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By Wolfgang Opel (translated by Susanne Opel)

At the beginning of the 20th century, Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) – despite being the fifth largest island in the world – was hardly known in Europe. Not many white people had ever set foot on it other than a few explorers: Martin Frobisher, Charles Francis Hall and Franz Boas – as well as some whalers and missionaries. The Inuit and their predecessors – the Dorset and Tuniit – however, had lived in this remote region of Northern Canada for centuries. They mainly inhabited the coasts in the east and south of Baffin Island, ventured into the inner regions to hunt caribou and crossed the island to reach new hunting grounds or to visit other camps. Even the Inuit, however, eschewed the west of Baffin Island, as game was hard to find there.

The missing knowledge about this isolated area piqued the interest of a teacher and ornithologist living in Dresden in East Germany — Bernhard Hantzsch. Hantzsch was an experienced traveller who had already spent several months on expeditions into the North, e.g. Iceland in 1903 and Labrador in 1908, as well as in southern Europe. He dreamed of becoming the first white person to cross Baffin Island in an explorative journey from east to west before leaving Igloolik to travel into the North of this gigantic island. With this Arctic expedition, that would take several years to complete, he wanted to join the illustrious ranks of the famous polar explorers.

After the failure of the Franklin-expedition 60 years before, Canada’s North had returned to the public eye due to the successful crossing of the Northwest Passage by Roald Amundsen (1903-05) and the race to the North Pole by Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (1908-09). Hantzsch found support in planning his expedition by wellknown scientists who especially valued his book on Icelandic bird life. Alfred Newton, the leading British ornithologist from Cambridge University confirmed Hantzsch’s aptitude for the difficult endeavour.

Hantzsch also received support from other universities and museums. Even the Saxonian king Frederick Augustus III welcomed him and subsequently contributed a considerable amount to the expedition. Based on his experience with the Inuit during his preparatory journey to Labrador in the summer of 1906, Hantzsch described his thoughts on the upcoming expedition to Baffin Island at the end of 1907:

“By way of the close conduct I mean to have with the aboriginals, exhaustive insights into their language, lore, philosophy, folkways etc. shall be gained.”

Hantzsch was convinced of the Inuit’s excellent abilities in their daily struggle with the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

After extensive preparations that took months to complete, Hantzsch asked to be absolved from his duties after 11 years of being a teacher on May 8, 1909. On July 4, 1909, he began his journey at Dresden train station. He expected to receive high praise from the scientific world for his achievement.

Hantzsch boarded the Jantina Agatha, the ship that was to bring him to Baffin Island in Canada’s North, in Dundee (Scotland) on July 25, 1909. e passage proved to be much harder and longer than expected and on September 26 the vessel sailed into the proximity of the island. However, after colliding with an iceberg, it had to be abandoned as quickly as possible as it began to sink. Luckily, both the crew and passengers were able to save themselves by reaching a small island nearby, before the ship — and most of its cargo, including important equipment for Hantzsch’s expedition — disappeared into the sea.

The original destination of the Jantina Agatha — and the planned starting point for Hantzsch’s expedition — was the whaling station on Kekerten Island near Cumberland Peninsula, about 70 km from today’s Pangnirtung settlement. But due to the wreckage, the crew and passengers landed about 100 km away from their destination on Ummanagjuaq (Blacklead Island), off the Southern coast of Cumberland Sound, where an Anglican mission station had been established in 1894. Thanks to the presence of the missionary Greenshield among the passengers of the wretched ship, all the castaways found safe, albeit modest, sanctuary in the mission station.

Almost immediately, a battle over the available food supply and other equipment saved from the ship, a great part of which belonged to Hantzsch’s expedition, ensued and lasted for several weeks. Time and again fights between Hantzsch and the crewmembers started, which, according to Hantzsch’s diary, almost led to physical violence on several occasions. It was probably Greenshield’s mediation that helped satisfy the castaways’ most urgent needs and ended up saving barely sufficient provisions for the expedition.

Despite all adversities, Hantzsch resumed preparations for the expedition while also acting as a teacher, organist and medical attendant. With the help of the missionary, he found three Inuit families who agreed to accompany and assist him on his journey across Baffin Island. rough trading with whalers and merchants from Kekerten Island as well as the missionary, little by little, he managed to replace some of his expedition’s equipment.

On January 7, 1910, Hantzsch writes about meeting a whaler and trader of German origin, William Duval (Wilhelm Düwel from Schwerin) who was married to an Inuk, Aulaqiaq, and had been living on Baffin Island in the Inuit tradition for 30 years. Hantzsch was happy to consult with Duval about the expedition in his native tongue. Duval also agreed to help him with the collection of birds, eggs and skeletons for German museums. Descendants of William Duval, who is known as Sivutiksaq (the harpooner) among the Inuit, still live on Baffin Island to this day.

A page of Bernhard Hantzsch’s handwritten Inuktitut dictionary. Collection Dr. Dietz family
A page of Bernhard Hantzsch’s handwritten Inuktitut dictionary. Collection Dr. Dietz family

In his diary, Hantzsch regularly regrets being so slow in familiarizing himself with the language of the Inuit. “If I were together with the Eskimos, I would forge advances in their language, but so I feel isolated among all these people. I would marry and acquire a permanent companion, but I know the great difficulties opposing me in this,” writes Hantzsch on January 8, 1910.

Hantzsch spent his 35th birthday, January 12, 1910, in an igloo on the ice on Cumberland Sound. Due to a lack of snow, his snow house was tiny.

