Saturday, May 31, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XX

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

The Inuit (once commonly referred to as Eskimos) were among the last Native Americans to settle in North America, and among the first to encounter Europeans. Arctic hunters of the Dorset and Thule cultures arrived in Alaska by 1000 BC, and migrated thence into northern Canada, reaching Greenland by 1100 AD. There the Inuit encountered the first European settlers in the New World: Norse colonists from Iceland, who had begun colonizing Greenland in 986 AD. The subsequent relationship between Norse and Inuit was not a friendly one. The two peoples did trade with one another - Norse artifacts have been found at Inuit sites off Ellesmere Island - but also fought with one another and competed for resources. The Norse eventually lost this contest: the Little Ice Age cut them off from Iceland and Europe, and as the climate cooled the Inuit proved better able to exploit the island's animal resources. Sometime before 1480, the last Norsemen in Greenland died out. (Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1800 [Cambridge, 1986], 45-54; Eric Wahlgren, The Vikings and America [London, 1986], 16-27).

European contact with the Inuit resumed about 50 years later, but Euro-Inuit relations didn't grow any friendlier. This may have had something to do with Europeans' desire to bring Eskimo captives back to Europe as trophies. In 1536, Englishmen tried to kidnap a party of Native American - probably Inuit - hunters off the Labrador coast. In 1567, French mariners brought an Inuit woman and her daughter to the Netherlands, while Martin Frobisher took another four Inuit captives to England in 1576-77. In 1586 English explorer John Davis captured two Inuit and Inuk men in Greenland, but they probably died before Davis returned to Europe.

Early in the next century, King Christian IV of Denmark commissioned an exploratory voyage to Greenland to determine the fate of the Norse settlements there and revive the Norse-Danish claim to the island. In 1605 three Danish ships under the command of Scottish mariner John Cunningham sailed for Greenland. The vessels successfully crossed the Atlantic, and one, the Loven, traded with the Inuit on Greenland's southwest coast before seizing two men and their kayaks. The Inuit captives violently resisted their imprisonment at first but eventually accepted their fate; perhaps they hoped to make a later escape. In Copenhagen the prisoners were paraded before the King and Queen and participated in a kayak race against a 16-oared Danish vessel. (The race ended in a tie.) Their subsequent fate is unknown.

Cunningham's other two vessels, the Trost and Katten, proceeded up the Greenland coast, skirmished with 30 Eskimos, and captured 3, whom the mariners also displayed in Denmark (after the Inuit prisoners made a failed escape attempt). These captives also participated in kayaking displays - the Spanish ambassador to the Danish court gave them a large cash award for their virtuosity - and purchased much "fashionable clothing" for themselves, including swords and plumed hats. (Some Danish observers referred to the re-costumed Inuit as the "Greenland grandees.") A subsequent Danish expedition tried to take all three captives back to Greenland, but at least two died en route.

The Danes believed that Cunningham's Inuit captives were descendants of the lost Norse colony on Greenland, and they continued their efforts to bring Eskimos - their own purported ethnic relatives - to Europe. There were six Danish and Dutch voyages to Greenland between 1607 and 1654, which brought thirty more Inuit back to Denmark and the Netherlands. Some of the travelers may have been children brought to Denmark for education, as authorized by Christian IV in the 1636 charter of the Danish Greenland Company. The most famous of these captives were an Inuit man, two women, and a girl whom David Daniel captured near Godthaab in 1654. Daniel brought the Greenlanders to Bergen, where they were painted by Salomon van Haven, becoming the first Inuit so represented. (Wendell Oswalt, Eskimos and Explorers [2nd. edition, Lincoln, 1999], 41-43.) The painting can be viewed below:

(The caption on the sign reads "In their small leather ships the Greenlanders sail hither and thither on the ocean; from animals and birds they get their clothes. The cold land of Midnight. Bergen, September 28th, 1654." [Oswalt, 75-76.] Original image from

For the next entry in this series, click here.

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