Littell's Living Age/Volume 139/Issue 1798/Hans Hendrik

From The Academy.


The annals of literature, although abounding with the productions of countless authors representing all ages and nearly all nations, have hitherto been unable to record the existence of a work emanating from the brain, and transmitted by the pen, of an Eskimo. That deficiency has now been supplied. The work before us is the plain, unvarnished history of the life and adventures of one of those wandering nomads — who pass their lives in months of ceaseless sunshine and months of endless darkness — as chronicled by himself.

Those who have interested themselves in the work of polar exploration, and have read the various narratives of the more recent Arctic expedition, published by the commanders on their return, cannot fail to be acquainted with the name of Hans Hendrik.

We first hear of him in 1853, when he was but a lad some seventeen years of age, accompanying Dr. Kane, the eminent American Arctic explorer, in the capacity of hunter and dog-driver to the expedition. Readers of Dr. Kane's admirable description of this voyage will be able, in a manner, to realize the hardships and sufferings endured by our hero during two terribly severe winters. On this occasion he was the sole companion of Moreton when he reported his great discovery of an "open Polar Sea," now proved to have no existence.

The author's account of how he first accepted employment with the Americans, and his parting from home, is thus laconically described: —

I heard that they were looking for a native companion, and that his parents should have payment during his absence. Nobody being willing, I, Hans Hendrik, finally took a liking to join them, and I said I would go. The ship's master tried to get one assistant more, but did not succeed.
I went to inform my mother of my intention and she gainsaid me, and begged me not to join them; but I replied, "If no mischief happen me I shall return, and I shall earn money for thee; but certainly I pity my dear younger brothers who have not grown food-winners as yet, especially the youngest, Nathaniel." At last we started, and when we left my countrymen and relatives, to be sure it was very disheartening. Still, I thought, if I do not perish I shall return. How strange 1 This was not to be fulfilled.

Hans, it must be remembered, though a dweller within the Arctic circle, had always lived in the southern part of it, and had therefore never experienced any long period of darkness. His terror and astonishment at the excessive darkness and long-continued absence of the sun in their first winter quarters in latitude 790 is related in the following graphic manner: —

Then it really grew winter and dreadfully cold, and the sky speedily darkened. Never had I seen the dark season like -this; to be sure it was awful; I thought we should have no daylight any more. I was seized with fright, and fell a-weeping; I never in my life saw such darkness at noon-time. As the darkness continued for three months, I really believed we should have no daylight more. However, finally it dawned, and brightness having set in, I used to go shooting hares.

That our hero was a keen and successful sportsman is fully exemplified, not only by his own words — and he certainly regards his hunting excursions as the most important duties connected with an Arctic expedition — but also by the statements of the different commanders with whom he served, who testify to his skill and energy, and aver that the lives of many of his scurvy-stricken comrades were undoubtedly saved by his promptitude in procuring game.

Instead of returning to the southward with Dr. Kane, Hans elected to remain and take his chance with a more northerly tribe, called by Sir John Ross the Arctic Highlanders, with whom he lived for several years. He thus describes his attachment to them: —

At length I wholly attached myself to them, and followed them when they removed to the south. I got the man of highest standing among them as my foster father, and when I had dwelled several winters with them, I began to think of taking a wife, although an unchristened one. First, I went a-wooing to a girl of good morals, but I gave her up, as her father said: "Take my sister." The latter was a widow and ill-reputed. Afterwards I got a sweetheart whom I resolved never to part with, but to keep as my wife in the country of the Christians. Since then she has been baptized and partaken of the Lord's Supper.

We next read of the author being engaged in 1860, in the same capacity as before, by Dr. Hayes, who had served as a subordinate in Dr. Kane's expedition, and who found our hero living with his newly adopted friends at Cape York. On this occasion he was permitted to take his wife and child with him.

