Hudson's Mutineers and the Inuit

Taissumani: 2008-01-18

By Kenn Harper

In the summer of 1611, a mutiny occurred on Henry Hudson's ship, the Discovery. Having spent a difficult winter in James Bay, members of the crew were concerned about Hudson's secrecy and his seeming desire to loiter in James Bay, searching every bay and river estuary that might lead to a passage to the Pacific. The conspirators cast Hudson, his son John, and seven other men, including those who were sick, adrift in a tiny shallop. The Discovery then began its tortuous return to England under the leadership of Henry Greene and Robert Juet.

On July 26, the ship reached Cape Wolstenholme, the north-westernmost tip of present-day Nunavik, where the crew would naturally expect to make a right turn into Hudson Strait. But first there was the matter of food. Their supplies were almost exhausted.

In their haste, they had ignored the rich sea mammal resources of Hudson Bay's east coast. So a detour was made to East Digges Island where the men knew there was a murre colony. For some of this motley crew it was a fatal detour.

A shore party of Englishmen encountered a group of Inuit camped on the island, there for the same purpose, to secure a supply of seabirds as food. The two groups made contact.

Although there is no record of previous contact between white men and Inuit in this area, the Inuit probably knew about the existence of strangers like these from across the sea. Inuit on Baffin Island had encountered qallunaat on the earlier Frobisher expeditions, and those on the Labrador coast had periodic contact with Basque, French and English fishermen. News of these strangers and their trade goods would have reached Nunavik from one or both of these sources.

The Inuit showed the white men their way of knocking the murres from the cliffs with long poles. The white men demonstrated their method – by blasting them out of the air, seven or eight at a time, with a musket shot.

After the visit to the bird cliffs, the two groups got down to the business of trade. The Inuit offered many products of the land and sea, but the English wanted only walrus ivory. They got what they wanted in return for a knife and two glass buttons. By signs, the Inuit told the leader, Henry Greene, that his party should return the next day to barter for fresh meat. Or so Greene thought.

The following day Greene returned with five men in the ship's boat. They saw the Inuit "dancing and leaping" on the hills as they put in to a sheltered cove. The Inuit rushed forward, anxious to barter. Greene and another man showed off their trade items – bells, mirrors and a jew's harp. One man clamoured into the ship's boat where Habakkuk Prickett sat. Prickett, nervous, motioned for him to go ashore.

But another Inuk was in the boat and attempted to stab Prickett. Pickett fended off the main thrust of the strike but still sustained wounds to his arm, chest and thigh. Finally he managed to overpower his assailant and stabbed him in the chest and throat.

Meanwhile other Inuit had attacked the Englishmen who were ashore. Two were virtually disembowelled. But all made it to the shallop and fled for the Discovery, which lay a short distance away.

Next the Inuit used their bows and arrows, and shot Henry Greene dead. Another arrow struck Prickett in the back but he survived. His Inuk attacker and the two men who had been most seriously wounded on shore all died aboard the Discovery that very day. Another man died two days later. Of the six men of the shore party, only Prickett and one other man survived.

It is an often-quoted cliché that the winners get to write history. The Inuit must be counted the winners in this inexplicable attack.

But the losers wrote the account. Habakkuk Prickett was one of the survivors who reached England in the fall of 1611 and his story is the only recounting we have of this strange episode. He blamed it all on Henry Greene and suggested that "we take heed of the savage people." Whether the attack by the Inuit was unprovoked or the result of a tragic misunderstanding, we will never know.

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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