B. The ice conditions and climatic
variations in Greenland
Even in the age of the Sagas and the Vikings there existed an ice-bearing current on the east and northeast coasts of Greenland. But the current in those days cannot be compared to the present one, neither in extent nor in its importance to navigation. This fact I attribute to a more vivid circulation in the Irminger Sea in former days. According to the researchers of the Danish Ingolf expedition, the bulk of the Gulfstream branch known as the Irminger current turns westward at the entrance to the Denmark Strait and runs along the east coast of Greenland forming the underlayer of the ice-bearing polar current. According to Hambergs investigation in 1883 this warm underlayer melts the ice of the polar current and the amount of drift-ice on the eastcoast of Cape Dan in lat. 65 1/2º will vary with the strength of the Irminger current. South of Cape Farewell the ice turns west and northwest collecting outside the sosuthwestern coast of Greenland (Juliane-haabs Distrikt). Here 8-9 centuries ago the Icelandic colonists found an open sea. Now it is blocked by ice all summer because the Irminger current is too weak to melt de ice before it reaches Cape Farewell.
A small increase in the temperature of the under layer, or a stronger influx of Gulf stream water, or a stronger oscillation in the border-stratum causing a more vivid contact of the waters of the two currents would scatter the drift-ice so that the neighbourhood of Cape Farewell would be free from ice and the deep sounds between that island and the main land open to navigation. Later we shall see the importance of these sounds for the journeys of the Viking-settlers.
The formation of the coast in the lat. of Cape Dan causes the drift-ice to scatter after the passage of the Denmark Sound. The scattering of the ice and the action of the Irminger current which still in its full force crosses over from Iceland to Greenland makes the neighbourhood of Angmangsalik (Cape Dan) more accessible from the east than the southernmost point of Greenland<./p>
Nordenskiöld was the first in modern time to profit by this when in 1883 he broke through the thin ice-layer outside Cape Dan and anchored his ship "the Sophia" in King's Oscar's harbour. (lat. 65º 35'). The stronger development of the Irminger current a thousand years ago brought two important consequences:
- The climate of Österbygden (the eastern settlement) was more temperate because the sea coast was free from ice, whereas the district of Julianehaab has an ice-bound sea in front and the inland-ice behind.
- As the ice did not go round Cape Farewell and enter Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and the Labrador-current were also relatively free from ice. This again influenced the climate of New Foundland and North America. It is also probable that the warm under current which runs through Davis Strait, like the Irminger current and the rest of the western Gulf stream-branches, was otherwise developed in those days. In other words: that the polar ice then melted at higher latitude than now.
At the end of the Middle-ages a change came in these conditions, which can only be explained by an alteration in the oceanic circulation. Such changes in the oceanic circulation will of course be more perceptible in the border-areas where the waning Gulf stream branch contents with currents of the northern origins as in Cattegat, the Baltic, Baffin Bay and at the south-point of Greenland. It is inconceivable that a state of equilibrium lasting through thousands of years should exist in those parts. Even now the conditions, especially the ice conditions, vary greatly from year to year in these seas. In Greenland there are good ice-years and bad ones. Now I will show the conditions in south Greenland in a good year like 1883 when Nordenskiöld on the Sophia landed at Fredriksdal and penetrated into the sounds north of Cape Farewell which had not been navigated by European ships since the days of the Vikings. Then I will give an instance of the conditions and the route of navigation in a bad year like 1902 as described by the Danish archeologist Captain Bruun.
Finally I will draw a comparison between these conditions and those which prevailed a thousand years ago when Iceland and Greenland were colonized and the Norsemen discovered America.
In our time the east coast of Greenland from 65º lat. to Cape Farewell is almost inaccessible.
In good years the pack-ice may form a narrow belt along the coast. But the pressure of this ice-girdle, which is packed close to the coast whenever the wind blows in that direction, is almost more formidable to navigators than in bad years when the ice spreads for miles over the sea but generally leaves an open channel along the shore. This channel was used by the Danish expeditions under Graah, Holm and Garde o.a. Nansen too used this channel to get to the point from whence he started on his ice-wandering after he had landed on the drift-ice and carried his boats across it, just as they did in cases of emergency in ancient times, as is told in Kungaspegeln (the King Mirror) from the 13th century. Doubtless 600-700 years ago it was at times dangerous and even impossible to penetrate to the east coast of Greenland if it happened to be a bad ice-year.
But it must be remembered that in the Viking-age such years were exceptions and not the rule as is now the case. In spite of the strong tidal currents the sounds between Cape Farewell and the mainland are now always blocked by drift-ice which is crammed into their eastern inlets by the polar current outside. West of Cape Farewell there is the great fjord-district with the settlements of the ancient "Eystribyggd". All summer the Bay is blocked by drift-ice, and navigation is generally impossible till authum and then only by circuitous routes as shown by the dotted lines in the map of plate 11.
Circumstances being exceptionally favourable, Nordenskiöld was able to get to Julianehaab as early as the 17th June 1883. It is generally necessary to wait till late in summer and, working through the ice-girdle, make the coast by the northliest route through Nunarsiut Sound then go south-wards on an inner route along the coast of Julianehaab and Fredriksdal which is the farthest accessible settlement. From here the expeditions of Wallö, Giesecke, Graah, Holm and Garde in Eskimo boats penetrated through the sounds north of Cape Farewell: the Ikerasak, the Ikek, the Tunua, the Kipisak a. o. which, though never sounded, were found to be navigable up to their eastern inlets, where the ice of the polar current was encountered. In spite of the favourable conditions in 1883 Nordenskiöld had no better luck. He was turned back by the ice when trying to penetrate through the sounds and was unable to reach the east coast. Such are the conditions in a good ice-year. The ice-charts of 1903 and Captain Bruun's description of his journey to Greenland in the summer 1903 show how the navigation must be performed in a bad year.
