Rasmussen, Knud

Explorer and ethnologist born in Jakobshavn (Greenland) in 1879 - died in Gentofte (Denmark) in 1933.

Knud Rasmussen, also known as Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen, was born in Jakobshavn (now Ilulissat), the most important town in northwest Greenland. Born to Christian Rasmussen, a Danish missionary and linguist, and Louise Fleischer, a Greenlander of Danish and Inuit ancestry, Knud Rasmussen and his two brothers grew up in Greenland, surrounded by mountainous landscapes. Knud Rasmussen, nicknamed "Kunũnguaĸ" (little Knud), learned how to guide sled dogs at a very young age and at eight, he received a rifle and a dog sled from his father. He attended elementary school in Jakobshavn. From his childhood, lulled by Greenlandic myths and legends, he dreamed of travelling all the way to the northern tip of the island to meet Inuit who live near Cape York (now Innaanganeq) and Smith Sound. He then imagined a people isolated by perpetual ice and deprived of daylight.

In 1891, Knud Rasmussen moved to Denmark to attend high school in Nørrebro, a district of Copenhagen, experiencing a brutal cultural gap between his native land and his adopted country. Joined by his family in 1896, he attended the University of Copenhagen for a few semesters and failing to find a subject of interest, he gave up university studies. Between 1898 and 1900, he tried, without success, to become an actor and then an opera singer. In 1900, he finally turned to journalism, and met the Danish explorer and journalist Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen while covering the story of a voyage to Iceland. In 1901, Knud Rasmussen became a correspondent for the Kristeligt Dagblad in Stockholm. For this Danish newspaper, he covered the Nordic Games, providing him an opportunity to travel to Swedish and Norwegian Lapland (now Sápmi) in 1901. He wrote about this first trip in Lapland, a book published in 1907 ; the text was translated into English in 1908, Swedish in 1909 and French in 2008.

It was in 1902 that Knud Rasmussen returned to his homeland and began his career as an explorer. Solicited by his friend Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, and alongside the Danish painter Harald Moltke, he joined the company that would go down in history as the "Danish Greenland Literary Expedition" (in Danish: Den danske litterære Grønlands-Ekspedition). Their expedition took place between 1902 and 1904 and had as its purpose, the exploration of Melville Bay (northwestern Greenland), to meet the Inughuit, the Inuit of Smith Sound, and to collect their oral traditions. The expedition was a physical ordeal for team members, primarily composed of inexperienced travellers, as the Greenlandic summer days exposed them to humidity and disease. It was Knud Rasmussen, the group's interpreter, who made the expedition a success thanks to his experience of the country and his mastery of the Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut. He collected many legends, myths and stories from the Inuit communities they met, establishing good contacts and discovering his own talent for ethnographic research. At the end of this journey, he scrupulously transcribed the various testimonies collected and then translated them into Danish and English. His research work resulted in two publications: Nye Mennesker (1905), a work devoted to the Inughuit, translated into English in 1908, into German in 1907 and into Greenlandic in 1909 ; Under nordenvindens svøbe (1906), a work devoted to West and East Greenland. These early works earned Knud Rasmussen the admiration and esteem of the Danish philologist William Thalbitzer. In 1908, together with a group of like-minded people interested in Greenlandic culture, Knud Rasmussen founded the Greenlandic Literary Society (in Danish: Det grønlandske litteratur-selskab). The Society’s mission was to promote the publication of works in Kalaallisut. In 1930, this society evolved into the Folkeoplysningsforening (literally: "Association for Popular Information") and became the main publishing body for Knud Rasmussen's exploration stories. The diffusion of Greenlandic literature and the diffusion of foreign works through Greenland meant a lot to Knud Rasmussen : in 1911, he translated into Greenlandic three medieval Icelandic sagas dealing with the discovery of Greenland and America; in 1915, he translated into Danish Singnagtugak (1914) of Mathias Storch, the first novel ever published in Greenland and he commented and analysed this work through several papers, also in 1915.

