Early Inuit explorers of Great Britain

Ilulissat Icefjord by Dennis Minty

Part 3: Once More Into the Passage

Early in the nineteenth century, as more and more British whalers and explorers turned up in the Arctic, at least two young Inuit found ways to reverse the usual direction of exploration. John Sakeouse and Eenoolooapik went from their Arctic homes to the UK and caused quite a stir. What follows is the third installment of a six-part series for Adventure Canada, with whom — as an RCGS ambassador — I will sail Into the Northwest Passage this autumn. It is adapted from my book Dead Reckoning, which celebrates the Indigenous contribution to Arctic inquiry. 

John Sakeouse

The first was John Sakeouse, who in 1816, not yet twenty, befriended some visiting sailors in southern Greenland. With their help, he stowed away (with his kayak) on the Thomas and Anne, a whaling ship. On being discovered, he convinced the captain, a man named Newton, to let him remain aboard and sail to Leith, the main port of Edinburgh.

As to why, offered a couple of explanations. Having been converted to Christianity by Danish missionaries, he wanted to see more of the Christian world, and perhaps return one day to educate his people. More intriguing: he had quarrelled with the mother of a young woman he wished to marry and needed to get away.

Commander John Ross, with whom he later sailed, presented a third alternative, writing that Sakeouse was carried away “to sea in a storm with five others, all of whom perished, and . . . was miraculously saved by an English ship.”

According to the , the enterprising Sakeouse was born in 1797. He was “about five feet eight inches high, broad in the chest, and well set, with a very wide face, and a great quantity of coarse black straight hair. The expression of his face . . . was remarkably pleasing and good humoured.”

During the voyage to Scotland, he improved both his English and his seaman’s skills. In Leith, he became a minor celebrity by demonstrating kayak tricks, among them an underwater roll. The next year, with Captain Newton, he went whaling. But on reaching Greenland, he learned that his beloved sister had died while he was away. She was the main reason he had considered returning home to stay. Her death left him with no great yearning to remain and he .

In Edinburgh, the well-known artist Alexander Nasmyth discovered that the Inuk “had not only a taste for drawing, but considerable readiness of execution,” and began giving him lessons. On learning that the British Admiralty would soon dispatch a Northwest Passage expedition under Commander John Ross, Nasmyth drew their attention to the remarkable young Inuk. The Admiralty offered generous terms. Sakeouse readily accepted, though he stipulated that, as the Penny Magazine put it, “he was not to be left in his own country.”

On April 18, 1818, when the 352-ton Isabella emerged from the River Thames, John Sakeouse was aboard, ready to play a role as interpreter and artist. On June 3, the two-ship expedition reached the west coast of Greenland and proceeded north to Disko Island (Qeqertarsuaq), where they found a British whaling fleet of thirty or forty ships.

Here, too, they encountered a staggering array of spectacular icebergs. These emerged, as they still do, from a glacier called the Sermeq Kujalleq, which is an extension of the Greenland ice cap. That glacier calves some of the world’s largest icebergs into the Ilulissat Icefjord, which carries them into Disko Bay. Today, the glacier and the fjord constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of the icebergs he saw in 1818, John Ross declared it impossible “to imagine anything more exquisite.”

Contemplating a village of perhaps fifty persons on Disko Island, he sent Sakeouse ashore to inquire about trading. The young Inuk returned with seven men. Ross offered them a musket in exchange for a sledge and dogs. The men accepted, went ashore, and promptly returned with a sledge, a team of dogs and five women, two of whom were said to be daughters of a “Danish president” by an Inuit woman.

Ross treated the visitors to coffee and biscuits in his cabin. After leaving the cabin, we learn in The Last Voyage of Captain John Ross, “they danced Scotch reels on the deck with the sailors, during which the mirth and joy of Sakeouse knew no bounds.” Ross observed that one of the young women caught the eye of Sakeouse. One of the ship’s officers, seeing what was unfolding, gave him “a lady’s shawl, ornamented with spangles as an offering for her acceptance.” Sakeouse “presented it in a most respectful, and not ungraceful manner to the damsel, who bashfully took a pewter ring from her finger and gave it to him in return, rewarding him at the same time with an eloquent smile.”