"Cape Farewell as usual lay shrouded by heavy mist from our sight (in May 1903). We put into Davis Sound and very soon encountered the great ice. Having made Cape Farewell you follow the ice-border till south Nunarsäut, at the earliest, you may break through the ice. South of that headland you change your course making the coast in a curved line. "Commander Norman says: "East of Cape Farewell the ice presses continuously on to the coast so that it must be regarded as impossible to reach it from the south. West of Cape Farewell the ice also presses on to the coast, part of the year, and makes navigation difficult, but as a rule this only concerns the harbours in Julianehaab Bay, for as soon as Nunarsiut (Cape Desolation) is passed the current heaves the coast and the ice begins to scatter, so that only in bad years and after continuous sea-wind the sailor will be troubled by it. "
Great indeed is the difference between the experiences of those modern travellers and those of the Vikings as told in the Sagas. Eric Röde's discovery of Greenland is described in this manner:
"Erik came from the sea to land at the middle-glacier and the place called "Blåserk" (Black Sark) from thence he went south along the coast to see if the land was habitable. The first year he wintered on Erik's Island. In the following spring he went to Erik's fjord and settled there. That summer he journeyed to the western Wilderness… The second winter he spent on Eriks-holme at Nvartsgnipa, but the third summer he went north as far as Snefjeld and into the Rafnsfjord; he then thought that the inmost creek of the Eriksfjord lay just opposite to the place he had reached. He then turned back and spent the third winter on Eriks Island in the mouth of the Erik's fjord. "
It is inconceivable that Eric should have carried out this program without the greatest hindrance from the ice in the Julianehaab bay if the ice-conditions had been the same then as now. But if drift-ice existed in these parts in Eric's time, the Sagas do not mention it. Nor is it mentioned by any Sagas from the Viking-age.
As my knowledge of the Icelandic Sagas is not sufficient to authorize such a statement, I asked for information from Professor Finnur Jonsson of Copenhagen in this matter. By Professor Jonsson's leave I here give an extract of the letter containing his answer to my question:
"With regard to your question I can tell you that there is no mention of ice in the original records of the journeys to Wineland. They go from Greenland to Wineland as if there was no question of difficulties from the ice. Indeed there is no hint at all of such hindrances on the coast of the ancient Österbygd. This has always struck me when thinking of the present conditions. The spread of colonization from Ikigait (Herjolfsnes) up to Erik's fjord has always appeared more natural to me, provided they could get into the inner fjords directly from the sea. I think it would was much likely that the colonization should have spread southwards from the Erik's fjord to Ikegait, by land. Judging from present conditions, however, we must surmise this to have been the case. "
G. Brynjulfsson in a lecture to Nordisk Oldskrifts Forening 1871, pointed out that the colonists in Greenland experienced little difficulty from the ice in their hunting expeditions to Baffin Bay. In Nordr-setudrapa (the 11th century) there is no mention of ice in these northern parts though dangers arising from wind and waves are dwelt upon. The Norsemen possessed two fishing- and hunting-places: Greipar and Furdudustrandir on Baffin Bay. South of these was Helluland. He mentions the rune-stone that was found on an island 25 miles north of Upernivik. This stone was put up by Erling Sivatsson "Loverdag for Gangdag" (25th of April, 1135), viz. at a time of year when this place is inaccessible nowadays. (The deciphering of this rune-stone is however disputed). Björn Jonsson's version of the Hausbook (but not the Hauksbook as it now exists) describes an adventurous journey in 1266 or 1271 to Smith's Sound and further on an open sea. Eskimoes were first encountered at Smith's sound (Krogsfjordsheden?). Their invasion into Greenland appears to have commenced in the 14th or at the end of the 13th century.
Reading the ancient records in chronological order we find:
- That the Sagas proper from the 9th to the close of the 12th century never mention that the Norsemen were hindered by ice in their journeys to Österbygden while still adhering to the old navigation route "the Eriksstefna". Eric himself spent 3 successive winters on the islands in the Julianehaab bay and starting from thence every summer explored the country. This cannot be explained otherwise than by assuming that the polar ice did not reach Cape Farewell and the west coast of Greenland in those days.
- In the "Kungaspegel" from the 13th century we are told that those who sail for Greenland encounter much ice in the sea. Navigators are warned not to make the east-coast too soon on account of the ice; still there is no new route recommended then.
The only mention of icebergs I can find in the older writings is from the Kungaspegel and runs thus:
"There is yet another kind of ice in that sea (the Greenland Sea) which is of different shape and called "falljaccla" (falling glacier) by the Greenlanders. It has the appearance of a mountain rising out of the sea and it never mixes with other ice but keeps to itself. "
Considering the part ice-bergs play in the accounts of all modern travellers, we must conclude that in the Viking-age they were very rarely seen on the south-coast of Greenland.
On the east-coast matters were different. Even in the 10th century the east-coast of Greenland was a wilderness, the refuge of a few outlaws who settled there. The landing was dangerous on account of the ice, partly drifting down from the Denmark Sound and partly formed by the calving of the glaciers on the coast. In the "Floamanna Saga" we are told of Thorgils, and Icelander who in 998 went to Greenland to visit Eric Röde but was wrecked on the east-coast where he was hospitably received by his countryman Rolf, an outlaw, who had settled there. After many adventures Thorgils and Rolf at last reached a sound which led to the "Österbygd". In the words of the Saga:
"peir fara sudr fyrir land ok koma i fjord og lögdu i laegi. "
According to the commentor of Gr. Hist. Mindesm. The translation is that they sailed "round the headland", meaning Cape Farewell. This translation is quite unwarranted. The sound may as well have been the neighbouring Ikek or Allumlengri as any of the more distant ones west of Cape Farewell. The Saga tells further how, having anchored, they saw a ship putting into de fjord from the sea which kept the same course. It was Thorsten Hvide, the foster-father and stepfather of Thorgils, who had sailed from Norway and Iceland in search of Thorgils. Together they went to Eric Röde.
That 150 years later in the time of Ivar Bårdson, or at the end of the 14th century, the old sailing-route was abandoned and the ships took a south western course to avoid the ice.
These authentic statements from various times show the gradual deterioration in the ice-conditions of Greenland which went on for centuries till at last in 1300 and 1400 the Polar current had surrounded Iceland and Greenland with its ice and even blocked up the west coast of the latter in summer.
