Vitus Bering: The Discoverer of Bering Strait….

A defense of Baring and his achievements verging on hagiography, taking on his early critics quite convincingly.

p. xv, from the author’s preface: …in the summer of 1883, I was enabled to spend some time among the archives and libraries in St. Petersburg, to prepare myself for undertaking this work on Vitus Bering. I very soon, however, encountered obstacles which unassisted I should not have been able to surmount; for, contrary to my expectations, all the original manuscripts and archives pertaining to the history of Bering were written in Russian, and the latter in such difficult language that none but native palaeographers could read them.

I should for this reason have been compelled to return without having accomplished anything, had I not in two gentlemen, Admiral Th. Wessalgo and Mr. August Thornam of the telegraph department, found all the assistance that I needed. The Admiral is director of the department of hydrography, and has charge of the magnificent archives of the Admiralty. He is very familiar with the history of the Russian fleet, and he gave me, not only excellent and exhaustive bibliographical information, besides putting at my disposal the library of the department, but also had made for me copies of various things that were not easily accessible.

p. 17-18: From the fort on the Anadyr, Kamchatka was conquered in the first years of the eighteenth century, and from here came the first information concerning America….

Czar Peter, however, soon laid his adjusting hand upon these groping efforts. By the aid of Swedish prisoners of war, he opened the navigation from Okhotsk to Kamchatka, and thus avoided the circuitous route by way of the Anadyr. A Cossack by the name of Ivan Kosyref- ski (the son of a Polish officer in Russian captivity) was ordered to explore the peninsula to its southern extremity, and also some of the Kurile Islands. In 1719 he officially despatched the surveyors Yevrinoff and Lushin to ascertain whether Asia and America were connected, but secretly he instructed them to go to the Kurile Islands to search for precious metals, especially a white mineral which the Japanese were said to obtain in large quantities from the fifth or sixth islands. Through these various expeditions there was collected vast, although unscientific, materials for the more correct understanding of the geography of eastern Asia, the Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka, the Kuriles, and Yezo. Even con- cerning the Island of Nipon (Hondo), shipwrecked Japanese had given valuable information. Simultaneously, the northern coast about the mouth of the Kolyma, had been explored by the Cossacks Viligin and Amossoff. Through them the first information concerning the Bear Islands and Wrangel Island found its way to Yakutsk. The Cossack chief Shestakoff, 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.

p. 69: The Academic branch of the expedition, which thus came to consist of the astronomer La Croyere, 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.

p. 78: The necessary instruments and some provisions were obtained in St. Petersburg. The naval officers were supplied with quadrants, thermometers, and nocturnals, the surveyors with astrolabes and Gunter’s-chains, and the Academists were authorized to take from the library of the Academy all the works they needed, and, at the expense of the crown, to purchase such as the library did not contain.

p. 98: “…The only fault of which the brave man [Baring] 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 Sokoloff, who wrote his book as a vindication of Chirikoff against Von Baer’s sympathetic view of Bering, must be read with this reservation. It is downright absurd to hold the leader respon-sible 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: 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. Nordenskjöld’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. Nordenskjöld 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 enter-prises 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.