In 1908, Knud Rasmussen married Dagmar Andersen, the daughter of a Danish businessman. Living in Uummannaq since 1903, Dagmar Andersen was a long-time friend of her husband. She learned to read and write Kalaallisut and assisted Knud Rasmussen in his transcription work, particularly in the winter of 1905-1906. In spite of the strong bond between, the spouses were regularly separated by Knud Rasmussen's multiple expeditions. Shortly after his marriage, Rasmussen met the Danish explorer and anthropologist Peter Freuchen, who became his business partner, expedition companion and best friend. It was with Peter Freuchen and Danish pioneer Marius Ib Nyeboe that Knud Rasmussen set up a trading post in Uummannaq, which he named Thule (not to be confused with the future American base at Thule, located much further north). This trading post was a means of protecting the Danish monopoly on Greenland, which was then threatened by the Norwegian Otto Sverdrup's project to set up a trading post in northwest Greenland. Thule was also the starting point for Peter Freuchen and Knud Rasmussen's hunting expeditions for the fur trade, and later for the seven learned expeditions, known as the Thule Expeditions, which they undertook between 1912 and 1933. Over the years, thanks to the profits generated by the hunting expeditions, the trading post grew. Shops, a church and a hospital were built, and donations were made to the neighbouring village. Thanks to the economic activities of the Thule trading post, the Inuit are now able to finance expeditions and scientific research dedicated to their own culture.

It was for his Thule Expeditions that Knud Rasmussen became the best-known explorer and ethnographer of his time in Denmark. The first four Thule Expeditions took Knud Rasmussen and his companions to north and east regions of Greenland to study the living conditions of the Inuit communities and to collect their stories. The First Thule Expedition (1912) aimed to map Peary Land, at the northeastern tip of Greenland and establish that it was indeed a peninsula. These exploits were recounted in Min Rejsedagbog: Skildringer fra den første Thule-Ekspedition published in 1915. It was also translated into Swedish in 1915, Greenlandic in 1916, and German in 1938. Knud Rasmussen's Second Thule Expedition (1916-1918) enabled him to perfect the cartography of the northernmost areas of Greenland, while studying them geologically, botanically and ethnographically. This expedition resulted in a book: Grønland langs Polhavet. Udforskningen af Grønland fra Melvillebugten til Kap Morris Jessup. Skildringer fra den 2. Thule-ekspedition, 1916–18 (1919). This book was translated into Swedish in 1919, into English in 1921, and into German in 1922. The Third Thule Expedition (1918), in which Knud Rasmussen did not personally participate, consisted of bringing food and resources to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who was drifting in the Northeast Passage on board his ship, the Maud. The Fourth (1919), Sixth (1931) and Seventh (1933) Thule Expeditions were aimed at collecting myths, legends and ethnographic data from the Inuit community of Ammassalik, located in a very isolated area of eastern Greenland. Knud Rasmussen regularly published articles and reviews documenting each expedition, both in Danish and English, in the Geografisk Tidsskrift, a Danish geography journal, and in Meddelelser om Grønland, a Danish scientific periodical about Greenland.

The Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924) was Knud Rasmussen's most famous and significant expedition. The ultimate goal of this expedition was to trace the origins of the Inuit people from Greenland to Siberia from a circumpolar perspective. Knud Rasmussen began planning for this expedition as early as 1909. In an article in Geografisk Tidsskrift, he proposed an ethnographic expedition to the central Arctic regions around Hudson Bay. Between 1909 and 1921, he envisaged three alternative routes for the expedition. In June 1921, a team consisting of some of Denmark's leading scientists, including archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen, ethnographer Kaj Birket-Smith and author Helge Bangsted, left Copenhagen and sailed towards Greenland on the Bele. After a passage through the Thule trading post, the voyage continued on board the Søkongen to Hudson Bay at the beginning of September 1921. A base camp was established on a small island in the region, which was named Danish Island, northwest of Hudson Bay, in present-day Nunavut. The team made several dog sled trips from this island and established contact with several Inuit and First Nations communities near Repulse Bay (now Naujaat) and Southampton Island, between Hudson Bay and the Northwest Passage. A wide range of ethnographic and archaeological data was collected. On April 11, 1923, as Peter Freuchen began his return journey to Greenland, Knud Rasmussen left Danish Island heading west. With his Greenlandic Inuit companions, Qavigarssuaq and Arnarulunguaq - the latter would probably be the first woman to take part in a research expedition of this magnitude - he travelled on two sleds with twelve dogs. All three travelled through the northern part of present-day Nunavut, from Repulse Bay to Boothia Peninsula, then to the Rae Strait, gathering information about the Inuit of Netsilik, one of the Inuit groups on the Canadian Arctic coast. After spending the summer and fall of 1923 and the winter of 1924 on King William Island, they continued their expedition and arrived in Alaska in May 1924. After travelling by dog sled for six thousand kilometers, the expedition ended at Cape Glacier, in northwestern Alaska. Knud Rasmussen then returned to Denmark where he was triumphantly welcomed.

