POST-PANDEMIC CRUISE: On the Coast of Labrador, 1925


July 24/2020:  I’ve said this before, and now I’ll say it again: the book Northern Lights, by one Desmond Holdridge, first published by Viking in 1939, is one of the best, perhaps the best cruising account I have ever read. It recounts the author’s first serious venture under sail, as an 18-year-old skipper managing a crew of two middle-aged men aboard a converted 30-foot potato lugger named Dolphin. In this quite unsuitable craft–with wholly inadequate gear, minimal accommodations, and no engine (they sold it just before setting out)–Holdridge and his often grumbly mates sailed the entire length of the Labrador coast in one season.

It’s got everything you’re looking for in a good sailing tale: a shipwreck (or two or three), lots of bad weather, stunning scenery, gnawing crew conflict and incipient mutiny, wispy suspicions of murder, etc.

But the part I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately is Dolphin’s visit to the town of Okkak (as Holdridge spells it), which was in its day the largest Inuit community in Labrador, site of a Moravian mission first established in 1776. By the time Holdridge and company arrived on the scene, just seven years after the town was overwhelmed by the great Spanish influenza, Okkak had been effectively obliterated.

Dolphin’s route up the coast

The pandemic in Labrador was ignited by a single infected crew member aboard the Moravian supply ship Harmony, which made two tours of the coast each season. Harmony arrived at Okak (the more commonly accepted spelling) that year, 1918, on November 4, a week before World War I finally ended. The ship departed on November 8. Within two weeks, 70 residents of the town had died. By the end of the following month 204 of the total population of 263 had perished. Not a single male Inuit survived.

Harmony at anchor at Okak in 1905

Okak in its prime

Residents of Okak in 1908

“And thus, on the Mission bark Harmony,” wrote Holdridge, “had come the pestilence generated on battlefields, three thousand miles away, of a war that had less to do with the destinies of the Eskimo, on the face of it, than Polynesian morals have to do with double-entry bookkeeping.”

The bay at Okak today

Inuit graveyard

He quoted at length one Caucasian survivor who described to him the aftermath:

Dear God, we couldn’t bury them; there weren’t half a dozen able-bodied men in the village to lend a hand. Men I’d known well. Girls. Old ladies that made good boots. And the men and the women, they lay there dying and saying it was the end of the world. They called that thing Spanish influenza, but to me it was that the door to Hell was left ajar for a while and the smoke and stink of it got out to kill people. The dogs got into the houses and ate the bodies; they killed some of the people who were not dead, but too weak to drive them off.

 You’ve seen the mounds around the village; it was where the bodies were so many that we couldn’t take care of them when help came from Nain; we just smashed the houses down on top of them and covered the wreckage with sod. That’s all the grave most of them got. The ice came in for a while and some of the dead we just pushed under it and let them go to sea. And a couple of years later some of them came ashore again. The noses and ears and fingers had been eaten by the fish but otherwise they were all right; I could recognize every one.

Here’s a brief documentary on the pandemic that was first released in 1985:

There’s also an interesting looking book that was published just two years ago: We All Expected To Die: Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918-19, by Anne Budgell.

All of it food for thought in these trying times, a tad over 100 years later.

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4 Responses
  1. Robert R. Bartlett

    Tragic story … Thank you Charles for bringing it to the forefront in these troubled times one hundred years later. No cruising “Down on the Labrador” this season however for the truly adventurous perhaps we will be able to visit “The Land that God Gave to Cain” next year !

  2. Alexandre Legault

    Thanks for recommending Northern Lights, It was well written with humour and gripping up to the end. For me it touched a chord since I went up that coast five years ago, up to Nain. Been dreaming of sailing up to Torngat National Park ever since.

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