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Jens Munk: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Jens Munk

EA-Biography
(Kaj Birket-Smith)

JENS MUNK

Jens Munk (1579-1628), explorer and officer of the Royal Danish Navy,
was born on June (or July) 3, 1579, on the estate of Barbo near Arendal in
southern Norway, which at that time was united with the kingdom of Denmark.
Both his parents were Danish. His father, Erik Munk, was knighted for his
achievements in the war against Sweden 1563-70, but Jens Munk himself never
claimed to be of noble birth, probably because his mother did not belong to
the nobility, which, according to Danish law, excluded the children from noble
birth. Erik Munk acquired several fiefs in Norway; he seems, however, to have
been a greedy and brutal person, and gradually the complaints of his illegal
behavior grew so numerous that the fiefs were confiscated, he himself was ar–
rested, and soon afterward died in prison, perhaps by committing suicide. A
few years later Jens was sent to Denmark, where his father's sister was married
to the Burgomaster of Aalborg, but, when only twelve years old, Jens shipped
on a vessel bound for Portugal, where he lived for a year in the house of a
merchant in Oporto. From there he went to Brazil on board a Dutch ship, which,
however, was sunk by a privateer off the South American coast. The survivors
among the crew were put ashore, and the boy managed to get to Bahia. Here he
stayed until 1598, when under just as dramatic circumstances he left Brazil and
went back to Denmark.
Young and hardy, familiar with Dutch and Portuguese as well as with trade
and seamanship, he was well equipped for the struggle of existence. As a purser

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Jens Munk

he first went on several journeys to Spain, Holland, and the Baltic ports;
then, after having earned sufficient money to command his own ship, to Iceland.
In 1609 he undertook a hunting expedition to the waters around Novaya Zemlya,
but one of the vessels was crushed by the ice, and Jens Munk lost a great sum
of money. However, this even was the reason why he entered the service of the
Royal Navy. King Christian IV was highly interested in foreign trade and, con–
sequently, also in geographical exploration. In 1610 he sent out two vessels,
one of them with Jens Munk in command to the sea north of Norway whence they were
to make an attempt to find a Northeast Passage through the Kara Strait between
Novaya Zemlya and Vaigach. The expedition was a failure, because the ships were
stopped by the ice at an early period of the journey, and immediately afterward
a new war with Sweden broke out. Jens Munk took an honorable part as a naval
officer in the combats at the mouth of the Göta River and the siege of Elfsborg.
After peace had been concluded, in 1613, Jens Munk remained in the King's
service, and during the following years many different tasks were committed to
his charge, sometimes in Spain, sometimes in Russia. At that time the Danish
East India Company was incorporated and plans were laid for an expedition to
secure colonies on the coast of India. While these plans were realized in 1618,
when Admiral Ove Gjedde left Denmark for India, it was decided that Jens Munk
should make an attempt to find the much discussed Northwest Passage which, of
course, was supposed to be of paramount importance to the future East Indian
trade. Unfortunately, little is known of the prehistory of this journey, the
only non-British Northwest Passage expedition of that period. It is not unlikely
that Jens Munk who, as one of the most experienced officers of the Navy, was
first pitched upon as a member of Ove Gjedde's cruise, himself submitted the plans
of the new expedition to the King. It seems certain, at any rate, that Jens Munk

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Jens Munk

was aware of Hudson's journey of 1610 and was familiar with the map of his
discoveries published by the Dutch geographer Hessel Gerritz.
Two ships were assigned to the expedition. One, the Lamprenen (Lamprey)
was a yacht with a crew of 16 men, the other, the Enhjørningen (Unicorn), a
small frigate carrying 48 men and six or eight guns. On May 9, 1619, the ships
weighed anchor and left Copenhagen. On June 20th they encountered the ice pack
off the southeast coast of Greenland, but, owing to storm, were not able to pass
Cape Farewell till the 30th, when they set course for the west coast of Davis
Strait. Here they first entered Frobisher Bay, but soon discovered their mis–
take, and after a brief landing on Resolution Island to take on fresh water,
continued to Hudson Strait or, as Munk called it, Fretum Christian. Here, at
a small harbor on the southern coast of Baffin Island, they met some Eskimos,
the only time during the whole expedition when they were in contact with the
native population.
Navigation through the strait was extremely difficult. Strong currents
carried enormous masses of drifting ice through the strait, and often both ships
were beset by ice which threatened to crush them. Snowstorms, heavy sea, and
fog made conditions still worse. Week after week the two ships forced their way
steadily westward. In Ungava Bay they southt in vain for a short-cut to Hudson
Bay. Finally, however, on August 10th, they came to the western end of the strait.
Munk immediately made for the southwestern corner of Hudson Bay or, as his re–
port has it, Mare Novum, where the entrance to the Northwest Passage proper was
supposed to be. Bad weather still continued to trouble the expedition, and in a
storm the two ships were separated. While the Lamprenen was driven to the north
and probably discovered the mouths of Chesterfield and Rankin inlets (on Munk's
map there are two large bays which can hardly be explained otherwise), the Enhjørn-

