Qalasirssuaq (Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua), circa 1832/5-1856

A half-length portrait showing the sitter in two poses, wearing a black jacket with a white shirt and wing collar and a black tie. On the left he is facing slightly to the right and looks forwards to meet the gaze of the viewer, with his left hand raised into view and lightly clenched. In the portrait on the right, he is shown in right profile, facing to the right and looking straight ahead.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin and his two ships, 'Erebus' and 'Terror', disappeared in the Canadian Arctic during their search for the North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Many searches for them were mounted until the total loss of the ships and party was confirmed in 1859. In August 1850, during Captain Horatio Austin's search expedition of 1850-51, Captain Erasmus Ommanney in HMS 'Assistance' called at Cape York in Greenland where this young Inuit man was engaged as a guide. Initially known on board as 'Erasmus York' or 'Caloosa', he led Ommanney north to check on a rumoured massacre of Franklin's men, which proved false, then wintered with the expedition and came back with it to England in autumn 1851, as it was impractical to return him to Cape York.

That November, at the suggestion of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Admiralty placed him in St Augustine's Missionary College, Canterbury, where he learnt to read and write, had religious instruction, and trained as a tailor in Canterbury. In 1852-53 he also helped Captain John Washington revise his published 'Esquimaux and English Vocabulary' (1850), a handbook for Arctic expeditions. Ommanney remained his friend and patron and was present with Franklin's daughter at his baptism in November 1853, as Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua. Qalasirssuaq is the modern Inuit spelling of his given name and anglicized surname. In autumn 1855 he left England for further religious training at what became Queen's College at St John's, Newfoundland, before beginning a northern missionary career. However, his health was not good after leaving the Arctic and he died there prematurely in June 1856.

Kallihirua was one of few Inuit who became internationally known in the 19th century through their association with the Franklin searches. Even fewer left the Arctic and he was probably the first of the Northern Inuit to do so. He adapted well and cheerfully to life in England and was much admired by those who knew him.

Ommanney - by then Admiral Sir Erasmus - presented the portrait to the Greenwich Hospital Collection in the late 19th century for display in the former Royal Naval Museum at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich (which took over the Hospital buildings in 1873). It was transferred to the National Maritime Museum in 1936 and in 1997 the Museum also acquired a painting of HMS 'Assistance' in the ice during the 1850-51 expedition, painted in 1853 by Thomas Sewell Robins (BHC4239). This was sold from St Augustine's College, to which Ommanney's son, Commander Erasmus Austin Ommanney MA, had bequeathed it.

Object Details

ID: BHC2813
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Polar Worlds Gallery
Creator: British School, 19th century
Date made: Probably 1851
Exhibition: North-West Passage
People: Kallihirua, Erasmus; Ommanney, Erasmus
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 763 mm x 897 mm x 71 mm;Painting: 634 mm x 762 mm

Your Request

If an item is shown as “offsite”, please allow eight days for your order to be processed. For further information, please contact Archive staff:

Tel: (during Library opening hours)

Click “Continue” below to continue processing your order with the Library team.