Polar exploration: The forgotten journey

Huw Lewis-Jones revisits a pioneering, ill-fated expedition to map the Arctic.

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition

Da Capo: 2017 9780306825194 | ISBN: 978-0-3068-2519-4

The Great Northern Expedition was an immense eighteenth-century enterprise that redrew the Arctic map. Led by Danish captain Vitus Bering, it set out in 1733 from St Petersburg, Russia. Over the next decade, a dwindling cavalcade crossed thousands of miles of Siberian forest and swamp and then, in ships built by hand, struck out towards the unknown shores of North America. Sponsor Peter the Great had envisioned a grand campaign to elevate Russia's standing in the world, with its scientific and geographic findings shared widely. However, he died long before its return, and under subsequent regimes much was buried in obscurity.

Vitus Bering, leader of the eighteenth-century Great Northern Expedition, died en route and was buried here, in the Commander Islands (pictured in 1980).

In Island of the Blue Foxes, Canadian author Stephen Bown retells the story of this epic undertaking. Although this book lacks the narrative drive of his previous accounts — excellent biographies of explorers Knud Rasmussen and Roald Amundsen — it should draw new readers to a neglected chapter in maritime history. Bering's voyage shows the lengths to which humans are driven by their curiosity, and demonstrates the environmental consequences of our greed.

Bown's subtitle dubs his subject the “world's greatest scientific expedition”, which is a bit of a stretch when you compare it with, for example, the slightly later voyages of James Cook or Alexander von Humboldt. Yet Bering's brainchild was certainly one of the largest, longest and most costly expeditions mounted in the eighteenth century. Its budget, at around 1.5 million roubles, was roughly one-sixth of the annual income of the Russian state. As an example of commitment to geographical discovery, it deserves to be better known.

The challenge for a historian is the elusiveness of source material. We don't have a verifiable contemporary portrait of Bering, and his journals have not survived. For much of the later stages of the expedition at sea, Bering was rarely seen on deck, confined to his cabin with scurvy. He was nearing 60 years old, and his energies were long spent. What we do have are two remarkable first-hand accounts: in the unvarnished journal of his second-in-command, Sven Waxell, and in the manuscripts of the cantankerous, diligent German naturalist Georg Steller. The harrowing later stages of the expedition, a saga of survival against gruesome odds, have been covered by previous books: Corey Ford's Where the Sea Breaks Its Back (Little, Brown, 1966) and Steller's Island (Mountaineers, 2006) by Dean Littlepage.

Bown's synthesis of these “tragic and ghastly” final months is well written. He also goes to great lengths to detail the arduous early phases, essentially an unending gauntlet of implausible logistics. Everything needed for the voyage — from shipbuilding gear and supplies to anchors, sails and cannonballs — had to be hauled overland, by sledge, horse and raft. Many of the thousands of men involved didn't even make it to the Siberian coast alive, let alone begin the sea voyage.

With no ready voice to be plucked from primary sources to make a charismatic figure out of Bering, the real star of Bown's narrative is Steller. Over the course of the odyssey, this difficult man transforms from unlikable savant to practical lifesaver, with his knowledge of flora and fauna ultimately saving his scurvy-ridden comrades. His efforts to 'do science' were frequently at odds with the naval command: time ashore was precious, and precarious at best. His explorations on Alaska's Kayak Island mark the first scientific discoveries in western North America, yet Steller would complain that ten years of preparation had resulted in just ten hours of investigation on a remote beach, as the ship's water barrels were fitfully replenished.

Later wrecked in the Commander Islands, and given up for dead, he and his remaining companions had much more experience ashore than they would have ever wished for. Here, Steller observed and described the behaviour, diet and life cycles of several new and endemic species: sea lions and fur seals, a large flightless cormorant and a “special sea eagle with a white head and tail”, today known as Steller's sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus). He dissected a male fur seal, making many measurements to add to his multi-page description. It is said he also prepared a catalogue of birds and plants, although the island's verminous blue foxes would sometimes carry off his papers or knock over his inkstand. Or worse: the foxes chewed on the corpses of the dead, and harassed the dying, until subdued by boot, axe or gunshot.

Stellar died on the way back to St Petersburg in 1746. Secrecy in protecting Russian imperial interests meant that his contributions were little known to the wider world. In Russia, however, Bering's voyage inspired sailors and entrepreneurs to turn their attentions east. Steller's legacy as a naturalist is worth remembering, but there is a sober consequence to this voyage, as with many others sent out in the name of science and state: namely, later bloody encounters with indigenous peoples and habitat destruction.

Just a year after the expedition's return, a shipload of hunters arrived home “with a cargo of sixteen hundred sea-otter, two thousand fur-seal, and two thousand blue-fox skins”. Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), discovered in 1741 on the island that would later bear Bering's name, was hunted to extinction in just 27 years. Despite the risks and hardships, the profits of the sea-otter trade also drew British and American traders north. This wave of hungry sailors wiped out the spectacled cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) that Steller first observed, goose-sized and reportedly delicious.

To understand the full significance of this fateful expedition, compare maps. Before 1720, Siberia and the North Pacific are riddled with curious fantasies or swathes of white space. On charts created after Bering's final voyage, the region emerges in its full complexity. Alaska finds form and the Pacific fur trade opens. A vast archive of manuscripts and observations from Siberia has not yet been fully recovered from Russian archives, let alone published in English, but work by scholars supported by the Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen is now bringing material into the public domain. There is much more to be discovered and, in terms of species loss, still so much that must be learnt.

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Correspondence to Huw Lewis-Jones.

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Lewis-Jones, H. Polar exploration: The forgotten journey. Nature 551, 166–167 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/551166a

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