ICHO Research Fellowship – Hudson Bay Company Archives and the RMS Nascopie

By Dr Isabelle Gapp, Postdoctoral Fellow University of Toronto

Allen F. Sherzer, View of iceberg and shore from the “Nascopie” (1939). Allen F. Sherzer fonds, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg. Image: Author’s photograph.

Late in 2022, I was fortunate to visit the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives at the Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg with the support of an ICHO research travel fellowship. Alongside several visits to Qaumajuq at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, with rich Arctic visual and material culture collections, the purpose of my trip was focused on conducting research for a forthcoming paper on the HBC icebreaker the R.M.S. Nascopie.

As an art historian, writing and teaching at the intersection of landscape painting and environmental history, my interest in this ship extends to the artwork and image cultures that emanated from its decks. Alongside HBC personnel, missionaries, medical practitioners, scientists, government officials, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and later the Eastern Arctic Patrol (EAP), from 1933 to 1941 the Nascopie counted tourists among its passengers. It was during this time that several professional and amateur artists, photographers, and filmmakers visited the Arctic as part of the Nascopie’s annual supply run to service HBC trade posts and Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut and Nunavut. Travelling along Canada’s Eastern Arctic shoreline, the ship made port at more than 18 posts, travelling from Montreal across the Labrador Sea, through the Hudson Strait, around Baffin Bay, and back along Greenland’s western shoreline.

Alongside printed photographs and negatives, such as the colour-slide taken from the Nascopie by Allen F. Sherzer and viewed here on a light box, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings made up most of the archival records. Requesting each record, five at a time, on paper slips, it was the two conflicting perspectives on the Nascopie’s fate that was perhaps most surprising. For context, in 1947 the Nascopie sank after striking a reef off the coast of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut. Within a scrapbook of newspaper articles, southern Canadian media, from Winnipeg to Toronto, reported that the Nascopie sank almost immediately upon impact. Crews’ lives were at risk and all the onboard supplies were immediately lost. In fact, it took almost three-months for the ship to become fully submerged leaving plenty of time for the crew to be rescued and the goods to be salvaged. A contact-sheet of photographs made by the Inuk photographer Peter Pitseolak revealed this gradual process, of the Nascopie becoming a shipwreck.

This visit to the HBC archives allowed me to expand the multi-media history of the Nascopie. Written and visual sources revealed how this coastal environment was a cultural and ecological space shaped by settler and Inuit encounters, conflicts, and communities. As I consider in my forthcoming paper, the image-making from aboard the Nascopie sought to reproduce the Canadian Arctic as an object of collective history and colonial modernity. By illuminating the role of the Nascopie throughout past and present visual media, I am more broadly interested in exploring the intertwined narratives of art history, environmental history, and marine history at sea and on Canada’s Arctic shore.

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