Thursday, June 28, 2018

Nobody to dig the graves

‘On the 19th of May, died Erich Hansen Li, who, throughout the voyage, had been very industrious and willing, and had neither offended anyone nor deserved any punishment. He had dug many graves for others, but now there was nobody that could dig his, and his body had to remain unburied.’ This is from the astonishingly tragic diary of Jens Munk, a Norwegian-Danish explorer who died 390 years ago today. His expedition to find the Northwest Passage ended in disaster: with his vessels ice-bound, almost all his crew succumbed to cold, hunger or scurvy. Munk’s diary records every death day-by-day over a period of months.

Monck (or Munk) was born in 1579 and grew up on his father’s estate at Arendal, southeast Norway. After his father’s downfall, he left with his mother to live in Aalborg, Denmark, but aged on 12 he embarked on a life at sea. He was sailing with a Dutch convoy, when it was attacked by pirates off the coast of Brazil. Munk survived, and then spent six years in Bahia working for a Portuguese magnate. In 1599, he managed to return to Denmark where he found a position as a ship’s clerk, eventually becoming a successful seafaring tradesman himself. In the 1610s, he was commissioned on various exploratory and military missions by the Danish-Norwegian king, Christian IV. On one of these, in 1615, he captured Jan Mendoses - a notorious privateer - off the northern coast of Russia. In 1618, the king appointed him commander of the first Danish expedition to East India with five vessels and nearly a 1,000 men, but the command was taken away from him weeks before sailing, probably because of a conflict with the Lord Chancellor. Around this time, Munk also suffered the loss of a large amount of money due to a failed whaling expedition

In 1619, Munk set out, with two royal vessels and 65 men, on an ambitious expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In September, he found the entrance to Hudson Bay becoming the first European to explore the bay’s western reaches. But the expedition then spent a disastrous winter near the mouth of what is now known as the Churchill River, a place Munk named Nova Dania (New Denmark). Everyone except Munk and two crewmen died from cold, hunger and scurvy; but, remarkably, with the onset of summer, the three men managed to return home sailing one of the vessels. Punk was imprisoned at Bergen for a short while but released on order of the king, and returned to Copenhagen. He continued to serve the king in various capacities, though a planned second expedition in search of the Northwest Passage never materialised. In 1625, the king promoted him to admiral in charge of a fleet on the Weser during the Thirty Years War. He died on 26 June 1928. Further information is available at Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Northern Lights Route, and in the book Exploring Polar Frontiers.

Munk kept a diary of his voyage to Hudson’s Bay in 1619-1620. He published this in 1624 under the title Navigatio Septentrionalis, illustrated with a map of Greenland/Hudson’s Bay, and two woodcuts. It was first translated into English and published in 1650 as An account of a most dangerous voyage perform’d by the famous Capt. John Monck, in the years 1619, and 1620. This is freely available online at Googlebooks (though the printed text uses the old-fashioned long s). However, the diary is also available in a modern script in the second volume of Hakluyt Society’s Danish Arctic Expeditions 1605-1620 published in 1897 - see Internet Archive. This also contains extensive notes and a long introduction by C. C. A. Gosch (and is the source of the following extracts).

12 July 1619
‘On the 12th of July, I sent my lieutenant with some of the crew on shore at Munckenes [named by Munk], in order to fetch water and to ascertain what was to be found there, because it seemed a likely place for finding harbours and for obtaining water. In the evening, they returned with water, and reported that there were harbours but no anchorage; nor could we lie there in safety from ice. We were, therefore, obliged to choose the better of two bad alternatives, because nowhere in the channel could we see open water. Half a mile from Munckenes, I caused the lead to be thrown, and reached the bottom at 150 fathoms. On the same day, I shot two or three birds with a gun; but, at the last discharge, the same gun burst into pieces, and took the brim clean off the front of my hat.’

13 July 1619
‘On the 13th of July, towards evening, we were in the greatest distress and danger, and did not know what counsel to follow, because we could not advance any further by tacking, the ice pressing us hard on all sides. Being, then, in such a perilous situation, all the officers considered it most advisable to take in all the sails and fasten the sloop Lamprenen to the ship Enhiörningen; which, accordingly, was done. We then commended all into the hand of God; and, trusting to God’s merciful assistance, we drifted along and into the ice again. This incident of the attack of the ice and the distress of the ships in the ice are shown on the plate accompanying this treatise.