This expedition wintered some little distance to the southward of the position where Dr. Kane had established his winter quarters. He does not appear to have been a great favorite with the men, partly because he was supposed to have caused the desertion, and consequent death, of another Eskimo, of whom he was jealous; and partly because he was suspected of having been the immediate cause, through a want of attention, of the death of Mr. Sontag, the astronomer, who was frozen while away on a sledging journey with Hans. His account of the latter adventure is interesting and pathetically related; but we are bound to admit that, by his own showing, he does not appear to have made strenuous exertions to save his comrade's life. It is, however, but charitable to suppose that it is simply his inability as a writer, or perhaps his modesty as a man, that makes him appear indifferent to his companion's sufferings. His conduct on this occasion affords a striking contrast to the noble devotion of two young officers belonging to Sir George Nares' expedition, who were placed in almost identical circumstances, but who succeeded in bringing their poor frozen comrade alive to his ship. In spite of his apparent apathy on this occasion, he seems to possess a heart overflowing with the milk of human kindness: the death of his mother-in-law, he tells us, was a "hard blow" to him; while his description of those among whom he had elected to live is such as to make us wish that many in our own more civilized country could be alluded to in the same terms; for he says that "they are never false, but always loving towards each other."

When Captain Hall sailed on his memorable voyage in 1871 Hans was again induced to try his fortunes with the Americans, more especially as his old shipmate Moreton was on board the "Polaris." The account that he gives us as to how he shipped and the amount of wages he was to receive is most amusing, and is certainly very different from the compact we should have expected to be made between a simple and ignorant man and a shrewd Yankee dealer: —

The boat having landed, the assistant trader said, "The merchant wants thee to join them." A little while after the ship's mate, Mister Tarsta, said, "What pay dost thou want per month?" I answered, "Ten dollars." He said, "It is too little, is it not?" I said "Twenty-five." He again, "It is too little." At last, as I did not demand any more, he asked, "Will fifty be sufficient?" I replied, "Yes, that will do." He added, "Art thou willing to perform sailor's work on board, or not?" I agreed so to do, with the exception of going aloft. When I had spoken thus, he was satisfied, and said that we were to start the next day.

After the death of Captain Hall, which event is alluded to by the author in feeling terms, Hans seems to have been subjected to a good deal of chaff and practical joking at the hands of the crew, which the poor fellow, not understanding or appreciating the white man's notions of fun, took in sober earnest, as the following lines testify: —

Once when the sun had reappeared, I heard that I was to be punished in man-of-war fashion. The sailors informed me, "To-morrow, at nine, thou wilt be tied and brought down to the smithy. Mister Tarsta will come to fetch thee after nine o'clock. Take breakfast without fear; if thou art afraid thou wilt be treated ill." When I heard this, I pitied my wife and little children. The next morning when we rose, towards breakfast time, my wife, our daughter, and I fell a-weeping. Our little son asked, "Why do ye cry?" From pity we were unable to give an answer. However, they brought us our breakfast, and, though without appetite, we had just begun eating when we heard a knocking at the door. It was opened, and Mister Tarsta, with a smiling look, made his appearance, and accosted us: "Godmorgen, are ye eating?" whereupon, still smiling, he petted our children and left us, and a heavy stone was removed from my heart. I also thanked God, who had shown mercy to a poor little creature.

His horror that corporal punishment should be inflicted on board white men's ships is expressed in a long conversation with Joe, the other Eskimo serving on board the "Polaris," at page fifty-seven. He concludes his conversation by saying that he will never again take service under the Americans, but should the English wish to engage him he would go! We cannot help thinking that Master Hans inserted this little paragraph after he had returned from our recent Arctic expedition, as he was totally unacquainted with the English or their customs before he was engaged by Sir George Nares to serve on board the "Discovery."

Those who are acquainted with the history of this expedition will remember how on a dark October night, with a fierce gale howling around them, nineteen human beings were separated from their ship, and drifted down on an ice floe, during six long dark months, exposed to all the severities of an Arctic winter, through Baffin's Bay to Davis' Straits, a distance, almost incredible to relate, of fifteen hundred miles! The only shelter that they had was that which their own resources could afford. Our author was one of this party, whose salvation, indeed, was mainly owing to his energy and skill as a hunter. It was he who, when hope was almost extinguished, succeeded in shooting some seals and a bear, and was thus instrumental in keeping his companions alive. In the official account, published by the United States government, of the cruise of the "Polaris," our author is spoken of in the following high terms: "The valuable services of Joe and Hans, as interpreters and hunters, often maintained the very lives of the ship's company." On being rescued from their floating prison by an English sealer, Hans was taken to America, in which country he remained for some months, until an opportunity offered of sending him back to Greenland. His astonishment at everything he saw in the United States is amusingly expressed in several pages. Sometimes his surprise was so great as to cause him to moralize, and to exclaim to his companion, Joe, "How wonderful that all these people subsist from the trifle that the soil produces; behold the numberless houses, the charming shores yonder, and this calm sea, how inviting!"

