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Kayaks & Inuits in Aberdeen

One of the most remarkable pieces of evidence for Aberdeen’s interaction with the circumpolar world dates from around 1700, and astonishingly, represents an epic voyage from the Americas to Europe; perhaps exploration, perhaps misadventure. The University preserves an ‘Esqimau' canoe in which a native of that country was driven ashore near Belhelvie, about the beginning of the 18th century, but he died soon after landing’. 

The 1st record of this kayak is in a diary written by the Rev. Francis Gastrell of Stratford-upon-Avon who visited Aberdeen in 1760.  He says that, “In the Church . . . was a Canoo about 21ft long by 2 ft wide which about 32 years since was driven into the Don with a man in it who was all over hairy and spoke a language which no person there could interpret.  He lived but 3 days, tho’ all possible care was taken to recover him.” At the time of Gastrell’s visit, the University Chapel was used as the library, and also as the museum, hence the ‘Canoo’ being ‘in the Church’.

This enigmatic visitor has since been identified as a Greenlander, on the grounds of the style of his kayak.  His arrival in Aberdeen seems almost miraculous, but he may have had an experience resembling that of another Inuit visitor to Scotland,  who turned up in 1818 (the story is told in another books; Thomas McKeevor’s - A Voyage to Hudson’s Bay (London,1819). This poor fellow had been drifted out to sea in his Kayak near a 100 miles, when he fortunately met with 1e of the homeward-bound Greenland Ships, which took him up,

There is a long standing oral tradition in Belhelvie relating to an Inuit man and his kayak being washed ashore on the Aberdeenshire coast sometime between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. As yet we have not been able to clearly identify where this occurred: some sources refer to the Don river, other sources imply that the man and his kayak landed further north, perhaps along the Balmedie beach. Apparently the inventory to Marischal Museum from 1842 listed an ‘esquimaux canoe […] driven ashore ner Belhelvie’..

The theories as to how and why the Inuit and his kayak appeared in Aberdeen are plentiful. It was not unusual for traders to bring back unusual cultural specimens from their foreign destinations, and it is possible that the Inuit was trying to make his escape from such captivity.  Another option is that he may have been fishing off Orkney and that currents or weather may have forced him in toward the Northeast coast. At this period there were several reported sightings of kayaks, particularly in the Orkney islands, and various kayaks made their way into collections, both in Marischal College, Aberdeen and to various locations in Edinburgh.

It appears that the unpublished diary of Reverend Gastrell, who made a tour of Scotland in 1760, contains the 1st mention of the Aberdeen kayak. He claimed to have seen a kayak in King’s College chapel on October 12th, which he believed to have been driven into the Don in 1728. The 1st printed reference to the Aberdeen kayak dates from at least 60 years after the alleged event. Francis Douglas also made a tour of Scotland toward the end of the 18th century, and noted in his writings that he saw a kayak in Marischal College in 1782, which was supposed to have originated in Labrador. The kayak itself was made of Scots Pine, a tree native to northern Europe and particularly the Baltic. It was covered with 4 seal skins, and there were 5 implements found with it: a paddle, a spear, a birdspear, a throwing-stick and a harpoon, all made of wood with bone and ivory details.  Apparently the Inuit man himself only survived 3 days on land and died without ever making his own origin known.

This 2nd story ended more happily; the unnamed adventurer returned home, laden with possessions which he shared with his family. 

The search for the north-west passage lies behind one of our more unexpected Arctic Holdings, a hortus siccus; an indexed volume of pressed plant specimens which were collected by Dr Walker, ship’s surgeon and naturalist, on board the yacht Fox, during one of the many searches for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition commissioned by his grieving wife, in 1857–1859. Franklin had vanished on a doomed quest for the fabled passage in 1845. In the poignant words of the popular song of the time,

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May,
To seek that passage beyond the pole.
In Baffin’s Bay where the whale-fish blow,
The fate of Franklin no man may know.