Since then the east-coast of Greenland has remained inaccessible and all expeditions sent to rediscover the "Österbygd" have failed.
With regard to Eric Röde's journey after "he came to land at the middle-jökul and the place called Blåserk"
and took up his winter quarters on Eric's Island, the manuscript before cited only says that he went south along the coast. It is not mentioned whether he went round Cape Farewell or by any of the sounds north of Eggerts Island. If we assume these sounds to have been navigable then, it is probable that he went by them for it is said that "Eric went to see if the land was habitable there. "
There are many versions of Eric Rödes Saga. The interpretation here is from Gr. Hist. Mindesm. II pag. 686 which omits the addendum contained in later versions: "han siglde vestr um Hvarf"
. The oldest manuscripts do not say that Eric sailed round Hvarf. The significance of this omission becomes evident when studying the "Eriksstefna" (Eric's sailing route) in Björn Jonsson's annals taken from an ancient manuscript, the "Groenlandiae vetus chorographia à afgömlu kveri", Gr. Hist. Mindesm. III pag. 226.
This is probably the oldest sailing direction in existence for the course to Greenland. From an addendum by Björn Jonsson "there unto came Erik the Red when farthest"
it is evident that this old sailing direction concerns the Eriksstefna. This manuscript also has several interpretations contained in the glossary to this chapter in Gr. Hist. Mindesm. They are so important to the rest of this paper that I have obtained permission from the Librarian Dr. Kaalund, to print a facsimile-photogram of the original, i. e. of Björn Jonsson copy of the ancient record:
1. It is not quite clear if Eric spent two or three winters in this district (see Finnur Jonsson's Grönland's gamla Topografi" In "Maddeleser om Grönland, 7, p. 270)?
The critical passage in this manuscript are the words:
"par er stjarna, er Hafhverf heitir"
There are three way of reading these words.
The third version is to take the passage literally without improvements. Then it should read:
- The canonic version in Gr. Hist Mindesm. is founded on the assumption that the word "stjarna" is wrongly copied and the original had "straumr" (stream) instead. This current should have borne the name Hafhverf. That name undoubtedly fits the neighbourhood of Cape Farewell. The south part of Greenland consists of an archipelago of big islands, Eggerts Island, with Cape Farewell being the outermost . This island is surrounded by strong currents and vortices on its south and still more on its north side facing the Ikek and Tunua sounds. In these straits the tidal currents are so violent that the ice-blocks are whirled along in such a way that the Danish explorer, Captain Holm, characterizes these currents as maelstroms.
Holm started from Ilua by boat the 1st of July 1881 and passed through the sound Ikerasak 2 (Danish) miles in length. The ice whirled through the sound with great velocity. The manner of advancing was to keep to the leeward of a foreland waiting for a rift to open in the ice; "for as quickly as it opened it closed again". "At high water the current set southwest, at low water northwards. There was never a moment still water. " Holm then rowed through the broad Ikek and through Tunua of which he writes "big maelstroms in Tunnua". Going back he passed outside of Eggerts Island in calm weather and west of Cape Farewell outside the fjord Kangia again met with strong "maelstroms" in the sea.
1. In all (modern) text books Cape Farewell is mentioned as the south point of Greenland because the sounds north of the islands are now closed. In the text of the old parchment it is otherwise; "Herjulfsnaes is most south" which is true.
- The second version contained in the Glossary to Chorographia vetus etc. , in Gr. Hist. Mindesm. is also based on the assumption that the word "strjarna" is wrong and ought to be "Stjórn á" (= steering on). The passage then reads:
"Greenland faces southwest. Farthest south is Herjulfsnäs … etc. You shall steer on (the place) which is called (Hafhverf on the eastside of the country. Then Spalsund, then Drangö, then (comes) Sölvadal which is the settlement farthest east …" a. s. o.
"Greenland faces south west. Farthest south is Herjulfsnäs, but Hvarfsgnipa next west to it. (Thereunto came Eric Röde farthest and then said that he had come outside of the innermost of the Eric's fjord). There is a star (beacon) in the place which is called Hafhverf on the east side of the country, then Spalsund, then Drangö, then (comes) Sölvadal, which is the settlement farther east, then Tofafjord, then Melrakkanäs, then Herjolfsnäs abbey a. s. o. "
Should Björn Jonsson's copy of the ancient manuscript be incorrect (which I do not believe), conjecture n:o 2, stjórn à instead of stjarna would be the simplest and most plausible.
If accepted it evidently contains the key to the mystery of the Eriksstefna. The course most likely to be taken by Eric who came from the north and went south to see if the country was habitable, was just to steer on Hafhverf on the east side of the country ("er Hafhverf heitir a austanverdu landi"), then take the first sound that opened to the interior, Spalsund, past Drangö to Sölvadal, a. s. o. This last excursion into the Iluafjord, where later the large settlements of Skage and Sölvadal arose, is certainly no shortcut to Herjulfsnäs, the shortest road to which would be by the sound at Pamiagdluk (the road taken by Nordenskiöld in 1883). But to Eric who was exploring the country, it was only natural to penetrate through a sound which opened upon the big Iluafjord. This conjecture "stjórn à" would perhaps be most in favour of the hypothesis I wish to indicate. But in the two years I have spent reading up the old literature of Iceland, Greenland and America I have been so much impressed by the authenticity of the Sagas that I have decided to take their text literally. We should attempt to understand their meaning not to alter their text.
What kind of beacon is meant by "stjarna" must of course be a matter of conjecture. The simplest would be to assume that in the prime of the colonies, when busy intercourse was kept up with other countries, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, some kind of sea-mark with the contours of a star was put up on an island at the entrance to the Ikek sound to guide sailors into this sound, the biggest inlet from the east to the Eystrabyggd. According to my hypothesis the sounds north of Eggerts Island (Cape Farewell ) were free from ice and open to navigation in the 10th century. It is safe to assume that Ikek is the Spalsund of the old to which you came having made the sea-mark (stjarna) at Hafhverf. It is probable that there was a kind of sea-mark in the time of the colonies, for a as a fact another was put up after their downfall on the high mountain Hvidserk by the governor of Iceland, Didrik Pining (in 1478). This was to warn sailors of the Greenland coast because of the piracy of the Eskimoes.
