Prominent Russians: Vitus Bering
Vitus Jonassen Bering was one of the world's most famous explorers. He was born in Horsens, Jutland (Denmark) in 1681. He was the son of Jonas Svendsen, a customs officer and church warden. From the time Vitus was a small child he loved the sea. He went sailing as a young man and learned navigation on Dutch and Danish ships, traveling to both Danish East Indian and West Indian colonies. In 1703, after a voyage to the East Indies, he found himself in Amsterdam searching for new adventures and responsibilities when he met the Norwegian Cornelius Cruys, a vice admiral in the Russian service and became one of many Danish and Norwegian sailors recruited into the young Russian fleet by Peter I the Great.
Bering joined the navy in 1703 as a sublieutenant and served in the Baltic Fleet during the Great Nordic War (1700 – 1721) against Sweden, at the time Russia’s and Denmark’s traditional arch-enemy. In 1710 - 1712 he was sent to the Azov Sea Fleet in Taganrog and took part in the Russo-Turkish War. Having distinguished himself, Bering was finally promoted to Captain-Commander. In 1718 he married Anna Christina Piillse of Viborg, Karelia, the youngest daughter of the merchant Mathias Piillse's. Apart from a single brief visit to Denmark in 1715, Bering never saw his native country again.
In late 1724 Tsar Peter I the Great appointed Bering to take command of the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725 -1730). It is traditionally believed that the purpose of this expedition was to explore far northeastern Siberia and determine whether Asia and the Americas were connected by a land bridge, but some discussion has arisen among historians as to the accuracy of this assumption. Some believe that Bering's primary mission was to visit the Americas and chart European colonization there, and to make contact with European trading vessels, presumably to pave way for Russian trade and colonization in those regions. Others maintain the purpose of the expedition was primarily political. Obviously, Russia was interested both in colonial expansion in North America and in finding a northeast passage — i.e. a sea route to China around Siberia. Already in 1648 Semyon Dezhnyov had sailed through the Bering Strait, but his report was lost in the archives until 1736 when the Russian historian Gerard Miller found the records.
On 6 January 1725, just a few weeks before his death, Peter the Great wrote sailing directions for the expedition. When handing over the directions to Admiral Pyotr Apraksin to give to Bering, Peter was quoted as saying: "Once we have protected our Fatherland from enemies, we should bring it glory through the arts and sciences. In our
search for such a route, we will be more successful than the Dutch and the English, who have already made numerous attempts to reach the American coast." Peter instructed Bering to travel to the east coast of Kamchatka and once there to: 1) build one or two ships; 2) go north and find out where the coast ends; 3) go to a European-controlled city, find out who it belongs to, make a map, and come back home. Since the Russian Academy of Sciences was too young to be involved in the First Kamchatka Expedition, the scientific matters were left to Bering.
After much planning Bering and his crew set off from St. Petersburg on 5 February 1725. The expedition's initial progress was rapid and by the end of March they reached the Siberian town of Tobolsk. Here they continued to store up on more supplies and prepare for what was planned to be only a seven-week journey. They had no idea of the geography of the area that lay ahead of them.
The expedition started out from Tobolsk on 15 May, as soon as the Siberian winter loosened its grip. Bering and his crew had to travel over 4,000 kilometers across forbidding and often frigid territory. Almost all the supplies for shipbuilding (except for wood), had to be carried along, before the ships could be built and the final scientific sea voyage could begin. Weapons (including eight cannons), anchors, other iron parts, ropes, sails, equipment, etc. had to be carried all the way from Tobolsk. Only in very few cities and towns along the way would they be able to find supplies to keep the expedition alive. At Irkutsk, halfway through the expedition route, they procured the grain to serve as supplies on board, and packed horses to carry it the long distance from Yakutsk to Okhotsk. Transportation across Siberia had to go along different rivers and, in many cases, by rowing and pulling the barges upstream. In between rivers, they trekked overland with all their supplies. At the next river, new barges or vessels had to be built. Corrupt local officials and the backward local labor force had to be mobilized to help, so that the expedition could stay alive and advance. One of Bering’s achievements was the ability to manage the logistics of a huge operation. Moving men and supplies across Siberia, he reached Okhotsk in two years.
