Great Explorers: Suersaq, aka Hans Hendrik

Hans Henrik was an unusual polar explorer. He went on five dramatic arctic expeditions and saved the lives of many of polar explorers, but he was always homesick.

Henrik was a family guy who loved his kids and wife so much that he refused to go on expeditions without them. So they accompanied him. His youngest son, Charlie Polaris, was born on board Charles Francis Hall’s ship, the Polaris, just before it ran aground. The newborn baby then participated in a 2,900km, six-month drift on a disintegrating ice floe.

Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island, Greenland, where Suersaq spent his last years and died, and where his family lives. Photo: Galya Morrell

 

Geese were the messengers

Two months ago in our present era, in Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island, we were following a flock of Canada geese for no apparent reason. The geese were not supposed to be here at this time of the year. By mid-September, they should have all been en route to Canada. But this summer was eternal, and here they were, devouring the late blueberries and getting fatter. Instead of flying away, they were leading us somewhere.

They took us to the local cemetery, to some old graves. There were no berries here. They walked across old stones and suddenly took off. Making a circle above our heads, they then vanished, leaving us alone at the old grave.

That was a sign. Geese were the messengers, as they say in Greenland. The geese brought us to Suersaq, a.k.a. Hans Henrik, the great Inuit polar explorer.

Ole Jorgen Hammeken at the grave of Hans Hendrik. Photo: Galya Morrell

 

Two islands have been named after Hans Henrik, and a stamp in Greenland honors his memory. But his posters do not adorn the walls of aspiring polar explorers, and his Inughuit name, Suersaq, is known only to aficionados.

Some say that Suersaq did not take Arctic expeditions seriously, that he saw the efforts to map the Arctic as a substitution for a big polar bear hunt. Indeed, Suersaq had no ambitions to be “the first” in the race to the North Pole. Like Ootaah and other Inuit explorers, he did not join these extreme expeditions with endurance records in mind. It was life as usual, though his employers called it “an expedition”.

But it was his practical skills, endless adaptability, and unbreakable spirit that helped save qualified Europeans and Americans. They came to the Arctic with a mission but instead went into survival mode when Sila, the weather, had a final say.

A life of freedom

Suersaq never thought of himself as a pioneer or a hero. He did not attribute what he did daily to courage or endurance. Instead, he was vulnerable and emotional, he felt threatened among foreigners, but he was who he was.

He deserted the first expedition he took part in because that life got too boring. Instead, he fled with his fellow Inughuit to live an unstructured life. The Inughuit were free, while the expeditioners were not.

During his flight, he hunted polar bears and found a girl, Mequ, the love of his life. That was much more fun than establishing some official and — from his point of view — irrelevant record, like reaching the 82nd parallel by dogsled. Besides, he knew that his Inughuit buddies had trod this ground previously on many hunts and none of them saw it as a special accomplishment.

First Inuit man to write a book of exploration

Yet Suersaq was an educated man. He wrote a book about his arctic adventures, the first Inuk to have done so. Originally composed in 1877, it has often been reprinted. Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, The Arctic Traveler gives details of the Kane, Hayes, Hall, and Nares expeditions, as well as an account of August Sonntag’s death. Suersaq wrote it in Kalaalissut, the Greenland language, and Hinrich Rink, the colonial director for Greenland, translated it into Danish and English and published it.

Born in the southern settlement of Fiskenæsset (today Qeqetarsuatsiaat), some 100km south of Godthåb (today Nuuk), as Hans Hendrik, Suersaq was raised in the Moravian faith and attended a Moravian school, where he learned to write and read.

His first expedition

At age 18, Suersaq was already an excellent subsistence hunter and great kayaker. Not surprisingly, the American explorer Elisha Kent Kane recruited him. Kane was commander of the Second Grinnell Expedition, bound for the island’s northern end to search for John Franklin’s lost expedition.

Examining the fate of past American misadventures in Northwest Greenland, Kane knew that the only way to survive in these latitudes was to live Inuit-style. He was looking for someone who could be a perfect Inuit: a dogsled driver, a kayaker, a hunter, and an interpreter.

