The Case of the Missing Whales

Johnnibo, Captain Spicer, and the Trial Over Stolen Whales

Original content by: Sally Motycka

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This photograph, taken by Giles Bishop Studio in New London, CT, is a portrait of an Inuit family in traditional clothing.  In June of 1882, Chimoakio (more familiarly called "Johnnibo"), Annie Kimilu, and their daughter Kudlarjuk, were brought from Greenland to Eastern Point in New London to serve as witnesses for Captain John O. Spicer in a court case.  By the time of their departure from New London to return home, Annie Kimilu had given birth to a baby girl, whom they appropriately named American Girl.  Spicer encouraged the family to stay, perhaps anticipating the fate of his friend.  But Johnnibo had been sick during the trial, and the family missed the open space of their homeland.

Prior to this photograph being taken, in the spring of 1881, Spicer had made an arrangement with Johnnibo and two Inuit crews to whale for him in Hudson Strait.  The unwritten contract to hunt locally at the Era's whaling station in Okodlear while Spicer sailed the Era to a different whaling ground was not unusual.  Johnnibo and his crews captured three whales while Spicer was away.  Spicer, having been delayed by poor ice conditions, arrived back to the whaling station later than anticipated, and discovered that his captured whales had been stolen by the captains of the whaleships Abbie Branford and George & Mary.  After interviewing members of the community, Spicer recognized there had been deception involved and took statements from the Inuit crew members.  He sailed home and obtained legal counsel.  This ultimately led to the beginning of the trial, reffered to as "The Case of the Missing Whales" in 1882.  Spicer brought Johnnibo and his family to New London to act as witnesses in the trial.  The adept testimony of Johnnibo helped to solidify respect for the Inuit's role in Arctic whaling to the white men of the New England whaling industry.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. During this time period, what preconceptions do you think white men would have had toward the Inuit people? What evidence can you find of varying types of bias among the different cultures?
  2. What do you think the experience of coming to the United States must have been like for Johnnibo and his family?
  3. Does Johnnibo's fate surprise you? What do you think happened? How might you find more information?