The frigid prospect of Greenland has engendered [both] fear and fascination in the minds of men for many centuries.
This fear and fascination inspired the writers of Yellow-Backs to pen glorious adventure stories that entertained a spellbound public in the second half of the 19th century
A yellow-back (or yellowback) is a cheap novel which was published in Britain in the second half of the 19th century.
They were occasionally called “mustard-plaster” novels.
Developed in the 1840s to compete with the “penny dreadful”, yellow-backs were marketed as entertaining reading.
They had brightly coloured covers, often printed by chromoxylography, that were attractive to a new class of readers, thanks to the spread of education and rail travel.
Routledges was one of the first publishers to begin marketing yellow-backs by starting their “Railway Library” in 1849.
The series included 1,277 titles, published over 50 years.
James Grant was a prolific author of Yellow-Backs who appropriated “local colour for his fictions from graver writers”.
James Grant (1822–1887) was a Scottish novelist and miscellaneous writer.
Grant was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was a distant relation of Sir Walter Scott.
He was a prolific author, writing some 90 books, including many yellow-backs.
Titles included Adventures of an Aide-de-camp, One of “The six hundred”, The Scottish musketeers and The Scottish cavalier.
A charge of plagiarism has been brought against Grant owing to his having incorporated without acknowledgment a good many descriptive passages from a book of travels and campaigning in one of his novels.
Grant, however, does not seem to have exceeded the license justly allowed a novelist of appropriating local colour for his fictions from graver writers.
Thus, without having to leave the comfort of his study, James Grant was able to imaginatively produce Jack Manly: His Adventures by Sea and Land  for an audience that was even less well informed [about Greenland] than himself.
Sadly, this ancient tradition of creative writing still flourishes today in the Earth Sciences and it is difficult for the general reader to distinguish between fact and fiction when it comes to Greenland.
However, Jack Manly: His Adventures by Sea and Land is a fantastic tale of derring-do that provides an insight into the popular culture that may have inspired real heroes to discover Greenland for themselves.
Rejoicing that we trod on firm land once more, Paul reeves, Hans Peterkin, and I set off to shoot on the great Island of Sermesoak, which is divided from the mainland of Greenland by the Fin Whale Strait, while Hartly arranged with the Danish resident at the village for such supplies of fresh food as a place so poor could afford.
Leaving the Isle of Bears, we ran our boat into a creek called Cunninghame’s Haven, from John Cunninghame, a Scotsman, who was Admiral of Denmark, and who, on his return from Davis’ Straits, in 1605, appeared off Greenland with three ships, and carried away some of the natives, whom he presented to Christian IV., together with a chain weighing twenty-six ounces, formed of fine silver, found by him among the rocks at a place still named Cunninghame’s Fiord.
With all our anxiety to add to the fresh provisions on board, we were not without a desire to encounter some of the bears with which one always associates the name of Greenland; and ere twenty-four hours elapsed, I was certainly gratified to the fullest extent in that way.
The people of Sermesoak were then in consternation, owing to the depredations of a fierce herd of Bruins which had crossed the strait from the mainland, and devoured many of their children, dogs, and reindeer.
These bears are as revengeful and subtle as they are savage. “Some years ago,” says a traveller, “the crew of a boat belonging to a ship in the whale-fishery shot at a bear and wounded it. The animal immediately uttered the most dreadful howl, and ran along the ice towards the boat. Before he reached it a second shot hit him; this, however, served but to increase his fury. He presently swam to the boat, and in attempting to get on board, placed one of his fore-feet on the gunnel ; but a sailor, having a hatchet in his hand, cut it off. The animal still continued to swim after them, till they arrived at the ship; several shots were fired at him which took effect, but on reaching the ship he ascended to the deck; and the crew having fled into the shrouds, he was actually pursuing them thither when a shot laid him lifeless on the deck.”
Allured by the odour of the seal oil, they had surrounded and broken into the dwellings of the natives in herds, and devoured them in their beds; and numerous stories of these terrible raids were told to Hans (who knew something of the language) by the people of Sermesoak, as we set out on our expedition.
