FEATURES: Around the Arctic August 09, 2018 - 3:30 pm

Whales of tales found in new book by northern historian

Kenn Harper releases Arctic whaling history with Inhabit Media


In 1839 a young Inuit man from Cumberland Sound helped put his home, quite literally, on the map.

The man’s name was Inuluapik, and he had often traded with European whalers who travelled near his home.

That year Inuluapik sailed to Scotland with explorer William Penny. That winter, he and Penny drafted a map known as an admiralty chart of the area surrounding Cumberland Sound, by today’s Nunavut community of Pangnirtung.

When spring came, Penny and Inuluapik sailed back across the Davis Strait and together located the sought-after entrance to Cumberland Sound, where Penny soon established a whaling station.

“This particular map is the only admiralty chart ever to be in part attributed to an Inuk person,” said northern historian Kenn Harper. “It’s attributed to William Penny and Inuluapik.”

The story of Penny and Inuluapik is found in Harper’s new book, In Those Days: Tales of Arctic Whaling, which is being released this month by Nunavut publisher Inhabit Media.

The work is the third collection of Harper’s writings on Arctic history, most of which were first published in the Nunatsiaq News Taissumani column.

Harper’s previous book titles include “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder: Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic.”

Harper still contributes Taissumani columns to Nunatsiaq News.

But five of the 28 stories in the book will be new to readers—stories written to fill in any missing links in the history of whaling in the eastern Arctic that Harper had yet to address for Nunatsiaq News. Some chapters represent more than one past column.

“(Whaling) is something I’ve always been fascinated with,” Harper said. “It’s very important in the cross-cultural history of the eastern Canadian Arctic, and it’s largely overlooked. There’s not a lot written about it.”

Most stories in the book would be hard to find elsewhere, at least all in one place, he said. His tales are gathered through Inuit oral histories, long hours of archival research and pulled from what Harper calls “obscure” texts he collects.

While Harper is currently retired and living in Ottawa, he lived for 50 years in the Arctic, in his early days as a teacher on Padloping Island, before the community was relocated to Qikiqtarjuaq, and later in Pangnirtung, Arctic Bay and a community in Greenland called Qaanaaq, before moving to Iqaluit.

Early northern whaling stories date back to the late 1700s, but most stories in the book start in the 1800s, and continue to a time that saw the height of the eastern Arctic’s whaling economy.

It was mostly American and Scottish whalers who would travel to harvest blubber and baleen used for lamp oil and clothing, living sometimes year-round at remote whaling stations.

“Some of them took live polar bears back to Europe to put in zoos,” Harper said.

Two of the largest stations were near what are now Pond Inlet and Pangnirtung. Besides creating new trade opportunities, the stations would also employ Inuit who lived nearby.

One of Harper’s favourite tales in the book tells about the life of William Duval, an American whaler of German birth who made the Arctic his home. Called Sivutiksaq by Inuit, which means “the harpooner,” Duval had a family and has many descendants on Baffin Island. He first travelled North to work at Cumberland Sound in 1879 at the age of 21. He died in 1931 at Usualuk camp near Pangnirtung.

While Harper said he is looking forward to reaching a larger southern audience with his new book, it’s northerners he’s always had in mind while writing his histories.

“I’m writing for them, to bring pieces of northern history to a northern audience,” he said. “What I hope people not from the North will get from this is that northern history is very rich and very diverse. The books that have been written so far have only scratched the surface.”