Returning from a visit to the whaling station on Kekerten Island, Hantzsch learned that his favourite student — and also his Inuktitut teacher — Adjena was to leave the mission station with her family to follow William Duval and his family to Durham Island.

Hantzsch’s diary from January 15, 1910 proves how much he was thrown off track by this situation:

“Letting this skilful, modest and cheery girl go will be very hard on me. She was the poetry of my life up here, which is so poor for heart and mind. Not only were the comfort – able hours with her a valuable help, but also comfort in my loneliness and isolation among the alien reckless men. I loved her.”

The next weeks were spent with preparations for the expedition. Hantzsch cast lead bullets for hunting, dissected animals for the German museums, wrote letters to his family, looked after ill Inuit and time and again regretted losing a capable language teacher. Without sufficient skills in the language of the Inuit, the success of his expedition was in question.

On April 23, 1910, the long awaited expedition to cross Baffin Island finally began. Hantzsch set out accompanied by the Inuit Aggakdjuk, Ittusakdjuk and Ittirk as well as their wives and children. Before leaving the mission station, Hantzsch prepared letters and expedition reports as well as various stuffed animals and collected objects for transport to Germany. Many of them can still be found in museums and collections in Dresden, Berlin and Köthen today.

The Blacklead Island whaling station. Public domain
The Blacklead Island whaling station. Public domain

At first, the expedition followed known tracks to Lake Nettilling, where they arrived in mid-June. Then they took a boat they had brought with them along its Southern shore. The weather conditions were difficult, storms and heavy rain occurred oen. Their clothes and tents were permanently wet as they lacked the wood for a fire to dry them thoroughly. Hunting was not very successful either. Despite all this, Hantzsch continued his diary diligently and tried to map their path exactly. He did not sleep well because of the stormy weather and the cold. Problems among the travellers were common, some due to difficulties with the language, some because of differing views on the journey itself.

In September, the weather got slightly better and on the 26th they finally reached the mouth of Koukdjuak River and the Foxe Basin. By reaching this point, Bernhard Hantzsch had succeeded in the first recorded crossing of Baffin Island by a white explorer — with the help of the Inuit accompanying and supporting him.

But now winter set in and the journey north along the Foxe Basin became more arduous. Hunting, too, became more difficult as they seldom saw caribou. The dogs were ailing, as food for them became scarce. Hantzsch began worrying about the success of the expedition. He feared for the worst, as “Fury and Hecla Strait” and Igloolik were still far off.

A big, beautiful iceberg near Baffin Island. © Wolfgang Opel
A big, beautiful iceberg near Baffin Island. © Wolfgang Opel

On November 1, with the help of his diary entries, Hantzsch began writing his report for publication: My life among the Eskimos. On November 24, 1910, they finally built a camp for the winter. There, Hantzsch wanted to complete substantial parts of his book undisturbed by the daily routine of packing up and journeying onwards. “And my book shall bring me financial means and glory,” he wrote in his diary. “I do not want to start out humbly again, when I return. I have become too accustomed to the freedom and commanding here,” he freely admits.

As hunting remained mainly unsuccessful here, too, Hantzsch continued to worry both about the welfare of the expedition and reaching his goals. A long period characterized by hunger and illness began. Only rarely did an Inuit succeed in shooting a seal. In the beginning of February 1911, food became extremely scarce. They began roasting and eating parts of the soles of shoes and searched all furs for potential traces of meat. Despite everything, Hantzsch continued working on his book. On February 17, he decided to break winter camp and continue north.

As conditions did not improve drastically, the journey farther north could only begin on April 16. Three of them would continue: Ittusakdjuk, his wife Sirkinirk and Bernhard Hantzsch. The others remained behind. Unfortunately, hunting did not improve during their trek. It wasn’t until as late as April 30 that Ittusakdjuk shot a caribou calf. A polar bear was shot the next day. Finally, after a long period of starvation, they had enough food and even the dogs could eat until they were full. On May 6, Sirkinirk suddenly fell ill. She complained about severe stomach aches.

The Bernhard Hantzsch memorial in Hartha, Germany. © Wolfgang Opel
The Bernhard Hantzsch memorial in Hartha, Germany. © Wolfgang Opel

On May 8, they reached the northernmost point of their journey. Here, thinking about the long way back they would have, Hantzsch decided to turn around. They only ate caribou meat now, as the polar bear meat provoked strong diarrhea. Even the dogs were affected. On May 10, 1911, Bernhard Hantzsch became seriously ill: diarrhea, headache, weakness and fever. Sirkinirk, too, was ill again.

From May 19 onwards, Hantzsch could hardly move without help. The last entry in his diary is from May 26: “Hardly slept, burning head, cold compresses.

Bernhard Hantzsch died on one of the following days, probably in the beginning of June 1911. His companions erected his grave on the shore of the river that is — thanks to the efforts of the established Canadian natural scientist J. Dewey Soper, Hantzsch’s successor in crossing Baffin Island — today known as Hantzsch River. Unfortunately, no photo of the grave exists, as the region is too remote to travel to even for today’s inhabitants of Baffin Island. Notwithstanding, Hantzsch’s name and his writings are well known there.

Today, after more than a century, the name Bernhard Hantzsch would be almost forgotten if it were not for a book containing the better part of his notes from Baffin Island (published in Canada in 1967) as well as a handful of articles in newspapers and science magazines. Apart from these, only a school in the Saxonian town of Hartha, a street in Dresden, as well as an island off the coast of Baffin Island and the river and bay on whose shore Hantzsch is buried, carry his name.