Although the name of Willem Barents is renowned, historians know little of his life and family. From his atlas Nieuwe Beschrijvinghe ende Caertboeck van de Middellandtsche Zee (New Description and Atlas of the Mediterranean Sea) published by Cornelis Claesz in 1595, historians know that Barents nurtured an interest in maps during his childhood. He shared this passion with his later teacher, the Dutch reformed preacher, and geographer Petrus Plancius (1552-1622). Plancius was interested in the discovery of a North East Passage to China and Japan, and when an expedition to search for such a northern sail route was organized in 1594, Plancius placed Barents in command of the Amsterdam portion of the discovery fleet.
The Dutch organized three successive voyages to search for such a sail route. Olivier Brunel, a Dutchman who at that time lived in Kholmogory in the north of Russia, played a significant role in the preparations of these voyages. Brunel made several voyages from Kholmogory to the Samojed country and to Siberia and, as the first West-European there, he finally reached the River Ob. In 1584, he succeeded in fitting out a ship at the expense of Balthasar de Moucheron, a merchant from Middelburg in the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands and the first Dutch expedition to try to reach Cathay in China via the north. Unfortunately, Brunel's vessel shipwrecked in the mouth of the River Pechora and he most likely died on that journey. When Barents, on his first trip, arrived in Novaya Zemlya, he recognized the Strait of Kostin Shar from Brunel's description of it published in Lucas Jansz Waghenaer's Tresoor der Zeevaart (1592).
Cornelis Cornelisz Nay served as commander of the entire fleet on Barents's first voyage, which was financed by the city of Amsterdam and the states of Holland and Zealand. The 1594-1595 expedition was considered a success because the participants were convinced that they had discovered the entrance of the North East Passage to China. The following year, an expedition of merchant ships set sail with the intention of traveling through the newly discovered sailing route to China and Japan. Barents commanded the ship Winthont in the capacity as leader of the Amsterdam portion of the expedition. However, their ships became locked in ice in the southern Kara Sea and trapped until the following summer.
While the expedition was not too promising, the Dutchmen decided to send another expedition in 1596. This time Barents led the entire fleet, which consisted of two ships—one commanded by Jacob van Heemskerck and the other commanded by Jan Cornelisz Rijp. For the first time, this expedition took a northern direction and subsequently discovered Bear Island and Spitsbergen. However, when it became clear that there was no passage in the northern pack ice, Barents decided to sail without Rijp, again to the northeast. Barents's ship got stuck in the ice of the northern Kara Sea to the east of Novaya Zemlya. Together with Jacob van Heemskerck and 15 crew members, Barents was forced to spend the winter of 1596-1597 on the desolate east coast of the Arctic island. There Barents and his crew used the wood of the ship to build housing; they called it Behouden Huys or the "safe house." Barents was among the first Europeans to survive a wintering in the Arctic. In June 1597 when their ship was still blocked in the ice, the survivors decided to return southward toward the Netherlands in open boats. Barents, however, did not survive this return voyage; on June 20, 1597, he died and most probably was buried at the sea that today bears his name. He left behind a wife and five children under destitute circumstances. Soon after his death, his widow was forced to ask the administrative state of Holland for financial support, which she did not, unfortunately, receive.
An impressive diary of the wintering written by one of the crew members, Gerrit de Veer, was published shortly after Barents's third voyage and was quickly translated into several languages. In 1598, Cornelis Claesz of Amsterdam published the geographical information gathered during Barents's expeditions in the form of the "Willem Barents Polar Map." This remarkable map changed the picture of the polar area completely, as it described an open polar sea surrounded by continents.
In 1871, the Norwegian seal hunter Elling Carlsen rediscovered the remains of Barents's Behouden Huy. Inside the wintering house on Novaya Zemlya, Carlsen found many well-preserved objects left behind by the Dutch crew and a farewell note that Barents had written. These objects, Barents's maps, and diaries are today part of the permanent collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
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