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David Cardno at Kekerten and Blacklead

Taissumani: 2009-01-16

By Kenn Harper

David Cardno of Peterhead, Scotland, got his first taste of life among the Inuit in 1866 when he spent a winter in Cumberland Sound after stowing away aboard a whaling ­vessel.

He returned to the Arctic many times after that as a whaler. In 1898, however, at the age of 45, he was done with the Arctic – or so he thought.

But in 1910 he was offered the chance to manage the whaling station at Kekerten in Cumberland Sound. George Miller, a local cooper, signed on as well.

Practically speaking the bowhead whaling industry was at an end. The operation by that time was based mostly on sealing. Cardno described the fall hunt simply: "We launched our two boats before dawn each day and were back at the station by late afternoon with our catch. The small boats were crewed by natives and we hunted around the floe-edge, the outer-most part of the ice."

The winter was a time of inactivity but Cardno described the station as being cosy and with a good collection of books in the library. Often Inuit would come to the station and hold a dance in the kitchen to the music provided by Cardno's gramophone. Sealing would not begin again until May.

By the time the ship arrived in September, Cardno had a variety of skins salted in the storage sheds: 2,679 sealskins, 159 walrus hides, 15 beluga whale skins, 5 dog skins, 12 bear skins, 5 wolf skins and 160 white fox pelts.

That fall Cardno moved from Kekerten across Cumberland Sound to Blacklead Island where he managed the station and had the company of the missionary, E. W. T. Greenshield.

He remained there for two years. Shortly after his arrival, Inuit arrived at the station with the sad news that Bernhard Hantzsch, a German ornithologist who had set out from Blacklead for Foxe Basin with a party of Inuit, had died.

Cardno has left a good description of Hogmanay – as the Scots describe New Year's Eve – in 1912: "Greenshield and I arranged a festive night for the 300 natives and we decorated the big hall for the occasion. We played cards, bagatelle [a type of billiards], dominoes, skittles, and quoits, and with the singing and dancing we all had a fine time. Gifts and toys had arrived for the German explorer to trade with the natives, so we handed them out to our friends. The festivities went on until about four o'clock in the morning, when we finished off with a hymn and three cheers for our King and Queen. The following day I treated myself to a haunch of roast venison and a big plum duff!"

On a day in August 1913 Cardno was at the lookout post on Signal Hill when he spotted the supply ship, Ernest William. The ship was in such bad shape, however, that she had to be beached, and her crew was rescued by another vessel, the Erme, belonging to a competing company.

That ship was not in much better shape, and nearly capsized on the homeward journey, with Cardno and the missionary, Greenshield, aboard. Captain Fletcher narrowly escaped death. The wave that almost capsized the ship swept him overboard, but his legs became caught in a rope. When the ship righted itself, the first men on deck saw the captain being towed feet-first behind the ship! They quickly hauled him aboard.

After 26 days at sea, the tiny vessel reached London on November 6, 1913, and David Cardno made his way home to Peterhead after an absence of three years.

Next week, I'll tell of David Cardno's final trip to the Arctic.

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

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