Five Missing Men

Taissumani: 2007-08-10

By Kenn Harper

On Aug. 20, 1576, five sailors from Martin Frobisher's ship, Gabriel, went ashore at Frobisher Bay. Five days later, Frobisher gave up hope that the men would return, and set sail for England. Michael Lok, one of the explorer's backers, wrote that Frobisher, having heard nothing of or from the men, "judged they were taken and kept by force."

What happened to these five white men four centuries ago?

The British assumed that they had been captured, held against their will, and probably murdered. But over two centuries later, Inuit oral history told a different tale.

In 1861 Charles Frances Hall, exploring in Frobisher Bay, heard a story from an ancient Inuit woman, Uqijjuaqsi (whose name he spelled Ookijoxy). Hall wrote:

"Oral history told me that five white men were captured by Innuit people at the time of the appearance of the ships a great many years ago; that these men wintered on shore (whether one, two, three, or more winters, could not say); that they lived among the Innuits; that they afterward built an oomien (large boat), and put a mast into her, and had sails; that early in the season, before much water appeared, they endeavoured to depart; that, in the effort, some froze their hands; but that finally they succeeded in getting into open water, and away they went, which was the last seen or heard of them."

Hall took the story down in haste through a less-than-skilful interpreter, and recognized that there might be some inaccuracies in his account. In the book he wrote about his expedition, he noted:

"I have put down here only a part of what I recorded in my journal at the time, and, consequently, much of it will be found to have been the result of some slight mistake in what I then understood."

Talking with Uqijjuaqsi later, this time using the Inuit woman, Tookoolito, as interpreter, he added to the information he gleaned about this missing party.

The white men had apparently gotten along well with the Inuit, and especially with one man, whose name Uqijjuaqsi remembered as being "Eloudjuarng." He was, Hall wrote "a great man or chief among the Inuit. Tookoolito described him as being "All same as king."

When the white men were about to set out for home, Eloudjuarng composed a song wishing them a quick and safe passage, "and he caused his people, who were very numerous, to sing it." But the white men failed in their attempt to flee the country, and "finally froze to death."

Robert McGhee, an Arctic archaeologist and historian, felt that neither the English assumptions about the men's capture and murder nor the Inuit belief that they had been accidentally or purposely marooned, seems entirely plausible.

He suggests that the Inuit may well have wanted to steal the ship's boat, wood being a very valuable commodity, but that they would have no other reason to hold the men hostage. Moreover the account by Michael Lok does not speak of violence but rather suggests that the Englishmen may have acted voluntarily.

McGhee suggests this possibility: "Perhaps we should try to imagine the motives of the five sailors, young men who for ten weeks had endured the cramped quarters of a cold, wet, pitching ship. They had lived on bad food and worse beer, and had slept huddled together on the hard deck of the tiny forecastle. They had been subject to the discipline of a captain famous for his temper and impetuous actions. For the past few days they had come to be acquainted with the most extraordinary people they had ever met, smiling strangers who brought them fresh fish … dressed in warm furs, were eager to trade furs and ivory objects that could easily be sold for a profit at home in England, and introduced the sailors to their shy, tattooed, and charming wives and daughters. An invitation to come ashore and further their acquaintance, as well as to walk freely on the dry tundra and drink clean water from a stream, may have been too enticing to resist."

McGhee suggests that the sailors may have stayed ashore longer than they intended and perhaps feared punishment from their volatile commander for disobeying orders. The Inuit, for their part, would have discussed the merits of acquiring the valuable wooden boat.

"The fate of the sailors," McGhee wrote, "would have been entirely dependent on the nature of the camp leader. If the traditional Inuit stories are to be believed, the men may have been fortunate in encountering a leader who not only spared their lives but made sure that they survived in the community. However, he may not have possessed the power to have the boat returned to Frobisher's ship, and the subsequent kidnapping of an Inuit man would likely have put an end to any talk of compromise."

McGhee has offered a plausible scenario, but after the passage of over four hundred years we will never know with any certainty what became of Frobisher's five missing men.

(I have quoted at length from Robert McGhee's writings, with his permission.)

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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