Taissumani, July 1

The Death Journey of Bernhard Hantzsch – Part 2



There is good reason why no Inuit lived permanently along the lengthy coastline of Foxe Basin. It is because it is forbidding territory and game is scarce.

Near-starvation soon ensued for Hantzsch and his fellow travellers. Seals they shot from shore drifted away with the current. They had no boat suitable for seal hunting.

In desperation, Aggaarjuk improvised a kayak from tentpoles, canvas and the waterproof lining of an old trunk. It was hardly seaworthy, and in any case, seals became scarce.

Six weeks of extreme privation followed. On Jan. 14, Hantzsch noted that they had caught only two seals in the previous four weeks. He still had biscuits and soup tablets, but eventually the party resorted to eating the skins of the seals they had taken.

In early February, Aggaarjuk, who had himself been ill, discovered open water about 20 miles north of their encampment, water kept open by a current and where seals were plentiful. In mid-month they relocated their camp to an islet close to this unexpected source of nourishment.

Hantzsch had been sick for most of the winter, weakened by hunger. He felt sorry for the privations endured by the Inuit, especially the children.

But he had a single-minded determination not to deviate from his research agenda. In mid-April he set out northward with Ittuksarjuaq and Siqiniq, carrying only slim rations, relying on the seal, basking by this season on the ice surface. The seals proved generally unapproachable. A few caribou were taken, but not enough to stave off the ever-present hunger.

Then on the first of May Ittuksarjuaq killed a polar bear. This was a windfall of meat beyond their expectations!

It was also a disaster. By May 7 all three of the travellers were ill. They ended their northward journey the following day, in the area of Piling Bay, and reluctantly turned their course back to camp.

On the desperate journey back, Siqiniq was too ill to walk and had to be carried on the sled. They feared to touch the bear meat again. On May 17 Hantzsch was too weak to reach a snowhouse they had made on their northward journey.

Ittuksarjuaq, himself feeble, spent three hours building a new shelter. Hantzsch noted, “I lie down freezing in the house that has cost so much effort and can neither eat nor sleep, feeling only a death-like lassitude…”

Late in the month Ittuksarjuaq shot and retrieved a seal but it was too late to save the emaciated Hantzsch. His last journal entry was made on May 26: “Hardly slept, burning headache, cold compresses.” He lingered on for some days, too weak to make another journal entry.

Fortified by the seal meat, the two Inuit carried the dying man back to the winter camp. He died sometime at the end of May or very early June.

Aggaarjuk had been a lay reader in the small congregation at Blacklead Island and read the Church of England’s burial rites beside the lonely grave that he and Ittuksarjuaq constructed on a small islet. Then they began the sad task of gathering their deceased friend’s belongings and starting the long journey back to the mission.

Bernhard Hantzsch kept a detailed journal of his expedition. At some point on the journey he began to revise it with a view to publication. The revision was never completed.

The result is uneven. We have an almost-ready-for-publication account of the journey from commencement to July 8, 1910, at which time he was still westward-bound on the shores of Nettilling Lake. From that date until the last tragic entry, the raw unedited notes of the journal are all that exists.

What killed Bernhard Hantzsch? Most modern observers believe that he died from trichinosis, a parasitic disease caused from eating raw or undercooked meat infected with the larvae of a particular type of roundworm.

Polar bear meat is known to harbour trichinosis. Symptoms of the disease include abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, fever and muscle pain. Symptoms appear from two to seven days after infection.

It is significant that Hantzsch and his two Inuit travelling companions were all ill within a week of Ittuksarjuaq killing the polar bear. The disease is often fatal within four to six weeks after infection. This is also consistent with the date of Hantzsch’s death.

An assessment of Hantzsch’s work and character, written is 1977, tells us, “Hantzsch was a man of science. But what makes him unique is his portrayal of a fading but still living culture, not in the cold terms of the sociologist, but with love, warmth and understanding. On a first estimate he should rank high among the pioneers of the North.”

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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