In Okhotsk, which used to be just a cluster of huts on the Pacific, a ship was built that carried the expedition to the Kamchatka Peninsula where they constructed another ship, the St. Gabriel, and prepared for a voyage on the open ocean. On 25 July the St. Gabriel put out to sea through the mouth of the Kamchatka River and cruised northward along the shore. On 9 August it passed the mouth of the Anadyr and on 21 August discovered a large island that was later named St. Lawrence Island. He then passed the Diomede Islands eastward rediscovering Ratmanov Island, which had been observed earlier by Dezhnyov. The St. Gabriel sailed further north of what is now known as the Bering Strait, but the sailors never actually managed to catch sight of the fog-hidden land on the American side of it. Seeing that the continent of Asia was out of sight, Bering concluded that Asia and America were not connected, since at that point, by his estimation, "land does not extend farther northward, and no land can be spotted beyond the Chukot, or East, corner of the earth." Bering did not see the land to the east as he sailed back to the Kamchatka Peninsula either. If he had, he probably would have continued his expedition.
In the summer of 1730, under the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, Bering returned to St. Petersburg only to be criticized by admiralty officials for not actually having seen the American coast. Five of his children died during this long trip back through Siberia. Nevertheless, Bering sought to undertake a second voyage. His simple plan, however, was expanded into Russia’s Great Nordic Expedition (1733–43), which was perhaps the largest scientific venture the world had ever known, both in scope and achievement. Bering marshaled about 10,000 soldiers, boatmen, carpenters, naval officers and scientists, plus many of their families, including his own - for a four-year trek across Russia.
Bering’s orders were to sail south along the west coast of North America as far as 46 degrees N or until he touched upon the territory controlled by the Spanish or any other European power. The members of the expedition were split up into four detachments, each assigned to its own section: from Arkhangelsk to the mouth of the Ob River, from the mouth of the Ob to the mouth of the Yenisey, from the mouth of the Lena River to the mouth of the Yenisey and from the mouth of the Lena River to Chukchi Peninsula and Kamchatka. Apart from those four, working within the framework of the Second Kamchatka expedition were the Far East detachments and a so-called “academic detachment,” including scholars to investigate the land masses of Siberia. The latter resulted in abundant material in the fields of natural history, geography, cartography, history, archaeology, ethnography and linguistics – both in the form of written documents and of objects of nature and culture. The colonizing context in which the expedition was carried out, that is, expanding the Russian Empire, seeking trade and taxation, facilitated ethnographic research, dictated by Russian interests and the scholarly agenda of the academic members of the expedition.
The expedition's northern detachments described and mapped much of Russia's Arctic coastline from Arkhangelsk to Bolshoy Baranof Cape, east of the mouth of the Kolyma River. On 20 May 1742, Lieutenant Semyon Chelyuskin reached the cape named in his honor, Eurasia's northernmost point, and the cousins Khariton and Dmitry Laptev charted the Siberian coast from the Taymyr Peninsula to the Kolyma River.
Upon reaching Okhotsk in 1735, Bering had local craftsmen Makar Rogachev and Andrey Kozmin build two vessels, the St. Peter and the St. Paul. Each ship had 14 cannons and was designed to carry 76 men. Bering's team spent three years building ships and the entire port city that sprang up because of it. His wife Anna Christina joined him in Okhotsk in 1739. That same year Ivan Yelagin was sent by Bering to the east coast of Kamchatka to build a base with houses and supply depots at Avacha Bay, later named Petropavlovsk, in honor of the two ships.
From there he led an expedition towards America in 1741. On 4 June 1741 Bering sailed from Kamchatka aboard the St. Peter with Lieutenant Aleksey Chirikov commanding the St. Paul. First the two captains headed southeast in search of the mythical da Gama Land, which was a prominent feature on an earlier map. Unfortunately, by the time Bering had altered his direction to the northeast, they had sailed hundreds of miles south while missing the entire Aleutian chain.
Meanwhile, on 20 June the two vessels lost each other in heavy fog and were separated. On 15 July 1741 Chirikov sighted the western coast of Prince of Wales Island. Chirikov sent men ashore, but they were never seen again. On 26 July Chirikov wrote that he and his men spotted "some very high mountains, their summits covered in snow, their lower slopes, we thought, covered in trees. This we thought must be America." Chirikov made it to what is now Sitka harbor and was able to sight natives in that area. But unable to go ashore Chirikov decided to return to Russia, unaware of the fate of Bering and his ship, and reached Petropavlovsk in October.
After the separation Bering reached an island in the Alexander Archipelago, probably Prince of Wales Island, near Alaska's southeast coast. A naturalist and physician of German origin named Georg Wilhelm Steller, was recorded as the first European to step on Alaskan soil. As he later complained, it took him ten years to get to this new continent and he was only given ten hours to study it, as Bering was hurrying north while mapping the coastline. Anxious to get the ship back to safety, Bering was able to reconnoiter only the southwestern coast of Alaska Bay, the Alaskan Peninsula, and the Aleutian Islands. Catching sight of a volcanic peak, he named it Mount St. Elias, the name it still bears today. One of the sailors died and was buried on an island that was later named after him (Shumagin Island). With supplies running low, Bering decided on 10 August not to spend the winter in America, but to head back west.
