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    Henrik Johannes Rink

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0661                                                                                                                  

    (Kaj Birket-Smith)


            Hinrik Johannes Rink (1819-1893), Danish Government official, geologist

    and founder of eskimology, was born on August 28, 1819, in Copenhagen, where

    his father, Johannes Rink, was a merchant. After having studied mineralogy

    and chemistry for four years at the Technical High School in Copenhagen, and

    having been awarded a gold medal for a chemical essay, he took his doctor's

    degree at the University of Kiel in 1844. The next year, in the capacity of

    geologist, he joined the scientific staff of the Galathea , a corvet of the

    Royal Danish Navy which in 1845-47 undertook a voyage around the world. Rink,

    however, took part in the expedition only as far as the Nicobar Islands, at

    that time a Danish colony, where he was required to remain to carry out geo–

    logical observations and participate in the foundation of a new establishment.

    After a few months' stay on the islands he had a serious attack of the "Nicobar

    fever," an especially dangerous form of malaria, and had to leave India. After

    his return to Denmark he published a description of the islands, in particular

    their geology, but including also a sketch of the inhabitants, in a small volume

    in German (Die Nikobarischen Inseln, 1847).

            The weakness of his health, from which, in fact, he never recovered entire–

    ly, did not prevent Rink from continuing his research work in distant countries,

    but from now on he concentrated his scientific interest and energy upon the ex–

    ploration of the Far North. In 1848 he left for Greenland, where he surveyed

    and studied the geology of the Upernivik District during the summer. In the

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    fall he went to Disko Bay, spent the winter in Godhavn, and continued his

    studies along the same lines in this region the following summer. In the

    winter of 1849-50 and early summer 1850 he traveled throughout the U Û m a á naq

    District, then returned to Disko Bay and wintered at Jakobshavn, from where

    he made excursions as far south as the Arfersiorfik Fjord; he went again to

    U Û m a á naq in the summer of 1851 and finally returned to Denmark the same year.

    His activities during this period resulted in a number of important works.

    Not only was his map of this part of the coast the most accurate until 1888,

    when further surveys were undertaken, but his papers on the physiography of

    the country opened up entirely new views on the inland ice — incidentally a

    word coined by Rink — as well as on the formation of icebergs. (öm den geo–

    graphiske Beskaffenhed af de denske Handeladistrikter i Nordgronland," Det Kgl.

    Danske Videnskabernes Selskabs Skrifter, 1852; "On the large continuous ice of

    Greenland and the origin of icebergs in the arctic seas," Journal Royal Geo–

    graphical Society, 1853; "Om Isens Udbredning og Bevae gelse over Nordgrønlands

    Fastland," Tidsskrift for popular Fremstilling af Naturvidenskaberne , 1855.) He

    proved that the inland ice, in contrast to local mountain glaciers, formed a

    continuous ice plateau of enormous and constantly increasing thickness in the

    interior of the country and therefore slowly moved in the direction of the coast

    where it descended to the so-called ice fjords through certain valleys. The

    formation of the icebergs he ascribed to the water lifting the ice edge when

    it got sufficiently far from the shore. In those days when the Ice Age was a

    question that aroused the keenest interest of all naturalists, Rink's observa–

    tions from a country still in a stage of ice period were a most important con–

    tribution to the general discussion, and with one stroke made his name known in

    the scientific world.

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

            On his return from Greenland, Rink was requested to take a seat in a

    Government commission for investigating Greenland affairs, for which reason

    he again visited the country in 1852, this time the southern part of the west

    coast. Thus he also acquired a first-hand knowledge of the three southernmost

    districts, Julianehaab, Frederikshaab, and Godthaab. By that time his purely

    scientific interest in the country had roused his love for Greenland and its

    native population to such a degree that he decided to enter the service of what

    was then called the Royal Greenland Board of Trade. In 1853 he married Signe

    Rink, the daughter of a Danish official in Greenland and herself born there in

    1836. Mrs. Rink had spoken Eskimo from her earliest childhood, was deeply at–

    tached to the native population, and wrote several short stories, etc., on life

    in Greenland. It is highly probable that her husband's love for the North was

    further strengthened through her influence.

