The history of explorations features a roster of people who, evidently, are out of the ordinary. They have very special, peculiar personalities, often difficult to categorize and always with a common denominator of bomb-proof determination. A good example of this was Peter Freuchen, who is not very well known because his field of action was a place as devoid of real appeal for the powers that be as the Arctic and because he lived, perhaps, a little too late. But he was quite a character, as we shall see.

His name was Lorenz Peter Elfred Freuchen and he was Danish, born in the town of Nykøbing Falster in 1886. Nothing indicated a priori what his vocation would be, as he descended from a family of merchants and when he came of age he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study medicine. But his life was not to go in that direction. In 1906, barely twenty years old, he made his first trip to Greenland and soon more would follow in the company of his friend Knud Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is a historical hero in Denmark. Born in Greenland (his father was Danish and his mother Inuit), he gave up a career as an opera singer (which sounds a bit eccentric, but he had tried unsuccessfully in Copenhagen) to devote himself to Arctic exploration, leading seven campaigns known as the Thule Expeditions. In these, he crossed the territory from side to side and meticulously documented Inuit culture, to the point of being considered the father of Eskimology or the White Eskimo.

Portrait of a young Knud Rasmussen
Portrait of a young Knud Rasmussen. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The first of these trips, commonly referred to as the Danish Literary Expedition, was made in 1902 and lasted a couple of years. Its objective was to study the Inuit, and he recorded everything observed in a book titled The People of the Polar North. Upon his return, he gave several lectures and struck up a friendship with Freuchen, who, as we saw, had also traveled there in 1906. They partnered and in 1910 opened a trading post in Cape York (now Uummannaq, on the northwest coast of Greenland overlooking Baffin Bay).

They called it Thule Trading Post, in reference to the mythical island that in Antiquity and the Middle Ages was considered the northernmost corner of the world, as stated by the Greek sailor Pytheas, who allegedly sailed those latitudes. The name also referred to the Paleo-Eskimo culture that preceded the Inuit and Yupik chronologically, settling in Greenland around the 13th century, displacing the Dorset (extinct due to diseases introduced by whalers). The Thule people survived in small villages made of whale bone huts until the 18th century when they split and became generically called Eskimos (now Inuit).

The fact is that the Thule Trading Post served as a starting point for the Thule expeditions between 1912 and 1933 (it would become a municipality and in 1953, in the context of the Cold War, a U.S. air base). The first of these expeditions led Rasmussen and Freuchen to try to verify Robert Peary’s claim (the American who claimed to have been the first to reach the North Pole in 1909, which is now questioned) that a channel divided Peary Land, a peninsula in northern Greenland, from the rest of the island.

To do this, they made a tremendous trek of more than a thousand kilometers on foot over the ice, which nearly ended them but ultimately succeeded, proving, by the way, that Peary was wrong. Freuchen recounted this extraordinary experience in two of his books, Vagrant Viking and I Sailed with Rasmussen, published in 1953 and 1958 respectively. In the first, he boasts of the good results of dog sleds, something common in Alaska but not in Greenland, and describes famous episodes such as when, buried in his shelter by a thick layer of ice and snow, he could only escape thanks to a knife made from his own frozen feces.

The triumphant return encouraged them to undertake a second trip in 1916, the same year Mequsaq Avataq Igimaqssusuktoranguapaluk was born, the first of the two children Freuchen had with his wife Navarana Mequpaluk, an Inuk woman (Inuk is the singular of Inuit) whom he had married shortly before departing and who accompanied him on more than one of those odysseys. She would die in 1921 due to the Spanish flu, unintentionally causing an incident between her widower and the local Christian missionaries, whom he indignantly accused of trying to evangelize the natives without bothering to learn or understand their customs.

Eskimo movie poster
Eskimo movie poster. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The reason was that Navarana had requested, as her last wish, to be buried in the parish cemetery of Upernavik, but the parish priest denied her authorization because she was not baptized, so Freuchen had to personally bury her, which must have been a bitter moment. Rasmussen paid a small tribute to his friend’s wife by naming one of the characters in the film Palos Brudefærd, which he filmed in Greenland in 1933, after her.

