Jens Munk — only two men survived the winter of 1619-20 to join him to sail back to Denmark from Churchill

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

Danish Captain Jens Munk and the two other survivors of the deadly winter  stay in 1619-20 at the mouth of the Churchill River, out of a two-ship crew of 65 men, had no other option to reach Denmark than the sloop Lamprey. Unlike the frigate Unicorn, which they purposefully sunk with the intention of later refloating  it, the Danish sloop was a much smaller vessel, requiring a crew of just 16 sailors, vs. 48 sailors for the frigate.

A sloop, from Dutch sloep, is a sailing boat with a single mast and a fore-and-aft rig, which was more manageable for the three men on the lengthy voyage to Europe. Yet, it would be a herculean task, with the scant crew exercising the utmost perseverance to keep themselves from being trapped by sea ice that would threaten their very existence at nearly every leg of the journey from Hudson Bay until they reached the open water of the Atlantic. But once they reached the Atlantic, their ordeal was far from over, as storms constantly tossed their ship about as they struggled to keep it afloat.

Fittingly, the location where the men overwintered, across the river from the present-day town of Churchill, Manitoba, is now called Sloop Cove.

On July 16, 1620, the three men  set sail for Europe.

“The passage back to Denmark/ Norway was dramatic. They fought ice and storm; the ship leaked so one man had to be at the pump all the time. They were too few to operate the sails optimally. Yet, on 20th September, they sighted Norway and the following day they made landfall at Dalsfjorden south of Trondhjem,” wrote Jon Carlsen in Jens Munk’s Search for the North West Passage in 1619-20 and His Wintering at Nova Dania, Churchill, Manitoba.

In his diary published in 1624, Munk wrote that he and his two-man crew cried in happiness and thanked God for their deliverance when they sighted the Norwegian coast.

After Munk left the Churchill River encampment, no other white man made the same landfall in the region for nearly 50 years. The next landing was in 1685, when a Hudson’s Bay Company ship set anchor and by 1689 an HBC post had been built along the mouth of the river.

At this time, the French and British were in open conflict over the control of the lucrative fur trade around the Hudson Bay and James Bay regions. The French even ousted the British and held sway over the area for a number of years.

A French officer, Nicholas Jeremie, who was in the Hudson Bay area from 1694 to 1714, and served as governor from 1708 to 1714 (the last year of French control of the region), published an account of his experiences, and what he had heard about the Munk expedition from local aboriginal people. According to his journal, the people, who were then unfamiliar with white men, were astonished to discover the ship in its mooring and find the unburied corpses of Munk’s crew. They also welcomed finding the bountiful iron left behind by the Europeans that could be converted for their use.

Jeremie wrote that some of the people in the party lit a fire in one of the two sheds built by Munk’s men to store gunpowder and promptly blew themselves up.

When the French were in control of the region, the Churchill River was always referred to as La Riviere Danoise (Danish River) or Riviere de Monc (Munk River). Among the local native population, it was called the Manoteousibi, or River of Foreigners.

Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Captain James Knight, who rebuilt the company post along the Churchill River, reported, in his 1717 journal, that 100 years after the ill-fated expedition evidence was still seen of the Munk expedition’s overwintering. In his diary, he wrote about finding two brass cannons and several cast iron bars used as ballast weight. These and other HBC discoveries have long since been lost.

Knight wrote that the HBC post was rebuilt over, “The many graves and bones from the folk who lie buried here,” and “are a revelation of that which awaits us if we do not lay in supplies before the winter sets in. For although they were Danes and very hardy people, almost 130 (sic) of them lie buried here, and a great part of their graves lie under our building, I pray that the Lord may protect and preserve us.”

In 1964, a Danish team found a few remains of the Unicorn in the tidal shallows (Canadian Encyclopedia).

Despite his remarkable journey, no hero’s welcome awaited Munk or his men upon their return to Copenhagen on December 25. One of his men was involved in a tavern brawl, and Munk, as the captain responsible for his tiny crew’s conduct, was jailed. The Danish king regarded the expedition’s failure to be a direct result of Munk’s incompetence, and blamed him for the loss of one of his  ships, as well as all the men except two. After three months languishing in jail, the Danish king finally ordered Munk’s release.

The king then commanded Munk to retrieve The Unicorn and to prepare for the colonization of Nova Dania, a plan that came to naught since no volunteers could be found to settle in the Hudson Bay region. The hardships encountered by the crews of the two vessels of exploration were by this time widely circulating among Danes and Norwegians sailors, so they were scared off from giving the journey another try. Given the circumstances of Munk’s failed voyage — he didn’t find the fabled Northwest Passage — and the fate of all but two of his men, it’s hard to find fault with their reluctance to place their own lives in similar peril.

Munk would never return to Canada. Instead, he went to war (the Thirty Years War) as an admiral in the Danish fleet on behalf of his king. Munk was wounded and returned to Copenhagen in 1628. Munk struggled with his health, divorced his wife, and died on June 26 that year as a poor man stripped of his rank.

“Although his expedition was technically a failure, it must be emphasized that Munk achieved many things — all for which he was never recognized in his lifetime,” according to the article, Exploring Canada’s Arctic Frontiers: Jens Munk and the Death in Hudson Bay (Norway Embassy in Canada website). “His navigational skills and position as an extraordinary maritime pioneer is unquestionable, and his charts of the Hudson Bay were extremely valuable to those that came after him in pursuit of the Northwest Passage. In addition, Munk exhibited extraordinary tenacity and almost superhuman endurance during his winter in Munk Haven. He succeeded in surviving an extremely harsh winter, for which the expedition was entirely unprepared.”

Munk’s contribution to the early European exploration of Canada’s Arctic has almost been erased from the historical record, as all the names he bestowed upon bays, waters and landmarks have not survived, among them the name Nova Dania which he gave to the Hudson Bay region in what is now Manitoba. Jens Munk Island, an uninhabited small island off the coast of Baffin Island, Nunavut, at 69°39’N 80°04’W, is the only location in Canada named after the Danish explorer.