Captain William Penny 1809~1892

One remarkable Aberdeen whaling skipper who made a particularly significant impact on North Canada was Captain William Penny. In 1839, Penny encountered a young Inuk man,  Inuluapik, (Eenoolooapik) who told him he knew where to find a huge, sheltered fjord on the east of Baffin Island, which whalers had been searching for years, since it was known to exist, provisionally named Cumberland Sound, and to be the favoured territory of the Bowhead Whales which were their preferred target.  Penny invited the young man to accompany him to Aberdeen for the winter which he was happy to do, and the Neptune reached Aberdeen on November 8, where Inuluapik’s arrival created a sensation.  He gave a demonstration of his kayaking ability on the River Dee: rashly, he wore full Arctic dress, far too warm for the climate, which sadly, put him in bed with a lung infection from which he never entirely recovered.  The kayak he used is probably the one now housed in the University’s Medical School.  Inuluapik and Penny left Aberdeen aboard another ship, the Bon Accord, on April 1, 1840, and on July 27, guided by InuluapikPenny triumphantly triumphantly entered Cumberland Sound. Though tragically for Penny and the Bon Accord, the voyage was a financial disaster, in the following years Cumberland Sound became the most important whaling ground in the Canadian Arctic.

Penny’s own reputation is suggested by the fact that he was selected to lead a British Admiralty expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, an exceptional honour for a whaling master.  Concerned about the growing number of American Whalers wintering in Cumberland Sound, Penny applied for a Royal Charter in 1853 to establish a permanent commercial colony. Although his initiative was rejected by the British government, an Aberdeen Arctic Company was formed to purchase the Lady Franklin and the Sophia (the 2 ships he had commanded on the Admiralty Expedition), allowing him to maintain a land base in the Sound which became the chief British Station on Baffin Island. In 1857-8, he returned to Baffin Island, accompanied, unusually, by his wife Margaret, and mapped the Cumberland Sound region.

William Penny, Arctic Whaling Master, in 1856 at the age of 47.  He had sailed 10 times to the East Greenland Sea and “25 times or upwards” to the Davis Strait whaling grounds west of Greenland.  In the dangerous business of pursuing Greenland (bowhead) whales in wooden sailing ships among pack ice and icebergs, all the while coping with the hazards of cold, snow, fog, and uncharted reefs.  Penny must be considered successful.  The ships that he commanded from 1835 to 1864 . including the Bon Accord, Saint Andrew, and Lady Franklin of Aberdeen, the Advice and Polynia of Dundee, and the Queen of Peterhead - brought into Scottish ports approximately 1470 tons of whale oil and 90 tons of baleen from 162 whales. He never lost a ship, although wrecks were all too common in Arctic whaling.

Aberdeen Journal, 30th August 1854:
Arrived Aberdeen from the Arctic regions brig "LADY FRANKLIN", a bumper ship, bringing about 180 tons of whale oil in a boiled state and 10-12 tons whalebone, the produce of 27 whales. This is the result of a novel expedition commanded by Capt. Penny, the intrepid Arctic navigator.  The work was carried out, not in the normal way of returning the same season, but by over-wintering and returning only when full.  Leaving Aberdeen 13 Aug. 1853, voyage out was made in 19 days to land and 8 from Cape Farewell, destination being Hogarth Sound on West land of Davis Straits. 12 whales were taken before winter, during which thermometer was fully 40 degrees below zero. Work continued all winter, with boiling operations on "SOPHIA", with the party living on the "LADY FRANKLIN", both vessels being iced in.  The "LADY FRANKLIN's" cargo being completed, Capt. Penny left with her on 29 July.

William Penny was born in Peterhead, Scotland, in 1809 and followed his father (William Penny, Sr.) into the whaling trade at the age of 12. He became a mate before he was 21 and a Master before 27. From 1821 until 1864 he sailed almost annually - and sometimes twice in one year - to Arctic whaling and sealing grounds, interrupting the whaling by a few mercantile voyages from 1841 to 1843 and a Franklin search expedition in 1850-51. Penny was not content merely to follow established routines in familiar places. Using an Eskimo pilot who had accompanied him to Scotland in 1839, he expanded the limits of the Davis Strait whaling grounds in 1840 by leading other vessels into Cumberland Sound - the first European visitors there since Davis in 1585. He introduced the technique of wintering on board ship in 1853-54, and helped develop the practice of floe whaling. He was a strong proponent of shore whaling bases and, with other members of the Aberdeen Arctic Company, designed an ambitious scheme for arctic whaling between Novaya Zemlya and Baffin Island, involving steam whalers, permanent settlements, and subsidiary mining of plumbago (graphite),

