Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
M. B. Synge

Nordenskiöld Accomplishes the North‑East Passage

T HE North-West Passage, for the accomplishment of which so many brave lives had been laid down, had been discovered. It now remained for some explorer to sail round the North-East Passage, which was known to exist, but which, up to this time, no man had done.

Nordenskiöld the Swede was to have this honour. Born in 1832 in Finland, he had taken part in an Arctic expedition in 1861, which attempted to reach the North Pole by means of dog-sledges from the north coast of Spitzbergen. Three years later he was appointed to lead an expedition to Spitzbergen, which succeeded in reaching the highest northern latitude which any ship had yet attained. In 1870 his famous journey to Greenland took place, and two years later he left Sweden on another Polar expedition; but misfortunes beset the expedition, and finally the ships were wrecked. The following year he commanded a reconnoitring expedition. He passed Nova Zembla and reached the mouth of the Yenisei. This was the first time that a ship had accomplished the voyage from the Atlantic Ocean. Thus Nordenskiöld had gained considerable knowledge of the Northern Seas, and he was now in a position to lay a plan of his schemes before King Oscar, who had always interested himself in Arctic discovery. His suggestions to the King are of singular interest.

"It is my intention," he says, "to leave Sweden in July 1878 in a steamer specially built for navigation among ice, which will be provisioned for two years at most. The course will be shaped for Nova Zembla, where a favourable opportunity will be awaited for the passage of the Kara Sea. The voyage will be continued to the mouth of the Yenisei, which I hope to reach in the first half of August. As soon as circumstances permit, the expedition will continue its voyage along the coast to Cape Chelyuskin, where the expedition will reach the only part of the proposed route which has not been traversed by some small vessel, and is rightly considered as that which it will be most difficult for a vessel to double during the whole North-East Passage; but our vessel, equipped with all modern appliances, ought not to find insuperable difficulties in doubling this point, and if that can be accomplished, we will probably have pretty open water towards Behring's Straits, which ought to be reached before the end of September. From Behring Strait the course will be shaped for some Asiatic port and then onwards round Asia to Suez."

King Oscar and others offered to pay the expenses of the expedition, and preparations were urged forward. The Vega  of 800 tons, formerly used in walrus-hunting in northern waters, was purchased, and further strengthened to withstand ice. On 22nd June all was ready, and with the Swedish flag with a crowned O in the middle, the little Vega,  which was to accomplish such great things, was "peacefully rocking on the swell of the Baltic as if impatient to begin her struggle against waves and ice." She carried food for thirty people for two years, which included over three thousand pounds of bacon, nine thousand pounds of coffee, nine thousand pounds of biscuits. There were pemmican from England, potatoes from the Mediterranean, cranberry juice from Finland. Fresh bread was made during the whole expedition. A few days later the Vega  reached Copenhagen and steamed north in the finest weather.

"Where are you bound for?" signalled a passing ship.

"To Behring Sea," was the return signal, and the Swedish crew waved their caps, shouting their joyful news.

At Gothenburg they took on eight sledges, tents, and cooking utensils, also two Scotch sheep dogs and a little coal-black kitten, which lived in the captain's berth till it grew accustomed to the sea, when it slept in the forecastle by day and ran about stealing the food of the sleeping sailors by night.

On 16th July they crossed the Polar Circle. "All on board feel they are entering upon a momentous period of their life," says the explorer. "Were we to be the fortunate ones to reach this goal, which navigators for centuries had striven to reach?"

The south-west coast of Nova Zembla was reached on 28th July, but the weather being calm and the sea completely free of ice, Nordenskiöld sailed onwards through the Kara Strait or Iron Gates, which during the winter was usually one sheet of ice, until they anchored outside the village of Khabarova. The "village" consisted of a few huts and tents of Russian and Samoyedes pasturing their reindeer on the Vaygets Island. On the bleak northern shores stood a little wooden church, which the explorers visited with much interest. It seemed strange to find here brass bas-reliefs representing the Christ, St. Nicholas, Elijah, St. George and the Dragon, and the Resurrection; in front of each hung a little oil lamp. The people were dressed entirely in reindeer skin from head to foot, and they had a great collection of walrus tusks and skins such as Othere had brought centuries before to King Alfred.

