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Jens Munk's Journey: A 400-Year Commemoration.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the visit by Danish explorer Jens Munk to the mouth of the Churchill River, making him one of the first Europeans to travel in the land that would become Manitoba. Eds.

On 9 May 1619, a worshipful dedication service was held in Christian IVs newly built church--Holmens Kirke in Copenhagen. The service was arranged for a group of 64 sailors and their families to bless the crew and ships before they started on their expedition. Their goal was to find the route to China and India by sailing a northwestern route. The hope was to reach their destination by Christmas. After the service, a procession took the participants down the canal to the two waiting ships.

This took place nine years after Henry Hudson was commissioned by the Muscovy company to find a northern route to China--with no luck. Hudson's crew mutinied and only a few of them made it back to England. Now Christian IV of Denmark-Norway was eager to try his luck in establishing a new trade route and perhaps establish a colony in North America. Indeed, King Christian IV was a king with ambitions.

For this expedition, he had chosen Jens Munk to be the admiral of his two ships, The Unicorn (Enhjorningen) and The Lamprey (Lamprenen). These two ships, a frigate with a crew of 48 and a yacht with a sixteen-member crew, were among the best of the king's ships and stocked with trade goods for the journey.

Captain Jens Munk was one of the best seamen in the kingdom. If anyone could navigate the northern waters it would be him. He had sailed several whaling expeditions north of Norway and successfully chased pirates in the North Atlantic. He knew Portuguese, English, Dutch, among other languages. He had time and again earned the respect of the crew that sailed with him. Christian IV also engaged two English pilots to assist Munk on the journey. Everything was so promising.

A year and a month later, on 4 June 1620, at "Munck's Winterhaven" (today's Churchill, Manitoba), Munk thought he was the last person alive. He wrote his testament:
In as much as I no longer have any hope of living in this world I
request for the sake of God if any Christian people should happen to
come upon this place that they bury my poor body in the ground, along
with the others who may be found here, receiving their reward from God
in Heaven. And further that this my journal may be forwarded to my
gracious Lord King (every word found herein is altogether truthful) in
order that my poor wife and children may obtain some benefit from my
great distress and miserable death. Herewith farewell to all the world
and my soul into the hands of the Almighty etc.. - Jens Munck

Certainly, things had not gone according to the plan. The English pilots miscalculated the route. When they reached the Big Sea (Hudson Bay), it was already September and the approaching winter made further progress impossible. They did not have clothing to withstand the Canadian winter, their food supply ran short, and vitamin deficiency (scurvy) ravaged their bodies. Munk wrote meticulously in his journal how, one by one, his crew succumbed to cold and disease. At first, they were able to bury the dead. However, as the days again began to lengthen, their strength declined proportionately. No one had any strength left, least of all to bury their fellow crew members.

Four days after Munk wrote his last will and testament on 8 June 1620, he opened his eyes and realized he was still alive. He left his berth to get outside in the sunshine since the stench of the dead bodies around him was unbearable. The sun warmed his poor body and, to his surprise, he saw two people on land. They turned out to be crew members whom he had written off. They had left The Unicorn, which the crew had made into their winter survival shelter.

The spring melt revealed berries and greens from the previous year. The three men collected them on all fours and ate whatever they could find. Within a few days, they started to gain a bit of strength. They set nets in the river and made fish soup with their catch. It was the only thing they could manage after losing almost all their teeth. By 16 July 1620, they managed to get The Lamprey afloat and stocked it with a few supplies and commenced the long journey home--three very weak men in a boat meant for a sixteen-man crew. There was little hope of making it back alive.

But they did. After 68 days at sea, through North Atlantic gales that tore at their sails and masts, they eyed land on 20 September 1620. It was the coast of Norway, near Bergen. Munk reported his arrival to local governor Knud Gyldenstjerne, who happened to be an old nemesis. Three days later, Gyldenstjerne had Munk thrown in jail. There had been a brawl in one of Bergen's parlours and Munk who was "responsible for his crew's behaviour" had to pay with imprisonment. However, rumours reached Christian IV in Copenhagen and the king demanded Munk's safe return to Copenhagen. By 20 December 1620, Munk was home.

Life away had been hard. Coming home was even harder. His wife had found a new lover. The King demanded that Munk go back to Churchill to fetch The Unicorn and take a group of settlers with him to establish a Danish colony. The return trip did not happen. Despite great rewards to lure settlers to the adventure, no one in the entire kingdom was willing to endure the journey. And no sailors wanted to crew with Munk after the earlier fiasco.

Christian IV soon had reason to forget about a northern trade route. He entered the Thirty Years' War and deployed Jens Munk as naval officer in several sea blockades and battles. In 1628, Munk was wounded and brought back to Pilestraede in Copenhagen, where he died on 28 June. He did not get a naval funeral, instead being buried by his family, a second wife Margrethe Tagesdatter and five children: Jens, Knud, Erik, Cathrine, and Adrian.

Today, Munk's handwritten journal from his trip to northern Manitoba is kept at Copenhagen's Royal Library. It was set to print in 1624 under the Latin title Navigatio Septentrionalis (Navigating the Northern Waters). The journal was translated into English in 1897 by C. C. A. Gosch and published by the Hakluyt Society, London and titled Danish Arctic Expeditions 1605-20. The journal is available online at It was also published in Canada by the Royal Ontario Museum in 1980 and edited by W. A. Kenyon as The Journal of Jens Munk 1619-20.

by Otto Christensen

Gimli, Manitoba

Originally from Aabybro, Denmark, Otto Christensen is a retired Lutheran pastor and spiritual care coordinator, and a member of the Jens Munk Commemorative Steering Committee under The Federation of Danish Associations in Canada. In early 2020, he will curate an exhibition on Jens Munk for the New Iceland Heritage Museum at Gimli.
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Title Annotation:Pageant
Author:Christensen, Otto
Publication:Manitoba History
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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