For the Second Thule Expedition, they had more resources, and the team consisted of seven men whose mission was to map a northern region of Greenland. The harsh conditions led to the death of two members, and in 1921, Freuchen published another book recounting the adventure, Greenland by the Polar Sea. They had returned three years earlier, which coincided with the birth of his daughter Pipaluk Jette Tukuminguaq Kasaluk Palika Hager.

Between 1919 and 1920, there were two other expeditions with geographical and ethnographic purposes. But the most important was the fifth, designed to study the Inuit in depth. Also consisting of seven people, it lasted three years and gathered such an amount of biological, archaeological, and anthropological data (many pieces are now displayed in Danish museums) that its publication could not be completed until 1946 and required ten volumes, under the title The Fifth Thule Expedition. During that time, Rasmussen became the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage with two Inuit hunters on a dog sled; he narrated this in Across Arctic America (1927).

Both he and Freuchen spent the following years between Greenland and Denmark, giving lectures. Freuchen decided to enter politics, joining the social-democratic ranks and contributing articles on the subject in the party newspaper, Politiken. He himself was the editor of the magazine Ude og Hjemme, owned by his new wife’s father. Because in 1924, he married again, this time to Magdalene Vang Lauridsen, daughter of the director of Danmarks Nationalbank, with whom he lived on the island of Enehøje, located in the Nakskov fjord, which he had bought to write and prepare his lectures (today it is a state nature reserve).

Rasmussen led two other Thule expeditions, in 1931 and 1933, aimed at consolidating Denmark’s claim over a part of eastern Greenland that Norway disputed. But during the second, he was forced to return, sick due to a combination of pneumonia and poisoning from ingesting kiviak (an Inuit food, a type of sausage made from auk -a type of seabird- macerated and fermented in the emptied body of a seal). He died weeks later in Copenhagen at the age of fifty-four.

Freuchen in his old age and his wife Dagmar in the 1950s
Freuchen in his old age and his wife Dagmar in the 1950s. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, in 1932, Freuchen had returned to his Greenlandic homeland to work on a film commissioned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as he had entered that world after founding a film company. The resulting film, directed by W. S. Van Dyke with a script by Freuchen himself—who made a small cameo—based on his books about the Arctic, was titled Eskimo (also known as Mala, the Magnificent) and won the Oscar in 1934. Throughout the 1930s, the explorer traveled to other places such as South Africa and Siberia, consistent with the name of a club he created in 1938, Eventyrernes Klub (Adventurers’ Club); it still exists.

Shortly afterward, World War II broke out, and Freuchen joined the Danish resistance against the German occupation of Denmark, a doubly meritorious act given that he was disabled; but nothing could deter a man who, in 1926, during the Fifth Thule Expedition, after going outside with that fecal knife we mentioned, had to use it to personally amputate the frozen fingers of his left leg (later, gangrenous, it was completely cut off in the hospital). Opposed to racism, he openly opposed the Nazis and used to introduce himself as Jewish whenever he saw an anti-Semitic act. This led to his imprisonment and a death sentence, although he managed to escape and seek asylum in Sweden.

The situation affected him personally because before the end of the war, he divorced Magdalene and married, for the third time, a Danish Jew: Dagmar Cohn, a fashion illustrator for Vogue. With her, he settled in the US, living between New York and Connecticut, as it was more convenient to stay in America for the film business. He was at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, working on his last work, The Book of the Seven Seas, when he suffered a heart attack. It was the summer of 1957, and his ashes were scattered to the wind on Mount Dundas in Thule.

In 1979, his grandson Peter became the first Inuit from Canada to be elected to the House of Commons, something his grandfather would have been proud of. The memory of Peter Freuchen remains alive in Denmark, and if one approaches Langeliniebroen, the place in central Copenhagen from where he first departed for Greenland in 1906, not far from the statue of the Little Mermaid, they will see a milestone with an inscription in the Inuit language in his memory, as well as an oak tree planted ad hoc.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 16, 2018: Peter Freuchen, el explorador que sobrevivió fabricando un cuchillo con sus propias heces congeladas


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