We shot several white hares, and consigned them to a large canvas bag which Hans had slung over his shoulder. In our sporting ardour we penetrated several miles into the country, and in making a detour to beat up for nobler game, I lost my companions among the furze-covered rocks of a ravine. Dusk was coming on, and, wearied with halloing, I sat down to look around me. I was quite alone and in a strange place, but more safe and comfortable in every way than when I was alone on the ice-floe. Though in a foreign and barbarous country, this reflection set my mind completely at ease.
A wild and dreary scene lay around me.
Mountains piled on mountains of stern rock rose on every side, covered with snow unmarked by footstep, track, or road. No trees were growing there and no verdure was visible, save some patches of short grass and moss where the wind had torn the snow from the rocky surface. It seemed as if the icy breath of the Northern Sea, when it swept through the Fin Whale Strait, destroyed all vegetable nature ; and as for the flowers of spring,
one might as well have looked for them on an iceberg.
Why that country was named the Greenland, Heaven only knows!
In 1610, Jonas Pool, a whaling captain, called it King James’ Newland, from James VI of Scotland; but that name was soon forgotten.
Above me impended a bluff of sullen aspect, the rifts of which formed the eyrie of myriads of white sea-gulls and birds like the great Solan goose of the Scottish isles ; and these were whirring, screaming, and booming on their broad pinions, as they came home from the shore.
As the shadows deepened, even these sounds ceased, and nothing met the ear but the croak of a lonely raven which sat on a granite boulder.
Far away in distance, down below me, stretched the headlands which jutted into the deep blue waters of the Whale Strait – starting up in fantastic pinnacles and precipitous ridges, like the towers and turrets of crumbling castles. These walls of rock were black and sombre, though their summits were crowned by eternal snow.
From the mountains the sleet and melting snows of ages have long since washed away every grain of earth; hence, no verdure can spring there, and their rugged fronts present the most harsh and singular outlines. The higher ridges are rendered inaccessible by glaciers; and when the snows melt from their gloomy lichened fronts, long and silvery runnels, that seem like threads in the distance, trickle down the precipices; then winter comes again, converting these runnels into ice, which splits and rends the hardest rock to fragments, that roll with the sound of thunder down the steep glaciers into the valleys below.
Leaning on my gun, I was surveying this wild and dreary scene, and careless alike of the cold and the coming night, was lost in reverie, when a sound aroused me, and on looking up, I saw close by an animal of strange form, such as I had never seen before, even in a menagerie.
It was larger than a pony, but had singularly short limbs, which were almost entirely concealed by the long dark hair that covered all its body, and reached nearly to the ground. It had a short tail, and large crooked horns of powerful aspect, with a mass of hair like a horse’s mane hanging beard-wise under its throat.
A very strange sensation comes over one on beholding an unknown animal for the first time, and on this musk-ox – for such it was – approaching, with its large projecting eyes glaring, and while shaking those formidable horns, by which it can encounter and slay the bear and walrus, astonishment soon gave place to alarm, and I regretted more than ever the absence of my two comrades.
The ox was only a pistol-shot distant, so, with my heart beating quickly – as I knew not what the sequel might be – I levelled my gun, and fired full at its head. The animal uttered a bellowing roar, bounded furiously forward, and fell motionless on its side.
The ball had pierced its brain.
With a thousand echoes, the report of my gun rang among the hills of rock, peak after peak seeming to catch the sound and toss it from one to the other, until it died away on the wind that blew through the Fin Whale Strait.
I was not without hope that the sound might reach Reeves and Hans Peterkin, and guide them towards me; but I hoped in vain.
The ox I had slain was one of the largest of the Musk species, and might have weighed, perhaps, seven hundredweight. It would, I knew, prove a most acceptable addition to our scanty stores on board the Leda; moreover, I was not a little vain of having slain, by a single ball, an animal so large and so little known by Europeans; but how to get it conveyed to the brig, or how to guide any of our crew to the spot where it lay, were puzzling queries.
I observed that at the distance of a hundred yards from it, there rose a steep and rugged rock, cleft into three singular peaks, so lofty as to be visible from a great distance. Conceiving this to be a sufficient landmark, I reloaded my gun, and resolved, if possible, to discover Cunninghame’s Haven, where our boat lay. Without a track, a road, or native to guide me, I toiled over the steep and rugged mountains, and through ravines and hollows half filled with drifted snow, steering my way by the stars in that direction which I conceived might lead me to our boat.
