Willem Barentsz

Willem Barentsz, born around 1550 and died on June 20th of 1597, was a Dutch navigator, explorer, cartographer, and a leader of early expeditions to the far north.

He was born on the island Terschelling in the Seventeen Provinces.

A cartographer by trade, he sailed to Spain and the Mediterranean to finish an atlas of the Mediterranean area, which he co-published with Petrus Plancius.

His career as an explorer was spent searching for the Northeast Passage, which he reasoned must exist as clear, open water towards the north of Siberia since the sun shone 24 hours a day, which he believed would have melted any potential ice.

On June 5th of 1594 he left the island of Texel aboard the small ship named Mercury, as a part of a group of three ships sent out in separate directions to attempt to enter the Kara Sea, with the intentions of finding the Northeast Passage above Siberia. Between June 23 and 29, he stayed at Kildin Island.

On July 9th, the crew came across a polar bear for the first time. After shooting it with a musket when it attempted to climb aboard the ship, the seamen decided to capture it with the hope of bringing it back to Holland. Once leashed and brought aboard, however, the bear rampaged and had to be killed. This happened in Bear Creek, Williams Island.

Upon discovering the Orange Islands, the crew encountered a herd of about 200 walruses and attempted to kill them with hatchets and pikes. Finding the task more difficult than they had imagined, they left with only a few ivory tusks.

He reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya and followed it northwards before being forced to turn back in the face of large icebergs. Although they didn’t reach their destination, the trip was considered a success.

Disappointed by the failed expedition, he set out on his second one in 1596. The States-General announced that they would no longer subsidize similar voyages – but rather offered a high reward for anyone who successfully navigated the Northeast Passage.

The town council of Amsterdam bought and outfitted two small ships, captained by Jan Rijp and Jacob van Heemskerk, to search for the elusive channel under the command of Barentsz. They departed on May 10th or May 15th and on June 9th they discovered Bear Island. After some time the crew found themselves at Bear Island once again on July 1st, which led to a disagreement between Barentsz and Van Heemskerk on one side and Rijp on the other. Barentsz reached Novaya Zemlya on July 17th. Anxious to avoid becoming entrapped in the surrounding ice, he had the intention of heading for the Vaigatch Strait, but became stuck within the many icebergs and floes.

Stranded, the crew of 16 men was forced to spend the winter on ice, along with their young cabin boy. After an unsuccessful attempt to melt the permafrost, the crew used lumber from their ship to construct a 7.8×5.5 meter lodge that they called Het Behouden Huys.

As they were dealing with the extreme cold, they realized that their socks would burn before their feet could even feel the warmth of a fire and took to sleeping with warmed stones and cannonballs. Additionally, they used the merchant fabrics aboard the ship to make additional blankets and clothing.

The ship had salted beef, cheese, bread, barley, peas, groats, flour, oil, vinegar, salt, beer, wine, brandy, mustard, hardtack, smoked bacon, ham and fish aboard. Much of the beer froze, bursting the casks. By November 8th, Gerrit de Veer, the ships carpenter who kept a journal, reported a shortage of beer and bread, with wine being rationed four days later.

In January of 1597, De Veer became the first person to witness and to record the atmospheric anomaly known as the Novaya Zemlya effect.

Proving successful at hunting, the group caught 26 arctic foxes in some primitive traps, along with killing a number of polar bears.

When June emerged, and the ice had still not loosened its grip on the ship, the scurvy-ridden survivors took two small boats out into the sea on June 13th. Barentsz died at sea on June 20th of 1597 while studying charts only seven days after starting out. It isn’t known whether Barentsz was buried on the northern island of Novaya Zemlya, or at sea. It took seven more weeks for the boats to reach the Kola Peninsula where they were rescued by a Russian merchant vessel, and by that time only 12 of the initial crew members remained. Ultimately, they didn’t reach Amsterdam until November 1st. Sources differ on whether two men died on the ice floe and three in the boats, or three on the ice floe and two in the boats. The young cabin boy had died during the winter months in the shelter.

Two of Barentsz’ crewmembers later published their journals of the first two voyages, and the carpenter on the last two voyages.

In 1853, the former Murmean Sea was renamed Barents Sea honoring him.

Image Caption: Willem Barentsz. Credit: Wikipedia