably supplies and trade goods would be more readily available and less affected by the exigencies of war.

Jamie Florence was left to face his third winter in the High Arctic without fresh supplies. Munn could only hope that he had survived the two previous winters, but he had no way of knowing. In the days before radio communications made the north more accessible, one went very much on the blind hope that all had gone according to plan.

Next Week – The story of Jamie Florence continues.

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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