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    Jens Munk

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0526                                                                                                                  

    (Kaj Birket-Smith)


            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

    002      |      Vol_XV-0527                                                                                                                  
    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

    003      |      Vol_XV-0528                                                                                                                  
    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-

    004      |      Vol_XV-0529                                                                                                                  
    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.

    005      |      Vol_XV-0530                                                                                                                  
    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


            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

    006      |      Vol_XV-0531                                                                                                                  
    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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