Saturday, October 2, 2010


The Russian Discovery of America

Vitus Bering was a Dane who served in the Russian navy from 1704 until his death in 1741. He is best known for leading the Second Kamchatka Expedition, which sailed from the Russian Far East to the Gulf of Alaska.

This book is primarily an account of that astonishing journey, which started out from St. Petersburg and took four years just to cross Siberia. On the east coast another four years passed before two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, finally put out to sea in June of 1741. They made landfall on several islands in the Gulf of Alaska and brief contact with native Americans. In the latter case the two groups only succeeded in perplexing each other.

The St. Paul returned to Kamchatka in October, but Bering's ship, the St. Peter, was hampered by bad weather and bad decision-making, and in November was wrecked on an island (later named after Bering), which was mistaken for the mainland. Bering died the following month at the age of 60. The survivors built a smaller vessel out of wood scavenged from the St. Peter and sailed to Kamchatka the following summer.

Misc. Notes

The author incorporates two recent sources of information. One was the exhumation of Bering in 1991 by a joint Danish-Russian expedition. The other was the discovery in 1996 of a dozen letters that Bering and his wife had sent home from Kamchatka.

Bering (the author says) was virtually a hostage of his officers. In an eerie foreshadowing of socialism his orders were sometimes overturned by a sea council. The fatal decision to land on Bering Island rather than continue sailing west was not made by the captain.

Bering Island was thronged with "wicked" arctic foxes. They "dragged apart all the baggage, ate the leather sacks, scattered the provisions, stole and dragged from one man his boots, from another his socks and trousers, gloves, and coat.... They even dragged off iron and other implements that were of no use to them."

The men survived by killing manatees, also known as sea cows. One was 30 feet long and weighted nearly four tons. The men not only ate the meat and fat of these gentle creatures, but also drank their milk.

Bering's "discovery" of Alaska led to an influx of Russian fur traders, and the eventual formation of the Russian-American Company, which constructed settlements as far south as California. "Russian America" came to an end in 1867, the same year as Canadian Confederation, when the US purchased Alaska.

Stellar Steller

Bering for me remained a rather distant and shadowy individual. As the author explains, there are valid reasons for his aloofness and expensive tastes, but these are attributes that do not endear one to a modern sensibility.

Most readers, I think, will find Georg Stellar a more interesting and praiseworthy figure. A naturalist and physician, he was the butt of much unprofessional behaviour by the officers and Bering himself. Yet Steller's interest in nature remained unquenchable, and his humane behaviour when shipwrecked was exemplary. He used plants and fresh meat to cure scurvy in his crewmates, and provided the kind of leadership that helped carry them through the winter.

Steller survived the expedition, returned to Kamchatka, and died a few years later in Tyumen. Today his name graces a number of species, including Steller's Jay and Steller's Eider.

His Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742 is available in a 1993 edition prepared by the author of Bering, Orcutt Frost.