While we thus drifted forwards and backwards in the ice, in great danger of our lives, the ice displaced a large knee in the ship, which was situated under the peg of the head of the ship, and fastened with six large iron bolts; wherefore I set all my carpenters to work to set that knee straight again. But it was too big for them, so that they could do nothing with it in that place. I therefore had the ship swung round and turned, so that the side to which the knee had come into a crooked position drifted against the ice, and then ordered the rudder to be worked so as to turn against the ice in order that the knee in a measure might right itself again, which also was effected as perfectly as if 20 carpenters had been engaged in refitting it. Afterwards, the carpenters adjusted the bolts which had become bent.’

12 September 1619
‘In the morning early, a large white bear came down to the water near the ship, which stood and ate some Beluga flesh, off a fish so named which I had caught the day before. I shot the bear, and the men all desired the flesh for food, which I also allowed. I ordered the cook just to boil it slightly, and then to keep it in vinegar for a night, and I myself had two or three pieces of this bear-flesh roasted for the cabin. It was of good taste and did not disagree with us.’

21 January 1620
On the 21st January, it was fine clear weather and sunshine; and, on that date, thirteen of us were down with sickness. Then, as I had often done before, I asked the surgeon, M. Casper Caspersen aforesaid, who was also lying mortally ill, whether he knew of any good remedy that might be found in his chest and which might serve for the recovery or comfort of the crew, as well as of himself, requesting him to inform me of it. To this he answered that he had already used as many remedies as he had with him to the best of his ability and as seemed to him advisable, and that, if God would not help, he could not employ any further remedy at all that would be useful for recovery.’

1 March 1620
‘On the 1st of March, died Jens Borringholm and Hans Skudenes; and, the sickness having now prevailed so far that nearly all of the crew lay sick, we had great difficulty in getting the dead buried.’

4 March 1620
‘On the 4th of March, the weather was mild, and we caught five ptarmigan in the open country, which were very welcome to us. I ordered broth to be made of them, and had that distributed amongst the sick; but, of the meat, they could eat nothing, because of their mouths being badly affected inside with scurvy.’

8 March 1620
‘On the 8th of March, died Oluf Boye, who had been ill nearly nine weeks, and his body was at once buried.’

9 March 1620
‘On the 9th of March, died Anders, the cooper, who had lain sick since Christmas, and his body was at once buried.’

11 March 1620
‘On the 11th of March, the sun entered Aries; it was then the Spring Equinox, night and day being equally long. In those quarters, the sun rose in the East-South-East, and set in the West-North-West at 7 o’clock in the evening; but it was not really more than six o’clock on account of the variation. On the same day, the weather was fine and mild, and I had all the snow thrown off the deck of the ship and had it nicely cleaned. At that time, I had but few to choose between that could do any work.’

11 May 1620
On the 11th of May, it was very cold, so that we all remained quietly in our berths that day; because, in our extreme weakness, we could not stand any cold, our limbs being paralyzed and, as it were, crushed by the cold.’

12 May 1620
‘On the 12th of May, died Jens Jörgensen, carpenter, and Suend Marstrand; and God knows what misery we suffered before we got their bodies buried. These were the last that were buried in the ground.’

16 May 1620
‘On the 16th of May, it was very cold indeed. Then died the skipper, Jens Hendrichsen; and his body had to remain unburied.’

19 May 1620
‘On the 19th of May, died Erich Hansen Li, who, throughout the voyage, had been very industrious and willing, and had neither offended anyone nor deserved any punishment. He had dug many graves for others, but now there was nobody that could dig his, and his body had to remain unburied.’

20 May 1620
‘On the 20th of May, the weather was fine and mild and the wind southerly. It was a great grief to us that, whilst God gave such an abundance of various kinds of birds, none of us was strong enough to go into the country and shoot some of them.’

17 July 1620
‘On the 17th of July, towards evening, I met much ice, and I stood off and on in front of the ice; but, in the course of the night, the weather being calm and misty, we stuck firm on the ice. I then let go the boat of Enhiörningen, which I had taken in tow for the purpose of having it for use if I should come near to land anywhere.’

The Diary Junction

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