Willem Barentsz

gigatos | May 28, 2022


Willem Barents (Terschelling, Frisian Islands, 1550-New Zembla, Russia, June 20, 1597) was a Dutch navigator and explorer, one of the pioneers of the first expeditions to the northern lands.

In 1594 Willem left Amsterdam with two ships to seek the northern sea route via northern Siberia and eastern Asia. He reached the eastern shores of New Zembla and continued sailing north until he was forced to turn back when he reached the farthest north. The following year, Willem took part in another seven-ship expedition, passing through the Kara Strait between the Siberian coast and Vaygach Island, but it took too long to find open sea and they had to turn back. On his third attempt, the mission also failed and he was killed. On this last occasion, he took two ships captained by Jan Rijp and Jacob van Heemskerk and on that voyage they discovered the Svalbard archipelago. The Barents ship, captained by Heemskerk, was trapped in the ice off the east coast of New Zembla and its crew was forced to spend the winter on the island where Willem would eventually die.

Although their initial goal of reaching the Orient was not achieved, this voyage ranks among the most important of 16th century Arctic Ocean exploration, and the first in which a group of explorers successfully braved the polar winter. Their experiences would serve later navigators from the Netherlands to establish fruitful fishing and whaling routes.

The Barents Sea, Barents Island in the Svalbard Archipelago, the Russian enclave of Barentsburg and the Barents region were named in his honor.

Willem Barents was born around 1550 on the island of Terschelling (Frisian Islands) in the Seventeen Provinces.

Barents, as a commercial cartographer, sailed to Spain and around the Mediterranean to complete an Atlas of the Mediterranean region, which was co-published with the Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius.

His career as an explorer was devoted to the search for the Northeast Passage, which he reasoned must exist because of the existence of open water north of Siberia, open water because the sun shining 24 hours a day in those regions should melt any potential ice. It is one of the first explanations of the well-known open polar sea hypothesis.

First voyage (1594)

At the end of the 16th century, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, engaged in the Eighty Years” War against Spain, were looking for a sea route between the North Sea and the Far East that would allow them to reach the East Indies, where they had commercial interests, without using the traditional route around Europe and Africa, controlled by Spain.

In 1594, a fleet of four ships was prepared under the command of Cornelis Cornelisz Nay, from the city of Enkhuizen, accompanied by another famous navigator, Jan Huygen van Linschoten. The communal council of Amsterdam bought and equipped two small ships, Barents being the captain of one of them, the Mercury. They set sail on June 5 from the Frisian island of Texel and after skirting the Norwegian coast, they set course eastward, intending to reach New Zembla and cross the Kara Sea in the hope of finding the Northeast Passage on the coast of Siberia.

On July 9, the crew encountered three polar bears for the first time. After firing a musket shot when one of them tried to board the ship, the sailors decided to capture it in the hope of bringing it back to Holland. Once captured and on board, the bear became so rambunctious that it had to be put down. The place of the event was named Bear Island (in Norwegian, Bjørnøya). (Some sources suggest that this event occurred on June 9, 1596 as part of the third voyage).

Arriving at New Zembla, they split in different directions to try to enter the Kara Sea. Barents, leading the Amsterdam ships, attempted to skirt the island from the north and they discovered the group of small Orange Islands, just north of New Zembla. On these islands the crew encountered a herd of approximately 200 walruses and attempted to kill them with axes and pikes. Finding the task more difficult than they imagined, they abandoned with only a few tusks of ivory. Barents attempted to skirt the west coast of New Zembla and continue north, but encountered ice and large icebergs forced him to turn back. However, the other two ships managed to enter the Kara Sea through the Vaygach Strait (now Kara Strait), between the Siberian coast and Vaygach Island, which they found ice-free. On their return, and although they did not reach the final goal, the expedition was considered a success.

Second voyage (1595)

Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, following reports of the expedition, harbored the “most exaggerated hopes” and the States General of the Netherlands financed an expedition of seven ships, again under the command of Cornelis Cornelisz Nay. Barents captained the same ship as the previous year and took aboard Jacob van Heemskerk. The expedition was accompanied by six merchant ships loaded with goods that the Dutch hoped to trade with China.