To enhance the wildness and gloomy grandeur of the scenery, there now came a wondrous and fan shaped light over all the clear cold blue of the northern sky – a glorious Aurora Borealis. This light, sent by Heaven to cheer the lone denizens of that frozen wilderness, spread a rich and wavering glow over all the northern firmament, playing in streaks or lines that alternately faded away, and resumed their dazzling brilliance. These alternations fill with awe the simple Greenlander, who calls them the Merry Dancers, and who deems,
“By the streamers that shoot so bright,
The spirits are riding the Northern light.”
At times, the whole sky seemed a blaze of diamond-like light, tinged with rainbow hues, and in front of these, the stern rocks, crags, and mountains stood forth in sharp black outline. Ever and anon, an electrical meteor shot athwart the sky, leaving, as these falling stars always do, a train of momentary light.
Frequently the long streamers played across this luminous white radiance as if a mighty fan were being opened and shut, or like the spokes of some revolving wheel whose axle was at the Pole. Then a burst of glory would open in the zenith and for a moment every feature in the desolate landscape and the far-stretching vista of the Whale Strait between its walls of rocks would be distinctly visible.
Alone in that sterile solitude, I gazed upon the Aurora with emotions of mingled awe and wonder, turning again and again to the north, as I stumbled over rocks and frozen snow piles in my efforts to discover a path that led to Cunninghame’s Haven; so the result was this – that after more than an hour of toil, I found that I had been proceeding in a circle, and came back to the place from whence I had set out, the bluff with the three pinnacles, at the foot of which my musk-ox was lying; but there a very singular scene presented itself, for my property had already been converted into a banquet by two denizens of the wilderness.
On first approaching, I imagined that a heap of snow had fallen from the upper rocks on the dead ox, and advanced so close that I was only twenty paces from it before discovering in my supposed snow-heap two enormous white bears who were rending the body asunder with their giant claws as one might rend a chicken, and were devouring it with all the gusto of an appetite whetted by the frosty air.
To add to my dismay at this unexpected rencontre, I perceived close by, some portions of a human body, half-devoured – red, raw, and appalling!
A horror came over me, suggesting that this victim might be either Paul Reeves or Hans Peterkin; and it was not until some time after, that I was assured, by fragments of the dress which remained, that the unfortunate was a Greenlander, whom they had crushed to death and dragged away. Pausing in their banquet, these savage brutes, which were of enormous size, uttered a hoarse growl, and while their black nostrils seemed to snuff the breeze, their deep-set eyes surveyed me ominously.
My gun had but a single barrel, thus if I killed one bear I might fall a prey to the other before there was time to reload; and if my first shot missed, my fate would be sealed by both, as they were certain to crush and devour me between them!
Turning, I fairly fled up the rocks towards the three pinnacles, pursued by the bears, whose progress was slow, as they were evidently gorged by their double repast on the dead man and the musk-ox.
Twice I stumbled in my flight, and fell heavily on my hands and face. My breath came thickly and fast, and my long seal-skin boots and overalls, which were strapped up to a waist belt, greatly incommoded me; but love of life and dread of a horrible death are sharp incentives to exertion and activity; thus I struggled to gain a cleft in the rocks, from whence I might turn and shoot down these unwieldy monsters at vantage and at leisure, while they trotted laboriously after me, uttering a succession of deep and menacing growls.
I had left them nearly fifty yards behind, while clambering up the slope, terrified every instant lest by slipping on the ice-covered rocks I might roll down under their very paws. Already I was within twenty feet of the cleft, beyond which the dazzling gleam of the Aurora played, when a hoarser growl saluted my ears; and there – there – above me in the cleft – in the very haven I was toiling to reach, appeared a huge brown bear, squatted on his hams, licking his great red lips, and quietly waiting my approach!
Bewildered by this new enemy, taken in front and rear, for a moment I remained irresolute, with my rifle cocked, but not knowing which to shoot before I met the rest with my weapon clubbed ; and now to add still more to my dismay and peril, a fourth bear appeared, advancing from another point!
The monster in the cleft above me, now began to utter hoarse and savage roars, in anticipation of my destruction, which seemed certain; for those northern bears are so cruel and rapacious, that the female secludes her cubs (of which she never has more than two at a litter) from the male, lest he should devour them during the first month of their blindness. I leave the reader to judge of my emotion on finding my single self opposed to four such antagonists; for the white Greenland bears are double the size of those melancholy looking brown brutes whom one may see dancing in the streets at home, being generally about twelve feet long.