Nordenskiöld's account of a short drive in a reindeer sledge is amusing. "Four reindeer were put side by side to each sledge," he says. "Ivan, my driver, requested me to hold tight; he held the reins of all four reindeer in one hand, and away we went over the plain! His request to keep myself tight to the sledge was not unnecessary; at one moment the sledge jumped over a big tussock, the next it went down into a pit. It was anything but a comfortable drive, for the pace at which we went was very great."

On 1st August the Vega  was off again, and soon she had entered the Kara Sea, known in the days of the Dutch explorers as the "ice-cellar." Then past White Island and the estuary of the great Obi River, past the mouth of the Yenisei to Dickson Island, lately discovered, she sailed. Here in this "best-known haven on the whole north coast of Asia they anchored and spent time in bear and reindeer hunting." "In consequence of the successful sport we lived very extravagantly during these days; our table groaned with joints of venison and bear-hams."

They now sailed north close bound in fog, till on 20th August "we reached the great goal, which for centuries had been the object of unsuccessful struggles. For the first time a vessel lay at anchor off the northernmost cape of the Old World. With colours flying on every mast and saluting the venerable north point of the Old World with the Swedish salute of five guns, we came to an anchor!"

The fog lifting for a moment, they saw a white Polar bear standing "regarding the unexpected guests with surprise."

When afterwards a member of the expedition was asked which moment was the proudest of the whole voyage, he answered, without hesitation: "Undoubtedly the moment when we anchored off Cape Chelyuskin."

It had been named thus by the "Great Northern Expedition" in 1742 after Lieutenant Chelyuskin, one of the Russian explorers under Laptieff, who had reached this northern point by a land journey which had entailed terrible hardships and suffering.


Nordenskiold's ship, the  Vega, saluting Cape Chelvuskin, the most northerly point of the old world.

"Next morning," relates Nordenskiöld, "we erected a cairn on the shore, and in the middle of it laid a tin box with the following document written in Swedish: 'The Swedish Arctic Expedition arrived here yesterday, the 19th of August, and proceeds in a few hours eastward. The sea has been tolerably free from ice. Sufficient supply of coals. All well on board.

"'A. E. Nordenskiold.'

And below in English and Russian were the words, 'Please forward this document as soon as possible to His Majesty the King of Sweden.'"

Nordenskiöld now attempted to steam eastwards towards the New Siberian Islands, but the fog was thick, and they fell in with large ice-floes which soon gave place to ice-fields. Violent snowstorms soon set in and "aloft everything was covered with a crust of ice, and the position in the crow's nest was anything but pleasant." They reached Khatanga Bay, however, and on 27th August the Vega  was at the mouth of the Lena.

"We were now in hopes that we should be in Japan in a couple of months; we had accomplished two-thirds of our way through the Polar sea, and the remaining third had been often navigated at different distances."

So the Vega  sailed on eastwards with an ice-free sea to the New Siberian Islands, where lie embedded "enormous masses of the bones and tusks of the mammoth mixed with the horns and skulls of some kind of ox and with the horns of rhinoceros."

All was still clear of snow, and the New Siberian Islands lying long and low in the Polar seas were safely passed. It was not till 1st September that the first snows fell; the decks of the Vega  were white with snow when the Bear Islands were reached. Fog now hindered the expedition once more, and ice was sighted.


Menka, chief of the Chukches.

