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    Wilhelm August Graah

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0322                                                                                                                  

    [Kaj Birket-Smith]

    W. A. GRAAH

            August Wilhelm Graah (1793-1863), Danish explorer and naval officer, was

    born on October 24, 1793, in Copenhagen, the son of Peder Hersleb Graah, a judge

    of the Supreme Court of Denmark, and Eleonora Sophie nee Beck. In 1813 Graah

    entered the service of the Royal Navy as a sub-lieutenant, in 1820 he was promoted

    to lieutenant, in 1830 to lieutenant-commander, and ten years later, to commander.

            In the early years of the 19th century the maps of Greenland were still

    extremely inaccurate, even those of the colonized parts of the west coast, and

    printed sailing directions did not exist at all. Graah had at that time, in

    spite of his youth, attracted the attention of the naval authorities. As early

    as 1818 he had published a work on the maritime wars of Denmark ( Udkast til

    Danmarks Søekrigshistorie
    ) and in 1821 he had surveyed the region around Beru–

    fjord in Iceland. To correct the deficiencies of the Greenland maps he was sent

    to Greenland in 1823-24, where, with Godhavn on Disko Island as headquarters, he

    undertook a series of astronomical determinations of a number of important places

    between Egedesminde and Upernivik. The results of this work were published by

    the Royal Hydrographic Office, 1825, as a Mercator projection map of the coast

    betweenimportant anchorages. As a supplement to the map a detailed description

    of the coast surveyed by Graah was also published, containing directions for the

    navigation of Davis Strait and the settlements in the northern part of west

    Greenland ( Beskrivelse til det voxende Situations-Kaart over den vestlige kyst af

    002      |      Vol_XV-0323                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

    Grønland fra 68° 30′ til 73° Bred , 1825).

            During his sojourn in Greenland, Graah had acquired a well-founded knowledge

    of arctic traveling technique, and it was therefore natural that when an expedi–

    tion to East Greenland was planned by the Government, he was entrusted with the

    command. At that period the east coast of Greenland was still unknown for the

    greater part, in spite of numerous attempts to force a way through the polar ice

    pack, the only parties who are known with certainty to have landed being Scoresby,

    Clavering, and Sabine in the north and Peder Olsen Walløe in the extreme south.

    This circumstance alone was, of course, sufficient reason for sending out an ex–

    pedition. To this, however, was added another motive. Throughout the 18th

    century it had been the general opinion that the medieval Eastern Settlement of

    the Norsemen was situated east of Cape Farewell. It is true that H. P. von

    Eggers, in a pioneering paper published in 1793, had asserted the view which

    afterwards proved to be the correct one, viz., that the Eastern Settlement

    should be looked for in the Julianehaab District on the southernmost west coast.

    As long as the east coast was shrouded in mystery, skeptics might, however, still

    urge their doubt with some right. The conflicting views gave, in fact, the de–

    cisive impulse to the planned expedition, the only scientific enterprise of Denmark

    in these regions before the activities of Holm, Ryder, and Admrup in the latter

    part of the century.

            Graah's undertaking was carefully prepared. His intention was to follow the

    same route as that of P. O. Walløe more than two generations previously, starting

    from the southern west coast with native skin boats and penetrating as far north

    as s possible within the ice belt along the coast. His own task was the surveying

    of the country. As members of the expedition he was accompanied by J. L. M. Vahl,

    a young naturalist in charge of the botanical, zoological, and meteorological

    003      |      Vol_XV-0324                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

    observations, and J. M. Mathiesen, manager of the Frederikshaab colony, who

    acted as interpreter. After his return Graah published a detailed report on

    his journey (Undersøgelses-Reise til Østkysten of Grønland, 1832; new edition

    with notes by Kaj Birket-Smith, 1932. English translation: Narrative of an

    Expedition to the East Coast of Greenland
    , 1837).

            On April 27, 1828, Graah and Vahl landed at Frederikshaab, whence they

    traveled by boat to Julianehaab where they arrived in the middle of June. Here

    they had the good luck of meeting an Eskimo from the southern east coast who

    promised to stay at Nanortalik on the west coast near Cape Farewell during the

    winter and accompany them on the expedition the following year. Graah himself

    made an excursion to Nanortlik, Frederiksdal, and the hot springs at Unartoq,

    whence he returned to Julianehaab and visited the church ruin at Qaqortoq, the

    most famous and best preserved Norse remains in Greenland, of which he gave the

    first detailed description and illustrations. During the summer Vahl had been

    engaged in botanical investigations, and skin boats for the coming expedition

    had been built. At the approach of autumn Graah arranged his winter quarters at

    Nanortalik, but, in spite of the advanced season, he was still determined to

    undertake a reconnaisance trip to the east coast. In October he made an attempt,

    proceeding through Prince Christian Sound, but was stopped by the ice immediately

    inside its eastern outlet and had to return to Nanortalik, where he arrived on

    November 2. During the winter Graah was busy with meteorological work, observa–

    tions on the aurora borealis, terrestrial magnetism, etc. As [ ?] early as March 21

    the expedition had finished its preparations and was ready to start. Besides

    Graah, Vahl, Mathiesen, and a Danish sailor, there was a crew of five Greenlanders

    and ten native women. They had two umiaks, and a third boat was hired to accompany

    them for the first three or four weeks.

    004      |      Vol_XV-0325                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

            It had been Graah's intention to pass south of Cape Farewell, but the plan

    had to be abandoned because of unfavorable conditions. Graah pointed out, how–

    ever, that Hans Egede had been wrong in placing Cape Farewell on the island of

    Sermersoq, and rightly identified it with Umanarssuaq of the Eskimos and

    Statenhoek of the Dutch whalers. The expedition then took the same route as

    the previous autumn, proceeding through Torssukatak and Prince Christian Sound,

    but was again stopped by the ice near the outlet and had to spend 25 days on a

    small island there. Meantime the assisting boat was sent back, and finally,

    on April 26, they got free of the ice and reached Aluk on the southernmost east

    coast. When three days later they were able to leave this place they succeeded

    in passing the point whence Walløe had bad to return in 1752, and were now in

    unknown territory, but immediately afterward the ice again put a stop to their


            The weeks to follow were one continuous fight against ice, gales, and

    snowstorms, and the expedition made very slow headway. Just north of Danell

    Fjord they were imprisoned no less than seventeen days. North of Cape Torden–

    skjold they came to a camp of fifty east coast natives. At this the pro–

    visions were already very short, and the West Greenland crew were beginning to

    raise objections to proceeding [ ?] farther, for fear of passing the dangerous

    Puissortoq glacier. Graah therefore decided to send back one of the boats with

    Vahl, Mathiesen, and nearly the whole crew, while he want on alone in the other

    boat, with two women from Nanortalik and some east coast Eskimo. It was three

    days before they were able to pass puissortoq, and even after that was a o cc omplished

    the ice was a constant obstacle. When at last they reached the small Vend-om

    Island the pack was impenetrable. Graah could undertake only some short excursions

    in the immediate neighborhood, on one of which, on August 8, he reached his

    005      |      Vol_XV-0326                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

    northernmost point, Dannebrog Island, 65° 15′ 36° N. latitude. The whole

    coast he had passed he named Frederik VI Coast after the King.

            The ice showed no signs of spreading and autumn gales began to blow. On

    August 21, Graah was, therefore, obliged to return to the place he had selected

    for his winter quarters, the small island Nugarfik (the present-day Imaersivik)

    at about lat. 63° 30′ N., between Bernstorff and Sehested fjords. After con–

    stant danger of being crushed by the floes, he arrived there on October 1,

    and immediately started preparations for the winter. By arctic standards the

    region was fairly well inhabited, and before leaving the place on his outward

    journey Graah had requested a native family to build a winter house for his use.

    Nothing had been done, however, and, although the soil was already frozen and

    covered with snow, Graah now had to arrange his own quarters with the aid of a

    single man and two women. The resulting house was a primitive earth lodge,

    only about 4 meters long and 2 meters wide, into which he and his companions

    had to move when only one-half of the roof was finished.

            Still more serious was the food question. Even when the rations were cut

    as much as possible, they were hardly sufficient for three and a half months, or little

    more than half of the winter. As a rule, the southeast coast of Greenland is a

    poor hunting district; land game is not found at all and even seals and bears are

    often scarce and difficult to approach. During the first part of the winter

    Graah managed to buy some meat from the Eskimos, but when the weather and ice condi–

    tions became unfavorable in the beginning of January the entire population, with

    the exception of a single family, moved away. Under these circumstances, and after

    the physical and mental strain of the preceding summer, it is no wonder that Graah

    fell ill. When he was able to work he was occupied with drawing a map of the

    region he had explored or studying the Eskimo language, and as soon as the first

    006      |      Vol_XV-0327                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

    signs of spring appeared in April 1830 he was ready for a fresh start northward.

            He left Nugarfik on April 5 but had not even reached Bernstorff Fjord when

    he was delayed two weeks by snowstorms, and, although he was then able to resume

    his journey, he was constantly troubled by ice and storm. Generally speaking,

    there were storms seven days out of ten at this time of the year. When at last

    he arrived on the north side of the fjord every possibility of success seemed

    to be out of the question; still he would not give up, and during the months of

    May and June he made no less than eighteen attempts at penetrating farther north,

    but every time in vain, so that he finally had to return to Nugarfik. However,

    he immediately resumed his efforts afresh. This time conditions were even worse,

    and they had to remain fifteen days on a small rock north of Alikajik, entirely

    surrounded by the ice. The glacier close by calved every day, and on one occa–

    sion both the tent and the umiak were washed several yards away from their places

    by the wave resulting from the activity of the glacier.

            In the latter part of July the situation grew really dangerous. Their pro–

    visions were entirely exhausted and neither seals nor birds were seen; for some

    time they subsisted on dog meat and afterwards had to eat old and dry sealskin.

    All plans of proceeding northward had to be [ ?] abandoned, and ones again they

    started on the return journey, partly walking and carrying the umiak across the

    [ ?] floes and living on small pieces of whale blubber thrown up by the sharks. At

    last they reached open water, where they luckily got a seal, and although they were

    still much hampered by ice, and Graah had a fresh attack of illness, they reached

    Prince Christian Sound on August 8. About ten days later they were back in Nanor–

    talik after an absence of a year and a half. Graah spent the winter in Juliane–

    haab; during the following summer he continued his survey of the Julianehaab and

    Frederikshaab districts and left for Denmark in August 1831.

    007      |      Vol_XV-0328                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

            Some time after his return he was appointed a member of the board of direc–

    tors of the Royal Greenland and Farosse Trade, in which capacity he again

    visited West Greenland in 1836. However, he did not get along well with the

    other [ ?] director, J. H. Gedde, and retired in 1850. Before that time

    he had, in 1837-38, made a cruise to West Indian waters as commander of the

    St. Thomas , a brig of the Royal Danish Navy, on which occasion he collected

    a considerable amount of cartographical material. He died in Copenhagen on

    September 16, 1863.

            Graah's greatest feat was beyond doubt the East Greenland expedition. He

    was the first explorer to survey a considerable part of the coast south of the

    region visited by Scoresby and Clavering. In the description of his journey

    he gave an accurate and sober picture both of the stirring events and of the

    country. He also provided a valuable sketch of the native population, which in

    his day numbered about 600 persons but who, in the subsequent years of the century,

    left this part of Greenland to settle in the more favorable districts around

    Angmagssalik or west of Cape Farewell. On the basis of his own experience

    he described their dwelling places, dress, way of living, and shamanistic

    performances; whereas his remarks on their customary law are copied almost ver–

    batin from an old paper of Glahn on this subject from West Greenland, and conse–

    quently cannot be taken as valid also for East Greenland. In the appendices to

    his work he lists his botanical collections and the mammals, birds, and fishes

    observed during the expedition [ ?] as well as his extensive magnetical observations.

    To this is added a paper on the Norse settlements in Greenland. As mentioned be–

    fore, the main object of the expedition was to find out whether the Eastern

    Settlement had been situated on the east coast or, as Eggers supposed, on the

    southernmost part of the west coast. Graah had found no traces of Norse remains,

    008      |      Vol_XV-0329                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

    nor had be been able to obtain any information about Norse ruins from the

    Eskimos of the country. On the basis of his own experience, and with due atten–

    tion both to the medieval sources and the discussion of Wormekjold and Eggers,

    he arrived at the conclusion — which has, of course, since found ample

    corroboration — that the opinion of the latter should be regarded as correct.

            In the long period after the Napoleonic wars, when the economy of Denmark

    was shattered, and until the exploration of Greenland was resumed by men like

    H. Rink and Gustav Holm, Graah's expedition was the most outstanding Danish

    contribution to arctic geography.


    Kaj Birket-Smith

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