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Baffin Island shipwreck gives glimpse into little known chapter of Canadian history
CALGARY — When the Nova Zembla wrecked along the remote eastern coast of Baffin Island, the Arctic whaling industry was well in decline.
But the discovery of the ship’s remains now promises to give fresh insight into not only life aboard the vessel, but the largely undocumented cultural exchange between the Inuit and Scottish peoples.
“It was the biggest interaction between the Europeans and Inuit on Baffin Island for the better part of a hundred years and we know virtually nothing about it,” said Mike Moloney, an adjunct professor of archeology at the University of Calgary.
It may seem like a niche area of interest, and is some ways it is, but fellow Arctic Institute researcher Matt Ayre says it’s a poorly understood period that shaped our modern world.
“The whaling trade was the oil industry it informed how we live today,” he said.
“It ushered in the modern world essentially so without it, the industrial revolution wouldn’t have happened the way it did.”
Among the artifacts identified during a painfully brief two-and-a-half day site survey this summer were an oil drum, an ornately carved bowsprite, a medicine bottle and pieces of hull that still had traces of paint.
“It speaks to the profitability of the whaling trade, Nova Zembla was sailing in really the last couple of decades of arctic whaling,” said Ayre.
“There were six or seven boats sailing from Dundee (Scotland) not the hundreds from across the U.K. earlier on in the 19th century.”
Researchers are also working to improve their relationship with local people and help build skills that will benefit future expeditions.
Moloney says traditionally, local Inuit have been employed as cooks or polar bear monitors but increasingly, teams like his are starting to train young locals in technical skills.
“They can learn drone survey, ROV survey under the water, diving, all kinds of skillsets that will be very, very useful for them when other researchers come up,” said Moloney.
“They can be the scientist instead of sitting there in the background.”
While the Nova Zembla site may lack the blockbuster appeal of the Franklin Expedition discovery, it has attracted attention around the U.K.
“There’s a lot of long-standing whaling heritage in the northeast of Scotland and we’ve already had people contact us to say, ‘Oh, I have something from Nova Zembla,’” said Ayre.