Captain William Penny – Obituary
In Memoriam - Captain William Penny died Aberdeen (22 Springbank Terrace Aberdeen) 1st February 1892.
The deceased was a native of Peterhead, where he was born on 12th July 1809. His father was a whale skipper, and young Penny, not unnaturally, took to the whale fishing, and became a "skipper" in turn. He was sent to sea (or he went to sea) when he was twelve years of age, and he led a seafaring life for well on to forty-six years, retiring about five and twenty years ago, and settling down in Aberdeen, where he had established his home when quite a young man. Many a cruise did Penny make to the Arctic regions - profitable cruises, we daresay, for those were the days when big - positively huge cargoes of whale-oil were obtained; and experience and observation had made Penny acquainted with valuable fishing ground. Captain Penny was among the earliest advocates of the adoption of steam vessels for the prosecution of the whale fishery; and a Mr. Stephen, of Dundee, having taken up the idea and constructed a steamer, Captain Penny took command of it - the first steam whaler. The men who ordinarily formed the crews of the whalers were greatly incensed at this new departure, and threatened to "tar and feather" Penny; but the threat was not executed, and steam whalers soon became the order of the day.

Captain Penny married in 1840, a Miss Irvine of Aberdeen, who died eight months ago; and he is survived by a son, a tea planter in India, and a daughter. (Died 1923, and buried at Fetterangus Cemetary stone 124) 

Extract from the Death Certificate of Captain William Penny (from the Registrars Office):
Died 1st February 1892 aged 82. Widower of Margaret Irvine. Parents: William Penny and Helen Penny m/s Robertson. Witnessed by daughter, Helen Penny, Viewmount Forfar. 
Note: he had been paralysed for the previous 10 years.

Capt. Penny had lived in Ferryhill in South Polmuir Cottage - East of the Railway bridge off Riverside Drive where he also housed Eenoolooapik (Bobbie) in 1840.  Polmuir House lay behind the Cottage

The Lone Shieling - G M Fraser

EENOOLOOAPIK (Bobbie), Inuit hunter, traveller, guide, and trader; probably b. c. 1820 at Qimisuk (Blacklead Island) in Tenudiakbeek (Cumberland Sound, N.W.T.), eldest son of his father’s marriage to Noogoonik; d. in the summer of 1847. In Eenoolooapik’s youth his family and several others migrated along the coast of Baffin Island from Qimisuk to Cape Enderby, probably on the southeast coast of the Cumberland peninsula.

There they met a party of British whalers with whom they travelled to Cape Searle, on the peninsula’s north shore. After learning about the whalers’ homeland Eenoolooapik conceived a desire to travel there. However, his father had taken a 2nd wife from among the natives of Cape Searle, and Eenoolooapik was left as the main support of his mother.

Several times he almost boarded a homeward-bound ship but each time his mother’s distress at being abandoned deterred him.

In September 1839 Eenoolooapik met the forceful whaling Captain William Penny at Durban Island. Penny had witnessed the decline of the Arctic fishery and agreed with a suggestion published by Captain James Clark Ross that it was finished unless the whalers diversified and wintered in the north. The whalers, constantly on the lookout for new territory, had heard of a large bay, Tenudiakbeek, described by the Inuit as full of whales and supporting a numerous Inuit population. Penny felt that it might prove the perfect place for a settlement and save the fishery, but by 1839 he had failed 3 times to find it. When he learned that Eenoolooapik was a native of Tenudiakbeek, had a detailed knowledge of the local geography, and wished to visit Scotland, he determined to take him home to Britain.  With Eenoolooapik’s help, Penny hoped to persuade the Royal Navy to explore the area. Eenoolooapik embarked upon Penny’s ship Neptune and on the evening of 8 November arrived in Aberdeen. The next morning crowds gathered in the harbour to greet him and several days later he gave a display of his kayaking ability on the River Dee. Unfortunately he contracted pneumonia from these exertions and was, for several months, on the brink of death.  The illness led to the curtailment of Penny’s plans to have him taught such skills as boat building.  The Inuit clearly had little resistance to the viral infections of a large conurbation.