            In the year when the marriage took place Rink was appointed manager of the

    colony of Julianehaab, and in 1857, Royal Inspector of the southern part of the

    west coast from Cape Farewell to Nordre Strømfjord. He resigned from the latter

    office in 1868, but only to enter the service again in 1871, this time, however,

    as director of the entire Board of Trade, a post which he held until his final

    retirement in 1882. The last years, until his death on December 15, 1893, he

    spent in Kristiania (now Oslo) where his daughter was married.

            It is difficult to over-estimate the beneficial influence of Rink as an

    administrator. His love for the Greenlanders has left deep traces in their

    conditions of life to this day, and in every way possible he tried to work for

    their economic progress and to strengthen their self-respect. After his journey

    to South Greenland in 1852, he published a summary of his views on the adminis–

    tration system ( Om Monopolhandelen pas Grønland , 1852), followed later by other

    writings on the same subject (e. g., "Om Aarsagerne til Grønlandernes og lignende

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    af Jagt levende Nationers materielle Tilbagegang ved Berøring med Europaeerne,"

    Dansk Maanedsskrift , 1862; Om Grønlanderne. deres Fremtid og de til deres Bedste

    sigtende Foranstaltninger
    , 1882-84).

            According to his opinion, the main reason why the Greenlanders and other

    primitive peoples suffered severely by contact with European civilization and

    gradually lost their original culture was the fact that their old social system

    and unwritten laws broke down without being replaced by others. As to the

    Greenlanders, their improvidence and deep-rooted individualism, which under

    European influence far too easily degenerated into irresponsibility, meant a

    considerable danger to the population under unrestricted intercourse with un–

    scrupulous foreigners. Rink therefore supported the prohibitive regulations

    as a provisional necessity, but, on the other hand, he considered as an ultimate

    goal a general lifting of the whole standard of living that would make the

    Greenlanders self-supporting both economically and socially. Thus he prepared

    the way for the opening up of the country. All his efforts as an administrator

    were aimed at the realization of plans that agreed with this general view.

            On Rink's initiative, a printing office was established in Godthaab, and

    in 1861 he started a still existing monthly paper, Atuagagdliutit (i.e., "Some–

    thing to read"), for which the Greenlanders were encouraged to write on matters

    of interest to them. Following an idea set forth by the well-known linguist and

    Moravian missionary Samuel Kleinschmidt, he also created the so-called "boards

    of guardi sn ns " in 1862-63. These bodies, one for each district on the coast, con–

    sisted partly of Danish officials, partly of natives elected by the population

    itself from the best hunters and other prominent persons; these boards had as

    their main function the administration of the yearly revenues, the bringing

    forward of proposals, the administration of justice among the Greenlanders, etc.,

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    and thus meant the first step toward a system of self-government.

            Rink was also eager that an increasing number of Greenlanders should take

    over certain positions in Greenland hitherto reserved for the Danes and there–

    fore devoted much attention to the training of young natives fit for such tasks.

    For this reason he provided for the establishment of the so-called "Greenlanders'

    Home" in Copenhagen, where an extended course of instruction was given. Another

    token, though of a different nature, of his never failing interest for the native

    population is his edition of the Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, the Arctic Traveller,

    serving under Kane, Haves, Hall and Nares 1855-76

            In all his plans Rink had an eye for the welfare and progress of the Green–

    landers, but an irritability, probably due to his poor health, his willfulness

    and lack of diplomacy created much opposition in more conservative circles, and

    he often met with a pronounced lack of good will on the part of the Government.

    His final resignation as a director was the result of increasing resistence to

    his views, and the man of whom it has rightly been said that hardly any person

    since the days of the Egedes had a stronger claim on the gratitude of the Green–

    landers, had to leave his post disillusioned and filled with bitterness.

            In spite of his numerous administrative duties, Rink had never lost sight

    of science. He was an active member of the Commission for the Direction of Geo–

    logical and Geographical Investigations in Greenland from its start in 1878 until

    his death, but, in addition, he carried on his own scientific efforts with great

    success. On the basis of extensive travels and far-reaching observations, he

    wrote a general description of Greenland, Grønland, geographisk og statistisk

    , in two volumes, Vol. I (published 1852-55) deals with the northern

    districts on the west coast and is partly a revised and enlarged edition of his

    previously cited paper in Videnskabernes Selskabs Skrifter ; it considers the

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    natural conditions and economic resources of the country, and also includes a

    detailed picture of the state of the people at that time as well as an accurate

    topographical description of each district. Vol. II, which appeared in 1857,

    describes in the same explicit way the southern part of the west coast together

    with the history of the discovery and colonization, to which are added append–

    ices on the fauna, flora, minerals, etc. This work, of which a revised and

    enlarged translation was published in English ( Danish Greenland, its people

    and its products,
    1877), remained the standard source of information about

    Greenland until well into the 20th century and may still be consulted with good


            In the early 1860's Rink's scientific interest turned more and more toward

    ethnology. As early as 1859 he had begun collecting old Greenland traditions

    and myths, which were still remembered among the population but till then had

    remained practically unknown to the outside world. By the aid of both native

    and Danish helpers he succeeded in obtaining a great number of tales, some of

    them in written form, others taken down directly from the verbal accounts of

    infor r mants. A selection of these were printed in Godthaab in the original

    language in four small volumes ( Kalatdlit okalluktualliait ). The bulk, 238 in

    all, appeared in Danish translation ( Eskimoiske Eventvr og Sagn , 1866; Supple–

    , 1871). While, as a rule, only the most detailed version is given in full,

    Rink renders a careful account of the differences between the various versons,

    their origin, etc. He also adds a few legends from East Greenland and Labrador,

    a group of 28 songs, and a description of the distribution of the Eskimos, their

    way of living, language, social organization and religion, concluding with a

    chapter on the origin of the Eskimos and their culture and their relations to

    other tribes. This important work, one of the first extensive collections of

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    folklore of any primitive people, also appeared in English some years later

    ( Tales and traditions of the Eskimo , 1875-77). The section on religion was

    also published in a somewhat altered and more copious form as a separate paper

    (öm Gronlandernes gamle Tro og hvad der af samme er bevaret under Kristendommen,"

    Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkvndighed , 1868). On the basis of the myths he gives a

    picture of the ancient beliefs and what in his day still survived of the aborig–

    inal conceptions; owing to this procedure, he succeeded in obtaining a far more

    complete view of them than the early authors like Hans Egede, Granz and others,

    even though these men had been able to study the Eskimos at a period when the

    religion was still alive.

            Rink's theory of the origin of the Eskimos, as set forth in the Supplement ,

    was likewise published separately (Om Eskimcernes Herkomst," Aarbøger for nord–

    isk Oldkyndighed
    , 1871; of. "On the descent of the Eskimo," Journal of the Royal

    Anthropological Institute, 1872). He starts from the supposition that the prim–

    eval Eskimos must have immigrated to their present habitat from the interior of

    the continent; probably forced by pressure from hostile tribes; upon their ar–

    rival on the coast they had afterward developed their characteristic culture

    while a certain amount of intercourse between the groups was still possible.

            The mouths of the great rivers in Alaska, he believes, provide a

    geographical environment affording a suitable background for the transformation

    of an original inland culture to a pronounced maritime way of living. In his

    opinion this view is further corroborated by several facts. With good reason

    he identifies some mythical beings of the legends with the American Indians.

    The structure of the Eskimo language he finds more closely related to the Amer–

    ican idioms than to the languages [ ?] of the Uralo-Altaian stock. Eskimo

    belief shows more intimate affinities to the religion of the northern Indians

    008      |      Vol_XV-0668                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    than to the more highly developed shamanism of the Siberian tribes, etc. Finally

    he arrives at the conclusion that the Eskimo groups at the mouths of the Yukon

    and Kuskokwim to his own day afford a picture of the transition from an inland

    to a coastal population, whereas a development from Siberian reindeer nomadism

    to sea-mammal hunting is difficult to explain.

            When Gustav Holm returned from his famous East Greenland expedition, bring–

    ing back the first account of the natives of Angmagssalik, including a collec–

    tion of tales and information about their dialect, Rink published both a number

    of comparative notes on the tales and a short vocabulary with comparative re–

    marks. ("Bemaerkninger til G. Holms Samling af Sagn og Fortae llinger fra Angmag–

    salik," Meddelelser om Grønland , Vol. X; "Den østgrønlandske Dialekt," Ibid .

    Both re-edited in English by William Thalbitzer. Ibid . Vol. XXXIX.) Also, in

    a paper in the Geografisk Tidsskrift , Vol. VIII ("Østgrønlaenderne i deres For–

    hold til Vestgrønlaenderne og de øvrige Eskimostammer"), he discussed the East

    Greenland culture, emphasizing that Eskimo culture as a whole had not remained

    at a standstill after the exodus from their primeval home, but had developed a

    number of traits peculiar to the different groups.

            However, the question of the origin of the Eskimos continued to occupy

    his mind. In his previous papers he had mainly considered the ethnological

    aspect of the problem; now he turned to the linguistic side. By comparing the

    vocabularies, he showed that whereas only half of the Greenland stem words seemed

    to occur in Alaska, three-fourths were found in the Mackenzie district and even

    five-sixths in the Central regions and in Labrador. This gradual increase of

    conformity between the dialects from west to east he interpreted as conclusive

    evidence of a migration from Alaska along the arctic coasts to Greenland. ("Om

    de eskimoiske Dialekter, som Bidrag til Bedømmelse af Spørgsmaalet om Eskimoernes

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    Herkomst og Vandringer," Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed , 1885.) The linguis–

    tic point of view was carried further in his paper "Om Eskimoernes Herkomst"

    ( Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkvndighed , 1890.)

            Finally, Rink gave an imposing synthesis of his theory as set forth in all

    his previous papers in what may justly be considered his crowing ethnological

    work ("The Eskimo Tribes," Meddelelser om Grønland , Vol. XI, 1887-91). Besides

    giving a general survey of the most important groups, he there deals with a

    number of cultural traits pertaining to hunting, dwellings, sociology, religion,

    and folklore, pointing out an increasing skill in kayaking from Alaska to Green–

    land, while at the same time there is a decline, for instance, in social cus–

    toms, because the extreme arctic conditions were unfavorable to the preserva–

    tion of such usages. To this is added a short exposition of the characteristics

    of the structure of the language and lists of the principal suffixes and stem

    words. At all points he finds support for his view that the cradle of the Eski–

    mos is to be found at the great rivers in Alaska, whence they gradually spread

    eastward. At our present state of knowledge it is easy to see the weakness of

    Rink's argument, but it should not be forgotten that in those days the imper–

    fect information about most Eskimo groups rendered a simplification of the ac–

    tual conditions unavoidable, and his theory meant an enormous step forward toward

    the elucidation of the prehistory of the Eskimos. Till then all hypotheses con–

    cerning their origin had been more or less guesswork, at best based upon an

    arbitrary selection of one or two isolated traits. Here for the first time

    appeared a well-considered theory taking both geographical linguistic and cul–

    tural facts into account.

            With good reason Rink may, therefore, be considered the founder of modern

    eskimology. Even before the publication of his Eskimo works his studies had

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Hinrik Johannes Rink

    among geologists gained for him the name of "the classical Rink." During his

    lifetime he had spent no less than sixteen winters and twenty-two summers in

    Greenland, and only the most important of his papers have been mentioned in

    the preceding pages. When to all this is added his profound love and never

    failing efforts for the welfare of the native population, it may easily be

    realized how great a debt both science and the Greenland people owe to him.


    Kaj Birket-Smith

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