A young Suersaq.

 

Kane says of Suersaq: “I obtained an Eskimo hunter at Fiskernaes, one Hans Christian (known elsewhere as Hans Hendrik), a boy of eighteen, an expert with the kayak and javelin. After Hans had given me a touch of his quality by spearing a bird on the wing, I engaged him.”

Suersaq accepted the offer since he had to help his elderly parents.

After a rapid start, the expedition got stuck near Cape Alexander, in the Thule District, for two long winters. It was in the winter of 1854 when Suersaq became famous and a much-desired guide among American explorers. When four men disappeared on the ice, he found their sled track and brought a rescue party to the frozen men. When expedition members started to starve and developed scurvy, he was able to get food. Once again, he had saved the party.

Free spirit

Suersaq was skillful but he was a free spirit. The expedition routine was too boring for him. He was also frightened by the white men, whom he thought were going to harm him. Something might have been lost in translation, but this is how he felt according to his book. So when he met the local Inughuit of far northern Greenland (a different culture than the more southerly one he came from), he fell in love with their lifestyle. They were truly independent. The Americans were not. So he left with the Inughuit.

It was a brave move. At that time, the West Greenlanders saw these northern denizens as dangerous outcasts. There were superstitions, but Suersaq managed to overcome them. Yet as a devoted Christian, he worried for the Inughuits’ souls.

A time of gifts

Suersaq received two very important gifts during his escapade. First was the beautiful Mequ, who became his wife and had four children with him. The second was his name, Suersaq. According to Nuka Muller, one of the most prominent Eskimologists of our time, Suersaq is an Inughuit name that means “the saved” or “the healed one”. It was bestowed only by Inughuit angaqqoks (shamans), which for us means this: Hans Henrik had to work hard to deserve it.

Despite his desertion, Kane so highly valued Suersaq that he named an island north of Etah after him.

When a member of Kane’s expedition, Isaac Israel Hayes, started a new expedition toward the North Pole in 1860, he invited Suersaq to join him. Suersaq agreed under one condition: He would not leave without his wife and son. This was not an easy decision for Hayes, but he agreed to let them join the expedition.

Suersaq provided food and shelter for Hayes and his men, while Mequ fished, cooked, sewed, and kept the seal-oil lamp burning. She turned out to be a valuable addition to the expedition too, and the couple’s fame increased.

Hayes’ expedition failed to reach the North Pole. It also lost a man, the second in the command, a German astronomer August Sonntag. Sonntag fell through the ice during a sledge journey with Hans. Though Suersaq saved Sonntag from the freezing water, almost dying himself, he could not save his life. Sonntag died during the night from hypothermia. Suersaq was on the verge of death too, but he managed to reach the Etah Inughuit and find refuge.

August Sonntag’s grave near Etah, Greenland. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

The arrival of the Polaris

After the departure of Hayes, Suersaq spent 10 years in Upernavik working for the Royal Greenland Trade Company. Then one day, another ship with a mission to discover the North Pole arrived. This time it was Charlie Francis Hall, the leader of USS Polaris, who asked Suersaq to join his expedition. Suersaq had the same answer as before: He would not travel without Mequ and the kids. This time, there were three of them. Hall accepted.

The Polaris managed to go further than any ship before her, but then, in the northern part of Nares Strait, Hall suddenly fell ill. He died in Thank God Harbor two weeks later, apparently from poisoning. Shortly before his death, Hall named another island after Suersaq. This time it was Turtupaluk, which means a “kidney” because it looks like a kidney, a rocky island in Nares Strait. Hall named it Hans Island.

A barren, steep-sided, one-kilometre-wide bit of land, Hans Island has become modestly famous in recent years, because both Canada and Denmark claim ownership of it.

Hans Island. Photo: Wikipedia

 

Six months on an ice floe

After losing their leader, the Polaris eventually turned south. One night in October, she became trapped in the ice in Smith Sound. Fearful that the pack ice would crush her, the crew prepared to abandon ship. Fourteen people stayed on the Polaris, but 19 off-loaded supplies and found refuge on an ice floe. Thus started a six-month drift, one of the most dramatic survival stories in the history of arctic exploration.

