Familiar as I thought I was with the history of arctic exploration, I had missed one of the most important stories of all — that of Dutch navigator, cartographer and explorer, Willem Barentsz’ three voyages into the sea that now bears his name, from 1594 to 1597.
Andrea Pitzer capably filled that gap with her 2021 book, ‘Icebound,’ a tale of arctic exploration that’s on a par with the best survival stories of all time, especially that of Ernest Shackleton’s epic adventure in Antarctica in 1915-16 after the loss of his ship, Endurance. Barentsz’ crew, like Shackleton’s, held together and supported each other while overwintering in extraordinarily grim circumstances before escaping across the polar sea in small, open boats. The resilience and ingenuity of these early mariners, especially given the era more than 400 years ago, is astonishing.
With their ship trapped in ice and slowly taking on water, and in the face of an approaching arctic winter, they succeeded constructing a survival shelter on the barren shore of Novaya Zemlya that they called the Saved House, the relic of which stood for some 300 years. After abandoning all hope of freeing their ship in the early summer of 1597 they rebuilt and continuously repaired ice and storm damage to two open boats, which they used to make their eventual escape.
William Barents, to use his anglicized name, was born around 1550 and died during the return in the open boats from his third voyage in 1597 after surviving the polar night in northern Novaya Zemlya. Despite the loss of this master navigator, and the earlier loss of the ship’s carpenter (arguably the two most important men on board), 12 of the original crew of 16 survived to return to Amsterdam.
Set at the beginning of the era in which the Dutch were to become the world’s leading maritime trading nation, Barents’ expeditions to the far north aimed to find a northeast passage to China. He reached Novaya Zemlya in each of his first two voyages before being turned back by ice. In his third and final expedition, he first discovered Bear Island and then Spitsbergen before continuing on again on to Novaya Zemlya where, having at last rounded the northern tip of the island, he was beset by ice and weather and stranded for nearly a year on the northeast shore.
During their epic overwintering, they fought off many polar bear attacks, survived incredibly harsh weather, scavenged firewood, and trapped whatever food they could to supplement their dwindling supplies. They learned to build fox traps, and were successful in catching quite a few of these animals after marauding bears had retreated for the winter. This unknowingly brought them salvation as Arctic foxes metabolize vitamin C and the meagre remnant of this in the fresh meat helped to stave off the worst effects of scurvy. Their eventual escape using the two small, open boats, was at least as impressive as Shackleton’s, especially considering the era.
My only disappointment was with the book’s all-important maps: the quality, quantity and range of maps was good, but they lacked many of the features mentioned in the text, or even basic distance scales, forcing the interested reader to seek other map sources.
Pitzer clearly put a lot of research into the work, including two trips to Spitzbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, plus a journey on a small Russian sailing vessel to the overwintering site at Ice Harbour. A failed engine on the return journey extended their voyage for a week and, like Barents’ men, they resorted to sailing back to the Russian mainland against prevailing winds.
Gerrit de Veer travelled with Barents on all three voyages and later produced a rich and beautifully illustrated account of the journeys. The original English language translation, ‘The Three Voyages of William Barents to the Arctic Regions (1594, 1595, and 1596)’ by Gerrit de Veer can now be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg. As part of her research for Icebound, Pitzer arranged for comparisons of parts of the original Dutch and English versions, and because de Veer’s work has never been fully retranslated, many of the quotes in the new book are in archaic English. If you enjoy reading historical arctic exploration accounts, I recommend this unique book.
Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer; New York, Scribner, 2021; ISBN: 9781982113346; xi, 301 pages, illustrations, maps; Willem Barents Voyages 1594-1597