Jens Munk and the First Founding of Churchill

Taissumani: 2008-08-15

By Kenn Harper

Jens Munk was a Danish-Norwegian explorer who is little known today. Yet he was responsible for one of the most heroic acts of survival in the annals of northern history.

Munk was born in Norway in 1579 and went to sea at the age of 12. During his adventurous youth, he visited England and lived in Portugal for a year, before moving to Brazil, then returning to Europe on a Dutch vessel at the age of 18.

In 1610, he was one of the few survivors of a hunting expedition to Novaya Zemlya, then served as a Danish naval captain in a war against Sweden. He introduced the whaling industry to Denmark and made at least one whaling voyage.

In 1619, Munk secured the approval of King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway for an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. He was put in command of two vessels, the Unicorn and the Lamprey. The expedition left Copenhagen in May and reached Baffin Island by early July. The ships entered Frobisher Bay by mistake, then, once in Hudson Strait, wasted more time in a search of Ungava Bay.

It was not until Sept. 4 that Munk reached Hudson Bay. This was about the time that he should have been leaving in advance of an Arctic winter, rather than just arriving. Already some of the crew showed early signs of scurvy.

But Munk continued westward, hopeful of finding a passage to the Orient. Finally he made land at what is now known as Cape Churchill. Munk named it "Novo Dania" or "New Denmark."

But winter was now upon them and they had no choice but to remain in the hope of continuing their westward search the following spring.

Munk's men had no fur clothing and were not prepared for a winter of such severe cold as they experienced. He insisted that his men exercise, hunt and fish, but heavy snow made it difficult to obtain enough fresh food. Almost everyone came down with scurvy – a debilitating disease now known to be due to the absence of ascorbic acid or Vitamin C in the diet. Munk described the effect of the disease on his men:

"All the limbs and joints were so miserably joined together, with great pains in the loins as if a thousand knives were thrust through them. The body at the same time was blue and brown as when one gets a black eye, and the whole body was quite powerless. The mouth, also, was in a very bad condition, as all the teeth were loose, so that we could not eat any victuals."

The first death occurred on November 21 and more followed in quick succession. By June, Munk and the ship's dog were the only survivors on either ship. Two other men, who had gone ashore and been too weak to return to the ship, survived. Sixty-one men were dead.

Munk and his two fellow survivors, really little more than walking skeletons, sucked the juices from plant roots to survive. Slowly, they regained strength and laboriously hauled the smaller vessel, the Lamprey, to the water.

It usually took 16 men to manage a ship the size of the Lamprey. But in mid-July, 1620, these three men who had survived the sub-Arctic winter against all odds, set sail from Churchill for the harrowing return to Europe. They battled first ice, then storms and the heavy seas of the North Atlantic. Sixty-seven days later, they reached Norway.

After his tenacious struggle for life, a hero's welcome should have awaited Munk. But one of his two fellow travellers almost immediately stabbed a man in a brawl in a tavern and Munk was deemed responsible for the conduct of his shipmate. He was thrown in jail for three months.

Although the king subsequently ordered Munk to lead a colonizing expedition to Novo Dania, nothing came of the idea. No volunteers were prepared to face the hardships. The idea of New Denmark was abandoned.

Munk was eventually made admiral and acquitted himself well in battle in the Thirty Years War. Badly wounded in the Battle of Kiel, he died in 1628.

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 [email protected].

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