When Sir George Nares sailed in command of our last Arctic expedition he expressly called in at the little Danish settlement of Proven, on the west coast of Greenland, in order to secure the services of Hans, as hunter and interpreter to one of his ships. In this he was successful, and although he was informed that his wife and family could not accompany him, as in previous expeditions, he was easily induced to try his fortunes once more in the far north. His services during that expedition are thus alluded to by Captain Nares in his official account: "All speak in the highest terms of Hans the Eskimo, who was untiring in his exertions with the dog sledge and in procuring game." The same fits of despondency seem to have attacked him during the winter on board the "Discovery" as he was subject to in the American expeditions. He always seemed to be under the impression that he was regarded with disfavor by a portion of the crew, and that they had resolved to flog him, if not to kill him. It appears to be the fashion among the Eskimo when feeling depressed to run away from their comrades, and seek relief either in solitude or death. The author describes at page thirty-eight the disappearance of a young Eskimo, whose desertion and consequent death was attributed by several of the members of Dr. Hayes' expedition to the ill-treatment he received from Hans himself; and at page ninety he gives an account of his own desertion from the "Discovery" because he thought that some of the crew had conspired against him to flog him. This so preyed upon his mind that he resolved to run away, although he naively remarks, "Our captain likes me; perhaps he will send people in search of me"! After he had gone a short distance from the ship he very wisely halted, knowing, as he said, that he*, would be searched for. He was soon found and brought on board, but not, however, before he had caused a great deal of anxiety to all on board, who were apprehensive for his safety, exposed as he was for some hours to a temperature many degrees below zero. Hans, undoubtedly, regarded himself as one of the most important members in each and all of the expeditions with which he was connected. According to his own account, he was invariably consulted as to the route to be adopted, and on other matters, as the following- lines will show: "When we were going, our captain said, * Now show us the road; go ahead of us, and we will follow.'" Again: "The captain used to question me,4 Which way are we to go? ' I answered, 4 Look here, this will be better.' It was lucky the5com-mander treated me as a comrade"! Speaking of Captain Nares, he says: "The captain of our other ship was beyond all praise; one might think he neither slept nor ate. Sitting in his look-out in the mast, he sometimes took his meat there. On account of his extraordinary skill in ice-navigation, he was our leader." A vein of simplicity pervades the whole book, though strongly marked by egotism, but this is hardly to be wondered at, more especially when we are told that the work was almost entirely written from memory; the few notes that the author possessed being in all probability those taken during the time he was serving with the last English expedition. In making even those few notes the author was doubtless prompted by observing so many men belonging to the crew of the "Discovery" keeping regular written journals. Hans is now, we are told, established as boatswain and laborer at one of the Greenland settlements. For an Eskimo, he must be regarded by his neighbors as a wealthy man, for the interest of the money he received as pay in his four expeditions would certainly yield a very comfortable competence to a resident in Greenland. Let us hope he will live long to enjoy the comforts of a life at home, and we may surely add to the name which he has already earned for himself as a mighty hunter a new reputation as an author.

The credit for the appearance of this little book is entirely due to Dr. Rink, who has so admirably translated and edited it. He is perhaps the only man in the world who could have undertaken the task and executed it so well. A master of the Eskimo language, and perfectly familiar, from a long residence in Greenland, with the manners and customs of the natives, besides possessing a personal knowledge of the author, he was peculiarly fitted for the work which he has so successfully concluded; and which will, we predict, take its place amid the many volumes of Arctic adventure which are now before the public, and be read with equal interest.

Dr. Rink, in an introduction, gives a slight sketch of the early life of the author, and briefly summarizes the narratives of the four expeditions in which Hans Hendrik served, and which had for their object the attainment of a high northern latitude. Albert H. Markham.

  1. Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, the Arctie Traveller• Written by Himself. Translated from the Eskimo Language by Dr. Henry Rink. (Trübner.)