Suersaq, Mequ, their children, and two other Inuit from Canada, Ipirvik and Taquilittuq, also with a baby, took care of the American, German, Danish, and Swedish explorers. They built three igloos, and Hans was able to hunt seals. The Inuit families cooked on the seal-oil lamp, to save fuel. The Europeans did not like the smell and used one of their two remaining boats as fuel instead. The clash of cultures was obvious.

When the dogs got into the storage and ate much of the provisions, the Europeans shot five dogs on the spot. They looked on in disgust when the Inuit made a feast from the killed dogs, not wanting to waste the meat. Little did they know that in about two months they would be happy with the dog meat. By then, the crew would have to live off boiled dried seal skins, which were almost impossible to chew. If they were lucky, they’d get some seal entrails and frozen blubber.

In March, after reaching Nares Strait, the ice floe started to disintegrate. Suersaq was helping people to switch between the boat, which was too small to hold everyone (remember, the second boat was burnt), and the small ice floes. He did this 24/7 until the last day of April when the castaways spotted a ship.

They fired guns, jumped, and shouted. But it was all in vain, they were too far away to be noticed. Suersaq jumped into his skin kayak and rushed to the sealing ship. Once again, he was a savior.

Thirty years of adventure

Two years passed and another expedition, this time the British Arctic Expedition led by commander George Nares, recruited Suersaq. Again, Suersaq agreed.

This time, he left his family behind. It was a mistake. He felt lonely, missed his family, did not trust foreigners, and was soon thinking of escape. He was relieved when he finally returned home.

In 1883, 30 years after he joined his first arctic Expedition, a Swedish expedition to Cape York recruited Suersaq for one last season. He joined only for the summer. He knew that his time in the adventure world was over.

Suersaq died in 1889 at the age of 57 and was buried in the cemetery above Qeqertarsuaq.

Photo: Galya Morrell

Gone but not forgotten

We found some of his old photos and the first edition of his book in the Museum of Qeqertarsuaq, but we made our best discovery in the community house. We gathered there for an evening concert. The leader of the Inuit theatre troupe from Nuuk was our friend, a young talented actor and designer born in Qeqertarsuaq. His name is Hans Henrik Suersaq Poulsen. He is Suersaq’s direct descendant.

Suersaq Junior performed a play about his great-grandfather. This is what he says: “We have heard so much of the qallunaat (white) explorers like Knud Rasmussen and Robert Peary, and so little about the Greenlanders who ensured that these expeditions were a success. We wanted to tell their part of the story. And naturally, Suersaq was to be a part of the show because he was the first Greenlander to be a part of a big expedition.”

While Suersaq Sr. explored the High Arctic, Suersaq Jr. explored a place between tradition and modernity.

The lesson of Suersaq

In recent months, my partner Ole Jorgen Hammeken and I were asked to teach young Inuit children some survival skills. We gave practical classes to children in Qeqeratarsuaq and Ilulissat. We decided to base our classes on Suersaq’s drift.

At first, we started our drift on one oversized sheet. At the start, it could fit a tent and 20 people. As the game progressed, we folded the sheet, making it smaller and smaller. Finally, it was able to fit only four people. The greatest surprise was that the children found ways to continue the drift, very similar to Suersaq’s methods.

Galya Morrell and Ole Jorgen Hammeken teach local kids the lesson of Suersaq. Photo: Galya Morrell

 

Those born in the Arctic are prepared for abrupt change. It is your everyday life, life as usual. It is really easy to brainstorm with the Inuit children who literally live on the ice. And now, their real-world knowledge is backed up with academic knowledge. These children, many of whom are young dogsledders, young scientists, and artists as well, will lead the world in future arctic exploration.

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Joanna Kafarowski
Joanna Kafarowski
3 months ago

An outstanding article and impeccable research. Thank you!