In the Library

Peter Freuchen – the colonial adventurer and his legacy

By Iben Bjørnsson

In Denmark, there is a chapter of The Adventurers’ Club, an early 20th Century gathering of male ‘explorers’ who travelled the world. One might think that such a thing is an old relic, which reeks of male exclusivity and colonial exploits. And in thinking so, one would not be wrong. 

Nevertheless, the founder of the club is a beloved character in Danish history – and his aftermath, perhaps more than anything, represents a variety of aspects of the Danish-Greenlandic (colonial) relationship.

The name is Peter Freuchen. He participated in numerous Danish arctic expeditions, often alongside Denmark’s perhaps most famous of explorers, Knud Rasmussen. He was a stoker, polar explorer, cartographer, zoologist, filmmaker, trade manager, journalist, author and even, at one point, the leader of the Danish Professional Boxing Federation. 

Peter Freuchen was born in 1886. He studied study medicine at the University of Copenhagen in 1904 but dropped out after participating in his first polar adventure, the Denmark Expedition, which departed from Copenhagen in 1906 and went on for two years. Here, he learned meteorology and cartography and stayed for 6 months in a ‘mouldy, disgusting hut’ far from the other participants. Even so, he never regretted going to Greenland for one moment. Quite the opposite, he found a sense of belonging and excelling. And his talents for Arctic living and exploring caught the eye of Knud Rasmussen, a man of mixed Danish and Inuit descent who had grown up in Greenland. 

Rasmussen had plans to establish a trading station in what was then known as the Cape York District in north-western Greenland and he brought Freuchen along to manage it. They set up shop in 1910 and named the station Thule, after the mythical northern location at the end of the world.
But they had not come to uninhabited lands. Thule was founded next to the Inuit settlement of Uummannaq and gave Freuchen a change to witness first-hands the colonial meeting between Greenland and Denmark. He disliked the missionaries for not practicing what they preached, as well as the schooling that they were also tasked with giving Greenlandic children. 
He became further on the outs with the Danish church when he became romantically involved and lived with an Inuit woman, Navarana, without getting married in the Christian church – his new partner even refused to convert to Christianity, which was quite the scandal in clerical circles. Having himself witness the missionaries chasing after local women, Freuchen took this lightly and perhaps even found it a little comical. In 1936, he wrote: ‘In general, missionaries will go straight to the sixth commandment. Sexual issues are the favourite topic of the Christian church.(…) However, a little sad and ridiculous for the poor heathens that no missionary has ever had success in teaching his own compatriots to live up to the Christian demands.”

Map of Greenland with intended route outlined by Rasmussen (1916)

But even if Freuchen thus ridiculed Danish colonial efforts in Greenland, he was inextricably part of them himself. He was managing a Danish trading station and participating in several of Knud Rasmussen’s Thule Expeditions, which all served the purpose of ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ the Arctic regions and its peoples. These were undeniably colonial endeavours, even if done without the bloodshed and harsh methods employed elsewhere. And Knud Rasmussen who ran the operation, was part of the ethnically mixed colonial ‘aristocracy’ in Greenland, which was viewed – from a Danish point of view – as being on a higher developmental stage than Inuit people proper. Hence, even if Rasmussen spoke the Inuit language and knew all about handling a pack of sled dogs, and even if Freuchen lived as a heathen with a local woman, both of them were fundamentally a part of, and represented Danish colonial rule, and this fact could not, in the end, escape neither them or the area in which they had set up their operation. 

In 1919, Freuchen was sent back to Denmark and took with him Navarana and their two children, but the stay was unsuccessful: they both longed to go back to Greenland. Upon returning, however, their happiness was cut short. In the summer of 1921, the Spanish flu ravaged the West coast of Greenland and eventually took Navarana’s life. Peter Freuchen went on Knud Rasmussen’s 5th Thule expedition, hoping to take his mind off the grief. But in 1924, on their way back across Arctic America, an incident occurred that was to have a decisive influence on the rest of Freuchen’s life: he took shelter from a snowstorm and spent the night in sub-zero temperatures as low as -54°C. From this, he suffered frostbite in his left foot to a degree which necessitated the amputation of the lower part of his leg in 1926. This prevented him from  participating in more Arctic expeditions. 

Freuchen thus moved back to Denmark. During Second World War, however, he was forced to flee to Sweden, because he had been helping people hide from the German occupation force. From here on, he moved to the US where he settled and re-married. 

Peter Freuchen with wife Dagmar Cohn
Peter Freuchen with wife Dagmar Cohn

From the US, the explorer continued to take an interest in Greenland, which was formally de-colonized in 1953, but remained part of the Danish Kingdom under a rule which was still quite colonial in practice, if not formally. In the meantime, however, the location of Freuchen’s old trading station, Thule, was to be the site of one of the darker chapters of Danish colonial history in Greenland, namely the forcible removal of people of Ummannaq to Qaanaaq 130 km north, to make way for the American Thule Air Base. In 1999, the Danish government issued an official apology for the forced relocation. 

In 1957 radio and TV producer Lowell Thomas asked Freuchen to travel to Thule and the North Pole with two other former Arctic explorers for a TV series. He accepted gladly, but never completed the trip: on their way the participants and crew stopped over in Anchorage, Alaska, where Freuchen died at the age of 71. 

Freuchen was cremated, and his ashes scattered around Thule, the place which, in many ways, had shaped his life and given purpose, and at least one of whose inhabitants he had loved dearly – but also the place which, as a consequence of his very presence ended up being the site of a particularly distressing colonial crime. 

Freuchen with friends on Island of Enehøje (Nakskov Fjord)

PS. Oh, the Danish branch of the Adventurers Club? He founded that in 1938, while living in Denmark and having been admitted as a corresponding member of the club in the US. To this day, the initiation ceremony features a knocking sound said to be coming from his wooden leg. 

Iben Bjørnsson holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Copenhagen and specialises in contemporary history and politics with an emphasis on the Nordic countries. She is a curator at the Stevnsfort Cold War Museum in Denmark.