2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of the exploration of the Danish Norwegian explorer and sea captain Jens Munk, one of the earliest Europeans to discover the western part of Hudson Bay.
On May 9, 1619, Jens Munk set out from Copenhagen with a crew of 64 men and two of the Danish King’s ships – the frigate, Unicorn, and the sloop, Lamprey.
Danish King Christian IV had sent Jens Munk out to discover the Northwest Passage, the route by sea from Europe to India and China. But the mission ended in disaster. The expedition was forced to spend the harsh arctic winter near the mouth of what today is known as the Churchill River.
Jens Munk named the area Nova Dania, which means New Denmark in Latin and he called the anchorage Munkehavn that is Munk Harbour in Danish.
Hudson Bay is approximately the same latitude as Oslo and the crew had brought clothes to cope with a Norwegian winter, but not with the Canadian Arctic winter. In effect, they were not prepared for the harsh climate at all. Consequently, 61 crew members died from the cold but also from scurvy and hunger.
They were all trapped by the ice in the deadly cold of the Canadian arctic, without any chance to escape the grim darkness, the ice-cold climate and the hopelessness of their circumstance. Against all odds, Jens Munk and two of his men survived the winter.
When spring finally came to the shores of Hudson Bay, they could eat berries and meat, and get enough strength to manage the return voyage across the Atlantic to Bergen, Norway and later on to Denmark.
A film project with passion and power
I am at Japp Productions in Lystrup – a suburb of Aarhus, Denmark. Nearly 400 years after those cold days in northern Manitoba, Danish filmmaker Ole Japp has finally finished a film that has been years in the making.
Actually it had been Japp’s dream for decades and the actual project took more than seven years to complete. We are talking about the motion picture “Northwest Expedition” about the arctic explorer Jens Munk. This movie, made with enthusiasm, commitment and love, was first shown in Danish cinemas in 2015.
”I remember, I first read about Jens Munk back in school and I’ve been fascinated with him ever since. He’s always been in my heart. I simply couldn’t let go of the story about him. Munk was one of the first Europeans to reach the deep interior of modern day Canada, and that was quite an achievement for that time,” says Ole Japp.
Japp’s movie was made on a very modest budget. That meant that the film crew needed to be very creative. The majority of the film was shot in a garage in the village of Lystrup thanks to lots of volunteers, creative brains and hard work.
For example Japp is playing the main character, Jens Munk in the movie, as well as being the film’s screenwriter and cinematographer.
“The film production was very busy and hectic, but the most important issue for us was to get the message out about Jens Munk and to get the film completed and ready to show. Obviously, it was hard work, but we found the story so important to tell that we were ready to contribute maximum effort,” explains Ole Japp, who is originally trained as an advertising photographer.
No picture of Jens Munk exists
Besides being made in Lystrup, the movie was also filmed in Ilulissat ice fjords and glaciers parks in the western part of Greenland; near Cape Farewell in southern Greenland; in the Hardanger fjord in Norway; in Sweden; and in remote areas in Denmark. Of course, they needed scenes with lots of snow to make it look like Hudson Bay in the wintertime.
“Even though it was a hard and very slow process to make the movie, we had a great time making it. Lots of people were coming by just to see what happened during the days of filming, and the cast and crew slept at the craziest places every night. And because we really needed to be creative, we had lots of fun making scenes that looked like snow, old ships, dead bodies and things like that,” says Ole.
For example, they bought two model ships, which they used to re-create the snowy scenery of Northern Canada. Today these two ships are hanging down from the ceiling in Japp Productions and bring back great memories from the filming.
To make a movie about Jens Munk had been a real challenge, because there is so little material about him (there is not even one picture of him existing today). So it was very much up to Ole and the film crew to try to make the sets and sceneries correct according to Munk’s diary and be faithful to the story.
Where only a little is known about the expedition, it had been necessary to interpret some sections of the movie. Today we don’t know exactly how the Unicorn and Lamprey looked – so some paintings of ships from the same era have been very useful to get the right look.
When the movie had its first public performance back in 2015, it was quite well received by the Danish audience. Seventeen cinemas in Denmark showed the film, and concurrently another movie, Hidalgo, starring the famous Danish-American actor, Viggo Mortensen, was also being premiered.
“We were very proud, because our movie had a bigger audience than the Viggo Mortensen movie for a period of time – of course that’s great to experience. The Jens Munk film was a true passion project, and of course it’s great to see that the audience liked it,” says Ole Japp.
Jens Munk made a remarkable impact
Jens Munk came back to Denmark in 1620. In many ways he never got the full credit for his huge effort. Unfortunately, he lost almost all his crew and the frigate Unicorn. Furthermore, he never found the route to China and India, but he cleared the way for many adventurers after him and had a great impact on them. It was not until 1903-06 that the Norwegian arctic explorer Roald Amundsen successfully penetrated the Northwest Passage.
Today there are little remains of Jens Munk’s expedition, except his well-preserved diary at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. A couple of canon balls and a piece of iron from the frigate Unicorn were unearthed in 1964 during an expedition to the mouth of the Churchill River.
Scientists are almost certain that the cannon balls and the other artefacts are from the Unicorn, but the ship was destroyed by the strong ice packs, and for a long time scholars were not hundred percent sure, where Jens Munk’s Nova Dania was located.
According to old maps and information in Munk’s diary, it was possible to locate the place in 1964. Today the few finds are housed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen. Even though it was nearly 400 years since Jens Munk set sail for China and India, it is still a remarkable achievement.
In 1619 there were still lots of unknown spots on the world map unlike today, where we know everything thanks to satellite mapping and computer technology. That makes Jens Munk’s voyage even greater and he deserves the credit today, that he never got in his lifetime. Jens Munk died in 1628 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“I think what Jens Munk did isn’t only the history of Denmark, but certainly also world history. It’s an unusual story and one of the things that we as Danes and Scandinavians can be very proud of. He did a great job, even though he never found the Northwest Passage, but surviving in the arctic winter in Canada has really been an outstanding achievement,” says Ole Japp.
Today Jens Munk – the arctic explorer is little known in Canada. Most Canadians should know the story about the brave sea captain, who coped with the rough weather and serious illness in northern Manitoba, witnessed most of his men dying around him, but successfully made his way home more dead than alive across the North Atlantic Ocean.
In 2019, the Danish Canadian Associations in Canada will be organizing events across Canada to commemorate Jens Munk’s voyage and bring this story to the forefront.