A Diary Discovery Sheds Light on a Fatal 1907 Expedition in Greenland

A mysterious object found in an explorer's diary proves revelatory

The coast of Greenland.
Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Diaries can often offer insight into the small and crucial details of history. Whether the private musings of someone humble or powerful in stature, diaries can provide a window into the past that can also offer moments of unexpected revelation. There’s one major qualifier here, though: those revelations generally come from the words written in the diaries, and the accounts of human life documented therewith. When it comes to the diary kept by the Danish explorer Jørgen Brønlund on the last expedition of his life, however, there’s another factor at play.

At Atlas Obscura, Luna Shyr discusses the diary in question, and how it relates to Brønlund’s legacy. He was one of three men who took part in a 1907 expedition to survey northern Greenland for Denmark and determine if Peary Land was an island or a peninsula. At the heart of this mission were conflicting claims to the region. Had Peary Land been an island, the United States might have had a claim on it. (History sometimes repeats itself.)

Brønlund outlived the other two men on the mission, but died in a cave where he had taken shelter from the elements. Besides containing his thoughts on the tragic end of the mission, his diary also contained a strange black material, which ended up in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark. The nature and purpose of the object left many confused, and analysis of it had to wait until technology existed that could analyze it.

In 2018, such an analysis was finally possible. The likely makeup of the object in question? Charred rubber — which suggests that Brønlund was trying to light his stove in order to stay warm as he wrote what would become his final words. It’s a haunting image — a man desperately trying to spark a flame as he succumbs to freezing temperatures — but it also speaks to Brønlund’s resourcefulness and unending struggle for survival.

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