Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History

Jan. 9, 1830 – First Encounter: John Ross and the Nattilingmiut

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Most non-Inuit names on the map of the Canadian Arctic are there to commemorate Arctic explorers or their sponsors. The Gulf of Boothia and Boothia Peninsula in the Kitikmeot Region are no different – they commemorate the sponsor of Sir John Ross’s second expedition to the Arctic. But this sponsor was different than most. Sir Felix Booth, a wealthy merchant, is perhaps more remembered today for his major product, Booth’s Gin.

In 1818, after John Ross returned from his voyage to Baffin Bay, in which he entered Lancaster Sound – the entrance to the Northwest Passage – then turned back, believing it blocked by mountains, he was roundly criticized in Britain for his mistake, for those in the accompanying ship and many on his own claimed not to have seen the looming mountain range at all. In particular, the all-powerful John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty, took a dislike to Ross, effectively blackballing him. His career went into a hiatus until he received the support of Felix Booth in 1829.

John Ross and his nephew, James Clark Ross, left London in May of that year in the Victory, with the intention of finding the elusive Northwest Passage. Their initial difficulties were with the vessel’s steam engine rather than with ice. They passed through Lancaster Sound with no difficulty, and steamed south through Prince Regent Inlet, along the eastern coast of Somerset Island, past Bellot Strait (without seeing it), and along the coast of what Ross would name Boothia Peninsula. Late in the season, with ice forming, they found a wintering place, naming it also after their patron, Felix Harbour.

Ross was unimpressed by his surroundings. Indeed, he wrote one of the dreariest descriptions of an Arctic landscape on record:

“The voyager may be a painter, or he may be a poet; but his talents at description will here be of no value to him; unless he has the hardihood to invent what there is not to see.” Nature here, he said, was “void of every thing to which the face of a country owes its charms.” One wonders what he would have written had he known at that time that his imprisonment in the ice of the Arctic would last for three more winters.

On January 9, 1830, Ross’s crew had visitors. Four Inuit were seen at about a mile’s distance. Ross and his men, carrying guns, approached them. They saw that each of the Inuit carried a knife and a spear. Ross shouted to them, “Tima, tima,” which, he claimed, was “the word of salutation between meeting tribes.” The Inuit shouted back in return. The white men threw down their guns. Immediately the Inuit threw down their weapons.

Ross’s nephew, James Clark Ross, claimed some familiarity with the Inuit language, having spent two winters near Igloolik with William Edward Parry’s expedition almost a decade earlier. Through him, the British were able to learn something of this group, which numbered thirty-six. They quickly found out that, in addition to their native knives, these Inuit also possessed knives tipped with iron. Indeed, the cautious natives, although they had made a great show of throwing away their weapons, each had an iron-tipped knife concealed within their clothing; one was even made of an English clasp-knife which still bore the maker’s marks. Ross quickly concluded that “this was a proof of communication with the tribes that trade with Europeans.”

Ross invited the men aboard his ship and gave them a tour. They wanted to know the names of every thing and its usage. They sampled the preserved meats that Ross offered them from his stores, but didn’t fancy them. On deck, a fiddler produced a violin and the Inuit joined the crew in dancing and, Ross thought, showed a great aptitude for music.

Ross observed that all the natives were well-dressed, mostly in caribou skins. His published account describes their clothing in detail, and concludes that “with this immense superstructure of clothes, they seemed a much larger people than they really were.”

This first encounter between Ross and the Nattilingmiut augured well for the future. Ross and some of his men accompanied the Inuit for about two miles when they left. When they parted, Ross marked a spot on the ice and indicated that they should meet again there the following day. Ross would have many encounters with Inuit during the next three winters, most of them pleasant but some of them marked by discord.

He wrote of this first meeting: “This was a satisfactory day; for we had given up all expectations of meeting inhabitants in this place; while we knew that it was to the natives that we must look for such geographical information as would assist us… It was for philosophers to interest themselves in speculating on a horde so small, and so secluded, occupying so apparently hopeless a country, so barren, so wild, and so repulsive; and yet enjoying the most perfect vigour, the most well-fed health, and all else that here constitutes, not merely wealth, but the opulence of luxury; since they were so amply furnished with provisions, as with every other thing that could be necessary to their wants.”

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. 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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