Barentsz: The 16th Century Dutch Explorer’s Quest to Find a Northeast Passage to China

'The Death of William Barentsz.'
'The Death of Willem Barentsz' (1836) by Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman. (Image: via Public Domain)

As we face the ethical dilemmas of the 21st century, it may sometimes seem that honesty has taken a back seat to personal gain. However, tales of unwavering integrity, like that of the 16th-century Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, are poignant reminders of the determination, even in life-threatening circumstances.

The voyages of Barentsz: A quest for a new passage to China

In 1594, Barentsz left Amsterdam with two ships to find a northeast passage to China via the Arctic Sea and reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, which he followed northward until he was forced to turn back near its northern extremity.

The following year, he commanded another expedition of seven ships, which made for the strait between the Asian coast and Vaygach Island, but it was too late to find open water.

On a third voyage (1596), he sighted Spitsbergen (now Svalbard), but upon rounding the north of Novaya Zemlya, his ship became trapped in ice, and Barentsz was compelled to winter in the north.

Barentsz's ship was trapped in the Arctic ice near an island in Novaya Zemlya, Russia.
Barentsz’s ship was trapped in the Arctic ice near an island in Novaya Zemlya, Russia. (Image: via Public Domain)

Surviving a harsh winter

The Arctic Circle hosts some of Earth’s coldest regions, where a few brief months of warmth are swallowed by long, ruthless winters and unblocked gales. The island would sometimes be enveloped in 3-meter-deep snow, hardened by -40 to -50°C temperatures.

Dealing with extreme cold, the crew realized that their socks would burn before their feet could even feel the warmth of a fire — and took to sleeping with warmed stones and cannonballs. They used the merchant fabrics aboard the ship to make additional blankets and clothing.

Though they were forced to ration food, especially bread, and beer, they could hunt Arctic foxes and even a few polar bears. This did not, however, keep the explorers from slowly falling prey to exposure, malnutrition, and scurvy.

They were rescued, but without their captain

The following June, nearly a year after making camp on Novaya Zemlya, the ragged and starving survivors set out on two small boats bound for the Kola Peninsula.

Barentsz never reached this destination. Dying from his ailments on June 20, 1597, only a week after leaving Novaya Zemlya, he still has no known grave. Scholars are unsure whether he was buried on land or at sea.

Seven weeks later, a Dutch merchant vessel captained by none other than Barentsz’s former captain rescued the 12 remaining crew members. But it was not until November that the men finally returned to Amsterdam.

In addition to Barentsz, five sailors and one cabin boy perished in this final harrowing expedition for the Northeast Passage to China. The first successful crossing would not occur until Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld made the route between 1878 and 1879.

An early 17th-century miniature engraved oval portrait of Arctic explorer Willem Barentsz.
An early 17th-century miniature engraved oval portrait of Arctic explorer Willem Barentsz. (Image: via Public Domain)

Barentsz’s enduring legacy

The Age of Exploration gave birth to near-countless tales of dangers faced, adversities overcome, and tragedies borne, but Willem Barentsz’s final expedition is among the most memorable. He is regarded as one of the most important early Arctic explorers because of his extensive voyages, accurate charting, and the valuable meteorological data he collected.

The Barentsz Sea was named after him, as was the Maritime Institute Willem Barentsz on his home island of Terschelling in the Netherlands. A play about his final voyage was produced, as was a 2011 Dutch movie about the same topic.

Such endeavors testify to the enduring legend of Willem Barentsz and his expeditions. Though these voyages were motivated primarily by trade, they provide tales of adventure and exploration that still thrill the imagination.

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