The historic record of this was discovered by Björnbor and L. Bobé in Copenhagen 1909. The accompanying maps are reproduced from Nansen's Taakeheimen, pag. 380 and 381.
In Gourmont's map we see Iceland with Hekla and Snefellsnäs, the usual starting point for Greenland and right opposite the mountain Hvitserk carrying a compass-star and the inscription "Mons excelsus Withzerc appellatus in cujus summitate index Marinus factus est a duobus piratis Pininge & Porthorst in nautarum protectionem a Grundtlandia."
Pining and Porthorst are called pirates because later they too were suspected of piracy and condemned. Geographers and historians have never been able to agree as to the exact situation of the mountain Hvitserk. This mountain is always given as the first landmark on the way to Greenland. Finnur Jonsson who has been most active in localizing the ancient colonies holds Mount Hvitserk to be identical to Cape Farewell. I do not share his view because Hvitserk, which may be the "Blåserk" mentioned by the old Sagas, is expressly described as a high mountain and later records as a "jökel" i. e. an ice-clad mountain. In my opinion the name should apply to one of the lofty nunatakes that rise out of the ice north of Cape Farewell. I will go more fully into this matter when discussing the ancient records containing the directions for navigation between Iceland, Norway and Greenland. It seems important, however, that Finnur Jonsson too thinks to locate Hvitserk in the vicinity of the old straits that led to "Österbygd".
There is a tendency now to underrate the intercourse and means of communication in bygone ages. Professor O. Montelius has caused this view to be modified by bringing facts to light which show that even a thousand years before the Viking-age an eager intercourse was kept up between England, Sweden and Denmark across the North Sea. Eric Röde's Saga shows the national character to have been the same as now at least as regards the tendency to emigrate.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries a strong emigration took place to Iceland and Greenland. It was to the interest of Eric Röde to encourage this tendency. The year after his return a Viking-fleet numbering 25 ships with colonists on board sailed for Greenland. They carried cattle, building material and household goods. Probably each ship carried 30-40 human beings. By and by the settlement of Österbygden numbered 190 farms, 12 churches, 2 monasteries, and one bishop-see. The less important settlement of Vesterbygden numbered 90 farms. At the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century the European civilization in Greenland was wiped out by an invasion of the aboriginal population.
The colonists in the Vesterbygd were driven from their homes and probably migrated to America leaving behind their cattle in the fields. So they were found by Ivar Bårdsson steward to the bishop of Gardar on his official journey thither in 1342. The colonists of the Österbygd succumbed after a hard struggle sometime after the year 1418. Their houses and churches were destroyed by fire as the ruins still tetify. (Finnur Jonsson). According to Escimoe traditions the last of the colonists fled to the east coast and there succumbed. After the destruction of the colonies the Escimoes appear to have taken up piracy attacking and sinking the English, Portuguese and Dutch whalers that visited the south coast.
The Escimoe invasion must not be regarded as a common raid. It was the transmigration of a people and like other big movements of this kind impelled by altered conditions of nature, in this case the alterations of climate caused by the advance of the ice. For their hunting and fishing the Escimoes require an at least partially open arctic sea. The seal, their principal prey, cannot live where the surface of the sea is entirely frozen over. The cause of the favourable climatic and ice-conditions in the Viking-age was, according to my hypothesis that that the ice melted at a higher lat. in the arctic seas.
The Escimoes then lived further north in Greenland and North America. When the climate deteriorated and the sea which gave them their living was closed by ice the Escimoes had to find a more suitable neighbourhood. This they found in the land colonized by the Norsemen whom they attacked and finally annihilated. The description in the old records of the cruelties of the Escimoes Nansen simply rejects because the disposition of this people for the two centuries past since the time of Hans Egede has been noted for its mildness and gentleness. A glance at the Olai Magni map, however, shows that they were regarded in quite another light in the 15th and 16th centuries. La Peyrère in his Relation de Groenland (1647) characterizes them as being treacherous and wild. Their conquest in the 14th century appears to have brought out quite different qualities in them. The survivors of Hudson's third expedition 1610-1612 were treacherously assaulted and murdered on an island by the Escimoes in North Greenland.
The governor in Iceland attempted to warn sailors of their piracy by erecting a star-shaped beacon on mount Hvitserk. The Escimoes appear to have made use of the old water-ways on the east-coast for their piracy. Thus these sounds became doubly dangerous both on account of the ice and of the pirates. The Escimoes in their kayaks even went as far as Europe. Now and again it happened that an Escimoe with his kayak and fishing gear was captured off the Norwegian or Scottish coast. Reliques of these strange visitors are still to be seen in museums.
Such is the testimony of the chronicles when taken literally with no alterations in their text. The only explanation of such a situation would be to admit that the ice-conditions have changed signally in historic time.
Reading the old passage or substituting "stjórn à" for "stjarna", the result would be the same in both cases. Viz: that the passage describes the route taken by Eric Röde on his voyage of discovery, the same course being taken afterwards by all vessels in the first centuries after the colonization of Greenland.
The "Eriksstefna" guided the sailor to make the land at the big glacier Blasärk (later Hvitserk), to put into the archipelago at the extreme south-end, where the great Maelstroms, "the Hafhverf", were met with and guided by the star-shaped beacon find his way to the eastern settlements Skage and Sölvadal on the Iluafjord, by Spalsund (Ikek) past Drangö, then by Tofafjord to the chief port and trading place of Greenland, Sand and Herjulfsnäs; then onwards past the towering headland of Hvarfsgnipa on the island Semersok where the route branched off to the big fjords of the interior, the Ericsfjord a. o. into the very heart of the colony.
I will now show how the local names mentioned in the ancient records can be identified with those of the present from "Hafhverf a austanverdu landi" up to "Hvarfsgnipa" which Finnur Jonsson has proved to be the Cape Egede or Kangek of the present day. In order to do this I must refer you to the map by Finnur Jonsson of the Eystribygd in Greenland contained in part 20 of Medd. from Greenland.
