Jens Eriksen Munck and his crew of 63 were the first Europeans to overwinter in the Churchill area. Munck was a prominent Sea Captain in the Danish navy. He clawed his way up the ranks of the Danish Admiralty despite being the son of a disgraced Danish nobleman. Most captains were simply adorned because they were the sons of nobility, rewarded not for hard work and skill but simply for their name.
Having risen to this rank by age 32, he was experienced in warfare, arctic travel and had effectively introduced whaling to Denmark. (Don’t tell Greenpeace.)
In May 1619, he sailed forth with King Christian IV’s finest ships, the Unicorn, a frigate, and the Lamprey, a sloop, in search of the northwest passage. It was pretty much a disaster.
By July, due to thick fog and thicker ice and faulty navigational equipment, they mistakenly sailed into Frobisher Bay thinking it was Hudson Strait. Then his ship’s pilots took him into Ungava Bay claiming it was Hudson Bay.
Despite these detours, they sailed into what is today Hudson Bay by late August. Munck dubbed it ‘Novum Mare Christian’ in honour of his benefactor.
Sailing southwest from Hudson Strait, the Unicorn and Lamprey arrived at Cape Churchill in early September. In search of a suitable mooring site, Munck limped the ships along the coast in thick fog, eventually discovering the mouth of the Churchill River or ‘Jens Muncke’s Bay’. By September 17th, it was clear that winter was fast approaching and their only option was to over-winter. However, Munck had not anticipated the severity of Churchill’s winter (not to mention, the climate was much colder than it is today), or the lack of game in the Churchill area.
They did, however, kill and eat a polar bear. This was their ultimate downfall. Only the Captain meal was cooked, the rest of the meat simply being dipped in vinegar overnight and served to the men. Bear meat can contain trichinosis, a parasite that weakens the immune system and can even cause your skin to peel off (making you extra cold in -40.. ha ha… sorry).
Munck’s men soon contracted a ‘mystery disease’ and unfortunately the ship’s surgeon died early. They had a lot of medecine and herbs but no idea how to use them.
There were many small instances that could have turned the tables for Munck, but probably the most significant was the shooting of a ‘wolf’ nearby their camp. They soon discovered that it was actually a domesticated dog, indicating the presence of either a Cree or Inuit camp nearby.
Munck was one of the first explorers that understood the importance of the indigineous population. Previously, he had communicated with Inuvialuit (Inuit) in Ungava Bay and hunted ‘reindeer’ (caribou) with them. That dog would have meant communication and potentially a food source for the winter and even future trading partners.
By late winter, trichinosis, extreme cold, starvation and likely scurvy had claimed 61 of his 63 men. Despite writing his last testament, Munck somehow survived. At first crawling on their hands and knees, the survivors fed on berries and sorrel grass. Soon, fish was added to the diet and eventually they felt strong enough to set sail for Europe. On June 4th, 1620, the trio set out on the Lamprey for a three month journey across the Atlantic.
The main ship, the Unicorn, remained scuttled in the Churchill River. Munck had intended to come back for it and its cargo and even planned to bring back colonists and initiate a fur trade. Instead, he ended up being basically thrown in jail upon returning to Denmark. And all his possessions were confiscated. And his wife left him.
Meanwhile, back in Churchill, the Cree eventually returned to their seasonal hunting grounds and found the ship and the house, both abandoned. These remains (and the sailor’s remains) likely account for the Cree name for the Churchill River, MantewiSipiy or River of Strangers.
So, they promptly looted the house and ship and set fire to them. Of course, the ship’s cargo ignited and blew up, leaving nails, wood and metal scattered about, which may account for the Inuit name for the area, Unatarvivinnijuaq – ‘Place Where A Battle Was Fought’.
Anyway, Munck was let out of jail and commisioned Captain by 1623. King Christian was running low on living and breathing Sea Captains and needed help in this war with Germany. Despite becoming an Admiral during the Thirty Years War, Munck’s iron will finally broke as he watched his cherished Lamprey sink.
Today, Munck is essentially a forgotten part of Canadian history, remembered by Munck Park – behind the complex, a rock cairn at Cape Merry and, of course, the street name to the Seaport beer vendor.
Munck was a daring military technician, arctic explorer, whaler and pirate hunter. More importantly, he was incredibly unlucky and probably cursed. But, he just kept going, too stubborn or proud to quit. And, I mean, what’s not to like about that!
- prepared by Kelsey Eliasson
Note: Gordon Point near First Tower is named for William Gordon, the ship’s pilot with the Munck Expedition. Styggy Creek near the Golf Balls is named for Morvitz Styggy. He is quoted in Munck’s journals commenting on the many dead crew, ‘wherever they are it is probably a good deal hotter than here.’