News Articles

Historic expedition led by Willem Barentsz nears 400th anniversary

Dutch explorer sought northerly route to the Indies

Tags: Dutch Exploration

The name of Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz has for centuries captured the imagination of countless Dutch children and adults. The stories about ship-crunching ice fields, the building of a cabin with salvaged wood from his ship, ‘the Jacob van Heemskerck,’ the strenuous fight for survival during the months-long winter night on Nova Zembla, the battle with hunger and disease, the building of two small boats when summer dawned and the dangerous journey in open boats on wind-swept seas can sound so adventurous and heroic when seated near a warm fireplace. It’s quite another thing to actually experience it out in the open as did Willem Barentsz. The Dutch explorer failed to return home again to the Frisian island of Terschelling, but the survivors of this heroic journey in 1596/7 did and lived to tell the story.

Now nearly four centuries ago, the search was on for a new sea traffic route to the Indies. Columbus who had enlisted with the Spanish king, set sail westward a century earlier and (re) discovered the Americas. In the following decades others had attempted to find a new route but all failed in this exercise.First expedition to high North Willem Barentsz was an accomplished sea captain when he was hired to explore the northern seas. Born about 1550, Barentsz until the 1590s usually sailed for Spain and the Mediterranean. In 1595, he and a contemporary named Plancius published a travel guide, complete with a selection of maps by Barentsz, about the Mediterranean. The book contains a remarkable introduction to the art of seamanship and cartography. It is not at all that surprising therefore that Willem Barentsz was selected to be the captain on one of the ships of the expedition.

The first expedition sailed from the island of Texel for the northern seas on June 5, 1594. They soon experienced their first disappointment when they were pushed back by floating ice fields. They regrouped at the Straight of Waigatz and found better conditions, although the ship journals still reported huge (hair raising!) ice fields and bergs. Satisfied with their discoveries for that season, they returned safely home to their senders (the Estates of Holland), who seemed to have been very pleased as well with the expedition’s reports.

Another attempt The following year, the States General 1) financed another expedition to the northern seas. Again, Cornelis Cornelisz. Nay of the city of Enkhuizen was appointed to take command of the expedition, while another famous explorer, namely Jan Huygens van Linschoten, accompanied him for the second time. The 1595 expedition was in trouble from the very beginning and achieved very little. Even the date of departure was late when they finally pulled up the anchors in July. They found themselves pushed back and squeezed by icefields in the Straight of Waigatz which had been relatively open the year before. Several men died during the expedition which experienced also great difficulties on the way home. Van Linschoten used his experiences to publish two more travel journals (printed by Gerard Ketel of Franeker).

When the previous sponsors reduced their involvement in outfitting expeditions, the City of Amsterdam decided to sponsor the third expedition which was undertaken in 1596 2). Barentsz was now appointed leader of the expedition, while Heemskerk and Rijp were commissioned as captains of the ships.

The ship set sail on May 15, the earliest date so far. They expeditiously reached an island which was subsequently named Spitsbergen, now Norwegian territory 3). Barentsz and Rijp got into arguments with one another and to each go their own way. Barentsz decided to sail eastward, while Rijp went further north. The latter soon run into ice fields again and decided to return home that season. The former pressed on and eventually reached the island of Nova Zembla of the Russian coast and encircled the island. Dutch history books teach readers that the ship 4) of Barentsz and his captain Heemskerk got caught, squeezed and crushed in the ice fields. The men had no other choice but to salvage the wood by constructing a cabin (which they very appropriately called ‘the safe home’ or ‘het Behouden Huys’) on the shore of Nova Zembla to provide shelter during the long winter season. Even the construction took place while the men suffered greatly from exposure in the extreme harsh weather conditions. While they had made themselves decent shelter, they were, as we will discover, ill-equipped for the forced stay.