After the festivities, Sakeouse escorted the visitors ashore. Next day, when he failed to return, a boat went to fetch him. The young Inuk had broken his collarbone while demonstrating how his gun worked. He had overloaded it to make an impression¾“plenty of powder, plenty of kill”—and had failed to anticipate the greater recoil. He took some weeks to heal.

Amidst heavy gales, the two navy ships beat north through enormous icebergs along the coast of Greenland. In Melville Bay on August 9, someone spotted a small group of men gesticulating from the shore. John Ross sent a party to make contact, but the men fled on their dogsleds, disappearing among the hummocks. Ross had brought a great many items for trade, among them 2,000 needles, 200 mirrors, 30 pairs of scissors, 150 pounds of soap, 40 umbrellas, and 129 gallons of gin.

He placed a cache of goods on shore. The following day, the Inuit came charging hard,  driving eight dogsleds. One mile from the ships, they halted and stood waiting. As a boy, John Sakeouse had heard that northern Greenland was “inhabited by an exceedingly ferocious race of giants, who were great cannibals.” Even so, unarmed, alone, and carrying a white flag, he went out to meet the northerners. He halted on one side of a great crack or lead in the ice.

After some difficulty, Sakeouse found a dialect, Humooke, in which he could communicate with the strangers. They had never seen a sailing ship or, even from a distance, a white man. Sakeouse tossed the men a string of beads and a checkered shirt. Soon questions and answers were flying back and forth.

John Ross gathered more presents and, with Edward Parry, his second in command, set out across the ice. They wore their naval uniforms, complete with cocked hats and tailcoats, and together with Sakeouse, they distributed gifts to a welcoming party that had now grown to eight local men and fifty howling dogs. Soon enough, all the ships’ officers had come ashore, while the crews of both ships stood laughing and shouting encouragement.

“The impression made by this scene upon [Sakeouse] was so strong,” according to the Penny Magazine, “that he afterwards executed a drawing of it from memory. That drawing, illustrating the first meeting of native northern Greenlanders and British sailors, turned up in John Ross’s book about his voyage. The Beinecke Library declared it “certainly the earliest representational work by a Native American artist to be so reproduced.”

After probing Lancaster Sound, John Ross sailed home to London, arriving in November 1818. The British Admiralty recognized that on this voyage, John Sakeouse had made a singular contribution. The governing board proposed to send him on another Arctic expedition, this one under Lieutenant Edward Parry. In London, while awaiting a detailed proposal, Sakeouse took “great delight in relating his adventures with the ‘Northmen.’” According to the Penny Magazine, he became so popular in London drawing rooms that his friends feared “either that the poor fellow’s head would be turned, or that he would get into bad company and acquire dissipated habits.” He soon tired of the big city, however, and returned to Edinburgh to live among his old friends.

In January 1819, Sakeouse was eagerly anticipating his next voyage when, without warning, according to the Penny Magazine, he “was seized with an inflammatory complaint.” The finest doctors in Edinburgh attended him and, after a few days, he seemed to recover. But as “he began to gain strength, he by no means liked the discipline to which he was subjected, and the prescribed regimen still more displeased him.” Sakeouse suffered a relapse, and on Sunday evening, February 14, 1819, he died.

Many of Edinburgh’s leading lights attended his funeral, and several luminaries journeyed north from London. People remembered Sakeouse as gentle, modest, and appreciative of any kindness extended to him. “In a snowy day, last winter,” according to Blackwood’s Magazine, “he met two children at some distance from Leith, and observing them to be suffering from the cold, he took off his jacket, and having carefully wrapped them in it, brought them safely home. He would take no reward and seemed to be quite unconscious that he had done anything remarkable.”


