A polka written in honour of Tookoolito, with an unusual spelling of her name. (Image courtesy of the British Library)

Inuit visit the queen

By Kenn Harper

Inuit visited England last week for the coronation of King Charles III.

Today, it is not out of the ordinary for Inuit to visit England, although a royal audience is still something special. One hundred and seventy years ago, another group of Inuit visited England. And in those days, such a visit certainly was unusual. Here is their story.

In 1853, John Bowlby, a British wine merchant who wished to establish a Christian mission to the Inuit, arrived in Cumberland Sound on Baffin Island’s east coast on his small ship, the Bee.

There, he met two remarkable young Inuit, both teenagers. Tookoolito was a girl of about 15. There are various spellings of her Inuit name and the correct version is uncertain. Whalers and explorers usually called her Hannah. Ipiirvik was two years older. Whalers wrote his name as Ebierbing (and various other spellings) but usually called him Joe.

Bowlby was impressed with these two young people, and invited them to visit England with him. A young boy from another family, Akulukjuk, accompanied them. The three Inuit lived in Hull with William Gedney, the ship’s surgeon, and his family.

There was much interest in England at that time in things to do with the Arctic. Much public attention was given to the ongoing search for the missing expedition of Sir John Franklin, which had disappeared in search of the elusive Northwest Passage.

By 1853, at least 20 British expeditions had gone in search of the missing explorers. The British public seemed to have an insatiable appetite for news of the search and speculation as to the expedition’s fate.

Ethnographical exhibitions were very popular in England at that time. And so, it was inevitable that Hannah, Joe and Akulukjuk would be put on display in various places in their native costumes.

Newspapers reported in early October that Bowlby planned to introduce the Inuit to the queen, but it was almost four months before the event actually happened.

Friday, Feb. 3, 1854, was a day like any other for Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. In the morning the queen rode horseback, while the prince went hunting.

Later in the morning, Mr. Robert Bowser, treasurer of the Hull Zoological Gardens, presented the Inuit, who were apparently under his management for a series of exhibitions. Bowser was accompanied by Bowlby, Mr. Leicester Buckingham (a lecturer who accompanied the exhibition), and Mr. Gedney who acted as interpreter.

The Inuit and their entourage arrived at Windsor Castle a full two hours before their presentation. They were dressed in their native sealskin costumes.

The staff showed the Inuit group and their hangers-on through the castle, including the state and private apartments, and hosted them at a luncheon.

Finally, they were presented to the queen, Prince Albert, and their daughters, the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Sutherland, among others.

Bowser presented the queen a pair of slippers that Tookoolito had made. Prince Albert and the Duchess of Kent asked Mr. Gedney several questions about the Inuit and their country, and, a report notes, “the whole party appeared to be much interested in the information which those queries elicited.”

The presentation lasted 20 minutes.

The queen and Prince Albert were preparing to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary the following Friday, and much was made of the fact that Hannah and Joe were married. One source says they had been married for “above two years,” which would mean they had been married according to Inuit custom before they left Cumberland Sound. Another source says they were married in England, although documentary evidence of this has never been found.

Queen Victoria thought that this group of three Inuit were the first of their race ever to visit England. She was wrong. A number of Inuit had visited England earlier, some willing, some kidnapped, since the days of Martin Frobisher.

The queen recorded in her journal:

“Had seen before luncheon 3 Esquimaux, a married couple, & a little boy, natives of Keimenksoka & Newganemyatt, on the West coast of the Cumberland Straits, Davis Straits. They are the 1st to have ever come over. They belong to a very poor tribe of about 500 or 1000 & have been brought over, in the hopes of raising funds to assist them. They are my subjects, very curious, & quite different to any of the southern or African tribes, having very flat round faces, with a Mongolian shape of eyes, a fair skin, & jet black hair. They are entirely clothed in skins. The boy is a pretty little, red-cheeked, black-haired thing, 7 years of age, the man 18, and the woman 16.”

Robert Bowser received 25 pounds for his effort in presenting the Inuit family, a not inconsiderable sum in those days.  Three weeks after the presentation, Col. Phipps wrote to Bowser, asking if “photographic likenesses” had been taken of the Inuit.

Bowser replied that no photograph was yet available, and there is no indication that any were subsequently sent. He sent instead six copies of a specially composed piece of music, the “Tickalicktoo Polka,” with lithographic likenesses of the Inuit. A copy of it exists in the British Library.

Hannah, Joe and Akulukjuk all returned to Cumberland Sound in 1855.

Five years later, Ipiirvik told the American explorer Charles Francis Hall that Prince Albert was “a very kind, good man.”

He added that Queen Victoria was “quite pretty,” a description almost never applied to her. Tookoolito told Hall that she visited the queen and “liked the appearance of her majesty, and everything about the palace. Fine place, I assure you.”

Hannah and Joe went on to work as guides and interpreters with American explorers and became the most well-travelled Inuit of the 19th century.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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