The Land of Desolation
Being a Personal Narrative of Observation and Adventure in Greenland
Isaac Israel Hayes
Library of Alexandria
On a gloomy night in the month of July, 1585, the ship Sunshine, of fifty tons, “fitted out,” as the old chronicles inform us, “by divers opulent merchants of London, for the discovery of a north-west passage, came, in a thick and heavy mist, to a place where there was a mighty roaring as of waves dashing on a rocky shore.” The captain of this ship was brave old John Davis, who, when he had discovered his perilous situation, put off in a boat, and thereby discovered that his ship was “embayed in fields and hills of ice, the crashing together of which made the fearful sounds that he had heard.” The ship drifted helplessly through the night, and when the morning dawned, “the people saw the tops of mountains white with snow, and of a sugar-loaf shape, standing above the clouds; while at their base the land was deformed and rocky, and the shore was everywhere beset with ice, which made such irksome noise that the land was called ‘The Land of Desolation.’” On a gloomy night in the month of July, 1869, the ship Panther, of three hundred and fifty tons, fitted out for a summer voyage by a party in pursuit of pleasure, came in like manner, through a thick and heavy mist, to a place where there was a mighty roaring as of waves dashing on a rocky shore. The captain of this ship was John Bartlett, who, when he had discovered his perilous situation, put off in a boat, and returned with the knowledge that the Panther, like the Sunshine of old, was embayed in “fields and hills of ice,” the crashing together of which made the fearful sounds that he had heard; and then, when the morning dawned, “the people saw the tops of mountains white with snow, and of a sugar-loaf shape, standing above the clouds; while at their base the land was deformed and rocky,” and the shore was everywhere beset with ice, which made such “irksome noise,” that the people knew their ship had drifted to the self-same spot where the Sunshine had drifted nearly three hundred years before, and that the land before them was Davis’s “Land of Desolation.” A mysterious land to them, and one around which clung many marvellous associations. Its legends had been the wonder of their boyhood; its grandeur was now their admiration. They had heard of it as a land of fable; tradition had peopled it with dwarfs and giants; history recorded that a race of men once occupied it whose fleets of ships traversed the waters in which their own vessel was now so grievously beset, bearing merchandise to hamlets of peace and plenty. Their eyes naturally sought a spot whereon to locate the home of this ancient people; but nothing could they discover save sterile rocks and desert wastes of ice. They saw dark cliffs which rose threateningly above them abruptly from the sea, and beyond these their eye wandered away into the interior, which the snows of centuries had converted into a vast plain of desolate whiteness. Returning from this limitless perspective, the eye fell upon the troubled waters. There were no signs of life anywhere: desolation frowned on every side. Yet the spectacle was sublime; and, as if to render that sublimity the more complete, there was added soon an aspect of the terrible. This came in the form of a gale of wind, which speedily rose to a tempest. Rain, hail, and snow swept down upon the ship, and every distant object was hidden except when the storm-curtain was occasionally rent asunder, and a mountain peak was exposed, with the clouds breaking against its sides. The creaking and groaning ice was around them everywhere, and an occasional iceberg of enormous magnitude broke through the gloom, and, while moving on through the angry and troubled waters, received with cold indifference the fierce lashings of the sea.