The Northeast Passage

Besides making such great efforts to map the Northwest Passage, a succession of European explorers and their sponsors were also looking eastwards, fascinated by the possibility of finding another route that would lead them to the riches of the Orient. From the end of the sixteenth century, numerous expeditions had set out to explore these unknown seas, and sailors brought back extraordinary stories of the vast riches, dangerous natives and fabulous animals that they claimed to have seen with their own eyes. One crew returned to England claiming to have seen unicorns and brandished a skull with one horn in a bid to prove it. However, most expeditions found their progress blocked by thick pack ice.

One of the earliest ventures to explore the Northeast Passage was made in 1580, when the Muscovy Trading Company commissioned two highly experienced sailors, Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman, to lead an expedition in the region.4 Although they discovered the Kara Sea and the offshore archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, the expedition was ravaged by bad weather and Jackman's ship eventually disappeared without trace. Fourteen years later a Dutch navigator, William Barents, made three journeys of his own, discovering the Svalbard archipelago in the process, but like his predecessors, he too was beaten back by atrocious weather. Barents died in June 1596 during the arduous return journey, and only 12 of the 17 men who left Holland made it back after encountering atrocious weather and conditions. In 1607 and 1608 Henry Hudson also made two trips of his own but soon found his routes blocked by ice, and the disappointing outcome of his journey was one reason why, over the coming century, very few Europeans showed much interest in exploring the passage.

At this time nearly all of the explorers who headed for the region were Russians, or else had the backing of the Czar. In 1648 a Russian expedition set out in seven vessels to explore the Siberian coast, and although several were wrecked in the process, the remaining few went round the eastern tip of the Chukotka Peninsula, through the Bering Strait and around the north-eastern tip of Asia, where a band of 25 survivors, led by a Cossack called Simeon Dezhnev, built an outpost and lived for several years. Decades later, stories of Dezhnev's achievements intrigued Czar Peter, who commissioned a Danish sailor, Vitus Bering, to explore these unknown seas of the north. In August 1728 Bering and his crew made their way through a narrow strait, later named after him, and wintered on the Kamchatka Peninsula before returning to St Petersburg in March 1730.

Although Bering had succeeded in exploring and mapping much of the region, it was not until 1878 that anyone succeeded in sailing the entire length of the Northeast Passage, when the Swedish explorer Erik Nordenskjord completed this epic journey and became a national hero, and a very rich man, as a result.

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