Taissumani: July 27, 1840 – Inuluapik and Penny Search for Cumberland Sound (Part One)


In 1839, William Penny, a veteran Scottish whaler, made a fortuitous stop at Durban Island on the Baffin coast. It was a favoured spot for whalers to take on water and to trade with the Inuit who congregated there increasingly in the 1830s.

Whalers had exploited the waters of Davis Strait for over a century, but it was only since 1817 that they had made the dangerous crossing of Baffin Bay to harvest the bowhead whale on the virgin eastern coast of Baffin Island. The bowhead whale was also known as the Greenland right whale because it was the “right” whale to hunt. It was slow-moving, huge, and generally floated when killed, leading to relatively few losses of struck whales.

But, nonetheless, whaling was a dangerous business. In 1819, 10 ships were lost in Baffin Bay. In 1830, 91 British ships sailed for Davis Strait but the weather that year was unusually fierce, and 19 of those ships were lost. Of those that did return to port, many were badly damaged and had poor catches to show for their efforts. Five years later, only six ships were lost, but 11 were trapped by ice and 600 men had to winter in the Arctic unprepared for the severity of the winter. One-hundred and thirty-five froze or died of scurvy.

Into this unpromising situation stepped William Penny. He wanted to search for the elusive Cumberland Sound, mapped by Davis in the 1580s, but never entered since. At Durban Island, Inuit had told the whalers of a large inlet to the south, an inlet they called Tinujjiarvik. The Inuit said that it was rich with bowhead whales and other wildlife. Penny supposed that Tinujjiarvik and Cumberland Sound were one and the same. He thought it might prove to be a profitable hunting ground for the bowhead, which was already becoming scarce elsewhere.

In 1839, after fishing in Baffin Bay, Penny made for Durban Island. There he met Inuluapik, a young Inuk man in his late teens or early twenties, who seemed to know a great deal about the much-reported Tinujjiarvik. He had been born at Qimmiqsut, an island on the southern coast of that body of water. Earlier in that decade, his family had moved to the Davis Strait coast precisely because they had heard that whalers frequented the area, and Inuluapik’s father foresaw the possibility of acquiring trade goods from them.

Inuluapik drew a sketch for Penny. Although he had not seen Cumberland Sound for many years, his map was drawn in considerable detail. It so impressed Penny that he invited the young man to accompany him to Aberdeen to spend the winter and return with him again the following year. Penny’s motivation was purely self-serving. With the assistance of Inuluapik he hoped to gain publicity and government support for a purely exploratory voyage the following year to find the elusive entrance to Tinujjiarvik, and thereby rediscover Cumberland Sound.

But Inuluapik was not concerned with whether or not he was being exploited. This was the opportunity he had been waiting for. In previous years, he had begged whaling captains to take him to Scotland, but had found none willing. Now, with the consent of his friends and relatives and despite the tears of his mother, Inuluapik eagerly accepted Penny’s invitation. His mother, fearing that she would never see her son again, exposed her breast for him to suckle it for the last time, as he had done in his youth. This farewell completed, Inuluapik boarded the Neptune some time in October 1839 and entrusted himself to the care of William Penny.

The ship reached Aberdeen on November 8. Inuluapik’s arrival created a sensation. It also almost cost him his life, for he caught a lung infection almost immediately. Some days later, at Penny’s suggestion, he gave a demonstration of his kayaking ability on the River Dee. Although it was a warm fall day, he performed in full fur dress. The result was a recurrence of his lung infection. This time he was confined to bed for 14 days. Indeed, his health remained poor for the rest of his stay in Britain.

Inuluapik and Penny left Aberdeen aboard a different ship, the Bon Accord, on April 1. After a difficult crossing of the North Atlantic, they reached Davis Strait on May 5. The government had failed to provide any funds for a purely exploratory voyage, so Penny headed north to whale in Melville Bay, and eventually headed south to search for Tinujjiarvik.

On July 27, near Leopold Island, the Bon Accord encountered the unexpected – the land seemed to end abruptly, to reappear to the South at an apparent distance of 60 or 70 miles. They had arrived at the mouth of an enormous inlet. Could this be Tinujjiarvik, which Penny suspected was Davis’s Cumberland Sound?

(To be continued next 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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