„Let’s raise a toast to Miertsching!“

(Deutsche Version hier)
Today, it’s the 200th birthday of Germany’s only person who took part in finding the Northwest Passage

On August 21, 1817, a young son by the name of Johann August was born into family of the carpenter Johann Miertsching in the Sorbian village Hrodźišćo (Gröditz) near the town Weißenberg in Upper Lusatia. Only 4 years earlier, the fields around this village had been whipped up by cannon balls and soaked in blood when Napoleon and his Saxonian allies fought against the Prussian and Russian troops in the battle of Bautzen.

Ansicht von Groeditz bei Weißenberg, Oberlausitz
Gröditz near Weissenberg, Upper Lusatia

From the village on a hilltop, one had a clear view of the surrounding country with the bell-towers of the neighboring parishes clearly visible. On the horizon, one could recognize the towers of Budissin (now Bautzen), the capital of Upper Lusatia, a region under the rule of Saxony. Has this view into the long distance influenced the later life of the boy?
When Johann August turned 10, the village school of Gröditz got a new teacher, who started to teach his pupils to read German. Before, lessons had been held exclusively in Sorbian.

From 1831 to 1844 Miertsching lived in the Bruederhaus in Kleinwelka
From 1831 to 1844 Miertsching lived in the Bruederhaus in Kleinwelka

When Miertsching celebrated his twentieth birthday, he was a skilled shoemaker in the village of Kleinwelka near Budissin, an important settlement of the „Herrnhutians“, the Moravian Brethren. When he turned 25, he had already been accepted as a member of the Moravian Brethren for two years. He had passed the master craftsman’s examination and was head of the shoemaker’s workshop in the village.

Okak – historische Zeichnung
Old drawing showing Okak in Northern Labrador

On his 30th birthday, Miertsching was far away from home, on another continent. He had already been serving in the Moravian mission with the Inuit in the settlement of Okak in the subarctic region of Northern Labrador, just north of the 57th latitude, for three years.
Here, he had learned the language of the Inuit and, along with everyday work and other duties, was working mainly as a teacher. On August 24, 1847, three days after his birthday, he wrote in a letter to Herrnhut: „Because the unmarried brothers and the boys were visiting me every day, I had started a lesson in geography and science of the world, and it seemed to please them, And for me, it was a good exercise in the language … “.

Flaxman Island
Near Flaxman Island Miertsching, as an interpreter for his ship’s captain, was talking with the local Inuit

Turning 35, Miertsching was in a very critical situation. Two years earlier, in 1850, he had been chosen as an Inuit interpreter for one of the British naval expeditions in search for Franklin’s lost expedition. After arriving on board of the HMS Investigator, he had had to learn the English language very quickly. Now, on August 21th 1852, he had already gone through two winters full of hardship in the High Arctic.

Die Investigator im Eis
HMS „Investigator“ in the pack ice

The ship lay in a small bay north of Banks Island, north of 74°N in the Western Arctic. It was firmly caught in ice of the Polar Sea. Many of the crew were suffering from scurvy. Everyone was eagerly waiting for the break-up of the ice, but this summer seemed to be cooler than normal. The ship was still frozen and the food was scarce. In his diary, Miertsching is mentioning the „crestfallen crew“; he himself seeks consolation in his faith. On his birthday, he notes only briefly: „I spent this day on the land, wandering around alone. The Lord gave me great grace also today … “.

Nelson Head, Banks Island
Lord Nelson Head, Banks Island – by Samuel Gurney Cresswell

By the time Miertsching is turned 40 years old, he was living on a completely different continent. He had married shortly before, and, together with his wife, had traveled to South Africa to serve in the Moravian mission there. He was now living in Elim, about 15 km away from the Southern tip of Africa, where he was in charge of the mission’s trade in the village. Now, with the help of his wife, he was working hard to turn the previously loss-making store profitable, he established proper bookkeeping – and he was learning a new language: Afrikaans. In the beginning, the completely different climate with its unfamiliar warmth did not bother him too much, because there „is always some fresh air blowing from the sea“ in Elim. His young wife was pregnant and their first child was due at the end of the year.

Johann August Miertsching und seine junge Frau
Johann August Miertsching with his young wife

On his 45th birthday, in 1862, Miertsching was living in Genadendal, a village in the Cape region, which is somewhat closer to Cape Town than Elim, but further inland. Here, too, he had the job to put the shop operation in better order then the previous storekeeper. Meanwhile, he had a four-and-a-half-years-old daughter; and although two little sons had passed away shortly after their birth in Elim, the couple was now enjoying a new baby, an eight-months-old girl. At this point, they did not know yet that this poor little girl would not survive to see her third birthday!

Kirche und Schule in Genadendal
Church and school in Genadendal, South Africa

The living conditions in Genadendal were not easy. Miertsching often had to travel to Cape Town which was more than 100 km away. The arduous and strenuous transportation was carried out with oxen carts. The country was suffering from drought and crop failure and both animals and people were suffering from diseases, including contagious epidemics.
Did Miertsching spend his 50th birthday in 1867 in good spirits? Probably not. The day before, his son would have turned two – had he survived. But only two months earlier, the little boy had died of diphtheria. Only their eldest daughter, Marie, was still alive. However, according to the rules of the Moravian Brethren, she had been separated from her parents the year before and had been sent to a boarding school in Germany.

Miertschings Grab auf dem Gottesacker in Kleinwelka
Miertsching’s headstone at the Moravian cemetery in Kleinwelka

Miertsching did not live to see his 60th birthday in 1877. More than two years earlier, in the early spring of 1875, he found his resting place in the Brethren’s cemetery in Kleinwelka. His wife had already passed away in 1869, shortly after their return from South Africa. His remaining life as a widower, as a father of an adolescent girl and a toddler, had certainly not been very joyful.

Archiv der Bruederunitaet in Herrnhut
Moravian Archives in Herrnhut

Miertsching’s life is only partially documented, at its best during his Arctic journey – by himself and by other contemporaries. His efforts under these extreme conditions were highly appreciated by his captain, by the ship’s crew, by the officers involved in their rescue, and, finally, even by the Queen of Great Britain, who awarded him with the „Arctic Medal“.

Graeber auf Beechey Island
On the way back from the Arctic, Miertsching spent several weeks on Beechey Island. One of his crew members found his resting place close to three graves from Franklin’s lost expedition

Other periods of his life, however, are unfortunately only known in fragments. During our archival searches in Germany, England, Hawaii, and Canada, we have repeatedly unearthed new documents which were little or never known before – like two unknown letter we found just a few weeks ago. They shine a new light on the personality of Miertsching, even if some questions still remain unanswered. In the book we are currently working on, we will present the results of our findings and try to give a more complete picture of Johann August Miertsching.

On the traces of Miertsching, we visited the Mission House Museum in Hawaii
On the traces of Miertsching, we visited the Mission Houses Museum in Hawaii

posted by Mechtild Opel

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