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M. B. Synge

Barents Sails to Spitzbergen

W ITH the third failure of John Davis to find the North-West Passage the English search for Cathay came to an end for the present. But the merchants of Amsterdam took up the search, and in 1594 they fitted out an expedition under William Barents, a burgher of Amsterdam and a practical seaman of much experience. The three voyages of Barents form some of the most romantic reading in the history of geographical discovery, and the preface to the old book compiled for the Dutch after the death of Barents sums up in pathetic language the tragic story of the "three Voyages, so strange and wonderful that the like hath never been heard of before." They were "done and performed three years," says the old preface, "one after the other, by the ships of Holland, on the North sides of Norway, Muscovy, and Tartary, towards the kingdoms of Cathay and China, showing discoveries of the Country lying under 80 degrees: which is thought to be Greenland; where never any man had been before, with the cruel Bears and other Monsters of the sea and the unsupportable and extreme cold that is found to be in these places. And how that in the last Voyage the Ship was enclosed by the Ice, that it was left there, whereby the men were forced to build a house in the cold and desert country of Nova Zembla, wherein they continued ten months together and never saw nor heard of any man, in most great cold and extreme misery; and how after that, to save their lives, they were constrained to sail about one thousand miles in little open boats, along and over the main Seas in most great danger and with extreme labour, unspeakable troubles, and great hunger."


A ship of the late sixteenth century.

Surely no more graphic summary of disaster has ever appeared than these words penned three hundred and fourteen years ago, which cry to us down the long, intervening ages of privation and suffering endured in the cause of science.

In the year 1594, then, four ships were sent forth from Amsterdam with orders to the wise and skilful pilot, William Barents, that he was to sail into the North Seas and "discover the kingdoms of Cathay and China." In the month of July the Dutch pilot found himself off the south coast of Nova Zembla, whence he sailed as the wind pleased to take him, ever making for the north and hugging the coast as close as possible. On 9th July they found a creek very far north to which they gave the name of Bear Creek, because here they suddenly discovered their first Polar bear. It tried to get into their boat, so they shot it with a musket, "but the bear showed most wonderful strength, for, notwithstanding that she was shot into the body, yet she leapt up and swam in the water; the men that were in the boat, rowing after her, cast a rope about her neck and drew her at the stern of the boat, for, not having seen the like bear before, they thought to have carried her alive in the ship and to have showed her for a strange wonder in Holland; but she used such force that they were glad they were rid of her, and contented themselves with her skin only." This they brought back to Amsterdam in great triumph—their first white Polar bear. But they went farther north than this, until they came to a plain field of ice and encountered very misty weather. Still they kept sailing on, as best they might, round about the ice till they found the land of Nova Zembla was covered with snow. From "Ice Point" they made their way to islands which they named Orange Islands after the Dutch Prince. Here they found two hundred walrus or sea-horses lying on the shore and basking in the sun.


Nova Zembla and the Arctic Regions.

"The sea-horse is a wonderful strong monster of the sea," they brought back word, "much bigger than an ox, having a skin like a seal, with very short hair, mouthed like a lion; it hath four feet, but no ears." The little party of Dutchmen advanced boldly with hatchets and pikes to kill a few of these monsters to take home, but it was harder work than they thought. The wind suddenly rose, too, and rent the ice into great pieces, so they had to content themselves by getting a few of their ivory teeth, which they reported to be half an ell long. With these and other treasures Barents was now forced to return from these high latitudes, and he sailed safely into the Texel after three and a half months' absence.

His reports of Nova Zembla encouraged the merchants of Amsterdam to persevere in their search for the kingdoms of Cathay and China by the north-east, and a second expedition was fitted out under Barents the following year; but it started too late to accomplish much, and we must turn to the third expedition for the discovery which has for ever made famous the name of William Barents. It was yet early in the May of 1596 when he sailed from Amsterdam with two ships for the third and last time, bound once more for the frozen northern seas. By 1st June he had reached a region where there was no night, and a few days later a strange sight startled the whole crew, "for on each side of the sun there was another sun and two rainbows more, the one compassing round about the suns and the other right through the great circle," and they found they were "under 71 degrees of the height of the Pole."

Sighting the North Cape of Lapland, they held on a north-westerly course till on 9th June they came upon a little island which they named Bear Island. Here they nearly met their end, for, having ascended a steep snow mountain on the island to look around them, they found it too slippery to descend. "We thought we should all have broken our necks, it was so slippery, but we sat up on the snow and slid down, which was very dangerous for us, and break both our arms and legs for that at the foot of the hill there were many rocks." Barents himself seems to have sat in the boat and watched them with intense anxiety. They were once more amid ice and Polar bears. In hazy weather they made their way north till on the 19th they saw land, and the "land was very great." They thought it was Greenland, but it was really Spitzbergen, of which he was thus the discoverer.


