Vitus Bering: The Discovery of the Bering Strait

A fascinating biography of the famous Danish-Russian explorer of the Far East of Siberia and the Northern Pacific. The frequent accounts of reading were not from books usedat sea as most of our examples are but are later readings, included here to give some insights into a significant early expedition.

p. ix, from Schwatka’s Introduction: I doubt yet if Americans will take very much interest in the dispute over Bering’s simple claims in which he could take no part; but that this book, which settles them so clearly, will be welcomed by the reading classes of a nation that by acquisition in Alaska has brought them so near the field of the labor of Bering, I think there need not be the slightest fear. It is one of the most important links yet welded by the wisdom of man which can be made into a chain of history for our new acquisition whose history is yet so imperfect, and will remain so, until Russian archives are placed in the hands of those they consider fair-minded judges, as in the present work.

p. x-xi, in the last paragraph of Schwatka’s introduction he includes an ominous note of Aryan superiority which we include at length as an adumbration of the late twenty-teens in the U.S.: On still broader grounds, it is to be hoped that this work will meet with American success, that it may be an entering wedge to that valuable literature of geographical research and exploration, which from incompatibility of language and other causes has never been fully or even comprehensively opened to English speaking people. It has been well said by one who has opportunities to fairly judge that “it has been known by scientists for some time that more valuable investigation was buried from sight in the Russian language than in any or all others. Few can imagine what activity in geographical, statistical, astronomical, and other research has gone on in the empire of the Czar. It is predicted that within ten years more students will take up the Russian language than those of other nations of Eastern Europe, simply as a necessity. This youngest family of the Aryans is moving west ward with its ideas and literature, as well as its population and empire. There are no better explorers and no better recorders of investigations.” It is undoubtedly a field in which Americans can reap a rich reward of geographical investigation. There is an idea among some, and even friends of Russia, that their travelers and explorers have not done themselves justice in recording their doings, but this in the broad sense is not true. Rather they have been poor chroniclers for the public; but their official reports, hidden away in government archives, are rich in their thorough investigations, oftentimes more nearly perfect and complete than the equivalents in our own language, where it takes no long argument to prove that great attention given to the public and popular account, has been at the expense of the similar qualities in the official report; while many expeditions, American and British, have not been under official patronage at all, which has seldom been the case with Russian research. As already noted, the bulk of similar volumes from other languages and other archives into the English has come from Great Britain; but probably from the unfortunate bitter antagonism between the two countries which has created an apathy in one and a suspicion in the other that they will not be judged in an unprejudiced way, Russia has not got a fair share of what she has really accomplished geographically translated into our tongue. It is through America, an unprejudiced nation, that this could be remedied, if a proper interest is shown, and which will probably be determined, in a greater or less degree, by the reception of this book here, although it comes to us in the round about way of the Danish language. [Or am I totally misreading this whole passage about the Russian Aryans and the unprejudiced Americans?]

p. 18: The Cossack chief Shestakofi, who had traveled into the northeastern regions toward the land of the Chukchees, accepted the accounts of the former for his map, but as he could neither read nor write, matters were most bewilderingly confused. Yet his representations were later accepted by Strahlenberg and Joseph de l’Isle in their maps.

p. 20-21: Bering’s two expeditions are unique in the history of Arctic explorations. His real starting point was on the extremest outskirts of the earth, where only the hunter and yassak-collector had preceded him. Kamchatka was at that time just as wild a region as Boothia or the coasts of Smith’s Sound are in our day, and, practically viewed, it was far more distant from St. Petersburg than any known point now is from us. One hundred and thirty degrees—several thousand miles—the earth’s most inhospitable tracts, the coldest regions on the globe, mountains, endless steppes, impenetrable forests, morasses, and fields of trackless snow were still between him and the mouth of the Kamchatka River, and thither he was to lead, not a small expedition, but an enormous provision train and large quantities of material for ship-building….

In the early part of the year 1725 the expedition was ready to start out from St. Petersburg. The officers were the two Danes, Vitus Bering, captain and chief, and Martin Spangberg, lieutenant and second in command, and also the following: Lieut. Alexei Chi rikofi, Second Lieut. Peter Chaplin, the cartographers Luskin and Patilofl, the mates, Richard Engel and George Morison, Dr. Niemann, and Rev. Ilarion. The subordinates were principally sailors, carpenters, sail makers, blacksmiths, and other mechanics.

p. 69-71: The Academic branch of the expedition, which thus came to consist of the astronomer La Croyére, the physicist Gmelin (the elder), and the historian Muller, was right luxuriously equipped. It was accompanied by two landscape painters, one surgeon, one interpreter, one instrument-maker, five surveyors, six scientific assistants, and fourteen body-guards. Moreover, this convoy grew like an avalanche, as it worked its way into Siberia. La Croyere had nine wagon-loads of instruments, among them telescopes thirteen and fifteen feet in length.

