Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History June 14, 1856 – Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua dies in St. John’s



A young Inuk man from northwestern Greenland is one of the few Inuit of whom a biography was ever published in book form. The book, “Kalli, The Esquimaux Christian” is a very rare book today, despite the fact that it was published in a number of editions, both in England and the USA.

Kalli was born in the Thule district about 1832, and given the name Qalaherhuaq – the name means “the big navel.”

In 1850, when Kalli was in his late teens, Captain Erasmus Ommanney, in command of a Franklin search vessel, the Assistance, arrived at Cape York, Greenland, a well-known meeting place for Inuit, whalers and explorers. Young Kalli went on board the ship and agreed to travel with Ommanney as his guide. Ommanney wanted to get to the bottom of reports, circulated by a Greenlandic interpreter on another vessel, of the massacre of two ships’ crews some years earlier. Kalli guided Ommanney into Wolstenholme Sound where a British naval supply vessel, the North Star, had wintered. Then they returned to Cape York where Ommanney interviewed the Inuit there, using Kalli as his interpreter.

[A word of caution. Kalli had never seen English-speaking people before the arrival of the North Star the previous year. Doubtless he had learned some rudimentary English that winter. But when a nineteenth-century Arctic explorer says “interpreter,” he usually means something like “guide-facilitator-interpreter-helper.” For Ommanney, Kalli was all of these things.]

The Inuit of Cape York denied any knowledge of the alleged massacre, and the Assistance continued on in the search for the missing Franklin expedition. The vessel wintered near Griffith Island in Barrow Strait, near present-day Resolute Bay. That winter, Kalli learned the basics of reading and writing from the sergeant of marines. The following summer, Ommanney attempted to reach Cape York to return Kalli home, but his path was blocked by ice, so he proceeded on to England, taking Kalli with him. On reaching England, the young Inuk took the name Erasmus York, Erasmus after Captain Ommanney’s first name, and York after Cape York.

Ommanney brought his young Inuk friend to the attention of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in London. They conferred with the Admiralty, and Kalli was sent to St. Augustine’s College in Canterbury, to train as a missionary. At St. Augustine’s he was taught more reading and writing, and given religious education.

While in Canterbury Kalli also worked for a year and a half, five hours a day, in a tailor’s shop, learning that trade. He also assisted Captain John Washington of the Admiralty in revising an “Esquimaux” dictionary for use by Franklin searching expeditions.

On November 27, 1853 the young man was baptized and changed his name yet again, becoming Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua. The following autumn he left for St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he was to take further religious training at the Theological Institution. The plan was that he would then accompany the bishop of Newfoundland on a missionary trip to Labrador the following summer.

He enjoyed his winter in St. John’s. His English had improved considerably. In January of 1856 he wrote a letter to a friend: “…The weather here is very cold; I feel it more than at Cape York. I have begun to skate and find it a very pleasant amusement. There is a lake a little distance from the college, called ‘Quidi Vidi,’ on which we practise. The Bishop is very kind and good to me. College here is not so large and fine a place as St. Augustine’s; nor are there so many students. I hope that all my kind friends at Canterbury are quite well… I remain, yours affectionately, Kalli.”

That summer Kalli caught a chill while swimming, and died on June 14. His funeral service was conducted in St. Thomas church and a graveside service was conducted by Rev. J. G. Mountain, principal of the college.

Kalli was the first of the Inughuit of north-western Greenland to venture into a world outside the Arctic. He proved himself to be resilient and adaptable, and at the same time popular with all he met. His life was cut short by illness at the tender age of about 24. One has to wonder what he would yet have accomplished had he lived.

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