IPY 1882-3: The German Station in Cumberland Sound Part 1″

Taissumani: 2007-05-25

By Kenn Harper

In late June of 1882 the ship, Germania, left Hamburg bound for Baffin Island to establish a scientific research station in Cumberland Sound as part of the first International Polar Year. The ship, a wooden sailing vessel, had been built in 1869 for the Second German Polar Expedition to East Greenland.

In the years since that expedition, she had traveled to Cumberland Sound under charter, taking supplies to the whaling stations at Blacklead Island and Kekerten. Captain Mahlstede, who had commanded her on her earlier voyages to Baffin Island, was in charge again this year.

Although Cape Mercy, the southeastern tip of Cumberland Peninsula, was sighted on August 1, ice conditions were unco-operative and the sail-driven vessel was unable to make its way into the sound for two weeks. Finally the weather changed, and the Germania made its way up the sound, and dropped anchor off Kekerten on August 17. There, Captain Mahlstede met his old friends, Jimmy Mutch, in charge of the Scottish whaling station, and his assistant, Sandy Hall.

After some consultation with Mutch, it was agreed that the best location for the scientific station would be at Kingua, or Clearwater Fiord, at the head of the sound. Mutch agreed to lend the Germans two boats and the services of Sandy Hall and two Inuit as pilots.

Sirmilik Bay (the Germans spelled it "Shilmilik") was chosen as the site for the station. The site was a valley about two kilometers wide, bounded by steep rocky hills; the anchorage was good and the site was considered ideal. Unloading all the supplies to erect the station took a number of days. While some men were busy with the unloading, others immediately started construction of the necessary buildings.

The main building, comprising living quarters, kitchen and store rooms, was about 44 feet long by 28 feet wide. The buildings constructed for the actual scientific measurements were much smaller, and sat on octagonal stone pillars brought from Germany for the purpose. Some of them can be seen in the community of Pangnirtung today, recycled as parts of building foundations or lying about in the area of the former RCMP jailhouse.

Inuit quickly learned of the Germania's arrival and several families arrived hoping to trade. Sandy Hall made a shocking impact on the Germans, all but Mahlstede new to the Arctic, by eating seal brains raw and sucking out the eyeballs. The Germans declined an offer to try this delicacy.

A number of Inuit men worked in the unloading and building construction. They were paid in the currency of the day – bread, coffee, syrup and plugs of tobacco.

On Sept. 7, the Germania weighed anchor and left for home. Hall and most of the Inuit left with her – they would be dropped off at Kekerten. Only one Inuit man, whose name is given as Okkeituk, remained, with his family. [It is uncertain whether this man's name would correctly be spelled as Uqittuq or Uqaittuq, so I will retain the German spelling of Okkeituk.]

Now the main work of the seven scientists could begin. Each day was divided into five shifts and the work consisted of taking regular meteorological and magnetic readings. The schedule was demanding and left little time for hunting or exploring.

To be continued next week.

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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