In the Viking-age there were two navigable sounds used by vessels coming from the east or northeast. One is the present Allumlengri, 9 danish miles in length, which owing to its name is easily identified as the present Ikerasarsuak. The second which the vessels comes having made Hagfverf must correspond to the broad Ikek sound which thus is identical to the Spalsund of the Eriksstefna. Then came Drangö. This Finnur Jonsson thinks should be easy to identify because of its name, Drangey = high peaked island, which is hardly possible to mistake when studying the topographic curves of the islands in these sounds from the Danish admiralty charts. I will also quote Nordenskiöld's description of these sounds in his "Den andra Dicksonska Expeditionen till Grönland 1883!, page 404.
"The scenery was here very grand. The narrow straits were surrounded by lofty mountain peaks now almost snowless sculptured into the most fantastic shapes, some resembling old ruins, some fortifications. Now and again we caught a glimpse beyond them of the bluish white crest of some glacier in the interior. "
Judging from the topographic curves of the map it seems probable that the Drangö of the Eriksstefna is identical with the island that forms the western shore of the sound between the Ikek and the Iluafjord where the mountain peak Umiagsiut, 2790 feet in height, rises sharply from the shore.
In Jonsson's map Sölvadal is found on the Iliuafjord. There too is the Tofafjord while Herjolfsnäs with the abbey is found where the present Igikait and Fredriksdal are situated. The fjords of the Österbygd north of Cape Farfewell are also enumerated, though in reverse order (from west to east), in the record by Iva Bårdson. Here I quote his own words as they are rendered by F. Jonsson:
Having mentioned Herjolfsnäs and the trading center Sand the description proceeds:
"Item the Easter Dorpe of Groneland lyeth East from Hernoldsnaes hooke, but near it is called Skagen fjord and is a great village. Item, from Skagen fjord East, lyeth A haben called Beare fjord; it is not dwelt in. In the mouth thereof lyeth a Riffe, so that great ships cannot harbor in it. Item there is a great abundance of whales: and there is a great fishing for the killing of them there; nut not without the Bishops consent which keep the same for the benefit of the Cathedral Church. In the haven is a great Swalth: and when the tide doth runne out, all the Whales do runne into de sayd Swalth.
Item, East of Beare fjord, lyeth another Haven called Allabong Sound and it is at the mouth narrow but further in, very wide: The length whereof is such, that the end thereof is not yet known. There runneth no Streame. It lyeth full of little Iles. Fowle and Oxen are there common; and it is playne Land on both sides, growne over with green Grass.
Item East from the Icie Mountagne lyeth an Haven called fenderbothen; so named, because in Saint Olafes men, with others: and those that were saved did burie those that were drowned, and on their Graves did set great stone Crosses, which we see at this day.
Item, somewhat more East toward the Icie Mountagne, lyeth a high Land called Corse Hought, upon which they hunt white bears, but not without the Bishops leave, for it belonged to the Cathedral Churc, and thence more Easterly, men see nothing but ice and Snow, both by Land and Water. "
The Fenderbothen haven on the east coast has not yet been identified. The place appears to have been much frequented in the 10th century but only as a haven of refuge where shipwrecked crews were brought ashore and the bodies of those who lost their lives on the dangerous east coast were recovered and buried in consecrated ground. In the Saga of Lik-Lodin it is told "how Lik-Lodin (Corpse-Lodin) got his by-name because he often in summer ransacked the northern wilderness and brought to church the dead men he there found in caves and mountain clefts" to which they had come from the ice or the shipwrecks, but with them were usually carved runes telling of their adventures and sufferings. In another Saga about Lik-Lodin it is told that he brought the bodies of Finn Fegin and his crew from “Finnbbudir east of the glaciers in Greenland”. . In Nansen's version, pag. 217 from which this note is taken, this is said to have occurred some time before the downfall of Harald Hårdråde in 1066. Similar accounts are told from the 12th century of ship wrecks on the east coast near Hvitserk. (Einar Sokkason 1129, Ingimund 1189).
Probably Fenderbothen (Finnbudir) was what we should call an outpost lying north of the eastern inlets of Allumlengri and Spalsund near mount Hvitserk. From the Saga about Asmund Kastanrazi who visited Finnbudir in 1189 on his voyage to Iceland, we see that the haven was used by merchant-men as late as the end of the 12th century. It is difficult to understand how, with this testimony from bygone days, anyone who by experience knows that "The climate and ice conditions in Greenland are the same now as of old. "
The local description by Ivar Bårdson completes the ancient sailing direction and gives a clear though somewhat incomplete notion as to the extension eastward Österbydg and of some of its inlets, f. inst. the Allumlengri and the Bearefjord. The results of Holm's expedition in 1881 have settled beyond doubt that the latter is identical with the sound Itivdliak. Holm says: "On the east coast of the big island east of Ilua there is a dwelling place called Igdlorsuatsikit. There is a sound to the north from this place very narrow and bordered by precipitous mountain-sides of fantastic shapes. The northern inlet to this sound is cut off by a barrier of blunt edged stones, the Itivdliak, and falls dry at low-tide". This then is the Bearefjord of Ivar Bårdson with the reef that prevented big vessels to enter excepted at spring tide. Since this reef, according to Holm, still falls dry at low-tide, we may conclude that the elevation of the south-coast of Greenland has not altered perceptibly in the last 5 centuries. Geographically the sounds have not altered since the time of the Vikings, but in their hydrographical state there is a change as the fishery conditions indicate.
According to A. Jensen the Hellefisk , the Hakval , and a special kind of cod are found in nearly every fjord in South Greenland. The migratory salmon, the halibut and sea-cod (Gadus calligaris) again are only occasional visitors to certain shoals off the Greenland coast and to those fjords into which the warm water of the deeper layers in Davis sounds can penetrate 3. In the other fjords the cold water of the polar current prevails in the deep layer.
