Willem Barents Searches for the Northeast Passage and Finds Svalbard Instead

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Willem Barents Searches for the Northeast Passage and Finds Svalbard Instead


The sixteenth century saw the rise of two new Western European powers, England and Holland, each of which had hopes of building international trading empires. Both, however, recognized that Spanish and Portuguese dominance prevented them from plying the routes to the Americas, Africa, and Asia already claimed by the Iberian powers; thus was born the idea of finding a northern passage to Cathay or China. England was the first to send expeditions, both along the northeastern and later the northwestern routes. Each of these efforts was doomed to failure, and finally England gave up the quest. It was at that point that Holland stepped in, sending a captain named Willem Barents (1550-1597) on a voyage to find the Northeast Passage.


Spain and Portugal inaugurated the great era of European exploration, and the first century of that age belonged almost exclusively to them. Portugal's Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1487-88, opening the way for Vasco da Gama's (c. 1460-1524) historic voyage to India a decade later. Meanwhile Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) had planted the Spanish flag in the New World, and after him came hordes of Spanish explorers and adventures. While Spain and Portugal prospered from their colonies, two other emerging powers of Western Europe—England and Holland—cast about for ways to develop their own international trade routes.

"There is one way [left] to discover," wrote English merchant Robert Thorne in 1527, "which is into the North. For out of Spain they have discovered all the Indies and seas occidental, and out of Portugal all the Indies and seas oriental." This need became increasingly pressing by the mid-sixteenth century, as Turkish pirates threatened Mediterranean sea lanes and the Iberian powers sought to strengthen their control over the routes they had discovered. Thus was born the idea of a northern passage, a route to Cathay either by the northwest—along the islands to the north of what is now Canada—or by the northeast, around Siberia to China.

The first efforts to find the northern passage fell to the English, whose monarchs (unlike their counterparts in Lisbon and Madrid) had yet to see the value of overseas exploration. Instead, these early attempts were almost entirely the result of investment by private individuals, with the guidance of scientific minds who saw the enterprise as one that would benefit knowledge as much as commerce. Initially the English favored the northeastern route, and in 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby (d. 1554) set sail past Norway's North Cape with three ships bound for Cathay. They made it as far as Novaya Zemlya, a group of islands to the north of Russia, where they all died from a combination of cold and scurvy. A 1556 expedition by Stephen Burrough (1525-1584) got as far as the Kara Sea, but Burrough was luckier than Willoughby: he and his crew managed to winter in the White Sea before returning home the following spring.

In the years that followed, various Englishmen debated the advisability of the northwestern and northeastern routes, and for a time the former gained the upper hand. Unsuccessful expeditions by Sir Martin Frobisher (c. 1535-1594), however, combined with an effort by the Turks to cut off land routes through Persia, influenced a return to the Northeast Passage. The result was a 1580 expedition by Charles Jackman and Arthur Pet, a disastrous effort that took the life of the former. So England again devoted itself to finding the Northwest Passage, sending expeditions such as the one in which Henry Hudson (d. 1611) perished. The 1631 voyage of Luke Fox (1586-1635) and Thomas James marked the last pre-twentieth-century attempt to find the Northwest Passage, and the last English effort to find any northerly route at all. Now it was the turn of the Dutch.

In 1594 a group of merchants in Amsterdam commissioned the first Dutch effort to find the Northeast Passage, an expedition led by Willem Barents. A native of Tar Schelling, an island off the coast of the northern Netherlands, Barents had spent much of his earlier career sailing in the Mediterranean, and published a travel guide on that subject in 1595. In the meantime, on June 5, 1594, he and his crew set sail from the Dutch island of Texel on what would be the first of three attempts to find the Northeast Passage. The expedition soon encountered treacherous ice floes, and returned to Holland.

In 1595 the Dutch parliamentary body, the States General, financed a second expedition. This time there were two boats, one commanded by Barents and the other by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611), who had earlier distinguished himself in voyages to the East Indies. The expedition set off late, in July, and got no further than the earlier one had. As a result, the States General lost interest in funding a third effort, but the City of Amsterdam stepped into the breach, and in 1596 commissioned yet another attempt to find the Northeast Passage.

Barents was appointed as commander of the expedition, with two captains named Heemskerk and Rijp as his immediate subordinates. The two ships set sail on May 15, and initially the journey seemed to go well. They even discovered new lands: Svalbard, a group of islands comprising some 24,000 square miles (about 65,000 square kilometers) to the north of Norway. (The archipelago is sometimes mistakenly called Spitsbergen, which is actually the name of the largest of its island groups.) Despite this promising beginning, however, disputes between Barents and Rijp soon led to a parting of the ways. Rijp sailed northward, where he ran into icefields and decided to return to Holland, while Barents, Heemskerk, and the other ship continued eastward.

