Willem Barents

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Willem Barents

The Dutch navigator Willem Barents (died 1597) was his country's renowned Arctic explorer, having discovered Spitsbergen and the Barents Sea.

Willem Barents was born on the island of Terschelling off the Friesland coast of the Netherlands. He became the pupil of Petrus Plancius (Peter Platevoet), a theologian-cartographer whose sermons are often said to have been lessons in geography and astronomy.

Barents took part in two unsuccessful Arctic voyages before his memorable discovery. In 1592 Jan Huyghen van Linschoten of Enkhuizen returned from a voyage to Goa with a Portuguese fleet and wrote a widely read Itinerary. This stimulated Dutch interest in the Orient, though at the time it seemed dangerous to contest the Portuguese monopoly of the route around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1595 Amsterdam merchants, undiscouraged by the English failure to find a Northeast Passage 40 years earlier, decided to resume the search. They prepared two ships, placing one under Jacob van Heemskerck and the other under Jan Corneliszoon Rijp. Barents, who as pilot sailed with Heemskerck, became the acknowledged leader of the expedition.

The ships left Vlieland, a small port near Amsterdam, on May 18, 1596, and about three weeks later discovered Bear Island, south of the then-unknown Spitsbergen; they so named the island because of an encounter with a polar bear whose hide did not prove vulnerable to Dutch blunderbusses. Pressing northward, the Dutch ships came on June 17 to Spitsbergen, uninhabited islands. During the rest of June the Dutch explored the western coast of the main island, thinking it a part of Greenland.

After a return to Bear Island, the ships separated, Rijp to resume exploration of Spitsbergen, and Barents and Heemskerck to cross the Barents Sea to Novaya Zemlya, previously discovered but not explored to its northern limit. Barents and Heemskerck rounded the northernmost point, naming it Hook of Desire, and sailed eastward, at first believing, from the open water encountered, that they had discovered the Northeast Passage. By November, however, the ice had grown thick and it finally imprisoned the ship. Barents and Heemskerck were 81°N at their highest latitude, beyond any point previously reached. Still close to Novaya Zemlya, realizing that they must build a solid shelter ashore in order to survive, they made one of logs and driftwood and moved into this "Safe House" in October. They lived there until June 1597, suffering but at first in good spirits, calling themselves "burghers of Novaya Zemlya." At Epiphany they had a cheerful party on their remaining liquor and crowned one man "king" of Novaya Zemlya.

Conditions then deteriorated; the firewood gave out, and the ship was crushed by ice. The men began to construct two small boats. Scurvy had been present for months, and one of the worst sufferers was Barents. He left with the rest as they slowly worked down Novaya Zemlya, but he grew so weak that he could take no part in manipulating the craft. Barents died at the end of June, soon after asking Gerrit de Veer, chronicler of the expedition, to lift him up for a final look at Novaya Zemlya. Heemskerck and the other survivors reached the Kola Peninsula and were rescued there by Rijp, who had returned to Holland and come back for trade.

In the 1870s European ships visited Safe House and found it partially caved in by snow. Objects left there by the Dutch explorers are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Further Reading

A translation of Gerrit de Veer, The Three Voyages of William Barents to the Arctic Regions, was published by the Hakluyt Society in 1876. Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Golden Book of the Dutch Navigators (1916; rev. ed. 1938), provides a racy but accurate account of Barent's voyages and many others. Edward Heawood, A History of Geographical Discovery in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1912), is also accurate. Some information on Plancius and his influence on Barents is contained in George Masselman's study of Dutch discovery and expansion, The Cradle of Colonialism (1963). □

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Willem Barents


Dutch Navigator

The name Willem Barents is almost as well known to Dutch children as Hans Brinker, hero of the famous finger-in-the-dyke folk story. Born around 1550, Barents went on to a naval career that brought him a permanent place in history for his deeds and heroism, for which the Barents Sea is named after him.

In the early 1500s both the Dutch and the English were interested in finding a northeast passage to China and the Indies to facilitate trade and commerce in these promising, fruitful areas. The newly established Muscovy Trading Company in London funded the first expedition in 1553 but, after 25 years without tangible results, the British settled for profitable trading with the northern Russians. This left the field wide open for the ambitious merchants in the Netherlands.

