This Distant and Unsurveyed Country: A Woman’s Winter at Baffin Island, 1857-1858.

The diaries of Margaret Penny, a captain’s wife, on a whaling voyage to Baffin Island. The diaries cover whaling near Baffin Island as well as its social life and customs.

p. 79: Oct. 11th. Sunday A fine clear day. People on shore. Six or 7 whales seen. Divine service at 2 P.M. The Esquimaux seem to understand very well that they are to respect this day, for they go about very quietly & forego their usual occupations.

p. 100: Nov. 22nd. Sunday A fine day but a good deal of water on the ice, which prevents my going on shore. Divine service, which is always numerously attended. In the evening Mr. Warmow read the 1st chap. Of St. Matthew & explained it to some of the Esquimaux. With what eager attention they listened to him.

p. 153-54: On ships wintering in the Arctic during the nineteenth century, idleness was opposed with special vigour because it promoted ‘mental disquietude’ and ‘melancholy,’ and these conditions were thought to contribute to scurvy or even cause it…. On most arctic expeditions the officers became what we might today call ‘social animators,’ taking the lead in putting on amusing plays and concerts, printing comical newspapers, organizing sports and games, teaching classes, arranging festive celebrations for special occasions, and doing whatever they could to combat boredom among the crew. [Quotes Captain George Parker as saying scurvy is “brought on my depression of the mind, mostly.…”]

p. 158, keeping men alert and cheerful during the winter, Capt Penny organized musical theatre and other activities: At about the same time the ‘Arctic Academy’ got under way, also under the direction of the surgeons. Its classes ran for three hours a night, four nights a week. Reading, writing, and arithmetic formed the basis of the curriculum, but geography excited the men’s interest in a special way because some of them had sailed on merchant voyage to various parts of the world. Despite a limited supply of educational materials (slates, some paper and pencils, an old world map, and one copy of Johnston’s Physical Atlas), the seamen (some of whom were barely literate) eagerly participated in discussions of global physical and human geography. The brightest men on the ships showed promise of learning elementary navigation by winter’s end.