So I finally finished my copy of Jens Munk by Thorkild Hansen. It´s been sitting in our cabin for many years and I have been reading it on and off. It´s been taking its time not because it´s a bad book, on the contrary: it´s a great book. And that’s one reason why I wanted to write this little blog post. The book came out in 1965 and it also published in English – at least I think so!
Thorkild Hansen has written a gripping biography of Jens Munk. He uses the device of introducing a narrator in the book, “the chronicler”, who represents the author himself. This allows him to write sentences like “at this point the chronicler imagines.. since sources are missing” and so on; a nice literary touch. Hansen creates a dramatic tension which runs through the entire book – the conflict between the noble families in Denmark and Munk himself, with the King Christian IV on the sideline. The King is the arbiter of power, but his room for manoeuvring is limited by the constraints of the nobility. Jens Munk has inherited his father´s conflict with the latter group, and this keeps blocking him from achieving the status in society which his actions should have gained for him. He plays a central role in many significant military and commercial events of his time, and travels from “Bahia de todos los Santos” in Brazil (Salvador) to the White Sea and to Hudson bay.
The book itself is book-ended by the voyage to Hudson bay, starting with the scene in June 1620, Pentecost, when Jens writes his testament, finishing with the words “Hermed All verden god Nat og min Sjæl i Guds Haand” (with this good night to all the world and my soul in the hand of God). Of his crew of 64, 2 are left alive next to himself. Scurvy has killed the rest at their winter camp at the mouth of the Churchill river, in the southern part of Hudson bay. The three manage to float the smallest of the vessels, “Lamprenen”, and sail it to Bergen on the west coast of Norway, at that time part of the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. A feat reminiscent of Shackleton´s crossing of the South Atlantic from Elephant Island to the South Georgia Island (another great book – “Endurance”).
The Hudson bay voyage is Munk´s main legacy, but Thorkild Hansen manages to spin a vivid and colourful story all along Munk´s lifeline, in the process giving light and sound and smell to Denmark and the many other places Munk visited in this lifetime. Scathing irony is reserved for the King and the nobility; sympathy goes to the common man who lives, dreams, suffers and dies.
Looking back, it´s literally incredible what travel was possible in those days, though the cost in terms of human life was enormous. It´s also obvious that the limited equipment meant that sea travel almost exclusively took place in the summer half of the year.
Finally, the ship “Scoubynacht” figures in this book, and that gave birth to the name of this blog.