Harper Island?

Taissumani: 2008-04-18

By Kenn Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Kuujjuaq in March for the signing of a land claim agreement. While there, Pita Aatami, the president of Makivik Corp., noted that many of the islands off the shores of Nunavik don't have names, and he told the prime minister that he should not be surprised if one of the islands should someday soon be named "Harper Island" after him.

What the participants in that meeting may not have realized was that the name Harper already graces an island in Nunavut.

At the mouth of Frobisher Bay, off the end of Hall Peninsula, lies a large island, Lok's Land, named after Michael Lok, one of Frobisher's principal financial backers.

And off its southern coast lies a smaller island named after not one, but four, Harpers. No, it is not named after Stephen and his brothers (if he has any). Nor is it named after me and my brothers (I have two).

Charles Francis Hall arrived at the mouth of Frobisher Bay aboard the whaling ship, George Henry, in 1860, on his first northern venture in search of the fate of the missing expedition led and lost by Sir John Franklin.

Frobisher Bay was little known at the time. In fact, prior to Hall's arrival, it was not generally recognized that the bay even was the one that Frobisher visited three times in the 1500s. In the intervening years many maps had relocated "Frobisher Strait" – for no-one thought in Frobisher's time that it was a bay – to the southern tip of Greenland.

In the 1800s, when whalers began to frequent the waters off this deep indentation that cuts one-third of the way through southern Baffin Island, they were unaware, and probably didn't care anyway, that it had been the location of Frobisher's explorations. They were interested only in the bowhead whales that could be taken at the mouth of the bay. They gave the body of water a completely new name – Lumley's Inlet.

For much of the next two years, Hall travelled in Frobisher Bay and among the islands at its mouth, listening to the Inuit, collecting their stories, and trying to make any connection between this unexplored land and where Franklin's men may have ended up. As he travelled, he sprinkled names liberally – sorry, Stephen – on the headlands, islands and bodies of water that he came across.

This accounts for the perplexity of English language names gracing maps of this area to this day. Unashamedly, he named features after almost everyone who had ever helped or encouraged him, and – even more importantly for him – after those who might be of use in the future.

(Ironically, Hall's Island, off the east coast of Lok's Land, was not named by Charles Francis Hall or even after him. It was named by an earlier Hall, Christopher Hall, master of the Gabriel on Frobisher's first expedition.)

Nearing the end of his two years in the Arctic, Hall was undoubtedly planning, as most explorers do, a book about his adventures. Of course, he would need publicity. And so on July 21, 1862, he wrote about a boat trip:

"A short time after we rounded Cape Chapel, and made our course nearly due east, coasting along under oars. We had not proceeded far before we were passing the mouth of a beautiful bay – Bigler Bay, as I named it – which made up some two miles into Lok's Land. Then we entered a long narrow channel – New York Press Channel – having low land on either side, that on our right being what I called Harper Brothers' Island."

His footnotes indicate that the ridiculously-named "New York Press Channel" was named after the Associated Press, and that Harper Brothers' Island was named after "Harper Brothers" of New York."

When Hall's manuscript of his expedition was completed, it was of course published by the firm of "Harper & Brothers" in New York. Four Harper brothers share the honour of having this obscure island named after them. Their names, unfortunately, did not include a Stephen or a Kenn; they were James, John, Joseph and Fletcher.

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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