Taissumani, March April 5

The Rock at Durban Harbour, Part 2


The rock at Durban Harbour remains

The rock at Durban Harbour remains “an isolated curiousity, seldom seen and known only to a few.” (PHOTO COURTESY OF K. HARPER)

Last week I wrote about a trip I made in 1968, with men from Padloping Island, to see a mysterious rock bearing an inscription at Durban Harbour, east of Padloping and south of Durban Island itself. Durban Harbour turned out to be a small bay which the Inuit called kisarvik — the anchorage.

I had been naively expecting to find a runic inscription, but instead found an English inscription chiseled into a boulder. The Inuit with whom I was travelling – Jacopie, Simo and Eliyah – had no idea of the significance of the inscription. It was not in syllabics so it must have been made by a white man, and they concluded that Sivutiksaq was responsible. This didn’t help, for it was the first time I ever heard the name of this man, apparently a white man with an Inuktitut name.

So in the spring of 1968 I was looking at a large boulder and contemplating an inscription that someone had taken a great deal of time to carve.

It started with the latitude and longitude: 67º 1’ N, followed by the longitude 62º 20 W. I didn’t have a map with me at the time, but as it turns out, this position is not accurate, but fairly close to the actual location of the boulder. These co-ordinates actually place the boulder on Block Island, a little west of its actual location.

Below that is a line of letters: a capital T followed by a superscript R, and then the line J G P H D. Some of these letters are separated by periods. Underneath that was a line that gave a date: Capital J followed by a superscript Y (an abbreviation for July), followed by 17 and then 1837.

I concluded that someone had been there on July 17, 1837, and taken considerable trouble to leave a permanent record of his presence. But why? And who?

I began to research the life of the mysterious white man, Sivutiksaq, and learned that he was William Duval, a whaler who had arrived in the north in the late 1870s at the age of 21. He had lived in or near Durban Harbour at one point in his colourful life, but he could not have been the author of the mysterious inscription.

When I got my pictures back, I sent one to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, asking them if there was a scholar there who could shed any light on the inscription. Miraculously, there was. In due course, I received a letter from Gil Ross, who was researching Canadian Arctic whaling.

He was able to provide an interpretation of the letters on the third line of the boulder. He wasn’t sure what “TR” meant, but “JG” meant Joseph Green, the name of a whaling ship. “PHD” was an abbreviation for Peterhead, the port in northeastern Scotland that the ship had sailed from. By good fortune, the log of the Joseph Green for 1837 still existed, in an archive in Britain, and it confirmed that the vessel was indeed in Durban Harbour on the date in question.

It seems that, in fact, Durban Harbour was a popular spot for whalers. Ships often put in there to take on water, and to trade with the Inuit. The Inuktitut name, kisarvik, was a reminiscence of those distant days when whaling was important in the lives of the Inuit.

But why all the effort to inscribe the latitude and longitude into this boulder in a small bay in an isolated part of the Arctic? The answer may be tied up with the search for an accurate method of determining longitude at sea, important for navigators (The calculation of latitude was relatively easy).

To calculate the longitude, mariners needed to know the precise time. But pendulum clocks did not work very well at sea, because of the pitching and rolling of ships and the pounding of wind and waves. It was not until the invention of marine chronometers that longitude could be accurately calculated.

However, chronometers were extremely expensive and not all ships could carry them. It is doubtful that many whaling ships in the first half of the 1800s could do so. If the Joseph Green did, that could have enabled someone of its crew to calculate the longitude at the popular anchorage at Durban Harbour and inscribe it on the prominent boulder near the shore.

But again, the question is —Why? If Durban Harbour were to become a reference point for navigation in Davis Strait — think of it like a “prime meridian” for that area — this would assist accurate celestial navigation in the strait. It could be used also to temporarily reset such clocks as whaling ships carried and thereby calculate more or less accurate time.

This is my conjecture, after discussions with friends who know far more about navigation than I do, as to why men from the Joseph Green would make the effort to carve their position into a boulder on the shore of Durban Harbour in 1837.

And once they had done so, we have no idea how long the rock served the purpose for which it was intended.

Today, it remains an isolated curiousity, seldom seen and known only to a few.

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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