Northern Sea Route’s first challenger
Little is known about the life of the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. However, his three journeys to the ocean which we today know as the Barents Sea, is well described. The most important reason for his fame is the unique map which was produced after these three voyages on the quest for the Northern Sea Route.
- This map was in use for centuries after it was finished in 1598. The map details and the accuracy of distances and territories are exceptionally good. Considering the time and equipment they had, I have problems understanding how it is possible to produce a map with such accuracy", says Cato Schiøtz.
Schiøtz is a Norwegian Supreme Court lawyer and partner in one of Norway’s largest law firms. Outside the court room one of his big obsessions is historical maps. And the pride of his collection is an original version of Willem Barentsz map from 1598.
As the Barents Cooperation is celebrating its first 20 years, The Norwegian Barents Secretariat is planning to focus on various aspects of the Barents Cooperation. The natural thing was therefore to invite Cato Schiøtz to a seminar to tell about the man who gave name to the ocean the region is named after.
Cato Schiøtz. holding his valuable original Willem Barentsz map. (Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk)
Schiøtz told the audience that in the late 1500-century Spain and Portugal had taken control over large parts of the Ocean traffic. Therefore the Dutch were looking for alternative sea routes to Asia where Spain and portugal had no authority. They had heard about the possibility to sail around Russia in the north, and this became the task for the first expedition of two Dutch ships in 1594. Willem Barentsz’ ship planned to sail north of Novaya Zemlya, while the other ship which was headed by Cornelis Nay, sailed to the south of the island.
Barentsz’ attempt to enter the Northern Sea Route failed, and he had to return before he even reached the northern cape of Novaya Zemlya. Cornelis Nay’s journey on the other hand, was a huge success. He managed to get through the narrow straights south of the island and sailed deep into the Kara Sea. Some say that the ship came half way to the Bering Strait, but Cato Schiøtz has little belief in that they got that far.
However, the expedition was considered a success and the following year a convoy of seven Dutch ships set off with huge optimism in the quest for the Northern Sea Route. It ended in failure because the ice conditions were far worse than the year before. The expedition only reached the estuaries of the river Pechora and then returned to Holland.
When the third expedition set off in 1596 they had only two ships like the first expedition. Barents still had strong beliefs in going north of Novaya Zemlya, but they went too far north. On their search for Novalya Zemlya they bumped into an archipelago which at that time was unknown to Europeans, Spitsbergen. Even though it was important to find uknown territory, it was not what they were searching for. Spitsbergen was far off the new route to Asia, but Barentsz was still eager to continue eastwards. The commander of the other ship, Jan Corneliszoon Rijp, wanted to return to Holland.
Trapped in ice
The two expedition leader argued on whether they should end the expedition or not and concluded to split up. Rijp returned to Holland, while Barentsz tried once again to sail the Northern Sea Route. Finally he managed to sail beyond the northern cape of Novaya Zemlya, but just southeast of the cape ice stopped his ship once again. It soon became clear that they were trapped in the ice and the crew had to prepare for a winter in the Kara Sea.
To survive they broke apart the ship and built a cottage on Novaya Zemlya. So when the ice cap opened again in June 1597 the crew had to set off in two smaller open boats. They voyage along the coast of Novaya Zemlya was a rough travel in a harsh climate. 5 out of the 17 crew members died during this voyage. Willem Barentsz was one of them. While crossing the open sea of the White Ocean, Willem Barentsz died on June 20th 1597. The rest of the crew continued westwards and was picked up close to Murmansk seven weeks later.
These stories would probably have been forgotten and the Barents Sea would have had another name, if it hadn’t been for the production of the map of his travels in 1598. The map is based on the notes of Willem Barents and the written descriptions made by the ship’s carpenter, Gerrit de Veer.
The map was published in 1598 with an impressive amount of details. It is a sign of its quality that Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen also studied the map before going on his expeditions in the Barents Sea 300 years later, says Schiøtz.
However, even though Willem Barentsz' map printed his name into this region’s history for eternity, his real quest, to be the first to sail the Northern Sea Route, failed.