Barents in the Artic: "Hut wherein we wintered."

Many things astonished the navigators here. Although they were in such high latitudes, they saw grass and leafy trees and such animals as bucks and harts, while several degrees to the south "there groweth neither leaves nor grass nor any beasts that eat grass or leaves, but only such beasts as eat flesh, as bears and foxes."

By 1st July he had explored the western shore and was sailing south to Bear Island. He never landed on the coast of Spitzbergen: so we have no further account of this Arctic discovery. Sailing across the wide northern sea now known as Barents Sea, he made land again in the north of Nova Zembla, and, hugging the western shore, came to Ice Point. Here they were sorely harassed by Polar bears and floating ice and bitter gales of wind. Still they coasted on till they had rounded the northern end of Nova Zembla and unexpectedly sailed into a good harbour where they could anchor. The wind now blew with redoubled vigour, the "ice came mightily driving in" until the little ship was nearly surrounded, "and withal the wind began more and more to rise and the ice still drave harder and harder, so that our boat was broken in pieces between the ship and the ice, and it seemed as if the ship would be crushed in pieces too."


Barents's ship among the artic ice.

As the August days passed on, they tried to get out of their prison, but it was impossible, and there was nothing for it but to winter "in great cold, poverty, misery, and grief" in this bleak and barren spot. The successful pilot was to explore no more, but the rest of the tragic tale must be shortly told. With the ice heaping high, "as the salt hills that are in Spain," and the ship in danger of going to pieces, they collected trees and roots driven on to the desolate shores from Tartary, "wherewith as if God had purposely sent them unto us we were much comforted." Through the September days they drew wood across the ice and snow to build a house for the winter. Only sixteen men could work and they were none too strong and well.

Throughout October and November they were snowed up in their winter hut, with "foul stormie weather" outside, the wind blowing ceaselessly out of the north and snow lying deep around. They trapped a few foxes from day to day to eat, making warm caps out of their fur; they heated stones and took them into their cabin beds, but their sheets froze as they washed them and at last their clock froze too.

"They looked pitifully upon one another, being in great fear that if the extremity of the cold grew to be more and more we should all die there with the cold." Christmas came and went and they comforted one another by remembering that the sun was as low as it could go, and that it must begin to come to them again; but "as the day lengthens, so the cold strengthens," and the snow now lay deeper until it covered the roof of their house.

The New Year found them still imprisoned, "with great cold, danger, and disease." January, February, March, April passed and still the little ship was stuck fast in the ice. But as the sun began to gain power, hope revived, and they began to repair their boats, to make new sails, and repair tackle. They were too weak and ill to do much work, but by the middle of June the boats were fairly ready and they could cut a way through the ice to the open sea. This was their only hope of escape, to leave the ship behind and embark in two little open boats for the open sea.

"Then William Barents wrote a letter, which he put into a musket's charge and hanged it up in the chimney, showing how we came out of Holland to sail to the kingdom of China, and how we had been forced in our extremity to make that house and had dwelt ten months therein, and how we were forced to put to sea in two small open boats, for that the ship lay fast in the ice."

Barents himself was now too ill to walk, so they carried him to one of the little boats, and on 14th June 1597 the little party put off from their winter quarters and sailed round to Ice Point. But the pilot was dying. "Are we about Ice Point?" he asked feebly. "If we be, then I pray you lift me up, for I must view it once again."

Then suddenly the wind began to rise, driving the ice so fast upon them "that it made our hair stand uprights upon our heads, it was so fearful to behold, so that we thought verily that it was a foreshadowing of our last end."

They drew the boats up on to the ice and lifted the sick commander out and laid him on the icy ground, where a few days later he died—"our chief guide and only pilot on whom we reposed ourselves next under God." The rest of the story is soon told.

On 1st November 1597 some twelve gaunt and haggard men, still wearing caps of white fox and coats of bear-skin, having guided their little open boats all the way from Nova Zembla, arrived at Amsterdam and told the story of their exploration to the astonished merchants, who had long since given them up as dead.

It was not till 1871 that Barents' old winter quarters on Nova Zembla were discovered. "There stood the cooking-pans over the fireplace, the old clocks against the wall, the arms, the tools, the drinking vessels, the instruments and the books that had beguiled the weary hours of that long night, two hundred and seventy-eight years ago." Among the relics were a pair of small shoes and a flute which had belonged to a little cabin-boy who had died during the winter.