They departed on June 2, 1595, again from the Frisian island of Texel, and the effort was entirely concentrated on crossing the Kara Strait, which separates the island of Vaygach from the New Zembla archipelago. On August 30, the expedition encountered a group of about 20 “wild men”, Samoyeds with whom they were able to speak thanks to a crewman who spoke their language. On September 4, they sent a small party to the island States to search for a type of crystal they had heard about. The party was attacked by a polar bear and two of the sailors were killed.

However, in 1595 due to unexpected weather conditions, they found the Kara Sea completely frozen making navigation impossible and returned, after many difficulties and the death of several crew members, on November 18. This expedition was widely regarded as a failure, and the province of Zeeland and the city of Enkhuizen, which had provided ships for both voyages, lost interest. Van Linschoten wrote his experience on those two voyages, Voyagie, ofte schip-vaert, van Ian Huyghen van Linschoten, van by Noorden om langes Noorvvegen de Noortcape, Laplant, Vinlant, Ruslandt, de VVite Zee, de custen van candenoes, Svvetenoes, Pitzora…, published in 1601 by Gerard Ketel de Franeker.

Third voyage (1596-97)

In 1596, disappointed by the failure of the two previous expeditions, the States General announced that they would no longer subsidize similar voyages, but offered a high reward for anyone who successfully navigated the Northeast Passage.The communal council of the city of Amsterdam decided to send its two ships again for a third attempt, this time under the command of Barents. They sailed from the port of Amsterdam on May 10 (or May 15), almost a month earlier than on the previous two occasions,captained by Jacob van Heemskerk and Jan Cornelisz Rijp. Barents accompanied van Heemskerk as pilot and scientific advisor to the expedition. (Unexpectedly, Gerrit de Veer (ca. 1570-na. 1598), a carpenter on the expedition, would become the chronicler of the voyage, as he kept a journal that was published in 1596.)

On this third occasion the passage was attempted through high latitudes, as advocated by the influential theologian and cartographer Petrus Plancius. Disagreements between Barents and Rijp arose at once, when Barents wished to steer a more easterly course than the instructions Plancius had given. Rijp”s strong character insisted on the northern course and on June 10 they discovered Bear Island in the Barents Sea north of Norway. Continuing northward, they discovered Spitsbergen Island, near 80º N latitude, on June 17, sighting its northwest coast. They mistakenly considered the island to be part of Greenland and named it “Het Nieuwe Land” (Dutch for New Land). Part of the credit for this discovery is therefore due to Rijp”s stubbornness.

On June 20 they saw the entrance to a large bay, later called Raudfjorden. On June 21 they anchored between Cloven Cliff and Vogelsang, where they “set up a post with the Dutch ensigns”. On June 25 they entered Magdalenefjorden, which they called Tusk Bay, in light of the walrus tusks they found there. The next day, June 26, they embarked at the northern entrance to Forlandsundet, which they simply called Keerwyck, but were forced to turn back because of a sandbar. On June 28 they rounded the northern tip of Prins Karls Forland, which they called Vogelhoek, because of the large number of birds they saw there. They sailed south, passing Isfjorden and Bellsund, which were labeled on the Barents chart as Grooten Inwyck and Inwyck.

After sighting the Svalbards, the ships once again found themselves on Bear Island on July 1, which led to a new disagreement between Barents and Van Heemskerk on the one hand and Rijp on the other. They decided to split the expedition, with Barents continuing to the northeast while Rijp would head north. Barents reached New Zembla on July 17 and to avoid being trapped in the ice, as in previous years, he set his bow for the Vaigatch Strait, but soon got stuck between the numerous icebergs and floes and tried again to round the northern end of the island of New Zembla, where his ship became trapped in the ice on September 11.

The 16-man crew, including a young cabin boy, were forced to spend the winter on the ice. After a failed attempt to melt the permafrost, the crew used scraps of wood found on the island and some of the wood from their own ship to build a small 7.8 x 5.5 meter pavilion, which they named Het Behouden Huys (The Keeper”s House).

The cold was extreme and the crew found that their socks burned before their feet could even feel the heat of the fire, and they went to sleep warming themselves with stones and cannonballs. In addition, they used the tradesmen”s fabrics they brought aboard to make new blankets and clothing.

