The ship sank at the edge of the world
Written by Andrea Bitzer
Europeans once dreamed of an open sea on top of the world. In 1606, Gerard Mercator, said to be the most famous cartographer of his or any other era, published a top-down map of the Earth as he understood it. At the center of Mercator’s North Pole was a magnetic mountain pulling all compass needles northward. Around the gray rock mass was a warm sea surrounded by a thick circle of ice.
At the time, no one had a clue what the poles looked like. Mercator based his map on a theory proposed by Pythias 1,800 years ago, the first Greek to penetrate the Strait of Gibraltar and examine the Atlantic Ocean himself. Pytheas sailed on the west coast of Europe, circumnavigated the British Isles, then continued north until it collided with ice, and possibly Iceland. Further, according to his theory, it might be a freely flowing sea.
The Pytheas travel novel was chosen by Pliny and others. His polar sea theory was unchallenged over the centuries into reality. Ideas of this undiscovered ocean at the top of the world were dulled by European imagination throughout the Middle Ages until the Portuguese found they could sail around Africa and into the Indian Ocean, resulting in a trade route flourishing.
By the 16th century, European ships were pounding in every bay, inlet and river. If there is a navigable ocean at the pole, it could provide a shortcut to Asia. In 1594, Dutch investors heavily bet on this theory, commissioning cartographer William Barents to lead an expedition to the northernmost tip of Norway and then east over Russia in search of a northeastern route. If they were right, the Barents would make the Dutch immensely wealthy.
In her new book “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” journalist Andrea Bitzer chronicles Barents’ three attempts to find a mythical passage to Asia. As part of her research for the book, Bitzer joined three expeditions in the Arctic between 2018 and 2020, including two sailing expeditions that restored the Barents Voyages. She also had access to enviable resources to reconstruct the story, including the Barents Private Ship Record; Diary of Jan Huijn van Linshoten – cartographer who published Portuguese secrets of trade routes preserved while serving in India; And diaries of the ship’s officer Gerrit de Vere, who accompanied Barents and was killed on his way home during the third expedition.
De Vere’s novel, published shortly after his death in 1596, was becoming hugely popular at the time, leading to an English-language edition being issued shortly thereafter. But then, like many historical accounts, it disappeared into mystery. Arctic fever lasted in a hiatus for a few hundred years as European colonists plundered the Americas, Asia and Africa.
The fascination with all things Arctic is back in the 19th century. Industrialization defeated most of the natural world. Technology has tamed wild. Railways were shrinking continents. However, the Earth’s poles remained untied. The frozen frontier was pure and defiant – nature’s final challenge to man. Images of icebergs and polar bears invaded popular culture, pushing Americans, Norwegians, and English to the poles with their ships, dogs, tin cans, and compasses. For the price of a few toes, he would enrich a handful of lucky survivors from their diaries.
De Veer looked as fresh as ever when the British Hakluyt Society published a new translation in 1853 and again in 1876. The Expedition Reel included everything a polar fan could wish for: Hand-to-hand combat with polar bears and walruses; Poisoning with scurvy and vitamin A; Asphyxia with carbon dioxide; Frostbite, keelhauling and hanging; Plus seeing a rare atmospheric visual phenomenon called parhelion. In the second edition of the Society’s publication, lengthy introductions, in florid prose, provided the context for Barents’ research while repeatedly questioning de Vere’s accuracy. Editors seem to want to discourage readers from using the book as a navigation aid.
“Icebound” reintroduces Barents’ journey into canonical English, reviving the story of polar exploration at the dawn of the technology age.
For a 21st century reader who has seen so many images of gaunt polar bears wandering through melting permafrost, “Icebound” can read a little like a truly lost paradise. The Dutch of the 16th century did not hesitate to shoot, maim, bludgeon, collar and impalse everything they saw. Bitzer notes that “Slaughter emerged as an innate Dutch response to the Arctic scene, a new theater that will see the same performance over and over with every wave of European arrivals,” and then cites the remark of historical archaeologist PJ Capilotti: Something has survived. “
Nature retaliated during Barents’ third attempt to find a sea route to China, and the ice finally won. His ship got stuck in an overwhelming embrace – similar to La Shackleton in Antarctica and Franklin in Canada – at the northern tip of Nova Zimbla, an island at 74 degrees latitude separating the Kara Sea from what was then called the Murman Sea (now known as Barents), After the Explorer himself), forcing the crew to camp for about a year in a makeshift hut at Ice Harbor. Five of them will die, including the Barents.
“Icebound” – Bitzer’s third book, after “One Long Night: A Global History of the Concentration Camps” and “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov” – provides readers with a useful description of the unique political context in which Barents navigated. The men on the Barents Journey risked their lives not just for their investors but for the glory of the brand new Dutch Republic, a confederation of provinces founded about 10 years ago by Protestant burgers in an attempt to drive out the Spaniards. The Catholic occupation led to massacres and burning of churches in the Low Countries, in what is now known as the Eighty Years’ War. The instability wasn’t great for business. Additionally, taxes were very high.
Secular endeavors, especially trade with Asia across the high seas, promised a more prosperous future for the people of the Netherlands. To help conquer global trade, the Dutch welcomed immigrants fleeing religious persecution into the south, some of whom brought with them shipbuilding and valuable navigational knowledge. Armed with new wealth and technology, Dutch merchants created their own self-determined government to ensure banking and investment flourished, backed by the rule of law, and free of foreign tariffs. (Sounds familiar?)
The stories of arctic expeditions continue to fascinate us as they expose humanity On the brink of death – People are pushed to their best and worst due to hypothermia, hunger and despair. Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage became a disgrace for Britain when it was discovered that his men, trapped for months in Canada, had resorted to cannibalism. Ernest Shackleton is a hero for saving all his crew in Antarctica after losing his ship, Endurance.
The challenges Barents faced are similarly fundamental. Facing the Arctic winds between towering icebergs while feeling the way through uncharted waters is a deeply nerve-wracking task, and Barents’ men have done it day and night for weeks on end, fighting fatigue, scurvy, boredom, and loneliness. The 11 months they spent in the dark in a makeshift room without windows, slowly starving to death, make quarantine during a pandemic feel like an endless spa day.
Bitzer writes intently about the Arctic landscapes that the Barents encountered – a dangerous world teeming with life and all that relentless ice, which might interest anyone sailing in bad weather or, say, scraping ice from a windshield in subzero temperatures. . But Icebound is strangely unemotional towards its human subjects. Over 200 pages, events are faithfully recorded, making them closely related to Veer’s novel. However, Bitzer seems reluctant to venture into the minds of individuals who have put so much in pain and as much pain to tell their stories. Her book follows “The Men” – they are often anonymous and unmarked; In doing so, this spare novel brings out the monotony of exploration in the 16th century. It took a long time to get from here to there and sometimes I was forced to sit motionless and shiver.
“Icebound” arrives amidst a second Arctic boom, a moment of mourning. In the nineteenth century, when mankind first grappled with technological promise and threat, as Barents presented a roadmap of frozen frontiers. In the 21st century, we find ourselves equally contradictory, but now we know what is at stake. See the ancient Pytheas of the Arctic Sea It may become a reality in our life.
“Icebound” is a reminder that there was a time when things were unknown. And when their ships collided with the edge of the Arctic, Europeans stared in horror and awe at the sparkling ice and wondered what Edense lay behind, awaiting its discovery.
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