Eenoolooapik was an intelligent, friendly man with a sense of humour and an ability to mimic others. These qualities were important, not only in his everyday life, but also on his visit to Scotland.  They endeared him to locals who were so concerned about him that the Aberdeen papers carried information about his health.  They also enabled him, upon his recovery, to behave like a born gentleman at the Theatre, formal dinner parties, and 2 Balls in honour of the Queen’s Wedding.  An instance of his sense of humour which the Scots appreciated was reported in the Aberdeen Herald of 16 Nov. 1839: “One of the men at the whaling ship Neptune’s boiling-house (Fittie) 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."

Penny dispatched the map he and Eenoolooapik had drawn to the Navy but, although the Admiralty provided £20 to be spent on Eenoolooapik, it was not interested in an expedition to the area. On 1 April 1840, aboard the Bon Accord, Eenoolooapik left Scotland, sent off with many presents for himself and a china teacup and saucer for his mother. The Bon Accord spent the early summer whaling and then, with Eenoolooapik’s help, Penny took the ship into Tenudiakbeek.  Believing it to be hitherto undiscovered, he named it Hogarth’s Sound after one of his financial backers. Later the sound was recognized as being the “Cumberland Gulf” visited by John Davis in 1585.

Eenoolooapik left the whalers at his birthplace and nearby rejoined his mother and siblings who had travelled overland from Cape Searle to meet him.  Shortly after, he married Amitak and had a son, Angalook.  To the surprise of the whalers his status was not greatly altered by his visit to a “civilized” country.  Each year Penny returned, he traded baleen with him.  Eenoolooapik died of consumption (TB) in the summer of 1847, before seeing the full effects of the information he had imparted to Penny. Five years after his death the first planned wintering of a whaling crew took place.  Later, Wintering-over became standard practice and several whaling camps were based in Cumberland Sound until the final demise of Arctic whaling. Unknowingly Eenoolooapik had helped initiate the colonisation of Baffin Island by non-Inuit.

Eenoolooapik was not the only traveller in his family. His brother Totocatapik was known among the Inuit as a great voyager and a sister, Kur-king, migrated to Igloolik. Another sister was the celebrated Tookoolito (Hannah), who visited England in 1853–55 and travelled extensively in the Arctic and the United States with explorer Charles Francis Hall.


Inuit Whalers of Cumberland Sound

The Aberdeen Arctic Company was founded by the whaler William Penny who wished to establish a British Colony in Cumberland Sound in order to prolong the whaling season, Penny formed the Royal Arctic Company in 1852, later renamed the Aberdeen Arctic Company. With the company's purchase of the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia, Penny led the first whaling expedition to winter deliberately with ships in the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait region between 1853 and 1854, introducing the practice of floe whaling which allowed whalers to commence work earlier in the season.

Before the arrival of European whaling vessels, Niatitick was the most southerly settlement of the Talirpingmuit, the Inuit people of the west side of Cumberland Gulf. They came each fall to hunt seals in the surrounding fjords and channels. In winter, they would move to Blacklead Island where they hunted bears in the spring, and then went on their annual inland Caribou Hunt and returned to Niatitick again in the fall. Because of its Harbour and its Inuit people, Blacklead Island became a popular overwintering site for Scottish whaling vessels.

When, in 1860, Captain William Penny of Peterhead froze his 2 ships into the ice at Cumberland Sound he broke with the traditional calendar organization of whaling expeditions from the ports of Scotland, northern England and northern Europe.  He was banking on access to the bone and oil from whales taken in the early Spring in the Cumberland Gulf fishery, but for this he was in need of indigenous people’s labour.  Whaling Masters were already well acquainted with the Inuit, whom they called “natives”, or otherwise knew as Eskimos. They regarded them as less troublesome than European or US crews, and while they also respected their proficiency with new technology, what counted most was the cheapness of their labour. This mattered as the declining demand for whale products and the decrease of the stock pushed whaling into marginal profitability.