Because of his successful voyages to and from Spain, as well as numerous ports on the Mediterranean, Barents worked in Amsterdam with Dutch geographer Peter Plancius to create a navigational guide for those voyages. Barents was a cartographer and provided future historians with a now-famous introduction to the art of cartography as well as competent seamanship.

The initial voyage was sponsored by the Estates of Holland and left the island of Texel on June 5, 1594, to explore the possibilities of a northern passage to the Indies. They continued for a relatively short time before encountering a daunting sea full of ice floes and bergs of all sizes. Satisfied, for the time being, they returned home and made their reports.

The Estates decided to try again the following year and appointed another officer to command the expedition. Because of a later departure in July 1595, they found the ice fields even more treacherous and seas that had been previously navigable were now impossible to cross. In addition to these disappointments, several men were lost while trying to return to Amsterdam.

The third venture was undertaken and financed by the City of Amsterdam with Willem Barents in command. He was able to depart on May 15, 1596, along with two other ships. Surviving records show that Barents and one of his captains, Rijp, had a disagreement, which resulted in Captain Rijp's changing course, running into formidable ice fields, and returning home. Captain Heemskerk remained with his commander and both ships were caught in the deadly grip of the hardening ice that surrounded them. Eventually, both vessels were forced upward, out of the ice and were broken up by the inexorable forces that surrounded them.

By this time they had reached the icy shores of Nova Zembla, an island sometimes called Novaya Zemyla, off the Russian coast. Realizing they would be spending at least six months in the harshest of circumstances, the crew members and their officers began at once to salvage the ships' lumber to build a longhouse or cabin to house them and to store whatever they could recover from the wreckage.

Journals kept and brought back by survivors recount a tale of unbelievable hardship that they endured on Nova Zembla. Even with a wood fire kept burning at all times, the sheets on their makeshift beds would be frozen solid along with whatever they would cook and try to eat or drink. They gave up trying to wash any clothing since it would start to freeze as soon as it left the warm water and could never be dried or worn again.

Since there was no outlet for the smoke from the fire, it settled in the cabin and made breathing not only unhealthy but almost impossible. It got so cold that their watches stopped and they used a 12-hour glass to keep time.

When the worst was over, they realized they had to try to leave the island or perish if they remained. They provisioned several longboats as best they could and started out on the 1,600-mile (2,575-km) journey home. Unfortunately Willem Barents did not survive the harrowing trip and died at sea. Those who made it back told of his inspiring leadership along with other accounts of the adventure, which are still told around Dutch fireplaces and remain relevant today. Willem Barents was close to 47 when he perished in 1597.

Confirming evidence of their incredible story was found in 1871, when another explorer discovered the remains of the Arctic dwelling they had built, along with the tools, instruments, and other artifacts they had left behind. These relics have been preserved and can be viewed in The Hague, Netherlands.


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Willem Barentz (both: vĬ´ləm bä´rənts), d. 1597, Dutch navigator. He made three voyages (1594, 1595, 1596–97) in search of the Northeast Passage to Asia. He reached Novaya Zemlya on the first two expeditions. On the third he accidentally discovered Spitsbergen, rounded the north point of Novaya Zemlya, and was caught in the ice. After the arctic winter the crew started for the mainland in two small boats. Barentz died on the way. The extent of his explorations and the accuracy of his charts made him one of the most important of all arctic explorers. The meteorological data that Barentz collected are still consulted today.

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Barents, Willem (d.1597) Dutch navigator and Arctic explorer. He made three expeditions (1594–97) in search of the Northeast Passage. On his third voyage, he discovered Svalbard and, crossing the sea now named after him, reached Novaya Zemlya. His ship was trapped by ice, and the crew built a shelter – most survived until the following year's thaw, but Barents died before they reached safety.

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Barents, Willem (d. 1597), Dutch explorer. The leader of several expeditions in search of the North-East Passage to Asia, Barents discovered Spitsbergen and reached Novaya Zemlya, off the coast of which he died; the Barents Sea is named after him.