De Veer kept journal Much of what is known about the expedition and its problems is due to the diligent recordings by a man named Gerrit de Veer, who kept his own journal which was later published. In his entry for November 19 he recorded that the weather was stormy. Due to the extreme cold temperatures, he reported, a linen chest was opened to provide the sailors with new underwear ‘so they can maintain their physical condition’. The following day, the weather had improved but was still bitterly cold. De Veer described the crew’s plight in detail, including their attempt to do the laundry, an exercise which was almost impossible to complete. No sooner was the laundry taken out of the hot water, wrung-out (by hand) or it would be frozen solid so that the clean laundry would be useless to the men (it was like trying to live in a deep freeze locker). The entry of December 3 reported a serious problem with the open fire in the cabin: the smoke failed to find the opening in the roof and instead settled in the cabin, adding another health problem to the men who were literally freezing in their beds. If they at all could have slept, the noise of the shifting ice was so loud that it presented problems. Their watches had stopped from the cold as well. An hour glass was used to keep track of the time, it run out every twelve hours and was then turned over to repeat the cycle. On December 19, De Veer reported that they now had a southern wind with clear skies. Having learned to appreciate the sun, De Veer noted that it was a sorrowful situation to be deprived of the sun, ‘the most beautiful creation by God, which is enjoyed by the entire world.’ On January 5, a religious holiday the men apparently used to treat themselves to pancakes, rusks and wine. To break the monotony in their isolated existence, they held a ceremony during which they pronounced the constable of the stranded party ‘king of Nova Zembla.’ On January 27, a sailor who was already ill aboard the ship before it stranded in the ice fields, died a slow death. Early the following morning, the men dug a grave in the snow. The men could only be out in the open air (and wind) very briefly because they risked being frozen. The funeral took place after they listened to a mediation and had sung psalms.

Journey in open boats De Veer wrote that the men sometimes could not venture out for days due to blizzards but when they did, they caught foxes, shot bears, cleared snow and cut firewood. As the winter season progressed, the men felt weaker from exposure and malnourishment.

As depressing as their situation was, there were better times ahead when the winter season ended. Captain Heemskerk tried to encourage the men to hurry, cautioning them not to become eternal burgers of Nova Zembla. Finally, on June 13, 1597, two open boats with 15 men aboard were ready to leave the barren island. Two of these, Barentsz included were already very sick. Neither of them made it back to civilization but instead received a seaman’s grave along the way. The trip in the open boats defies anyone’s imagination. Yet, despite the frigid weather conditions in open seas, the men carried on while they were literally being tossed to and fro. During this episode, the men landed on another isolated place where they met a local from whom they heard some encouraging news. The man told them - in all likelihood by way of sign language - that he had seen a ship in the area. Hoping to find rescuers in the high North were there was no sea traffic under normal circumstances would not have been realistic but the men took it as a good sign that someone was looking for them. They were right in that assumption. After eleven weeks of extreme hardship the ship which they had heard about took them aboard. It was a Dutch ship under the command of captain Rijp who had returned for another expedition. To the survivors, the extreme hardships were now over; they had persevered ‘against all odds.’ A warm welcome awaited them at home where their experiences were the talk of (family) gatherings at the fireplaces for years, decades, yes, centuries to come. This story is still relevant today.

New assessment of Barentsz work

These days, new expeditions are outfitted to research to site of Barentsz stay on Nova Zembla. The ‘Stichting Nationaal Comite Willem Barentsz,’ an Amsterdam-based foundation, is spearheading the efforts which are backed by mostly private donations. This summer, the Nova Zembla site is being visited by a jointly Dutch-Russian archaeological team who want to preserve anything that is left of ‘het Behouden Huys.’

Like Columbus, Barentsz failed to find his route to the Indies. But historians who are rethinking the northern expeditions are now saying that those explorations actually laid the foundation for the ‘Golden Age’ in which trade with Russia was a very important and financially-rewarding component. Once again, Dutch business is looking eastward to trade with the Russians. Yes, the legacy of Willem Barentsz is again relevant as preparations are made for both the 400-year anniversary and the establishment of a Netherlandic Scientific Institute at Saint Petersburg, Russia.

1) The States General is the parliamentary body in which the seven northern Dutch provinces were united (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen. Drenthe became a full member during the Napoleonic era when Holland was split in North and South. North Brabant and Limburg followed in the nineteenth century.).

2) To encourage private initiatives, the Estates of Holland and the States General limited their involvement by together posting f25,000 for the successful party who would discover a north route.

3) Spitsbergen soon became the northern base of those Dutch companies that engaged in fishing for whales, a very profitable activity for years. However, the whale trade never overtook the size and importance of the herring fishery.

4) There is nothing to suggest that the wood-framed ships outfitted for these expeditions were built for the occasion. The ships generally were well-built but not for the abuse they received in the extreme north.