Nils A. E. Nordenskiöld Discovers the Northeast Passage

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Nils A. E. Nordenskiöld Discovers the Northeast Passage


In 1879 Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a Finnish scientist and explorer, completed the first transit of the Northeast Passage, a sea route from Europe across the northern coast of Asia to the Pacific. This passage, like the Northwest Passage to Asia, had been long sought and speculated about. At the time of Nordenskiöld's voyage aboard the Vega, it was considered certain that an all-water route existed, but most felt it to be impassible due to heavy ice. By making the passage safely, Nordenskiöld proved such speculation to be groundless. Following his return to Europe, Nordenskiöld wrote and published a popular book, The Voyage of the Vega, in which he described his journeys and discoveries.


European cartography in the late nineteenth century was an interesting mix of the known, the speculated, and the unknown. While mapmakers were moving away from the fantastic speculation of previous centuries, there were still large parts of the world that were simply unknown and about which there was no verified information. By the 1870s, most of the world's coastlines had been well-mapped and European explorers were staging what may be described as assaults on the continental interiors of Africa, Australia, Asia, and South America, while American explorers were busily investigating the American West. One of the few coastlines left to be explored was that of northern Asia, along the Arctic Ocean.

For several centuries, a number of explorers had sailed in search of a Northwest Passage across the top of the Americas to the Orient. They hoped to find a relatively short and easy route from Europe because the existing routes around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn were both long and dangerous. In addition, there was the hope that economic benefit might be found in the Arctic Ocean itself, in the form of fishing, resources in yet-to-be-discovered lands, or in some other area. And, to some degree, national pride was at stake. One of the great peacetime adventure-seeking activities of the eighteenth century was exploring the world. Nations that added significantly to world geographic knowledge could claim territories, trade routes, and recognition.

At the same time the search for the Northwest Passage was underway, a smaller group was searching for the Northeast Passage across the top of Asia. These explorers felt that it should be possible to sail a ship north, around Scandinavia, past the Russian Arctic, through the Bering Strait, and down to Japan, China, and the rest of Asia. Confirmation of such speculation was hindered by ever-present ice, unknown sea conditions, and the possibility that Asia and North America might actually be joined, preventing passage by sea.

By the 1870s, much of the Russian Arctic coast had been mapped, but this had been done in bits and pieces. It was by then known that Siberia and North America did not touch across the Bering Strait, but it was not definitively known that they did not meet further to the north. For many years, dating back to the time of the Vikings, the far northeastern part of the world had been explored by Scandinavians. It was not a surprise that the final assault on the Northeast Passage would be made by a Finn living in Sweden.

By the time Nordenskiöld set out from Tromsö, Sweden, in 1878, he had already established a reputation for Arctic research and exploration, earned through his many expeditions to Greenland, Spitzbergen, and the European Arctic. Before embarking on this trip, Nordenskiöld thoroughly researched existing maps in an effort to find evidence for a Northeast Passage. Concluding that it existed, he first had to sail around the Scandinavian Peninsula—no small feat in itself—and head to the east. He made it to within about 120 (190 km) miles of the Bering Strait before ice forced him to winter over. He completed the journey the following spring. In so doing, he had proved it possible to reach the Pacific by sailing through the Arctic Ocean, but this route proved economically impractical because it was only open for a short time each year.


Nordenskiöld's voyage had both direct and indirect effects on late nineteenth-century society. The mapping of uncharted coastlines was winding down at this time and, from that perspective, Nordenskiöld's voyage was, in a sense, symbolic of the end of this sort of exploration.

The direct impact of the Vega's voyage primarily involved the scientific and geographic knowledge returned by the expedition. First and foremost was the knowledge, as opposed to previous speculation, that the Northeast Passage actually did exist, though it provided no economic boon to anyone. Nordenskiöld showed that the Americas were really completely separated from Asia, something about which there was some debate in spite of the voyages of James Cook (1728-1779) and Vitus Bering (1681-1741) during the previous century. This, in turn, proved definitively that Russia had no geographic claim to the portions of Russian America they had explored and, in some cases, settled. Nordenskiöld also returned a large number of scientific samples for study upon his return. These samples, which included geologic, oceanographic, and biological materials, proved to be of great interest to scientists. Finally, there was the added proof that there was no large northern island or continent yet to be discovered, claimed, and explored. In one sense, the Vega expedition helped to place a northern limit to colonial ambitions. The indirect impacts of this expedition are somewhat more difficult to describe.