I was blindly desperate, yet my heart did not entirely fail; and I felt forcibly “how an influence beyond our control lays its strong hand on every deed we do, and weaves its iron tissue of necessity.”
Clambering up the flinty face of the rocks to elude the three, finding footing where, under circumstances less exciting, I might have found none, I ascended resolutely towards the bear which stood in the cleft snuffing the air, roaring, and showing his glistening teeth. Already his hot and fetid breath began to taint the air about me. I was within six feet of him, when, taking an aim there was no doubt would be true, I fired, and the conical ball pierced deeply into his vast chest.
Maddened by pain, Bruin made a wild bound at me, but missed his mark, as I crouched low; so he rolled, dead I suppose, to the bottom of the rocks, in his progress tumbling over one of those which were in pursuit of me. Springing into the cleft he had so lately occupied, I hastened to reload, and defend my position, for only one brute at a time could assail me, unless there were, as I feared, others among the rocks in my rear.
Now what were my emotions on discovering that in my exertions, while struggling up the rocks, the strap of my shot-helt had given way, and that I had lost it, with all my ammunition!
A wild perplexity filled my heart, and a cold perspiration burst over my temples; but at that moment of desperation a happy thought occurred to me.
Remembering that I had a long clasp-knife, which opened and shut with a spring, I applied it in bayonet-fashion to my rifle, and with my handkerchief lashed it hard and fast to the muzzle and ramrod head. This was barely accomplished, when one of the bears had its fore-paws on the edge of the rock whereon I stood, and by the light of the stars I could see his fierce red eyes, his long white teeth, and enormous claws, while burying my impromptu bayonet thrice in his great broad breast, and then the blood flowed darkly over his pure white coat. The wounds were not deep enough to kill him at once, so uttering roar after roar, the infuriated bear scraped away with his hind feet, making vigorous but ineffectual efforts to reach me, till by a furious kick I drove one of his paws off the ledge of rock. The other relaxed immediately, and then Bruin rolled like a great featherbed to the bottom, about thirty feet below, where he moved no more.
But in a moment a second bear took his place. Emotion almost exhausted me; but in my confusion when charging him, fortunately my knife was thrust into his right eye. He uttered a hideous cry, between a bellow of rage and a moan of agony, and fell down the rocks – also dead!
The weapon had evidently penetrated to the brain, and killed him.
A wild and joyous glow now filled my heart. It was a triumphant emotion, a lust for destruction and revenge, after the terror I had endured; and I believe that had a whole army of bears appeared, I should, without fear, have encountered them – one by one.
Uttering a “hurrah” just as the fourth bear arrived at my feet, I was about to charge him as I had done the others when – oh, terror ! – the knotting of my handkerchief gave way, and the knife dropped from the muzzle of my gun, and fell to the bottom of the rocks.
Clubbing the weapon, I rained a torrent of blows upon the great head of this new assailant, which seemed the largest and most ferocious of them all, as he probably had neither partaken of the poor Greenlander or of that most unlucky musk-ox, the slaying of which had no doubt brought me into this perilous predicament; but my blows fell on his furcovered skull as harmlessly as they would have fallen on a bale of cotton.
Furiously I struck with butt and barrel at his broad black nose and great round paws, the deadly claws of which grasped the rock with the tenacity of iron hooks. Bruin uttered neither roar nor other sound, but concentrating all his energies, drew up his hams, made a vigorous spring, and in a moment I was dashed to the ground – his hot and horrible breath was in my nostrils and on my face, while his weight pressed me down as he prepared to hug or crush me to death. But now a gun-shot rang between the rocks of the deep chasm, and I found myself suddenly freed. Pierced through the heart by a single well-aimed ball, the bear rolled over me dead, a quivering mass of flesh and fur!
So severely was I stunned by the shock of Bruin’s attack, and so confused by the whole combat, that some minutes elapsed before I had sufficient strength or breath to thank my preserver, to whom I might as well have spoken in Greek or Choctaw, as he proved to be a poor Greenlander who had never heard a word of English before.
Jack Manly: His Adventures by Sea and Land – 1861 – James Grant