Thursday, 13 February 2014

What to eat when stranded in Greenland: advice from 1630.

Films like Gravity (2013), Castaway (2000) and The Beach (2000) have captivated audiences by exploring what it would be like to be stranded in a remote place, be it a desert island or in outer space. How would you survive, what dangerous creatures or people would you encounter and how would entertain yourself to pass the time? This week your blogger stumbled across a gripping account of how eight Englishmen survived being stranded in Greenland for nine months in 1630. Spoiler alert- their story involves eating whale fritters and roasted walrus!

"The miraculous preservation and deliverance of eight english-men left by mischance in Greenland" was written by one of the eight stranded men, Edward Pellham, and published in A Collection of voyages and travels (1745). The account of the men’s struggle for survival is illustrated with a map of Greenland, pictured below. You can currently see a photograph of this map in the Dean’s Chapel of Worcester Cathedral as part of the library’s “Seeing and Mapping our World” exhibition.  The cartographer is unknown but if you know anything about this map, please get in touch.
Map of Greenland, A Collection of Voyages and Travels (1745), p. 743.
What were  eight Englishmen doing in Greenland in 1630?
Edward Pellham travelled to Greenland in May 1630 as part of the company of Muscovy merchants, who frequently carried out whaling expeditions around Spitsbergen in the seventeenth century. Pellham says that three ships were sent to “make voyage upon whales or sea horse[s] for the advantage of the merchants and the good of the common-wealth”.

The purpose of the Muscovy merchants' whaling expeditions was to use the blubber from whale carcasses to create train oil. Despite its smell, oil manufactured from whales’ blubber was used for lighting oil lamps until the end of nineteenth century in England. It was also used in the manufacture of soap and industrial cleaners until the invention of hydrogenation in the early twentieth century.

Whaling was cruel indeed; just take a look at the illustrative border that surrounds the map of Greenland (shown below) that depicts men trapping and harpooning whales and walruses close to shore. It is a bit of a mystery as to why trading companies would have been killing walruses, which are for some reason described in the period as “sea horses” or “seamorce”. Presumably their blubber was also used in the production of oil.

Stranded with “not so much as book amongst us”.

Like a great many castaway narratives, the eight men of the Muscovy company became separated from their party by a series of misfortunes. They were instructed by their captain to sail from Foreland to Bell Sound to take some casks of train oil from another ship that was carrying too  large a quantity of oil. Pellham and eight men were ordered from this group of twenty to hunt venison en route to Bell Sound. When they returned in their small sailing boat to their ship at the bay of Green Harbour after two days hunting, they found the rest of their group of twenty men had departed without them, leaving them with nothing but their small boat, the clothes on their back and 14 venison carcasses!
In the pages that follow the men dump the venison into the sea in an attempt to lighten their boat and make haste. They try desperately to travel to Bell Sound so that they might join with Captain William Goodler, who was commanding the three Muscovy merchant ships, in time for their company’s departure back to London. Yet a series of storms combined with the fact that the men had “never a compass to direct our course by, nor any of our company […] sufficient to know land when he saw it” meant they reached Bell Sound too late and the Muscovy merchants left them behind. Pellham's is particularly critical of a member of his party called William Fakely, a seaman "though no skilfull mariner", and blames him for persuading them to go in the wrong direction.

Struggling to survive
The rest of the account of the men’s time in Greenland is preoccupied with the details of how they survived. Bulleted below are some of the highlights from the account:

·         Telling inappropriate stories- as soon as the men get stranded they somewhat unwisely decide to discuss what happened to men before them stranded in Greenland. Pellam cheerfully tells a story of “nine good and able men, left in the same place […] by the same master [the Muscovy merchants] [that] all died miserably upon the place, being cruelly disfigured by bears and hungry foxes, which are not only the civilest but also the only inhabitants of that comfortless country”. Talk about lightening the mood!

·         Sampling the local cuisine- The men survived for nine months off a horrifying array of animals native to Greenland. A month after they were stranded, the men come across a group of walruses sleeping on a piece of ice close to the shore that they harpoon, chop to pieces and roast. This, Pellham seems to say, was one of the more pleasant animals to eat, although he comments that they are very difficult to harpoon unless asleep. Pellham also describes how his group of men are forced to eat whale frittars, “a most loathsome meat” made from “the scraps of the fat of the whale, which are flung away after the oil is gotten out of it”. A particularly nasty incident is recounted by Pellham whereby after eating the liver of a bear the group found that “our very skins fell off”. This could be a dramatic addition to the story, or so your blogger hopes. The skin problems the men were suffering from could well have resulted from scurvy caused by their poor diet.

·         A man’s best friend- one of the strangest aspects to this account is that the eight men are stranded for nine months with two bull mastiff dogs. The dogs were brought on the Muscovy merchants’ expedition to help the men hunt for food whilst ashore. It is curious Pellham and his men did not kill the dogs for food, given that for three months they ate one meal a day due to their lack of provisions. It is likely, however, that the mastiffs were too important in helping the men hunt to be killed. On 16th March 1631, Pellham says that one of the mastiffs ran away and was never seen again. When spring arrives the men see a buck and wish to kill it but the remaining bull dog is described as having “grown so fat and lazy” that he cannot bring the buck down. The men are forced to forget the buck and hunt fowl instead!
Pellham and his men were saved on 25th May 1631 when a ship from Hull landed within sight of the area where the men had built their tent. All eight of the men miraculously survived and departed back to London after fourteen days of rest aboard captain Goodler’s ship. Pellham does not describe the men who he was stranded with in any detail but we can nonetheless glean from his account that, because the men were whalers, seamen, and coopers, they were extremely resourceful and good at adapting materials for various purposes. For example, they create needles from whales’ bones to mend clothing. They were also devoted to their faith, and kept holy the Sabbath Day, although Pellham says they had no Bible with them to read. All-in-all Pellham's account is a remarkable read and from it we can glimpse much about the seasonal changes in Greenland and the behaviour of local wildlife. Next week we will be posting another blog about a travel book that contains a map, so be sure to watch this space.  


  1. Interesting entry...i would like to disagree in a bit..the whale skin is better than that of the walrus interms of the meat, skin and smell...i live in Greenland, in Nuuk the capital city.:-)

  2. Hi Dani, thanks for your comment- really interesting! I think the English gentlemen in this account were not very well practised at preserving their food stores; I think that their whale meat had gone off! As someone who has never visited Greenland, I am intrigued as to what walrus would taste like. Perhaps if I visit one day I'll get a chance to try it :)