In 1883 A. Hamber investigated the hydrographic state of the Amistok fjord, in August the result of which is seen in this section. Our boreal fishes cannot exist in fjords of this hydrographic type. Knowing that in old times a great cod-fishing was carried on Österbygd and even at Gunbjörnskär, we must conclude that the ice-conditions were not favourable then.
I shall now consider the effect of the ice conditions on the climate of Greenland. Since the advance of the drift-ice round Cape Farewell to the west coast of Greenland the former colonies Vesterbygden and Österbydgn are wedged in between two ice-areas, the sea-ice and the inland-ice. This fact alone is sufficient to account for the deterioration of the climate of Greenland. Those who with Nansen hold, that no change has occurred since the age of the Vikings will discredit the description in the ancient records of the fertility and cultivation of the land. Thus Ivar Bårdssons statement that:
"Item in Groneland runneth great Streams; and there is much Snow and Ice: but it is not so cold as it is in Iceland or Norway.
Item, there grow on the high Hills Nuts and Acorns, fruit of trees, which are as apples and good to eate. There groweth also the best wheate, that can grow in the whole Land. " (is regarded by Nansen as sheer nonsense concocted from old legends about Winland. )
We must remember that the Österbygd of Greenland is in the same lat. , as the Hardanger and the Sognefjord of Norway and that in the interior of these fjords there are farms situated immediately below the greatest glacier in Europe, the Jostedalsbrae. Yet they ripen excellent fruit, apples, cherries, etc. Even now the fertility of the Österbygd surprises those who visit Greenland as Nordenskiöld among other affirms. Before the ice blocked the coast the climate of these fjords must have resembled that of the Norwegian fjords. We must, however, not conclude that the similarity of climate would extend to the vegetal and animal life, for this is a question of migration and importation from other parts of the earth and in this respect Greenland has been at a disadvantage, because of its isolated position. A thousand years ago all our common forest-trees except the pine had reached the west coast of Norway but only the birch had become naturalized in Greenland (and Iceland). There is no ground for supposing the Norsemen to have cultivated forest but there is every reason to expect the monks to have imported fruit-trees and cultivated gardens as they did everywhere they went. There is no incredibility in the statement by Ivar Bårdsson, that under the high mountains trees grew, which bore big apples good to eat. When we are told of the early inhabitants of Iceland, that they lived in winter of the fruit of trees they had cultivated in summer,
1. Platysinnatichtys hippoglossoides.
2. Somniosus microcephalus.
3. A. S. Jensen Fiskeriundersögelser I Grönland 1903 & 1909 (Atlanten N:o 82).
we must remember that these early inhabitants were monks and anachorets who from their homes in Ireland were all acquainted with gardening. Also the climate of Iceland in the 7th century may have been much more temperate when the frequent blocking of the coast by drift-ice had not yet commenced. Still fruit-growing in Iceland must always have been more difficult than in Greenland because of the more exposed position of the former island.
As to the cultivation of grain, regard must be taken to local conditions such as night-frost, etc. Probably Greenland was never well adapted for corn-growing though in certain places, as stated in Eric Röde's Saga the want of corn to make malt is mentioned and the Kongaspegel, though admitting that grain was grown in Greenland, adds that its cultivation was not general and that the majority of colonists depend on import to supply them with grain and building material.
With regard to pasture, however, Greenland seems to have been quite as well off as any of the northern countries. Cattle-raising and fishing appear to have procured a good living for the colonists until the ice made the fishing grounds barren and shortened the period of vegetation so that the cattle had to be fed indoors most of the year. At present the whole stock of cattle in Greenland probably does not amount to a hundred animals although wealth is increasing and the population is at least as numerous as in the time of the colonies. In 1780 there was (according to Crantz) probably no single representative of the genus Bos taurus.
Commander Holm who spent several years in Julianehaab's District and visited more than a hundred ruins of old Norse dwellings says:
"In the neighbourhood of all larger groups of ruins there has been ample fodder during summer to feed large flocks of sheep and cattle. How these herds were fed in winter is difficult to say unless we assume the climate in those ages to have been milder so that the cattle could graze in the open field a greater part of the year than now. The ancient records state that the ice-drift along the coast has increased in historic time and this assumption seems indeed necessary in order to explain how the ancients could navigate the inlets and fjords of the District, nor can it be denied that the ice which now encloses this part of the country greatly enhances the severity of the climate."
Another effect of the climate deterioration is that the inland-ice appears to have advanced for a considerable time, so that certain groups of ruins have been buried underneath it. Ruins of ancient dwellings were discovered by Captain Bruun, curiously wedged in between glaciers and rivers so as to be very difficult of access. That ruins of farmhouses are found in such places nowadays may be because the glacier has advanced after they were built. In the interior of Ilua Captain Holm found 4 groups of ruins just below the glacier. The Eskimos told him that beneath that glacier was buried a village and a churchyard. As many of the villages and churches enumerated in the ancient Chorography have not been retrieved, it may be that part of the old Österbygd that has been covered by the advancing inland-ice in the course of the last 5 centuries. Perhaps this may also explain the curious confusion of names respecting the ancient landmarks on the east-coast. Blåserk and Hvitserk. Nansen says: (page 223)
"It is more difficult to explain the two names Blåserk and Hvitserk which were the most frequently mentioned especially later on. They have often been confused with one another, and while Blåserk is mentioned in the oldest records, Hvitserk gradually supplants it in later writings. Later authors often mention the names in an opposite sense, Blåserk representing a dark glacier or mountain peak, Hvitserk representing a white one. It is a curious fact, that while Blåserk is mentioned only in the elder writings, such as the Landama and Erik Raude's Saga in Hauksbook, this name almost disappears from the later writings and is supplanted by that of Hvitserk which name is first mentioned in manuscripts from the 14th century and later on. "
In the manuscript (A. M. 557 qv. ) from the 15th century of Erik Raude's Saga (as also in later extracts of this Saga) Hvitserk is written in lieu of Blåserk. In no Icelandic manuscript I have found both names used simultaneously, it is always the one or the other, nor are they ever mentioned as representing different localities on the Greenland coast. It then appears too rash to conclude, as hitherto, that the names indicate two mountains, one somewhat… That names indicate mountains is a very old conception. "
Ivar Bårdson speaks of Hvitserk as "A lofty mountain near Hvarf". The solution to the problem appears to me to be this:
All opinions agree with Hvitserk, the lofty landmark of Greenland on which later was put up a beacon to warn sailors of the dangerous neighbourhood, was situated in the proximity of Cape Farewell. According to Finnur Jonsson it was identical with Cape Farewell which is not covered with ice. North of the sound Allumlengri however lies a towering alpine country with some of the loftiest mountain peaks found on the east coast. These are now mostly covered by snow and are probably surrounded by glaciers. Here, in my opinion, is the site of the ancient "Blåserk" which was so called in the time of Eric Röde, because it then was free from snow and ice, which a few centuries later covered it and changed the name Blkaserk (blå=blue-black) into Hvitserk (Hvit=white).
