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British Arctic Air Route 1930-1 and the East Greenland Expedition (Pan Am) 1932

Gino Watkins led these two expeditions to Greenland, although sadly was to die on the second expedition in a kayaking accident. The aim of these expeditions was to survey and record meteorological measurements so that the feasibility of an air route over the Arctic could be ascertained.

Both expeditions had extensive contact with the Greenlandic population who were living near their base. They met many of the same people on their second expedition and were even able to show them some of the film footage they had recorded on the previous trip.

The first expedition in 1930-31 recruited three local women and a man to work as servants for the group. The women would cook, wash and sew in return for two cigarettes per day:

“The Eskimos are often considered the filthiest and most benighted of the races. We, who know some of them, think they are the most charming people. Nothing ever came amiss to the female servants, who were always willing to learn a new form of bondage; and when the boy was given some particularly unpleasant task to perform, he bounded off as if it was just the thing he had been longing to do all day … the servants achieved a very fair standard of efficiency and this was owed to the taming and training that they received in their first month from the wireless officer.” (Lindsay 1932).

Percy Lemon, the wireless officer, spent many days demonstrating the tasks they wished the servants to perform, so that they could copy what he had done. In addition, he learnt indigenous words and taught the Greenlanders some English words. Importantly, he mastered the phrase ‘what is your word for this?’ which sped up the exchange of knowledge considerably. However, their relationships with the women were not strictly employer-employee:

“We systematically spoilt the girls who worked in the house. Most of us were on very playful terms with them, and their company added considerably to the pleasures of the Base.” (Lindsay 1932).

The men also socialised with the women and it is known that some of the expedition developed sexual relationships with the indigenous women. However, not all of the men in the party approved of this situation and some felt it was inappropriate behaviour.

Controversy aside, this expedition was one of the first to learn and use indigenous techniques and methods. All the men learnt to successfully use the Greenlandic kayak and developed skills for seal hunting. They became so proficient at seal hunting from a kayak that Watkins intended to supply his 1932 expedition with food entirely by seal hunting. In fact, Watkins became so proficient at kayaking and seal hunting that he was mistaken for an indigenous man. During the 1932 expedition, the men worked particularly closely with one local man, Enoch, and his family. Enoch was renowned for his hunting skills and spent time passing his knowledge onto the expedition:

“Enoch would stand no nonsense from Rymill or me when we were out hunting together: if we missed a seal we would not be allowed to forget it; things must be done in the traditional way or not at all.” (Chapman 1934).

When Watkins was tragically to die in a kayaking accident, many of the indigenous people he had met on his travels mourned his death.

This expedition marks a real shift in the way explorers viewed indigenous technologies. Apart from following in Nansen’s footsteps in adopting the sledge and snowshoe designs he adapted from Inuit versions during the periods in whih he overwintered with them, few explorers had wholeheartedly examined and embraced Inuit survival techniques. Watkins’ final expedition, for which the food source was based entirely upon Inuit hunting methods, marks the start of changing views with regard to the Inuit and their techniques.

Today, the expertise and ability of the Inuit people to survive in such a challenging environment is highly regarded. However, the colonial period has forever changed the lives of Inuit in the Arctic region. As methods are no longer passed down to younger generations as a matter of course, many now fear their traditional techniques will be lost. The colonial period has forever changed the way that the Inuit live and, whilst many of their survival methods are no longer as crucial as they once were, they are invaluable skills to have in the Arctic region.
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