Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum
A collection has recently been donated to the British Museum that throws light on two remarkable stories: how the Kalaallit people of Northwestern Greenland responded to Danish influence on their society during the early decades of the 20th century, and how one Englishman took it upon himself to explore their world.
The Englishman was David Haig-Thomas, educated at Eton and Cambridge, who while returning by boxcar from a fourth-placed rowing eight at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics stumbled across an old school friend named Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had soon persuaded Haig-Thomas to accompany him in a journey across the Ethiopian desert. A week into the expedition the pair had bitterly separated, Haig-Thomas left with serious injuries, a hefty bill and the sincere desire to travel as far as possible from the heat of Africa.
He swiftly enlisted as resident ornithologist on the Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition of 1934, organised by Edward Shackleton. The expedition ventured far into the Arctic, Haig-Thomas spending extended periods with the Kalaallit people of West Greenland, learning the Kalaallisut language. On his return to Britain he immediately began organising his own return expedition, raising commercial sponsorship for a party of geographers to map the far northern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago. His own role was to search for the skeleton of a large dinosaur rumoured to be somewhere in the region.
Haig-Thomas never found his skeleton, but he did spend many months exploring the frozen channels and islands of the far north, living off seal, walrus and bear meat and discovering a previously uncharted land which he named Haig-Thomas Island. During this time he was accompanied by his Kalaallit friend and guide, Ootah, who shared the long dog-sled journey with cheerful good-humour, even during the long periods when there was no food to be found. Haig-Thomas also became well acquainted with Ootah’s family and made many friends in the region, most especially among the local children.
Haig-Thomas returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. In his account of the expedition he wryly noted on the impending war that ‘whatever happened I had had a wonderful fifteen months in the Arctic, even if, in a few weeks’ time, I was riddled with machine-gun bullets.’ He joined the army, serving with No.42 Commando, a unit made up of polar specialists for service in Northern Norway. He was never deployed in the Arctic, instead accompanying the airborne assault on Normandy on 6 July 1944, armed with an oosik, an Inuit club made from a walrus’ penis bone. He was killed in action on the morning of D-Day in combat with German forces near the village of Bavent.
Shortly after his return to Britain in 1939, Haig-Thomas donated to the British Museum a small collection of archaeological finds discovered by workmen under an ancient house near Thule, North Greenland. It consists of fragments of bone and ivory tools, including the remains of a pair of bone snow-spectacles, dating to approximately 1200 CE. He left the remainder of the souvenirs from his trip at his family home in Essex, where it remained until this year, when his son Anthony generously donated it to the Museum.
This collection not only enables us to tell his father’s remarkable story, it also allows for an examination of the Kalaallit people during a time of great turmoil. There are 70 items in the collection, which can be broadly divided into three groups. The first consists of souvenirs: Danish travellers, missionaries and traders were not uncommon among the Inuit communities of West Greenland, and a thriving trade in souvenirs had sprung up. The collection includes an ivory letter-opener, several ivory snow-knives and a cribbage board carved from a walrus tusk. At the time, items of this kind were decried because, in the words of Danish archaeologist Morton Porsild, they would ‘find their way to museums, just where they ought not to be, as generally, with a few exceptions, they are devoid of all scientific value’, but in truth these souvenirs provide remarkably clear insight into the economic, stylistic and commercial preoccupations of the Kalaallit during this period.
Sometimes they demonstrate this directly. Among the collection is an incised walrus tusk featuring scenes of Inuit hunters and fishermen using combinations of traditional and modern equipment. This is the second grouping, consisting of traditional tools often utilising European technology in their manufacture: a wooden awl with an iron nail for a point, brown thread used to stitch bone tools together and ulu knives cut from steel saws. The Kalaallit were and remain an ingenious and adaptable people capable of utilising all available resources in their daily lives and this collection amply demonstrates this important facet of their society.
The third group directly reflects Haig-Thomas’ close friendship with the Kalaallit boys he lived alongside. Among the Inuit peoples, once a child could walk and talk they were considered a full member of the community, and children would be expected to participate in family activities. Boys would be given small bows and harpoons, items we might consider toys but which to them were of vital educational value. Mock hunts would teach boys the skills required to procure the food necessary to keep the family alive during the long cold winters, while their sisters would be given utensils for cooking and making clothing, learning alongside their mothers in the home. The Haig-Thomas collection includes numerous such small weapons and equipment, obtained from his friends during his long months of residency with the Kalaallit.
With his generous donation, Anthony Haig-Thomas has enabled the British Museum to tell two intertwined stories of Arctic exploration: that of his father and that of the resourceful, hardy and intelligent friends that he made.
For further reading, see Haig-Thomas’ books, I Leap Before I Look and Tracks in the Snow, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre.
The objects that form the Haig-Thomas collection can be studied through the Collection online.