A memorable voyage to Ungava Bay

Hans Rollmann
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Marking the 200th anniversary of a Moravian mission

In this new year, 2011, we may celebrate the 200th anniversary of a remarkable voyage of exploration.

Jonathan, an Inuit captain from Hopedale — together with his family and that of his son Jonas and some other Inuit — took two Moravian missionaries, Benjamin Gottlieb Kohlmeister (1756-1844) and Johann Georg Kmoch (1770-1857), from Okak to the bottom of Ungava Bay and safely back to Okak again.

Moravians, in establishing missions along the north coast of Labrador, had always wanted to evangelize and settle in Ungava Bay, but were ultimately prevented by logistical and personnel considerations, as well as the objections of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

They came closest to a ministry in Ungava Bay when they purchased the premises of Job Brothers of St. John’s at Port Burwell, and operated from 1904 to 1924 a mission station and trading store on Killinek Island (today’s Killiniq, Nunavut) on the extreme northern tip of the Labrador Peninsula.

The 1811 voyage

In the summer of 1811, Kohlmeister, the future superintendent of missions in Labrador, and fellow missionary Kmoch, with the encouragement of their superiors in Germany and England, entrusted their lives to the seafaring experience of a Moravian Inuk who had purchased a two-master in Chateau Bay.

They sailed from Okak along Labrador’s north coast, around the tip of the Labrador Peninsula into Ungava Bay, while the Europeans and Christian Inuit communicated their faith to northern Inuit they encountered along the way.

Jonathan, a native of Chateau Bay and the skipper of the boat that took the missionaries, and his wife Sybilla, were the earliest converts of the Moravian church in Hopedale, which had been established in 1782. Their Inuktitut names had been Kippinguk and Tukkekina before acquiring their Christian names on Dec. 12, 1784, when they were baptized by Brother William Turner in Hopedale.

Jonathan, the missionaries wrote, “was esteemed (as) one of the most skilful commanders on the whole coast of Labrador, and for many years has shown himself both able and willing to serve the missionaries in a variety of ways. The boat was his own property, and we considered him as the captain of the expedition.”

Yet, one year after the Ungava venture, Jonathan died in his boat on the journey from Hopedale to Okak and was buried in Nain, where his wife followed him in death that same year.

It was another Inuk, Uttakiyok, a native of Ungava, who, in 1811, expertly piloted Jonathan and the missionaries into areas still unexplored by Europeans. Entering

Abloriak Bay with the Torngat mountains in the background, Uttakiyok showed the missionaries “a wide and deep cavern, in shape like the gable end of a house, situated at the top of a precipice, in a black mountain, of a very horrid and dark appearance.”

In local tradition this cavern “was the dwelling-place of Torngak,” here understood as more than merely the guiding spirit of the shaman. In two solemn ceremonies — one at Kangertlualuksoak River, which the missionaries renamed George River, the other at the mouth of the Koksoak River, at a place named Pilgerruh (Pilgrim’s Rest) in German — they laid claim to land for possible future settlements in the name of King George III.

With solemnity, Kohlmeister and Kmoch raised tablets in both places “in presence of Uttakiyok and his family, as representatives of the people of Ungava, and of our own company, and hoisted the British flag alongside of it, while another was displayed at the same time in the boat.”

After their safe return, missionaries Kohlmeister and Kmoch published, in 1814, their “Journal of a Voyage from Okkak, on the Coast of Labrador, to Ungava Bay, Westward of Cape Chudleigh in London,” a journal that today is available online: www.mun.ca/rels/morav/texts/ungava/ungava.html.

The 2011 voyage

Now, 200 years after the original voyage of exploration, adventurer and travel writer Dennison Berwick, an experienced skipper and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, is planning to retrace the 1,500-mile journey in his sailboat Kuan Yin to commemorate the early n19th-century voyage of exploration by the Inuk Jonathan.

Berwick sees in the original exploration voyage as a positive collaboration of Inuit and Europeans. His projected  Voyage to Ungava is to be “an exploration of Inuit and European men and women who co-operated together in the early years of contact.”

Berwick, whose ship is wintering in Englee, hopes “to invite two Inuit crew to join this celebration of a remarkable achievement.”

Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Moravian church, Royal Geographical Society

Geographic location: Ungava Bay, Labrador, Hopedale Port Burwell Killinek Island Nunavut Germany England Chateau Nain Abloriak Bay Kangertlualuksoak River George River Koksoak River Okkak London Englee

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