The First First Impressions of Arctic Canada
By: Katie Murray
Today, it is rare that you travel to a new place with no idea what you are going to experience. Usually we have some expectations. First-time visitors to the Arctic have probably seen photographs of icebergs, polar bears, towering fjords and tiny communities with glacial backdrops. Despite this, nothing quite prepares you for your first immersion into the Arctic world. Everything is bigger and more impressive than you could have anticipated.
Imagine if you had no idea what to expect. In the sixteenth-century Europeans started sailing into the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage, a sea route joining the markets of Europe with those of Asia.
The first recorded voyages, commanded by the English privateer Martin Frobisher, were made in the 1570s; his countryman John Davis followed a decade later. As far as these voyagers were concerned, this region was a blank on the world’s charts.
Frobisher’s crews encountered “many monstrous and strange islands of ice; a thing both rare, wonderful, and greatly to be regarded.”
Though we now know that tenth-century Norsemen - the Vikings - had possibly reached Baffin Island, this knowledge had been lost. There were no surviving reports warning this new wave of explorers what they might find. Luckily, both Frobisher and Davis had crew members who wrote accounts on their voyage, giving the first documented impressions of this part of the Arctic. One element that dominates their narratives is ice. Frobisher’s crews encountered “many monstrous and strange islands of ice; a thing both rare, wonderful, and greatly to be regarded.”
Icebergs confused their efforts at charting. On Davis’ second voyage they recorded seeing an island with distinct bays, capes, and high cliffs. Sending a group of men to make landfall, when they returned “we were certainly informed that it was only ice, which bred great admiration to us all.” Glaciers were also novel. On Frobisher’s first voyage a calving is described as “making a noise as if a great cliff had fallen into the sea.”
The wildlife is also a source of wonder. The ‘wolves’ they see prove to be domesticated huskies. Frobisher’s men find “a dead fish” with an odd horn-like feature. They conclude this must be a specimen of “the sea unicorn,” a diagnosis that is proven correct when insects they place inside the horn die - this was known to be a distinguishing feature of the unicorn.
A few years later the crew on Davis’ ship see white dots moving around on a distant headland. They report that, wishing to restock their larder and “supposing them to be goats or wolves, [we] manned our boats and went towards them.” It is a shock to be confronted with “white bears of a monstrous bigness.”
The most space in these accounts, however, is devoted to describing the indigenous people. To Frobisher and Davis’s crews, the Inuit seemed otherworldly, a sense of which comes across in descriptions of their first meeting.
According to this report, Frobisher climbed a hill and saw "a number of small things fleeting in the sea afarre off, which he supposed to be porposes or seales, or some kinde of strange fishe.” It was only when they came nearer “he discovered them to be men in small boates made of leather.” It was the first time he had seen a kayak.
Unusually for a first encounter, we have both sides of the story. The Inuit point of view has been passed down in oral testimony. They were shocked at how inadequately Frobisher’s men were prepared for the Arctic climate: “Their clothes - how they dressed!... the first explorers basically were dressed in rags… we knew their clothes would never protect them from the cold.”
The men remained fascinated by these people whose “riches are not gold, silver, or precious drapery, but… tents and boats made out of the skins of red deer and seal skins.” Pages are devoted to describing their exotic material culture: fur clothing, ivory and bone tools, dogs and sledges, oil lamps and stone houses. These are dismissed as “trifles, to be wondered at for their strangeness than for any other commodity needful for our use.”
The men remained fascinated by these people whose “riches are not gold, silver, or precious drapery, but… tents and boats made out of the skins of red deer and seal skins.”
These early explorers were the only ones to get such an unaffected experience of Arctic Canada. Their accounts were available to subsequent generations of explorers, who had a far better idea of what they were going to find.
Happily, some of their sense of wonder found a place on the Arctic chart. The area that Frobisher explored on Baffin Island came to be called ‘Meta Incognita’- unknown shore. A name that the southernmost peninsula retains today.
Christopher Hall ‘The First Voyage of Master Martin Frobisher, to the North-West for the search of the passage or strait to China, made in the year of our Lord 1576’
Dionyse Settle ‘The Second Voyage of Master Martin Frobisher, Made to the West and North-West Regions in the year 1577, with a Description of the Country and People’
John James Marchant, ‘The First Voyage of Master John Davis, undertaken in June, 1585, for the discovery of the North-West Passage’
Dorothy Harley Eber ‘Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers'