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    Gustav Frederick Holm

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0400                                                                                                                  

    [Haj Birket-Smith]


            Gustav Frederik Holm (1849-1940), Danish explorer and naval officer, was born

    in Copenhagen, Denmark, on August 6, 1849, and died March 13, 1940. Both his

    father and grandfather were officers in the Royal Danish Navy, and it seemed a

    matter of course that Holm should follow in their footsteps. In 1870 he entered

    the Navy as a sublieutenant, three years later he was appointed lieutenant,

    in 1885 commander, and in 1899 captain. From 1899 to 1909 he was chief of the

    Hydrographic Service, and in 1912 was made director of the Royal Pilotage Service,

    an important and responsible post which he held with great success during World

    War I and until he finally retired from the service in 1919.

            Holm's greatest achievements were, however, his activities as an arctic

    explorer. In the latter half of the 19th century the idea of a systematic

    geological and geographical investigation of Greenland came into existence.

    The main author was J. F. Johnstrup, professor of mineralogy at Copenhagen

    University, who in 1875 submitted a detailed plan to the government. In 1878

    a Commission was appointed for the Direction of Geological and Geographical In–

    vestigations in Greenland, which existed until, in 1932, it was succeeded by

    the Commission for the Direction of Scientific Investigations in Greenland.

            However, even before the first Commission started its work, the plans had

    begun to be realized. In 1876 the first of a long series of expeditions was sent

    to West Greenland under the leadership of K. J. P. K. J. V. Steenstrup. The

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Holm


    other members of the expedition were Holm and A. Kornerup; both Kornerup and

    Steenstrup were geologists, while Holm was in charge of surveying. An area

    of about 4,000 square kilometers in the Julianheaab District was carefully

    investigated and a report published (in Danish with a French summary) in

    Meddelelser om Grønland , Vol. II.

            In the summers of 1880 and 1881 Holm again visited the Julianehaab Dis–

    trict. The first year, together with a geologist (C. Petersen) and a painter

    (E. Th. Groth), he mapped more than 40 sites containing about 300 ruins of the

    medieval Eastern Settlement (Eystribygd) of the Norsemen. Among these were the

    remains of the famous churches of Qaqortoq, Igaliko, and Qagssiarssuk; some

    of the ruins were excavated and a considerable number of antiquities and plants

    were collected. The following summer Holm, together with the geologist P. L. P.

    Sylow, continued the surveying of the regions around Cape Far e well. For the

    first time Cape Farewell itself was ascended by Europeans, and the expedition

    finally reached Kangerajuk on the east coast, in lat. 60° 13′ N. Holme also

    made a series of observations of the ice pack in Davis Strait. On these ex–

    peditions he wrote accounts of the archaeological investigations ( Beskrivelse

    af Ruiner i Julianehaab Distrikt
    ) and the geographical results [ ?] ( Geographisk

    Undersøgelse af Grønlands sydligste Del
    and Storisens Udbredelse i Davisstraedet

    i Sommeren 1881
    ) which were published in Meddelelser om Grønland, Vol. VI,

    with French summaries.

            During these expeditions Holm had carefully collected all available informa–

    tion about the east coast, both concerning the natural conditions of the country,

    the inhabitants, and the traveling possibilities. In the neighborhood of Cape

    Farewell he had heard sumors of a distant place called Angmagssalik, which was

    said to be situated farther to the north than the places visited by Graah on

    his expedition of 1828-31. His knowledge of the east coast, his familiarity with

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Holm

    the Greenland natives and their traveling technique, as well as his manful and

    upright character, entitled him as a matter of course to conduct an expedition

    to these regions. These qualifications were, however, not the only ones he

    possessed for a task of this kind. Although it had long ago been proved, both

    theoretically by H. P. von Eggers and practically by Graah, that the Eastern

    Settlement of the Norsemen was situated on the southernmost part of the west

    coast, mainly in what is now the Julianehaab District, there were still some

    who were unwilling to give up the idea that it was to be found on the southern

    part of the east coast. Holm had, on his previous journeys in the Julianehaab

    District, acquired an in [ ?] intimate knowledge of the Norse remains there, so

    that he would be able to trace any vestiges of Norse occupation on the east

    coast. Moreover, he was deeply interested in Eskimo ethnology. Dr. H. Rink,

    directo of the Royal Greenland Board of Trade and well known as the founder of

    comparative Eskimo research, was one of the members of the Commission of In–

    vestigations in Greenland. Holm was highly influenced by Rink's work and

    always considered him his tutor in ethnology.

            Everything taken together Holm was the very man to be in charge of the ex–

    pedition which was sent out in 1883 for the purpose of exploring the east coast

    from Cape Farewell and as far north as possible. His second-in-command was

    Lieutenant V. Garde of the Royal Danish Navy, and the scientific staff consisted

    of the botanist P. Eberlin and the Norwegian Mineralogist Hans Knutsen. The

    other members of the expedition he chose from among the native population on

    the southern west coast and the Danish residents of the same region. The most

    important, perhaps, were the interpreter, Johan Petersen, and his uncle, the

    native catechist Johannes Hansen, better known by his native name of Hanseraq

    ("Little John").

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    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Holm

            It was Holm's intention, instead of attempting to reach the coast from the

    sea, to take the same course as Grash and by means of native skin boats (umiaks)

    to follow the ice-free coastal waters inside the ice pack. It was therefore a

    great advantage that his crew was, to some extent at least, familiar [ ?] with

    the east coast population, the southernmost families of which sometimes visited

    the trading posts west of Cape Farewell.

            The Danish members of the expedition left Copenhagen in May 1883 and, after

    a short visit to Godthaab, landed about eight weeks later in Julianehaab, whence

    they proceeded to the small outpost Nanortalik farther south. Here they met with

    a trading party of east coast Eskimos, but they started immediately on a pre–

    liminary [ ?] journey to the east coast themselves, where they arrived on the

    last day of July. During the following days they went as far as the mouth of

    Dannell Fjord (iluileq), where provisions were cached for the next year's ex–

    pedition. The rest of August was spent in surveying and other investigations,

    and in September the expedition returned to Nanortalik where it remained during

    the winter, occupied by meteorological and magnetical observations and prepara–

    tions for the great journey which was to take place the following summer.

            On May 5th everything was ready. The expedition consisted of 37 persons

    with four umiaks and accompanying kayaks. They had hardly reached the east coast

    when they were stopped by the ice pack for more than two weeks, but as soon as

    a lane opened up they proceeded to the north and soon reached the place where

    the cache [ ?] had been left the preceding year. They also

    met a number of East Greenland Eskimos with whom they soon got on very good terms.

    Immediately south of the great Puissortoq Glacier, however, they were again de–

    layed for seventeen days by the ice. Puissortoq is generally considered one of

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    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Holm

    the most dangerous places on this part of the coast, because the pack often

    makes it necessary to pass close by the front of the glacier. Here half of the

    crew openly declared their unwillingness to go farther, so Holm was obliged to

    send them back with one of the umiaks. The three remaining boats finally suc–

    ceeded in passing the ill-famed place without mishap of any kind and were able

    to camp a few days afterwards at Tingmiarmiut, nearly halfway between Cape Fare–

    well and Angmagssalik. [ ?]

            Here, according to the plan, a division of the expedition took place. Garde

    and Eberlin were to investigate the southern fjords and then, at the end of the

    summer, go back to Nanortalik on the west coast and remain there during the

    winter, whereas Holm, together with Knutsen, Johan Petersen, and a small crew

    of West Greenlanders would continue their journey to the north with two skin

    boats and one kayak and, if possible, pass the farthest place of Graah and pro–

    ceed as far as Angmagssalik. On August 3rd they arrived at Igdluluarssuk at the

    mouth of Bernstorff Fjord, the most northerly dwelling place of the southern

    group on the east coast. Even here the Eskimos lived in an entirely aboriginal

    state; none of them had ever seen a white man before, nor had any of them ever

    visited the trading posts on the west coast. In spite of ice, contrary winds,

    snow, and rain, the party made good headway, and three weeks after it had left

    Bernstorff Fjord the expedition arrived at Dannebrog Island, from where Graah

    had had to return. Immediately north of the island is the great [ ?] Ikerssuaq

    ice fjord which forms the southern boundary of the Angmagssalik District. This

    time it proved to be no such obstacle as it was at the time of Graah's visit in

    1829, and on the last day of August the expedition reached its long-anticipated

    goal, Angmagssalik, about 800 kilometers from Cape Farewell.

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    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Holm

            In this region the general trend of the coast is east-west, and one large

    and two smaller fjords cut into the land. The change in the direction of the

    coast causes the ice to spread, providing possibilities for a rich hunt of

    seals and bears. It is no wonder, therefore, that this district was inhabited

    by a fairly large population, which now for the first time was visited by white

    men. Here winter quarters were erected, and during the following nine months

    the expedition lived there among a group as primitive and untouched by foreign

    influences as their kinsmen on the west coast had been two centuries previously.

    Holm was an excellent observer, and during his long stay he wrote a brilliant

    account of the native life besides making anthropometric observations and procur–

    ing a large ethnographical collection which now forms the main stock of the East

    Greenland collections in the Danish National Museum.

            In the meantime Garde had explored the coast south of Tingmiarmiut in detail

    and returned to Nanortalik, where he spent the second winter making meteorological

    and magnetical observations. In the middle of May 1885, however, he made a fresh

    start for the east coast. Shortly afterward Holm left Angmagssalik, and on July

    16th the two groups met at Sehested Fjord, a little north of Tingmiarmiu . The

    task of the expedition was now completed, and Holm and Garde returned together

    to the west coast, where they arrived a month later. One of the most important

    achievements in the exploration of Greenland had been brought to an end.

            The results of the expedition were numerous both from a geographical and an

    ethnological point of view, not to speak of the negative result that no Norse

    ruins had been found, thus definitely establishing the position of the Eastern

    Settlement on the west coast. The reports were published (in Danish with French

    summaries) in Vol. IX and X of the Meddelelser om Grønland and in Observations

    internationales polaires
    , Vol. II. Holm himself, together with Garde, wrote a

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    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Holm

    popular account of the journey ( Den danske Konebaads-Expedition til Grønlands

    , Kjøbenhavn, 1887) as well as an official account and a scientific re–

    port of the geographical conditions of the coast traversed by the expedition

    ( Beretning om Konebaads-Expeditionen til Grønlands Østkyst 1883-85 and Om de

    geografiske Forhold i Dansk Øst-Grønland
    ); with Johan Petersen he published a coll–

    ection of myths and legends from Angmagssalik ( Sagn og Fortaellinger fra Angmag–

    ). His most important contribution was, however, the Ethnologisk Skizze

    af Angmagsalikerne
    , i.e., "Ethnological Sketch of the Angmagssalik Eskimo."

    The last two works were later translated into English and published in Meddelelser

    om Grønland
    , Vol. XXXIX. The Ethnolgical Sketch gives an accurate and full

    description of the life and culture of the Angmagssalik natives. At about the

    same time Franz Boas studied the population of Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island;

    Holm's and Boas's works are the first modern and fully scientific accounts of

    any Eskimo group and thus epoch-making in Eskimo research. Holm's painstaking

    observations and his unfailing honesty make his book one of the classics of


            The expedition to Angmagssalik was Holm's last scientific journey to Green–

    land; nevertheless he was once more to inscribe his name in the annals of Greenland.

    During the expedition he [ ?] noticed the danger of a wholesale depopulation of

    East Greenland. The conditions of life were severe, especially on the southern

    part of the coast, and the Danish trading posts on the west coast formed an

    attraction which many of the East Greenlanders had already proved unable to

    resist. On the other hand, Holm had also observed that as a rule it would be

    [ ?] possible to reach Angmagssalik by ship in the late summer. The Danish govern–

    ment therefore decided to establish a mission and trading station at Angmags–

    salik, and the task was entrusted to Holm who thus in 1894 visited the place for

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    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Holm

    the second time, while Johan Petersen, the interpreter of the 1883-85 expedition,

    was appointed manager of the new establishment. There can be no doubt that it

    was high time, if the population were to be saved. In the period between 1884

    and 1894 it had diminished from 413 to 243 persons, either by death or by emigra–

    tion. It was also evident that the establishment was of vital importance for

    maintaining Danish sovereignty in East Greenland.

            Holm never lost his early love for Greenland. In 1896 he was appointed

    member of the Commission for the Direction of Geological and Geographical In–

    vestigations in Greenland, in which capacity, after the death of Rink, he was in

    charge of archaeological and ethnological interests until he finally retired in

    1931. In his later years he was also occupied with studies of geographical

    history, especially with subjects concerning East Greenland and the Vinland prob–

    lem. As to the latter, which he discussed in connection with Steensby's theories,

    he arrived at the conclusion that Leif Eriksson's Vinland is something quite

    different from the Vinland of Thorfinn Karlsefni and probably situated somewhere

    in the New England states ("Small Additions to the Vinland Problem," Meddelelser

    om Grønland
    , Vol. LIX, 1924). In another paper he idetnfies the so-called

    Gunnbjörn's Skerries and Cross Islands of the Icelanders with some of the small

    islands in the Angmagssalik District ("Gunbjørns Skaer og Korsøer," Meddelelser

    om Grønland
    , Vol. LVI, [ ?] 1918). He also disputes the right of attaching the

    old Norse name of Svalbard to Spitsbergen, because Svalbard originally seems to

    have denoted the region of what is now called Scoresby Sound ("De islandske

    Kursforskrifters Svalbarde," Meddelelser om Grønland , Vol. LIX, 1925).

            Holm was in possession of a critical mind, probably an outcome of his pro–

    nounced sense of righteousness which made him look upon all cheap hypothese

    with skepticism. But he was also aware of his own limitations. He was an

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    EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Holm

    extremely modest and unostentatious character who hated all kinds of publicity

    and never tried to play a part in public life. However, his contributions to

    geographical and ethnological science were not forgotten. In 1890 he received

    the Roquette Medal of the Geographical Society in Paris, and 1895 he was awarded

    the Gold Medal of the Royal Danish Geographical Society. In 1923 he was made

    Honorary Fellow of the Greenland Society of Copenhagen, and when Copenhagen

    University celebrated its 450th anniversary in 1929, he was created Honorary

    Doctor of Philosophy.


    Kaj Birket-Smith

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