The Knife

Taissumani: 2008-01-25

By Kenn Harper

Last week I wrote about an Inuit attack on the mutineers who had abandoned Henry Hudson and some of his crew to their unknown fate in James Bay. The attack happened on East Digges Island, off the north-western coast of present-day Nunavik.

From there the survivors sailed Hudson's ship, the Discovery, through Hudson Strait and across the Atlantic to England. Upon their return they had a lot of explaining to do. Mutiny was a serious offence, and the task of this malnourished group of adventurers was to present an alibi that would hold water, if they were to avoid possible death sentences.

One way they did this was to hold out the hope that the route to and through Hudson Bay still held promise for enterprising investors to discover the Northwest Passage and with it a route to the riches of the Orient.

Perhaps no one was more adept in this regard than the wily Habakkuk Prickett, super-cargo on the expedition. A super-cargo was essentially a passenger, not a part of a ship's working crew, put aboard a ship as a representative of the investors or of the ship's owners. Prickett represented the interests of Sir Thomas Smythe of the Haberdasher's Company – and that is almost all we know of him.

Prickett's tack, in trying to convince the investors that they should back further expeditions to the north-west, despite having just backed one that achieved nothing, centred in part on the attack by the Inuit. More to the point, it centred on the knife that an Inuk had wielded against him with such force that it had come very close to rendering him a corpse.

Samuel Purchas acquired some of Prickett's papers and wrote in 1625 about the experience of Prickett and his mates and the arguments for a passage through North America to the Pacific. Purchas wrote:

"The weapons and arts which they [the mutineers] saw, beyond those of other savages, are arguments hereof. He which assaulted Prickett in the boat, had a weapon broad and sharp indented, of bright steel (such as they use in Java), riveted into a handle of morse [walrus] tooth."

The conclusion that Prickett had, then, tried to convey was that these Inuit had come from the Pacific, or that the knife had come from the Pacific and made its way eastward through the long-sought passage through trade.

This was a long-shot and there is no record of whether the investors took any heed of it. Nonetheless the following year the Northwest Company, Hudson's sponsor on his fatal expedition, and the Prince of Wales, sent out another expedition in search of the elusive passage.

But Prickett had described a knife very un-Inuit in character. The event had happened in 1611; no ships were known to have traversed Hudson Strait by that date – George Weymouth's 1602 expedition had entered the strait, but only for a short distance. Where had this steel-bladed knife come from?

Of course, there is the possibility that Prickett fabricated his description of the weapon. But if he did not, and if the knife was as described, it had certainly not come from the Orient. Probably it had come from the southern reaches of the Labrador coast, where Inuit were known to trade with whalers and fishermen, and been traded from hand to hand up the coast.

It might have come, too, from across Hudson Strait, from the Inuit of Baffin Island. George Best, who left an account of Martin Frobisher's earlier voyages to Frobisher Bay, wrote of the Inuit encountered there that "…it appeereth they trade with other nations which dwell farre off…" Many modern scholars also suspect that Basque whalers may have whaled as far north as Davis Strait, and with whaling generally comes trade.

No-one knows what happened to the knife that tore into Habakkuk Prickett's thigh. Prickett overpowered the Inuk and took him aboard ship where he died. Presumably Prickett kept the knife. Perhaps it lies today, unidentified, in a museum or a damp British attic, an unknown relic of an attack, the motives for which are still a mystery.

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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