Copenhague (Danemark): Did a recently found bird spear belong to a kidnapped Greenlander?


New expedition in 1606 met hostile Greenlanders

The following year Christian IV allowed five ships to be prepared for a new expedition. This time Lindenov was given overall command and Hall was once again the pilot.

The expedition set sail at the end of May 1606, with Umik, Oqaq and Kigutikkaaq as crew members. It was intended that these three would ease contact with the people the mariners expected to meet in Greenland.

According to Hall’s records, however, Oqaq and Umik died en route, while Kigutikkaaq’s fate is unknown.


These bird spears became part of the National Museum’s collection in the 17th or 18th century. Midway along their shaft are three or four side prongs like the one found at Kongens Nytorv. The bird spear was launched using a spear thrower and was located at the bow end of the kayak’s deck while not in use. The complete spear is about one-and-a-half metres long. (Photo: National Museum.)

When the ships reached Greenland in the vicinity of Sisimiut in August that year, they met Greenlanders as expected.

They traded this time as well, but the Greenlanders were described as more hostile than during the last expedition, and the trade did not give much.

The Greenlanders’ hostility may have been due to their knowledge of the kidnappings the year before, and this stay also ended with the expedition kidnapping five Greenlanders.

According to Claus Christoffersen Lyschander, later appointed as the Royal Historiographer, one of the Greenlanders jumped over board on the way back to Denmark.

The ships arrived in Copenhagen in the autumn of 1606 with the four surviving Greenlanders. Shortly afterwards, two of them tried to escape by kayak; one was caught and returned to Copenhagen, while the other escaped.

The others lived in Denmark up to 12 years after the kidnapping, but Adam Olearius, the German geographer and mathematician, reported that they were very sorrowful and one by one they grieved themselves to death.

Copenhagen ship-owners given whaling charter

Our knowledge of the third kidnapping is limited. The background for it was a Royal charter issued in 1636 to Copenhagen ship-owners allowing them to form a Greenland company for whaling and other similar purposes.

he charter called for the kidnapping of Greenlanders aged between 16 and 20 years, who were to be schooled ‘in the language and literature and in the fear of God’.

The same year the company dispatched two ships, which sailed northwards along Greenland’s west coast. They traded with Greenlanders en route, acquiring several narwhal tusks.

At some point the expedition kidnapped two Greenlanders, who were tied to the ship’s mast. But when they were untied while the ship was in the open sea, both Greenlanders jumped over board and tried to swim back, undoubtedly without success.

Last 17th century kidnapping

The last Danish kidnapping in the 17th century occurred in 1654.

A high-ranking land steward, Henrik Müller, was granted a Royal charter in 1652 to explore Greenland; he sent a total of three expeditions with the Dutchman David Danell as commander-in-chief.

All three expeditions traded with the Greenlanders they met along Greenland’s west coast, acquiring a considerable quantity of narwhal tusks.

On the last expedition the crew tricked six Greenlanders into boarding the ship somewhere in the Nuuk Fjord, and sailed off with them.

A young boy got free and jumped over board, and an elderly woman was put ashore.

Portraits painted

The remaining four Greenlanders were sailed initially to Bergen, where their portraits were painted; these portraits can be seen in the Ethnographic Collection of the National Museum in Copenhagen today.


James Hall’s map of the Itivdleq Fjord, which he called Kong Christians Fjord after the Danish monarch. Apart from geographical features, several Greenlanders are depicted on the map. The man with a kayak over his shoulder is holding a bird spear in his left hand; the larger of the two Greenlanders pictured on the right of Christian IV’s monogram is also holding a bird spear. (From the 1606 expedition. After Gosch: Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605 to 1620.)

According to Olearius, the four Greenlanders were a 25-year-old woman, Kabelau; her father Ihob, who died during the passage to Copenhagen shortly afterwards; a woman of about 45, named Küneling; and a girl, Sigoka, aged 13.

The three surviving women were taken to Schleswig, where King Frederik III was staying temporarily because of an outbreak of plague in Copenhagen.

As before, the idea was that the kidnapped people would help facilitate trade with Greenlanders, and they were told that they would soon return home.

They were sent back from Schleswig to Copenhagen, where they learnt Danish.

But a doctor, Thomas Bartholin, reported that the Danish climate and ways of living did not agree with them: one by one they died, probably as early as 1658/59, with Sigoka living the longest.

Thus a total of 19 Greenlanders were kidnapped during Danish expeditions in the 1600s, of which 14 survived the journey to Denmark.

Greenlanders demonstrated kayaking and hunting prowess

The bird spear side prong could have been brought to Copenhagen by any one of these four expeditions – either by the Greenlanders, who brought their implements with them, or by the ships’ crews, following trade with Greenlanders.

Sources tell us that the crews returned with tools and implements as well as normally traded products such as skins and narwhal tusks.

Thus the bird spear was not necessarily owned by one of the kidnapped Greenlanders – it could have been a mariner’s souvenir that ended up in the moat at a later time.

There is nevertheless an indication that the bird spear could have belonged to one of the Greenlanders who came to Copenhagen with the first expedition.

In 1605, Bielke described the kidnapped Greenlanders’ implements and their use at length following observations that he made when the Greenlanders demonstrated their implements and skills for him; this could very well have taken place at the fortifications near Copenhagen’s old East Gate, on the edge of today’s Kongens Nytorv.

The side branch probably broke off a bird spear during the demonstration and ended up in the moat.

A cruel story

Although more than 400 years have passed since these events, it is not difficult to imagine the despair of the kidnapped Greenlanders, and the stories of their homesickness and desperate attempts to escape are heart-rending.

But it was not just Greenlanders who were treated inhumanely. Several sources describe how seamen who had broken the rules in one way or another were put ashore in Greenland and left there.

The small implement found at Kongens Nytorv thus illustrates a cruel story of some of the consequences of Danish ambitions as a great power.