The extensive ethnographic data collected during the Fifth Thule Expedition includes a wide variety of artefacts and interviews, and remains to this day a valuable record of Inuit culture and oral history. A ten-volume report on several topics relevant to the expedition, entitled Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924. The Danish Expedition to Arctic North America in Charge of Knud Rasmussen, was published in English by various members of the expedition between 1927 and 1952. The studies undertaken during this expedition constitute a pivotal moment in the ethnology and anthropology of the Arctic. In addition to several research reports on archaeology, physical anthropology, physical geography, geology, botany and zoology, Rasmussen wrote several monographs on the ethnology of the Inuit of Kivalliq (western Hudson Bay), the Netsilik Inuit (northern Baffin Island), the Iglulik Inuit (northern Baffin Island) and the Kitlinermiut (Kitikmeot region in present-day Nunavut and Inuvik region in the Northwest Territories). The book that has gained popular and international recognition is Knud Rasmussen's account of his Arctic sled crossing, Fra Grønland till Stillehavet (meaning: “From Greenland to the Pacific”), which was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926. This book has been translated into several languages: without claiming to be exhaustive, there are two German translations, the first in 1926, the second in 2006; an English translation in 1927; a Greenlandic translation in 1928; a French translation in 1929; and a Spanish translation in 1930. It should be mentioned that Knud Rasmussen also published a shortened account of his expedition, under the title Den store slæderejse (meaning: « The great dogsled trip »). This account was regularly reissued in Danish and translated into Russian (1935), into Czech (1938), into Norwegian (1938), into German (1942) into French (1948), and into Italian (2011).

The Fifth Thule Expedition undoubtedly provided Knud Rasmussen his international stature as an ethnologist and explorer. In 1923, while he was still crossing the Canadian Arctic, the Royal Geographical Society in London awarded him its Founder's Gold Medal. His lecture to the same society on November 9, 1925, awakened vocations among many young British explorers. The Royal Danish Geographical Society awarded Knud Rasmussen the Hans Egede Medal in 1924. He received two honorary doctorates from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) (1925) and University of St Andrews (Scotland) (1927).

Knud Rasmussen had already received international recognition when he published his three-volume summa Myter og sagn fra Grønland ('Myths and Legends of Greenland') between 1921 and 1925. This work is a compilation of the storytelling collected during the first two Thule Expeditions. The first volume deals with East Greenland (1921), the second volume (1924) with West Greenland and the third volume (1925) with the far north of Greenland, including Cape York. A fourth volume was planned, but never published. An abridged Danish edition, by a connoisseur of Greenland, the Danish author Jørn Riel, was published in 1994. This work by Knud Rasmussen is considered the basis for the vast majority of subsequent collections of Greenlandic tales published and distributed throughout the world until today. Its influence is attributed to its many translations, most often abbreviated, which have appeared very quickly after its publication. For example – without claiming to be exhaustive – there was an English translation in 1921, a German translation in 1922 and a Swedish translation in 1926. French-speaking readership only gained access to the stories collected by Rasmussen from 1998 onwards. Tracing the reception of this collection is a formidable task. It should be remembered that published short editions, especially for young readers, are today legion, all over the world.

Knud Rasmussen's contribution to the knowledge of the myths and legends of the Canadian Arctic, and particularly of present-day Nunavut, is just as significant. Many of the stories collected during the Fifth Thule Expedition are included in Canadian Inuit legend collections. In the English-language cultural space - and again, not to be exhaustive – this would include the following works: A Kayak Full of Ghosts. Eskimo Tales (1987) by Lawrence Millman, Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples (1990) by Howard Norman, and Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English (1988) by Penny Petrone. Studies of Canadian Inuit literature all, necessarily mention the stories collected by Knud Rasmussen in present-day Nunavut when discussing the origins of this oral literature. For example, Robin McGrath (1984), Keavy Martin (2012) and Nelly Duvicq (2019).