18th Century Arctic Region Map

Captain Penny pioneered the over-wintering voyage that lasted approximately 14 or 15 months. These voyages consisted of the outward voyage, fall whaling, over-wintering, the spring fishery and the homeward journey. The crews of the vessels signed a special Northern Whale Fishery Agreement for the long-term, but in effect their jobs were confined to transport, since it was Inuit whalers, engaged on a very different basis and without formal agreement, who prosecuted the fishery.  Inuit manned the small whaling boats that delivered catches to Masters of the vessels who then ferried the products back to Europe and the US. They were remunerated with clothes, rifles, tea, and tobacco that were brought out in the transport vessels. When a bargain was made with an Inuit whaler, it was understood this extended to the whole of the family.

The 5 Inuit who pumped the Scottish whaling vessel took turns around the clock to keep her afloat, preserving a piece of capital equipment which was barely worth its name "My natives cannot stay longer with me they must go deer hunting but will return about October," the Master wrote. "The ship must lay here until they come back," he continued, "there is 5 women to pump ship morning and evening" (Official Log, August 15, MHA). Revealed at the end of the Master’s account is the fact that the natives "manning" the pumps were women.

Unuit Kayak

Kayak means "hunter's boat" and it is perfect for hunting on the water. It's almost silent, making it easy to sneak up behind prey. If a white cloth is draped in front, the animals might be fooled into thinking that it is a drifting piece of ice - perhaps a "growler".  Very small chunks of floating ice that rise only about 1 metre or 3 feet out of the water are called "growlers".  When trapped air escapes as the iceberg melts, it sometimes makes a sound like the growl of an animal, and that's how growlers got their name.

In Aberdeen, several kayaks can be seen which arrived with their Inuit owners in the 18th or 19th century. They were either brought from Greenland by whalers or captured off the coast of Scotland. One which arrived in the 18th century is preserved with paddle, harpoon, bird spear and throwing stick.  Returning from a whaling trip to Labrador in 1839, Captain Penny brought an Inuit to Aberdeen with his kayak aboard the whaling ship Neptune.  Eenoolooapik put on a kayaking show in the River Dee   Several of these kayaks can still be seen in the , or online at the Marischal Virtual Museum.

There are several types of kayak, depending on region and purpose. Generally, long kayaks are faster in a straight line, but short kayaks are more manoeuvrable. The three main types of traditional kayak are: Baidarkas - rounded kayaks from the Alaskan and Aleutian seas; West Greenland kayaks - more angular in shape; and East Greenland kayaks - similar in design to the West Greenland type, except for a tighter fit to the paddler and a more steeply angled stern. This model kayak is from Baffin Island and is therefore a West Greenland type.

Despite the kayak frame traditionally being made by the men, it was the Eskimo women who tanned the seal hides and sewed them together to make the waterproof skin of a kayak. The women would grease the seams with seal blubber and fish oil to make sure they were watertight. The outer skin had to be renewed at least every two years. It had a driftwood or bone frame.  Apart from the double paddle used to propel the kayak in the water, a harpoon, spear and swimming skin was also fastened to the kayak when hunting. The harpoon and spear would be tied to the boat using leather straps, and would often trail in the water besides the hunter when not in use. The swimming skin or bladder would be fastened behind the paddler tied to the harpoon to prevent a speared seal from diving away from the hunter. The main use of an Eskimo kayak was for hunting, and seals, walruses, birds and even reindeer were all hunted using kayaks at sea. Eskimo people still use kayaks to hunt from today. In the past, kayaks were even used to deliver mail to the more remote parts of Greenland.  The famous ‘Eskimo Roll’ manoeuvre was developed by traditional kayak users to enable them to raise a capsized kayak in rough seas with a single stroke of their paddle.

A prolific amount of Inuit children in a place where a 3rd of the year was night - guaranteed a steady stream of Arctic Hunters. Some whaler Captains purloined the men to work on board ship but at great risk to their family's survival, others took the entire family units on board ship to ensure the women and children didn't starve.

Savage Innocents
Educational 1960 Feature Film starring Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo who has had little contact with white men and goes to a trading post where he accidentally kills a missionary and finds himself being relentlessly pursued.  His knowledge of survival in the extreme climate of his own terrain ensures his ongoing freedoms.

Nanuk of the North 1920

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Last modified: 01/09/2013