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Jens Munk

ingen on September 7th anchored in the mouth of a large river where the Lamprenen
also arrived two days later. Owing to the late season, it was considered nec–
essary to prepare for the winter here.
The surrounding region, which was low and covered with forest, was named
Nova Dania. There has been some doubt about the situation of the winter harbor.
Whereas Munk carefully indicated latitude and longitude of other places, he failed
to do so in this case, no doubt for reasons of secrecy because he planned a second
expedition in connection with an attempt at colonization. However, on the basis
of his map and the description of the country, there can be little doubt that the
river in question is the Churchill; this view is further strengthened by the fact
that on the 18th century French maps the Churchill is still indicated as La Riv e è re
Danoise, and furthermore old guns, marked with the monogram of Christian IVm are
reported to have been found there.
At the beginning of October everything was ready for wintering. Both ships
were secured close to the shore so far from the river mouth that they were safe
from drifting ice, and Munk, who apparently was a clever organizer, took care
that the crew was not idle. He also made a reconnaissance trip by boat up the
river in order to ascertain whether the country was inhabited, but met with
neither Eskimos nor Indians.
At New Year 1620 severe cold began, and about the same time scurvy made its
appearance among the crew. Soon the first deaths occurred, and the following
months were a long and continuous struggle against cold and sickness. One after
another succumbed to the disease and died, and it became more and more difficult
for the survivors to bury the dead. After the death of the ship's surgeon, Munk
himself tried to soothe the sufferings of the sick, but the means were inadequate.
On Whitsunday, June 4th, Munk himself and three others were the only persons left.

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Jens Munk

At that time he was so weak that he abandoned all hope and wrote a few lines
asking those who might find his body to bury it and forward his report to the
king, concluding his diary with the word following words: "With this good night
to all the world and my soul into the hands of God!" However, though one of
these four survivors died, Munk and two others managed to keep alive and slowly
recovered. With great effort they succeeded in getting the Lamprenen afloat and
ready to sail. On July 16th they started on the homeward journey, leaving the
frigate in the harbor. The ice in Hudson Bay often threatened the small craft
which, moreover, suffered from a damaged rudder and leak that compelled the
crew to pump continuously. Nevertheless, they passed through Hudson Strait,
crossed the Atlantic, and on September 21st arrived safely at Dalafjord in
Norway.
A report of the expedition was published in 1624 by Jens Munk in a small
and now exceedingly rare volume with the title Navigatio Septentrionalis , but
written in Danish. Modern editions appeared in 1883 (by P. Lauridsen) and 1929
(by Kaj Birket-Smith). A complete English translation is included in C. C. A.
Gosch: Danish Arctic Expeditions 1605 to 1620 (Hakluyt Society ed. Vol. II, 1897).
The extract of [: J. ] de La Payr e è re in his Histoire du Groenland (1647) is full of
mistakes, as the author was ignorant of the Danish language.
In spite of the tragic results of the expedition, Christian IV fully apprec–
iated the efforts of Munk. An old tradition according to which the king received
him so ungraciously that he soon afterward died of grief is entirely unreliable.
On the contrary, there are documents in Munk's own handwriting showing that a new
expedition was planned to the same region with the purpose of bringing back the
frigate and making an attempt to colonize the country. We do not know why the
plans were not realized. However, Munk remained in the king's service and took

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Jens Munk

part as commander of a squadron in the Thirty Years' War. He died in 1628; the
exact date of his death is unknown, but he was buried in Copenhagen on July 3rd.
Munk's expedition was a tragedy unparalleled until the Franklin catastrophe,
but it should be emphasized that he was not to blame for the failure. The mouth
of the Churchill is at the same latitude as southern Norway, and, according to
the geographical knowledge of his time, it was impossible to foresee that the
climate in these regions is more severe than anywhere in Europe. Munk is, in
effect, one of theboldest characters in the history of Arctic exploration and
his journey one of the most outstanding achievements in the early search for the
Northwest Passage.
Kaj Birket-Smoth
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