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More than six months on an ice floe

There is a near-impossible story of survival told in a small Royal Crown Reader which dates from c.1910 and was used in Newfoundland schools of the time. The story concerns a group of German members of an Arctic expedition that did not achieve much of what was intended but which may have set a record for human endurance under Arctic conditions.

“In the spring they were visited by snow-linnets and snow-buntings.”

This particular school reader was designed for quite young students. In those far-off school days, stories of endurance were cut to the essentials. Action was boiled down until scarcely only the moral was left. The intent was for the child to get a message of courage and grit. Records of fear, starvation, and appalling loneliness had to be sacrificed.

The mid-nineteenth century was a competitive time; a time when one person’s achievement, or lack of it, could reflect on a whole country. And there seems to have been no better focal point for this chest-thumping back then than to be the first in your bloc to find a northwest passage through the Arctic leading across to the Bering Strait and into the Pacific.

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In the process, ships were trapped for months and years; men grew despondent in the enduring Arctic darkness; vessels and supplies sank, men and team-dogs were lost to merciless depths. Ships and crews sailed into oblivion. Hubris trumped common decency — Robert Peary fled north, away from witnesses or any who might share in his fame — only to put down his flag at what is now believed to be a point some 50 miles off -(See “Farthest North” by Clive Holland, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994).

In the little reader, the ships of the German expedition are not named. A two-ship Arctic expedition did, in fact, set out from Bremerhaven in 1869 and it is this one which must be the event on which the story in based, even though the book says 1868.

All told, it was with some difficulty that I waded through a series of books to try and find proof that what sounds like a tale of inspiration for children actually did take place.

“In the summer of 1868 (sic) two German steamers set out to try to reach the North Pole. In the far north, off the coast of Greenland, the ships lost sight of each other in a fog and one of them was crushed by the ice.” In case any reader wants to dig into more factual sources, that ship was the Hansa. It drifted south, was indeed crushed, and sank. It occurred not long after the ships (the other was Germania) had lost sight of reach other. But, to follow Hansa’s crew, now on ice:

“The captain then set his men to build a house on the ice-field.”

(Apparently Hansa had stayed afloat in its ice-vice long enough for its small boats and a load of supplies to be removed).

“The walls of this hut were built of pieces of the steamer’s coal, held together by snow. The roof was made of sails and mats covered with snow and slabs of coal formed the floor ... into it were carried bread, meat, bacon, coffee, wood and coals, also stores of clothing, charts and books.”

Once Hansa had sunk, the little book points out “everything now depended on the ice-raft.”

“At first the field of ice was several miles in extent; but storms soon broke it up so much that at last only a small piece was left round the hut. Then one stormy night the ice cracked under the hut and went to pieces, and the men had to take refuge in the boats.”

“A new hut was built on a smaller piece of ice out of the ruins of the old one; but it was so small that only half the men could find shelter in it, the others had to live in the boats.

“At one time the raft floated to within eight miles of the mainland of Greenland, and at another to within two miles of an island; but the men could not make their way to land on account of the great hills of ice all around them. They drifted slowly south for hundreds of miles.

“The men sketched, walked, built snowmen and fished. At Christmas they made a tree of birch twigs decorated with bits of wax tapers. In the spring they were visited by troops of small-birds, snow linnets and snow-buntings. The seamen threw them some oats which they ate greedily. The birds were so tame that they allowed themselves to be caught by the hand.”

It is not recorded whether the men caught the birds for fun, or for food. The latter would seem reasonable. If the hours passed slowly, perhaps they tested their skill at eviscerating buntings and linnets.

“A severe storm drove the explorers farther south and broke up the ice-field ... they again set to work dragging their boats over the ice. At last they reached land and moored the boats in a small bay. They found their way to a little village and the 13th of June 1869 after living for two hundred days on a floating ice-field.”

The book “Farthest North” recounts that the crew set off in their boats for west Greenland where there were Danish settlements — “they were rescued at Julianehab in southwest Greenland in June (1870).”

“Farthest North” also notes, “the crew spent a miserable winter in a hut on the ice.” To tell small, budding explorers this, may well have discouraged them. Better to include stories of tiny winged visitors and Christmas decorations.


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:

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