Notoriety did not detract Knud Rasmussen from his primary passion: Arctic exploration. In 1931, he carried out the Sixth Thule Expedition, which consisted of sailing along the east coast of Greenland to confirm Denmark's territorial claim to Greenland, following a threat from Norway. This expedition, which departed from Julianehåb (now Qaqortoq) and returned to Aapilattoq, in the south of the island, enabled the collection of new cartographic data, work that was continued during the Seventh Thule Expedition, Knud Rasmussen's last expedition. Weakened by food poisoning, he contracted pneumonia and had to return to Denmark. He died on December 21 in 1933 at the Gentofte hospital, north of Copenhagen.

Knud Rasmussen devoted his life to the study of Inuit people, their language, culture and history and this earned him the title of "the father of Eskimology" by the French geographer and anthropologist Jean Malaurie in his book The Last Kings of Thule (1956 ; originally issued in French in 1955). In fact, Knud Rasmussen’s various scientific works are still considered some of the best sources of ethnographic information on the Arctic. The Études Inuit Studies journal at Université Laval, which usually adopts a thematic perspective for its issues, devoted its first monographic issue entitled "The Work of Knud Rasmussen" in 1988. In this issue, the practically complete bibliography of Knud Rasmussen’s work by Inge Kleivan, Rolf Gilbert, Ernest S. Burch and Jean-Loup Rousselot is a useful tool until now. For specialists in Arctic culture and history, Knud Rasmussen's contributions are numerous, notably on the meaning of temporality among the Inuit, their relationship to narrative, and to Western categories of fiction, lies and truth. His intimate knowledge of Greenland and his dual role - as a scholar who studied Inuit cultures and as the Inuit custodian of those cultures – have made him an ethnologist with an original style, even in the way he collected myths and legends from his informants: by incantatory repetition of their words, before putting them down on paper.

Knud Rasmussen is considered a folk hero in both Denmark and Greenland. His birth house in Ilulissat is now a museum, dedicated to him, as is his house in Hundested, Denmark. His Thule house was transported and rebuilt further north, at Qaanaaq, near another Thule. The town of Sisimiut in central-western Greenland has a Knud Rasmussen school. In Denmark, the National Museum of Denmark, which received 16,000 artefacts from him, has a Knud Rasmussen hall. Around the world, many streets are named after Knud Rasmussen: in Germany and Austria, Knud Rasmussen streets exist in Greifswald, Güstrow, Ingolstadt, Lübeck, Rostock, Vienna and Wilhelmshaven. Knud Rasmussen's memory is also immortalised in culture and literature: see Knud Rasmussen som jug husker ham : fortalt for ungdommen (1934), an biography written by his friend Peter Freuchen and translated into English under the title I Sailed with Rasmussen (1958); White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic (2015) by Stephen R. Bown, and the Danish biographical film Knud Rasmussen – den store fortryller (2017) by Louise Birk Petersen. As well, Knud Rasmussen made his mark on the Arctic landscape from Greenland to Canada: in Greenland there is a Rasmussen Cape, a Rasmussen Mountain, a Rasmussen Glacier and a Rasmussen Mountain Range (also called Usugdluk) and in present-day Nunavut, there is the Rasmussen Basin. These are just a few of the many tributes paid to Knud Rasmussen to the present day.

It should be noted that Inuit voices have also expressed their views on the work and legacy of Knud Rasmussen, who was a cultural bridge between two worlds. In 1990, the authorities of the Inuit communities of western Hudson Bay requested that the National Museum of Denmark return the remains of several dozen Inuit, who Knud Rasmussen and his companions had seized during the Fifth Thule Expedition. In 1991, their remains were returned to Repulse Bay, where they were buried. The Greenlandic poet and politician Aqqaluk Lynge expressed an ambivalent view of Knud Rasmussen in two poems from his collection From the Veins of the Heart to the Peak of Thought (2008). He prefers to pay homage to Arnarulunnguaq, Knud Rasmussen's forgotten travelling companion.

Mentioned in

This biography is based on the available written material during a collective research carried out during 2018-2021. It is possible that mistakes and facts need to be corrected. If you notice an error, or if you wish to correct something in an author's biography, please write to us at imaginairedunord@uqam.ca and we will be happy to do so. This is how we will be able to have more precise presentations, and to better promote Inuit culture.


(c) International Laboratory for Research on Images of the North, Winter and the Arctic, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2018-2021, Daniel Chartier and al.