Old sailing routes to Greenland (S=Snefjelsnaes, G=Gunbjörnskaer; H= Hafhverf. )
I Erikstefna 1000-1200. II & III. Sailing-routes from 1200-1400 (Ivar Bårson).
Sailing route to Greenland (present time)
Blåserk or Hvitserk palyed an important part in the old directions for the navigation, because it was the landmark of Greenland. Eric Röde went in search of Gunbjörnskär. He came from the sea to land at the Middle jökel (or glacier) and the place called Blåserk. In Björn Jonsson's version of an ancient record it is said:
Item from Sneffelznes on Iceland which is nearest to Greenland 2 days and 2 nights sailing straight towards west, and there lies Gunbjörnskiaer right midways between Greenland and Iceland.
Keeping our rule not to alter the text of the manuscript we must consider Gunbjörnskär to denote the islands surrounding Cape Dan in lat 65º36' almost straight west of Snefelsnaes on Iceland. According to Ivar Bårdson it took 2 days and 2 nights sailing and rowing for the Viking-ships to cover this distance. It took about the same time to reach the eastern settlements in Greenland from Gunbjörnskär. One would then reach the east coast at lat 61º where the ancient Österbygd commenced. On the road one would pass by the big glacier Puisortik in lat. 62º and the lofty mount Blåserk (which was free from ice) somewhat more to the south. Then the goal of the voyage would be reached, Spalsund (Ikek), the eastern inlet to Österbygd.
“This was old sailing” (I. Bårdsson)
In this way I think that the much discussed problem of Eriksstefna can be solved. We must now look to how the new route which Bårdsson recommended agrees with the old bearings.
“But as they report there is Ice upon the same Riffe, come out of the long Botherne, so that we cannot use the same old passage as they think. Item, if you go from Bergen in Norway, the course is right West, till you be South of Rokenesse in Iceland and distant from it thirteen miles or leagues. And with this course you shall come under that high Land that lyeth in the East part of Groneland, and is called Swafster. A day before you come there you shall have a sight of a high Mount called Hvitserk and between Hvitserk and Groneland, lyeth a headland called hernolus hocke, and thereby lyeth an haven, where the Norway Merchants ships were want to come, and it is called Sound haven.”
There is a later addition to Ivar Bårdsson´s description of the new route to Greenland (see Gr. Hist. Mind. III, p. 491):
“If men see South from haven of Bred fjord in Iceland they shall sayle West, till they see Whitesarke upon Groneland, and then sayle somewhat Southwest till Whitesarke bee North off you, and so you need not feare Ice, but may be boldly sayle to Whitesarke, and from thence to Erics haven.”
Here again we have Hvitserk as a landmark. The meaning of the passage is that if you start from Norway you must go south of Iceland right west till Mount Hvitserk is sighted. Then put that mountain to the north of you, then head for northwest to the high mountain Hvarf on Semersok which is one day's journey from Hvitserk. Between these two towering landmarks (Hvitserk and Hvfar) lies Herjolfsnaes and Sand. Sailing from Iceland you must head for the west one day and night, then turn to south west to avoid the ice lying about Gunhjörnskär till you sight Hvitserk, then it is one day's journey to Hvarf in the Northwest a.s.v.
The problem is: how the same mountain, Hitserk, could serve as landmark to both routes, the old and the new. Bardsson's statement that Herjolfnaes lies between the two mountains Hvitserk and Hvarf, has made Finnur Jonsson assume Hvitserk to be identical with Cape Farewell. This conjecture can scarcely be considered correct if you take the elevation into account. Cape Farewell is certainly a good sized rock (some 900 feet high) and would be a good landmark in itself if seen against a less elevated background, or if you sail close to it. But the topographic curves on the map show that Cape Farewell is quite insignificant if compared to the towering mountain peaks on Christian the IVth's island and the continent of Greenland. The distance of these peaks from Cape Farewell is 30 miles but on account of their height, 5-6,000 feet, they must be visible at a distance of 150 kilometers when Cape Farewell still is below the horizon. We must also conclude that the direction for the new sailing route which was taken up to avoid the ice, did forbid any closer approach to Cape Farewell which, surrounded as it is by maelstroms had become still more dangerous because of the drift-ice. It is evident that the addendum to Ivar Bårdson's sailing direction viz. to get Mount Hvitserk north before sailing along the west-coast to Hvarf and the Ericsfjord is found on experience.
The numerous sailing directions recorded in Gr. Hist. Mindesm. agree pretty well with this, but are fragmentary and obscure on account of how the curious terms by distance in time and place is measured. Ivar Barsson's and Björn Jonsson's directions however are so definite and clear that they might be used even now if the ice conditions had remained unchanged. In our time, however, the sounds in the archipelago of South Greenland are shut up by ice and the ancient Eriksstefna is closed. Cape Farewell is surrounded by storm clouds and mist so as to be seldom visible. Still rarer will be the alpine peaks beyond it be visible, least ways not on so close approach to it as the rise of land suggests. Nor is it possible to stear on Hvarsfsgnipa (Cape Egede) and to put into Herjolfsnäs sound (Fredriksdal) which nowadays is so inaccessible that Nordenkiöld's ship, the Sophia, was said to be the first European ship to anchor in that harbor since the time of the colonies. The way to take now is bay Cape Desolation, passing through Torsukatak sound at Nunarsiut and others of the inner straits between the coast and the surrounding ice-girdle until you reach the fjords of the ancient Östgerbygd.