Blown off course by fierce winter storms and with a crew so seriously afflicted by scurvy that only three men were able to work on deck, the St. Peter finally sailed within sight of land on 4 November 1741. With their sails and rigging already splitting apart from repeated storms, the exhausted crew so wanted this to be Kamchatka that many thought that they spotted the landmarks of the peninsula from which they had sailed over a year before. The ship was hurled up on the only stretch of beach along a coastline otherwise dominated by rocky cliffs.
Steller was sent ashore to gather plants that could be used to combat the scurvy. He soon deduced that the land they were anchored off was not Kamchatka as the local animals had no fear of man, indicating they must have never seen them before. Steller returned to the ship and quietly told his dying and bedridden captain what he suspected. This could not be Kamchatka and they must have blundered across an undiscovered island. Bering, not wishing to disappoint his men, took the news calmly and said simply, "It's too late to save our ship. God save the longboat!"
The crew spent the winter on the island, living in driftwood huts that were dug into the sand. Thirty men succumbed to scurvy and starvation on the island. Among them was the expedition leader, who died on 19 December.
The only surviving carpenter on the ship, Savva Starodubtsev, with the help of the crew managed to build a smaller vessel out of the wreckage. The new vessel had a keel length of only 12.2 meters (40 feet) and was also named St. Peter. It remained in service for 12 years, sailing between Kamchatka and Okhotsk until 1755. Starodubtsev returned home with governmental awards and later built several other seaworthy ships.
The crew had the additional fortune to discover and capture an enormous manatee-like peaceful animal that placidly grazed on seaweed off of the coast. Its meat, unlike that of the foxes, sea otters, fur seals and two rotten whales that they had eaten - was delicious. The sailors christened the enormous animals "sea cows," partly to distinguish them from the fish-eating fur seals (which Russians colloquially called "sea bears"), and partly in recognition of their cow-like character. Later the creatures were named Steller's cows after Georg Steller and became extinct within decades. In the end, it was the sea cows' vast quantities of meat and the relatively easy capture of these animals that fueled the efforts to build a new ship.
On 14 August 1742, the surviving crew set sail from the shores of what would later be called Bering Island and headed to Kamchatka. On 26 August 1742 they landed in Petropavlovsk, more than two years after they had set out on their voyage of discovery. Out of the 77 men aboard the St. Peter, only 46 survived the hardships of the expedition, which claimed its last victim just one day before arriving at the home port. They spent the winter in Petropavlovsk and arrived in Okhotsk the next year, much to the surprise of the local residents, who had given up hope of seeing the expedition again, and had sold off the belongings of the expedition members.
Over the coming years, the maps and scientific records slowly made their way back to St. Petersburg, and with much delay, to the rest of the world. The resulting maps showed that Siberia extends 30 degrees of longitude farther east than previously thought thus changing the whole European conception of Russia. However, the value of Bering's explorations was not fully recognized until Captain James Cook was able to verify Bering's accuracy as an observer. With the information that Bering and Chirikov attained, the mystery of the uncharted lands unfolded, demonstrating to the whole world how vast Russia's riches were. One of the immediate effects, however, was that commercial expeditions were sent to Eastern Siberia, North America and the islands in between, in a rush to hunt for more precious furs. That secured those new territories for Russia and Alaska came under Russian rule until 1867, when it was sold to the United States for $7.2 million.
The name of Bering along with those of Chirikov, Stepan Malygin, Fyodor Minin, Dmitry Ovtsyn, Vasily Pronchishchev, Chelyuskin and Khariton and Dmitry Laptev will remain forever in the history of geographic discoveries. Nowadays, the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea and Bering Island bear the explorer's name.
In August 1991, the graves of Bering and five other seamen were discovered by a joint Soviet-Danish expedition. The remains were transported to Moscow where they were investigated by forensic physicians who succeeded in recreating Bering's appearance. It’s worth noting that the examination of Bering's teeth showed no sign of scurvy, leading to the conclusion that he died of some other disease. A forensic reconstruction of Bering's remains revealed a strongly built, lean and muscular man. So the portrait traditionally identified as that of Vitus Jonassen Bering is now questioned. Indeed, the corpulent, double-chinned gentleman shown in it doesn't look like much of a brave explorer. Nowadays the portrait is believed to possibly be of an uncle of his mother (Anna Pedersdatter Bering), Vitus Pedersen Bering, a poet and royal historian who could have been as sedentary as the portrait shows. In 1992 Vitus Bering’s and the other seamen’s remains were re-buried on Bering Island.
Written by Aleksey Malyshev, RT