These Academical gentlemen had at least thirty-six horses, and on the large rivers, they could demand boats with cabins. They carried with them a library of several hundred volumes, not only of scientific and historical works in their specialties, but also of the Latin classics and such light reading as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. Besides, they had seventy reams of writing paper and an enormous supply of artists’ colors, draughting materials and apparatus. All archives were to be open to them, all Siberian government authorities were to be at their service and furnish interpreters, guides, and laborers. The Professors, as they were called, constituted an itinerant academy. They drafted their own instructions, and no superior authority took upon itself to make these subservient to the interests of the expedition as a whole. From

February, 1734, they held one or two weekly meetings and passed independent resolutions. It became a part of Bering’s task to move this cumbersome machine, this learned republic, from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka, to care for their comforts and conveniences, and render possible the flank movements and side sallies that either scientific demands or their own freaks of will might dictate. In the original instructions such directions were by no means few. But Bering had no authority over these men. They were willing to recognize his authority only when they needed his assistance. None of them except Bering and his former associates had any idea of the mode and conditions of travel in that barbarous country. That there should be lack of understanding between men with such different objects in view as academists and naval officers, is not very strange. Their only bond of union was the Senate’s senseless ukase. If it had been the purpose of the government to exhibit a human parallel to the “happy families” of menageries, it could hardly have acted differently. In all his movements Bering was hampered by this academical dead weight. The Professors not only showed a lack of appreciation of Bering’s efforts in their behalf, but they also stormed him with complaints, filled their records with them, and concluded them —characteristically enough with a resolution to prefer formal charges against him before the Senate.

p. 98: The only fault of which the brave man can be accused, is that his too great leniency was as detrimental as the spirited and oftentimes inconsiderate conduct of his subordinates.” It is undoubtedly true that Bering was not fully equal to the task; but no one would have been equal to this task. It is possible that his humane conduct impaired the work of the expedition, but this allegation still lacks proof, and Sokolofi, who wrote his book as a vindication of Chirikofi against Von Baer’s sympathetic view of Bering, must be read with this reservation. It is downright absurd to hold the leader responsible for the moral weaknesses of his officers, for he had not chosen them, and was as dependent upon them as they upon him. “It seems to me,” says Von Baer, “that Bering has everywhere acted with the greatest circumspection and energy, and also with the greatest forbearance. The whole expedition was planned on such a monstrous scale that under many another chief it would have foundered without having accomplished any results whatever.”

p. 113-14, on Adolf Nordenskjöld’s critical views on Bering’s expedition: Nor does Baron Nordenskjöld concede to the Great Northern Expedition a place in the history of the Northeast passage. The “Voyage of the Vega” is an imposing work, and was written for a large public, but even the author of this work has not been able to rise to an unbiased and just estimate of his most important predecessors. His presentation of the subject of Russian explorations in the Arctic regions, not alone Bering’s work and that of the Great Northern Expedition, but also Wrangell’s, Lütke’s, and Von Baer’s, is unfair, unsatisfactory, inaccurate, and hence misleading in many respects. Nordensköld’s book comes with such overpowering authority, and has had such a large circulation, that it is one’s plain duty to point out palpable errors. Nordenskjold is not very familiar with the literature relating to this subject. He does not know Berch’s, Stuckenberg’s, or Sokoloff’s works. Middendorff’s and Von Baer’s clever treatises he uses only incidentally. He has restricted himself to making extracts from Wrangell’s account, which in many respects is more than incomplete, and does not put these expeditions in the right light. It is now a couple of generations since Wrangell’s work was written, which is more a general survey than an historical presentation. While Nordenskjöld devotes page after page to an Othere’s, an Ivanoff’s, and a Martinier’s very indifferent or wholly imaginary voyages around northern Norway, he disposes of the Great Northern Expedition, without whose labors the voyage of the Vega would have been utterly impossible, in five unhappily written pages. One seeks in vain in his work for the principal object of the Northern Expedition, for the leading idea that made these magnificent enterprises an organic whole, or for a full and just recognition of these able, and, in some respects, unfortunate men, whose labors have so long remained without due appreciation. In spite of Middendorff’s interesting account of the cartography of the Taimyr peninsula, Nordenskjöold does not make the slightest attempt to explain whether his corrections of the cartography of this region are corrections of the work of Laptjef and Chelyuskin, or of the misrepresentations of their work made by a later age.

About the charting of Cape Chelyuskin he says: “This was done by Chelyuskin in 1742 on a new sledging expedition, the details of which are but little known; evidently because until the most recent times there has been a doubt in regard to Chelyuskin’s statement that he had reached the most northerly point of Asia. After the voyage of the Vega, however, there can no longer be any doubt.” [Here Laurensen continues his unrelenting attack on Nordenskjöld.]