From an economic standpoint, while the search for an easier route to Asia was important, doing so via either a Northwest or Northeast Passage was rapidly losing its importance. The advent of the clipper ships in mid-century had cut the passage from China down from six months to less than three, making it easier to transport perishables (such as tea) from the Orient to Europe and America. In 1870 the Suez Canal opened, shortening the voyage by nearly 6,000 miles (9,600 km) and several weeks. And, as steamship technology became better known, there was the promise of fast, efficient transit to any part of the globe in vessels not dependent on wind or weather. So, by the time Nordenskiöld sailed, what he hoped to find was hardly as important to the world as it had once been. His expedition, and virtually all subsequent expeditions, were driven less by hopes for commercial gain and more by hopes for scientific gain and national pride.

Another impact of the Vega expedition involved the historical information discovered—or rediscovered—by Nordenskiöld during his preparations for the voyage. Seeking to learn as much as possible before going into the unknown, he was tireless in his quest for old maps and travelers' accounts of Arctic sea travel. He managed to turn up maps thought lost for decades or centuries that provided interesting information about the knowledge, theories, and cultures of those times. Surprisingly, he found one map dating to 1507 that was surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of North America and other continents. Although Nordenskiöld wanted to believe this showed some unexpected knowledge on the part of the mapmaker, it turned out to be pure speculation and, at one point, the mapmaker had referred to this map as being a mistake. However, through his researches, Nordenskiöld assembled an impressive collection of ancient maps that were donated for academic study upon his death.

As noted above, Nordenskiöld's voyage was one of the last to map a previously unexplored coast in its entirety. True, most of the coast had been mapped earlier, but these maps were not assembled into a coherent whole; many were incomplete or inaccurate, and they had not been verified. Because of this, the maps that did exist could not be fully trusted. In mapping the northern coast of Asia, Nordenskiöld was helping to usher in an era in which very few coastlines were still unknown. The emphasis in exploration was thus turning increasingly to exploration of continental interiors rather than coastlines, evidenced by new, emerging exploration styles.

In mapping a coast and discovering islands, the explorer, often as not, will land briefly to collect samples, meet local natives, and, if possible, reprovision the ship. The emphasis was as much on the time spent at sea as on the time spent ashore, and if trouble with the native populations arose, it was usually possible to return to the ship and sail on, leaving the problem behind. This was obviously not always the case as the deaths of Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521), Cook, and others attests, but these were in many respects exceptions to the general rule.

In overland exploration, by comparison, explorers were not as able to leave their troubles behind because they could generally travel no more quickly (and usually less quickly) than the native populations. In addition, overland journeys were often smaller and less self-sufficient. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) sailed for three years to the Antarctic and South Pacific with six ships and 433 officers, men, and scientists. By comparison, Heinrich Barth (1821-1865) went with two others and a handful of servants on a five-year journey through northern Africa. Wilkes spent no more than a few months at a time in any single port, while Barth spent his entire journey surrounded by African tribes. In sea voyages, the emphasis was on mapping coasts and making a quick landing to collect a handful of scientific specimens, then moving on to the next island, while in land-based exploration a more detailed and in-depth knowledge of local geology, ecology, and peoples could be gained.

As the style of exploration changed, so, too, did society. The emphasis began to shift from claiming new lands for empire building to exploiting the lands already added. While there were still unknown places to explore on the globe, most of future exploration would use ships for transportation rather than as a primary base of operations.


Further Reading

Mansir, A. Richard. Quest for the Northeast Passage. Montrose, CA, and Los Angeles: Kittiwake Publications,1989.

Nordenskiöld, Nils Adolf Erik. Facsimile-Atlas to the EarlyHistory of Cartography With Reproductions of the Most Important Maps Printed in the XV and XVI Centuries. Translated by Johan Adolf Ekelöf and Clements R. Markham. 1889. Reprint, New York: Kraus Reprint Corp., 1961.

Raurala, Nils-Erik, ed. The Northeast Passage: From theVikings to Nordenskiöld. Helsinki: Helsinki University Library, 1992.

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Nils A. E. Nordenskiöld Discovers the Northeast Passage

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