The ship carried salt meat, butter, cheese, bread, bread, barley, peas, beans, groats, flour, oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, beer, wine, brandy, crackers (“hardtac “k), smoked bacon, ham and fish. Much of the beer was frozen, breaking barrels. They were also successful with hunting, as the party caught 26 Arctic foxes in primitive traps, as well as some polar bears. On November 8 Gerrit de Veer, the ship”s carpenter who kept a diary, reported shortages of bread and beer, and that wine began to be rationed four days later. In January 1597, De Veer became the first person to witness and record the atmospheric anomaly known as the New Zembla effect.

When June arrived and the ice had not yet freed the ship, the scurvy survivors put to sea in two small open boats on June 13. Barents died while studying the charts just seven days after departing. It is not known whether Barents was buried in the north of the island of New Zembla or was dumped at sea.

When the sun was in the southeast, Claesz Andriesz began to be very ill, and we learned that he would not live long. The boatswain came on our deck and told us what state he was in and that he could not stay alive long; whereupon Willem Barents spoke, “I don”t suppose I shall last long either.” However, we did not judge Willem Barents to be so ill, for we sat talking to each other and talked about many things, and Willem Barents studied the map he had made during our voyage (and we had some discussions about it). Then he walked away from the map and said, “Gerrit, can you give me something to drink,” and he had not drunk when he fell into a sudden calm, rolled his eyes and died suddenly. We did not have time to call the captain of the other boat to talk to him; he died before Andriesz Claesz, who died shortly after him. (De Veer, 1598: annotation of June 20, 1597)

It took the boats seven more weeks to reach the Kola Peninsula, where they were surprised to find that Rijp, who had returned from his voyage north the previous season, had left again and was looking for them. Only 12 of the crew survived, and the young cabin boy had died in wintering in the shelter. Only 12 of the crew survived, and the young cabin boy had died in the wintering in the shelter. They arrived in Amsterdam on November 1. Sources differ as to whether two of the men died on the floes and three on the boats, or three on the floes and two on the boats.

Two members of Barents” crew later published their journals, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who had accompanied him on the first two voyages, and Gerrit de Veer, who participated as the ship”s carpenter on the last two voyages.

The wooden hut where the Barents crew took refuge was found undisturbed by Norwegian sealer Elling Carlsen in 1871. He made a sketch of the building and Carlsen noted that he found two copper cooking pots, a barrel, a chest tool, watch, nail puller, flute, clothing, two empty chests, a kitchen tripod and a number of pictures.

Captain Gunderson arrived at the site on August 17, 1875, and collected an iron grip, two maps, and a handwritten translation of Pet and Jackman”s voyages. The following year, Charles L.W. Gardiner also visited the site on July 29, where he collected 112 more objects, including Barents and Heemskerck”s message describing their settlement to future visitors. All of these objects eventually ended up in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, although some initially remained in The Hague.

Amateur archaeologist Miloradovich found in 1933 some of these objects in the Arctic and Antarctic Museum in St. Petersburg. Dmitriy Kravchenko visited the site in 1977, 1979 and 1980 and sent divers in the hope of finding the remains of the big ship. He returned with a number of objects that were deposited in the Arkangel Regional Museum. Another small collection exists at the Polar Museum in Tromsø.

In 1992, an expedition of three scientists, a journalist and two photographers, sponsored by the Arctic Center of the University of Groningen, along with two scientists, a cook and a doctor sent by the St. Petersburg Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, returned to the site, and erected a memorial marker at the cabin site.

The location of the Barents wintering on the ice floes has become a tourist destination for icebreaker cruise ships operating from Murmansk.

In 1853, the former Murmansk Sea was renamed the Barents Sea in his honor, and at the end of the 19th century, the Willem Barents Maritime Institute was opened in Terschelling.

In 1878, the Netherlands christened an Arctic exploration vessel Willem Barentsz.

In 1931, Nijgh & Van Ditmar published a play (toneelstuk) written by Albert Helman about the third Barents voyage, although it was never performed.

In 1946, the whaler Pan Gothia was renamed Willem Barentsz. In 1953, a second whaling ship Willem Barentsz was built.

In 1996, a 10 € coin of the Netherlands was minted dedicated to Barents.

A protein in the molecular structure of the fruit fly was named Barents, in honor of the explorer.


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