Taissumani: August 29, 1871 – Hall Names Hans Island
Canada and Denmark have agreed to disagree for now over the ownership of Hans Island, a tiny speck of rock in Kennedy Channel midway between Canada and Greenland. The dispute over ownership of the island dates back to 1973 when the border between Canada and Greenland was drawn. At the time the two parties agreed to interrupt the border at the low water mark at the south end of the island and recommence it at the low water mark at the north end of the island.
And there the matter remained until 1984 when I wrote an article in the newspaper, Hainang, published monthly in the community of Qaanaaq, 350 kilometres to the south of Hans Island.
The previous fall I had met a scientist from Dome Petroleum, a now-defunct Canadian oil company, who had spent the summer on the island doing research on the pressure exerted by multi-year ice hitting the island, information that it hoped to use in constructing artificial islands from which to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea.
Dome’s occupation of the island was in contravention of an agreement that both Denmark and Canada would avoid acts which might prejudice future negotiations over the island’s ownership. In fact, Dome Petroleum had not conferred with Canada’s Department of External Affairs over the use of the island, and may not even have known that its ownership was in dispute.
My article, in a little-known newspaper in an isolated corner of Greenland, was picked up by an influential Danish paper, noticed by the Canadian Embassy in Copenhagen, and then picked up by CBC radio. Hans Island had its first fleeting moment of fame.
After my article on Hans Island appeared in the Greenlandic and Danish press, Tom Høyem, the Danish minister for Greenland, chartered a helicopter from Thule Air Base to the island and raised a Danish flag, leaving a bottle of Denmark’s finest schnapps at its base. This gesture has recently been reciprocated, leading to bottles of Canadian whiskey and Danish schnapps alternately taking their temporary places at the base of flags, erected by one side and removed by the other, in what threatens to become “the battle of the bottles.”
What Minister Høyem never knew, in 1984, was that the Danish helicopter pilot who flew him to the island retrieved the famous bottle of schnapps on his next trip to the area, and celebrated its rescue by drinking it with his colleagues back at the base.
In 2004, the press had a flurry of interest in Hans Island, and there the matter lay until Canada’s defence minister landed there a few weeks ago. Since that “invasion,” Canada has claimed that the island is Canada’s by virtue of Britain’s discovery of it. The only problem with that is that the British had no part in its discovery. It was discovered by Americans.
In 1871, Charles Francis Hall launched his third Arctic expedition, the Polaris Expedition, an ambitious attempt to reach the North Pole by ship. On August 29, as the Polaris was labouring northward through the ice of Kennedy Channel, the crew noticed a tiny island smack-dab in the middle of the channel. Hall named it Hans Island, after Hans Hendrik, a Greenlandic guide traveling with the expedition. (I wrote about his life in this column a few weeks ago.)
He had been close to the island almost 20 years earlier while traveling as guide and assistant for Elisha Kent Kane, another American explorer. On Kane’s expedition, nearby Crozier and Franklin islands were named but apparently the diminutive Hans Island escaped detection. But in 1871, Hall saw it and named it, putting it on the map for the first time. Unfortunately for the Canadian claim, the first British expedition to the area, under George Nares, did not arrive until 1875.
Canada’s claim is further weakened by the fact that Canadian Inuit have never used the island and know nothing about it other than what they have read in the newspapers. Canadian Inuit did not live on Ellesmere Island in historical times, until 1953. Even since that date, the people of Grise Fiord have never hunted anywhere near Hans Island. The Inughuit, on the other hand (and on the other coast), have traditionally used the area and have an Inuit name for it, Tartupaluk, which describes its kidney-like shape. They have never lived on this barren rock, but have used it as a vantage point from which to ascertain ice conditions and spot polar bears.
As part of the homeland of the Inughuit, Tartupaluk – Hans Ø in Danish – should be recognized as part of Greenland and therefore a part of the Danish kingdom.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.