"Ice right ahead!" suddenly shouted the watch on the forecastle, and only by a hair's-breadth was the Vega  saved. On 3rd September a thick snowstorm came on, the Bear Islands were covered with newly fallen snow, and though the ice was growing more closely packed than any yet encountered they could still make their way along a narrow ice-free channel near the coast. Snowstorms, fog, and drifting ice compelled careful navigation, but a pleasant change occurred early in September by a visit from the natives. We have already heard of the Chukches from Behring—the Chukches whom no man had yet vanquished, for when Siberia was conquered by a Kossack chief in 1579, the Chukches in this outlying north-eastern corner of the Old World, savage, courageous, resolute, kept the conquerors at bay. For the last six weeks the explorers had not seen a human being on that wild and desolate stretch of coast, so they were glad enough to see the little Chukches with their coal-black hair and eyes, their large mouths and flat noses. "Although it was only five o'clock in the morning, we all jumped out of our berths and hurried on deck to see these people of whom so little was known. The boats were of skin, fully laden with laughing and chattering natives, men, women, and children, who indicated by cries and gesticulations that they wished to come on board. The engine was stopped, the boats lay to, and a large number of skin-clad, bare-headed beings climbed up over the gunwale and a lively talk began. Great gladness prevailed when tobacco and Dutch clay pipes were distributed among them. None of them could speak a word of Russian; they had come in closer contact with American whalers than with Russian traders." The Chukches were all very short and dressed in reindeer skins with tight-fitting trousers of seal-skin, shoes of reindeer-skin with seal-skin boots and walrus-skin soles. In very cold weather they wore hoods of wolf fur with the head of the wolf at the back. But Nordenskiöld could not wait long. Amid snow and ice and fog he pushed on, hoping against hope to get through to the Pacific before the sea was completely frozen over. But the ice was beginning to close. Large blocks were constantly hurled against the ship with great violence, and she had many a narrow escape of destruction.

At last, it was 28th September, the little Vega  was finally and hopelessly frozen into the ice, and they made her fast to a large ice-block. Sadly we find the entry: "Only one hundred and twenty miles distant from our goal, which we had been approaching during the last two months, and after having accomplished two thousand four hundred miles. It took some time before we could accustom ourselves to the thought that we were so near and yet so far from our destination."

Fortunately they were near the shore and the little settlement of Pitlekai, where in eight tents dwelt a party of Chukches. These little people helped them to pass the long monotonous winter, and many an expedition inland was made in Chukche sledges drawn by eight or ten wolf-like dogs. Snowstorms soon burst upon the little party of Swedish explorers who had made the Vega  their winter home. "During November we have scarcely had any daylight," writes Nordenskiöld; "the storm was generally howling in our rigging, which was now enshrouded in a thick coat of snow, the deck was full of large snowdrifts, and snow penetrated into every corner of the ship where it was possible for the wind to find an opening. If we put our heads outside the door we were blinded by the drifting snow."

Christmas came and was celebrated by a Christmas tree made of willows tied to a flagstaff, and the traditional rice porridge.

By April large flocks of geese, eider-ducks, gulls, and little song-birds began to arrive, the latter perching on the rigging of the Vega,  but May and June found her still ice-bound in her winter quarters.

It was not till 18th July 1879 that "the hour of deliverance came at last, and we cast loose from our faithful ice-block, which for two hundred and ninety-four days had protected us so well against the pressure of the ice and stood westwards in the open channel, now about a mile wide. On the shore stood our old friends, probably on the point of crying, which they had often told us they would do when the ship left them."


The  Vega frozen in for the winter.

For long the Chukches stood on the shore—men, women, and children—watching till the "fire-dog," as they called the Vega,  was out of sight, carrying their white friends for ever away from their bleak, inhospitable shores.

"Passing through closely packed ice, the Vega  now rounded the East Cape, of which we now and then caught a glimpse through the fog. As soon as we came out of the ice south of the East Cape, we noticed the heavy swell of the Pacific Ocean. The completion of the North-East Passage was celebrated the same day with a grand dinner, and the Vega  greeted the Old and New Worlds by a display of flags and the firing of a Swedish salute. Now for the first time after the lapse of three hundred and thirty-six years was the North-East Passage at last achieved."

Sailing through the Behring Strait, they anchored near Behring Island on 14th August. As they came to anchor, a boat shot alongside and a voice cried out in Swedish, "Is it Nordenskiöld?" A Finland carpenter soon stood in their midst, and they eagerly questioned him about the news from the civilised world!

There is no time to tell how the Vega  sailed on to Japan, where Nordenskiöld was presented to the Mikado, and an Imperial medal was struck commemorating the voyage of the Vega,  how she sailed right round Asia, through the Suez Canal, and reached Sweden in safety. It was on 24th April 1880 that the little weather-beaten Vega,  accompanied by flag-decked steamers literally laden with friends, sailed into the Stockholm harbour while the hiss of fireworks and the roar of cannon mingled with the shouts of thousands. The Royal Palace was ablaze with light when King Oscar received and honoured the successful explorer Nordenskiöld.