Jens Munk

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A map drawn in hand by Jens Munk in 1624 of the area between Cape Farewell in Greenland and Hudson Bay in Canada, seen from the north

Jens Munk (3 June or July 1579 – 28 June 1628) was a Dano-Norwegian navigator and explorer who was born in Norway where his father, Erik Munk, had received several fiefs for his achievements in the Northern Seven Years' War. He returned to Denmark at the age of eight. He entered into the service of King Christian IV and is most noted for his attempts to find the Northwest Passage to India. [1]


Jens Munks was born on his father's estate Barbu at Arendal in the county of Aust-Agder. The father had an infamous reputation for his brutal rule over his estates which led to several trials, and in 1585 he was deposed and imprisoned at Dragsholm Castle.[2][3] After that, at the age of eight, Jens Munk travelled to Aalborg in Denmark with his mother who became a housekeeper in the home of her husband's sister who was married to the city's mayor.[4]

In 1591, at the age of twelve, Munk went to Oporto in Portugal where he worked for the shipping magnate Duart Duez. The following year he sailed with a Dutch convoy to Bahia in Brazil. Off the Brazilian coast the convoy was attacked by French pirates. Munk was among the seven survivors. Munk lived in Bahia (today's Salvador) for six years, where he was in the service of Duart Duez' brother, Miguel. In 1599, under dramatic circumstances, Munk returned to Europe and Copenhagen, where the Danish magnate and Lord Chancellor Henrik Ramel hired him as ship clerk.[5]

In 1609, he set sail with his partner Jens Hvid for the ice-filled Barents Sea. After two unsuccessful attempts to find the Northeast passage in 1609 and 1610 he caught the attention of King Christian IV. In 1612, during the Swedish - Danish war (1611–13), the so-called Kalmar War, Jens Munk together with the nobleman Jørgen Daa led a successful attack on the Swedish fortress Älvsborg, near today's Gothenburg. In 1614, he led a search for the privateer Jan Mendoses, whom he fought in a battle at Kanin Nos near the entrance of the White Sea. In the spring of 1617 he recruited eighteen Basque whalemen for the first Danish whaling expedition to Spitsbergen. In 1618 King Christian IV appointed him as commander of the first Danish expedition to East India with five vessels and almost 1000 men, but only one month before the departure of the expedition in November Munk was relegated and replaced by the much younger nobleman Ove Gjedde. The reason for the relegation is unclear, but was most likely caused by a conflict Munk had with the Lord Chancellor, Christian Friis. Munk’s setback was compounded by the deaths of his brother Niels and good friend Jørgen Daa. A few months earlier Munk also had lost a vast amount of money as a result of an unsuccessful whaling expedition and which caused loss of social prestige. As an attempt to regain his social position he started the planning of a much more spectacular expedition in 1619, the search for the Northwest Passage.[6]

On 9 May 1619, under the auspices of King Christian IV, Munk set out with 65 men and His Royal Majesty's two ships, the small frigate Enhiörningen (Unicorn) and the sloop Lamprenen (Lamprey), which were outfitted under his own supervision.[7] His mission was to discover the Northwest Passage to the Indies and China. His crew included Rasmus Jensen, Church of Denmark priest today recognized to be the first Lutheran cleric in Canada. Munk penetrated Davis Strait as far north as 69°, found Frobisher Bay,[8] and then spent almost a month fighting his way through Hudson Strait. In September 1619 he found the entrance to Hudson Bay and spent the winter near the mouth of the Churchill River. Cold, famine, and scurvy destroyed so many of his men that only two persons besides himself survived. With these men, he sailed for home with the Lamprey on 16 July 1620,[9] reaching Bergen, Norway, on 20 September 1620.

Later a party of Indians returned to the shore. They found a number of unburied bodies of strange appearance and Munk's abandoned stores. Not knowing what gunpowder was, they set it alight and many of them were killed.[10]

Munk had planned on a new Northwest journey to take possession of Nova Dania (New Denmark) for the Danish crown, but his health was too weak to go on with it. In the subsequent years Munk served as sea captain in the royal fleet. During the Thirty years War Munk led a blockade on the River Weser in 1626 and 1627. Munk took part in the attacks on Wallenstein's troops at Fehmarn and in the Kieler Fjord in March and April 1628. Munk died on 26 June the same year probably as a result of being wounded in the battles in the Kieler Fjord a couple of months earlier. According to the French scientist Isaac de la Peyrere, who served as a legate at the French embassy in Copenhagen, Munk died as a result of a dispute with King Christian IV, in which the king furiously attacked Munk with his stick and thus caused his death.

Munk was buried at St Nikolai Church on the Baltic island of Fehmarn.[11]


An account of Munk's voyage to Hudson Bay in 1619-20 was published in Copenhagen in 1624 as Navigatio Septentrionalis; new editions by Peter Lauridsen (Copenhagen, 1883) Efterretning af Navigationen og Reisen til det Nye Danmark af Styrmand Jens Munk and by C. C. A. Gosch, Danish Arctic Expeditions 1605 to 1620, volume ii. Hakluyt Society, No. xcvii (London, 1897).

More recently there has been a popular book about him The Way to Hudson Bay: The Life and Times of Jens Munk (1969) by Thorkild Hansen. Hansen recovered a few remains of the Unicorn in the tidal flats of the river in 1964.[12]


The Canadian island Jens Munk Island, located off the coast of Baffin Island, is named after him as is Munk Harbour at the mouth of Churchill River in Hudson Bay. The Jens Munk rose, developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was named in his honour.[13]


  1. ^ Jens Munk - Scandinavia's First Great Polar Explorer University Library of Tromsø
  2. ^ Jens Munk (Store norske leksikon)
  3. ^ Erik Nielssøn Munk (Store norske leksikon)
  4. ^ "Jens Munk - Søfarer, 1579-1628". Jørgen Marcussen. Retrieved 2011-05-19. 
  5. ^ Jens Munk (1579- 1628) (The Arctic Institute of North America. University of Calgary)
  6. ^ Daa (Store norske leksikon)
  7. ^ Mowat, Farley (1973). Ordeal by ice; the search for the Northwest Passage. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd. p. 95. OCLC 1391959. 
  8. ^ (Mowat, 1973, pp. 97)
  9. ^ (Mowat, 1973, pp. 111)
  10. ^ Arthur Silver Morton, A History of Western Canada, 1978?, page 33
  11. ^ Jens Mubk, FindaGrave, rertrieved April 2014
  12. ^ Thorkild Hansen: Jens Munk (Gyldendal, 1965). 391 s., ill.
  13. ^ Jens Munk rose


Other sources[edit]

  • Birket-Smith, K. Jens Munk's rejse og andre danske ishavsfarter under Christian IV (Copenhagen. 1929)
  • Knudsen, Johannes Den danske Ishavsfarer Jens Munk (Copenhagen. 1902)

External links[edit]