They landed on Novaya Zemlya, circled the island, and found that the ice would not allow them to go any further. Nor could they leave, and they were forced to winter in a bay on the east coast of the largest island. Historical accounts vary on the subject of where the men found the wood with which they built the dwelling where they spent the winter: some writers maintain that they found driftwood, while others hold that they broke up parts of the ship. If the latter was true, it would not have made much difference in the long run, because the gathering ice exerted such pressure on the vessel that it eventually cracked, and was useless to them when the spring thaw came.

In the meantime, Barents and his crew passed a winter of almost inconceivable misery and hardship in their cabin, ironically named the "safe home" or "het Behouden Huys." Lacking knowledge of igloo-building, which would have provided them with better insulation than the wood cabin, the men were literally freezing in their beds even as a roaring fire polluted the air of the dwelling and made breathing difficult. At one point they opened a crate containing linen, cargo intended for Cathay, to give themselves a change of underwear; but they the made mistake of trying to wash their clothes, and the latter froze like stiff boards.

Men were dying of cold and scurvy, and even for those in the best of health, the sound of constantly shifting ice outside made sleep difficult at best. Watches froze, and they had only an hourglass to keep track of the time as the long night of winter settled over the Arctic. Gerrit de Veer, a sailor who kept a journal during this time, lamented the passing of the Sun, "the most beautiful creation by God," in December. Yet there were small blessings in this barren landscape: the surrounding area yielded foxes and bears for food and skins, and plenty of wood for fuel. Early in their time there, the men killed a polar bear and set its frozen body upright in front of their cabin to ward off other creatures.

When spring finally came, the group prepared for the return trip. By then many of them had died, and many more—Barents included—were sick. Lacking the option of using their ship, they set out in two open boats, but Barents and another man died before they had gotten far from Novaya Zemlya. The survivors eventually reached the mainland, where they met a native (probably a member of the nomadic Samoyed people) with whom they communicated by using sign language. They learned that the man had seen another boat in the area, and this gave them hope, which turned out to be justified: after 11 more weeks in the open boat, they were discovered by Rijp, who had returned to the area.


The Barents expedition effectively ended all attempts to find a northern passage either to the east or the west. Only in 1878-79 would Baron Nils Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) of Sweden finally traverse the Northeast Passage in the Vega, and not until the twentieth century would Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) succeed in making the Northwest Passage. Even then, during a three-year journey that ended in 1906, Amundsen his crew were trapped on several occasions, and might have perished if they had not possessed more modern technology and knowledge than that to which Barents had access.

By then the quest for both northern passages had been revealed as futile; driven by fantasies that could never find fulfillment, and resulting in enormous cost of human lives. But Barents's efforts, in a larger sense, were far from a dead end. This series of expeditions, despite their failure, only increased Dutch determination to build a trading empire on the high seas, and as it turned out, this readiness coincided with opportunity. Spain and Portugal, once overwhelmingly dominant in the realm of exploration and foreign trade, began to turn inward, beset by problems such as the defeat of Spanish Armada by the English in 1588. England founded its East India Company in 1600, and Holland the Dutch East India Company two years later. In the decades that followed, Dutch mariners would build colonies in the East Indies, fattening the coffers of trading houses in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and spawning the era of prosperity so memorably evoked in the canvases of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).

Eventually the sea to the west of Novaya Zemlya would be named for Barents—who with his crew is remembered as the first European to spend an entire winter in the Arctic—and Svalbard would become an important (if sparsely populated) island group. A number of European nations, eager for whaling and later mining rights, vied for possession of it in the period from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, and after a bitter battle, Norway claimed the area in 1925. The area was the site of heavy Nazi bombing during World War II, and following the war the Soviet Union took advantage of an international treaty governing Spitsbergen to establish mining rights on part of the island. Today the region, described firsthand by English journalist Tim Moore in his 1999 bestseller Frost on My Moustache, is of primary interest for environmental studies and research involving extreme cold.

In the nineteenth century a Norwegian seal hunter discovered the encampment where Barents and his men endured the harrowing winter of 1596-1597. Among other things he found a pitiful note from Barents, explaining that he had been detained in his efforts to find a route to Cathay. During the 1990s Dutch and Russian archaeologists conducted research on the remains of "het Behouden Huys," while scholars began to reconsider Barents's ill-fated voyage as the beginning of a "golden age" of trade between Russia and Western Europe.

An ironic footnote to the Barents story came in the summer of 2000, when a group of Russian sailors was trapped in a submarine deep beneath the Barents Sea. Unlike the man for whom their watery grave had been named, the 118 sailors aboard the Kursk did not die in obscurity; they perished as the world watched, through satellite television and Internet updates. Yet in the end, they were as helpless as Barents and his crew had been four centuries before.


Further Reading

Heide, Albert van der. "Dutch Explorer Sought Northerly Route to the Indies." http://www.godutch.com/herald/Feature/barentsz.htm (August 17, 2000).

Moore, Tim. Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Adventures of a Lord and a Loafer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

"A Voyage through Time: The Story of Barents's Wintering Hut." http://icarus.cc.uic.edu/~jzeebe1/barents.htm (August 17, 2000).

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Willem Barents Searches for the Northeast Passage and Finds Svalbard Instead

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