One more statement has to be examined, viz. Björn Jonsson's description (in the Gripla) of the three glaciers on the east coast.
“to the one glacier no one has penetrated (naturally the one farthest north) to the second is one months journey, to the third is one weeks journey. It is nearest to the settlement, it is called Hvitserk, there the land bends northwards. ”
According to Gisle Brynjulfsson, Björn Jonsson's statement does not allude to a journey from Iceland with the swift sailing-ships of the Vikings. What is really meant is a journey in rowing-boats starting from the southernmost places of the Österbygd and going east and northeast. Brynjulfsson estimates that the 30 eng. miles a day would be covered in this manner. Thus the Puisortok-glacier would be reached in a week. This glacier Brynjulfsson concludes to be Hvitserk.
Even to admit that it is possible to cover 30 miles a day in a calm sea with a rowing boat, the experience of Gieseke, Holm, Graah a.o. show that it requires 6 weeks rather than 6 days under the present conditions to go from Ilua or Fredriksdal by way of the sounds to the east coast in 60º lat. and thence to Puisortok in lat. 62º10. Even if we assume with Brynjulfsson that the ice conditions 600 years ago were so favourableas to allow the distance to Puisortok to be covered in only 6 days, still Gripla's description of Hvitserk does not fit in with Puisortok because of the words:
“it is nearest the settlement there the land bends northwards. ”
This description instead fits in on the highland between Allumlengri and the fjord Kangerdluksuatsiak, where the highest mountain-peaks in south Greenland are situated. With open water it would be quite possible to reach this place on the east coast in lat. 60º-60º15 in a week's journey by rowing-boat passing through the Allumlengri-sound or the Ikek. There, at the eastern inlet to these sounds the coast really bends northwards. It is significant too that all expeditions sent out in the 15th and 16th century to rediscover the lost colonies had orders to approach Greenland (and attempted to do so) from the eastside. In the maps from the 15th and 16th century e. g. in that of Thorlacius, these two sounds play a prominent part. These maps are of no use however for the problem we here try to solve and since the two sounds were confounded with the two inlets on America's coast discovered by Frobisher they have become a subject of endless idle discourses among geographers. The fact however that in these maps two sounds are shown through the South of Greenland shows, that the tradition of the Eriksstefna of the eastern inlets to the Österbygd had survived the closing of these passages by the drift ice.
I reproduce here the contour lines of such a map discovered by H. Pettersson in the archive of British Museum.
Evidently the ice conditions of Davis Sound and Bafin's bay were also different in the Viking-age. A large contingent of the drift-ice in Davis Sound is supplied by the Greenland ice current. Failing this supply, the quantity of ice in Davis Sound and the Labrador current will be reduced. Besides a decrease in the ice would mean an increase in the heat supplied by the Gulf stream-branches. We may therefore a priori conclude that the Labrador current in Mediaeval time did not carry ice, or at least not in the same degree as at present. This conclusion is born out by the fact that no mention is made in the Sagas and the existant documents from year 1000 to the end of the Middle-ages of ice as impeding the traffic between Greenland and Wineland.
It is impossible that the Greenland colonists should have landed on the Labrador coast or Newfoundland without having been in contact with the drift-ice and icebergs of the Labrador current. The complete silence on this point is remarkable and becomes still more so when we remember that the records of Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland in 1497, do not mention ice or ice-hindrances. In the records of the journey of the younger Sebastian Cabot in 1508-1509 to the coast of America (which however is considered unreliable) it is said he went as far as lat. 60º and saw quantities of ice in the sea at a depth of more than 100 fathoms (which means that he was in the Labrador current). But in a later journey, 1516 or 1517, he is said to have gone as far as lat. 67 ½º end there found open sea and no hindrance from ice. This is the reason why Nansen, who finds it surprising that ice is not mentioned in connection with the elder Cabot's journey to New-foundland, doubts the veracity of Sebastian Cabot's journey to these parts in 1516-1517.
This, however, is immaterial. Fact is, that reports of ice outside the American coast are not forthcoming till the 15th century although communication with that continent was established as early as the 10th century as recorded in ancient literature. The utter silence on this subject in the records would be inexplicable if the Labrador current had had the same character then as now.
The first mention of ice in American waters we find in Cortes Reales journeys to Newfoundland in 1501, further in the journey to St. Lorent's Bay in 1534, and in Frobisher's (1576-1578) and Davis' (1585-1587). Records of ice at that time however are very rare and the 15th century explorers of the coast of America do not appear to have been much troubled by ice, whereas the east coast of Greenland was then already blocked by ice and quite inaccessible. In the 16th century the conditions were changed and the account of Hudson's 3rd and last journey mentions ice and ice-hindrances which shows that at least along the Labrador coast conditions were approaching the present conditions. It is however noteworthy that Hudson, when pushing along the Newfoundland bank in lat. 44º-45º where he sounded and fished, found no ice in that bank.
In continuing his journey to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the American coast, he everywhere reports on weather to be very warm and the country exceedingly fertile with "goody grapes", rosetrees, etc. He sometimes fought and bartered with the Indians obtaining “greene tobacco, Indian Wheath and Maize whereof they make good bread”, a.s.f. in exchange for his goods. If the Wineland expeditions of the ancient Greenlanders extended past Newfoundland (Markland) to the south west, as G. Storm has shown, then no objection can be raised on account of the climate to they really having found wine and wheat, as described in the Saga.
The problem of Wineland is getting more complicated from the theory propounded by Professor Fernald, an American, who transfers the Windeland of the Sagas to Labrador, changing the grapes into cranberries, the wheat into lyme-grass, a. s. v. In the 14th Chapter of the Taakeheimen Nansen also adds to the confusion by indiscriminately mixing the Icelandic Sagas with the fantastic folk-lore of Moltke Moes collection.
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