Twenty years later, in September 1839, another nineteen-year-old Inuk went looking for a visiting whaling captain. While based as a hunter on tiny Durban Island off the east coast of Baffin Island, Eenoolooapik had heard that Captain William Penny was asking questions about the whale-rich bay called Tenudiakbeek (Cumberland Sound). Eenoolooapik had grown up in that bay on Qimisuk (Blacklead Island). He had already explored much of the east Baffin coast, which faced towards Greenland, and yearned to venture farther.

He located Penny, who was rightly concerned about the decline of the Arctic whale fishery. Three times, Penny had tried and failed to find this whale-rich bay. Now, Eenoolooapik or “Bobbie,” as he came to be called, convinced the captain that he could lead him directly to it. With winter coming on, he could not do so immediately. But when Penny sailed for home in the Neptune, Eenoolooapik went with him.

In Some Passages in the History of Eenoolooapik, Alexander McDonald—a doctor who later sailed with the adventurous youth—wrote that Penny brought home a “young Esquimaux of considerable intelligence, from whom, he had reason to think, much additional information might be obtained, not only on the subject of the whale fishery, but also concerning the geography of those partially explored regions.”

After crossing the Atlantic, the Neptune landed on the Scottish coast of Caithness at the Castle of Mey, roughly 10 kilometres west of John o’ Groats. Eeenoolooapik clamored to see inside the building, but the keeper of the mansion, as McDonald writes, “with true Cerberus-like obstinacy, refused to allow the party even to walk round it.” The young doctor managed to send word to Aberdeen that he was bringing a special visitor.

On the morning of November 9, when Eenoolooapik debarked in Aberdeen, . A few days later, on the River Dee, the Inuk gave a display of his kayaking ability. He over-extended himself in the cold water and contracted pneumonia. McDonald, a graduate of Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons, diagnosed “an inflammatory affection of the lungs. It was extremely severe, but it presented no other remarkable peculiarity.”

For the next few months, Eenoolooapik hovered on the brink of death. Penny had perceived his intelligence and ability and had intended to teach him boat-building. This plan fell by the wayside. But even from his sick bed, Eenoolooapik showed a sense of humour. The Aberdeen Herald of November 16, 1839, reported that, “One of the men at the Neptune’s boiling-house drew the outline caricature of a broad face, and said, ‘That is an Esquimaux.’

Bobbie immediately borrowed the pencil, and, drawing a very long face, with a long nose, said ‘That is an Englishman.’”

Eenoolooapik was a gifted mimic. Having recovered from his illness, he demonstrated by behaving like a born gentleman at the theatre, at dinner parties, and at two balls in honour of the Queen’s wedding. Captain Penny tried to interest the British Admiralty in a map he and  Eenoolooapik drew of the whale-rich bay. The governing board took no interest in whaling but, remembering the usefulness of John Sakeouse, did send a small sum to assist the Inuk.

In April 1840, the young adventurer sailed home with Penny and McDonald on the Bon Accord, carrying numerous gifts for distribution, among them a china teacup and saucer for his mother. Penny spent the summer whaling, and then, guided by Eenoolooapik, brought the Bon Accord into Tenudiakbeek. The information Eenoolooapik shared with Penny would transform the Arctic whaling fishery and launch the colonization by Scottish whalers of Baffin Island.

Eenoolooapik married and settled at Tenudiakbeek. For several years, he traded baleen with Penny. In these years, among his own people, he became a renowned storyteller.

Eenoolooapik died of tuberculosis in the summer of 1847. Meanwhile, in 1841, Alexander MacDonald had published a brief biography of the Inuk. Four years after that, MacDonald sailed with the Franklin expedition as an assistant surgeon on the Terror. The question arises: What if? What if, when Penny and McDonald returned to Britain in the Bon Accord, Eenoolooapik had come back with them? Had he been available to the Admiralty, then he, too, would almost certainly have sailed in 1845 with John Franklin. Would his presence have made a difference? Some of the final survivors interacted with Inuit hunters. What if Eenoolooapik had been present to communicate with them?

















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