North-East and North-West Passages to India
Attempts of the Dutch and English to discover North-East and North-West
Passages to India
The desire to find a shorter route to the wealth of India was the chief
inducement which led to the discoveries of Vasco de Gama, Columbus, and Magellan. This
same motive sparkled the first attempts of the Dutch and English to find a
northern passage to the southern seas.
Sir Hugh Willoughby and Chancellor
In the year 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby and Chancellor left England on their
voyage of Arctic discovery, and steered to the north-east. In a stormy night they
parted company, never to meet again. For a long time nothing was heard of Willoughby,
until some Russian sailors found on the dreary coast of Lapland two wrecks
tenanted only by the dead. A note, dated January 1564, proved that back then at least some
of the unfortunate navigators were still alive. This was the last and only memorial of the
mysterious end of the first Britons that ever ventured into the frozen seas.
Chancellor was more fortunate. After having for a long time been
driven about by storms, he discovered the White Sea, and on landing heard for the
first time of Russia and her sovereign the Czar Ivan Vasiliovitch, who
resided in a great town called Moscow. The persevering seaman determined to
visit this unknown potentate in his capital, where he was graciously received, and
obtained permission for his countrymen to frequent the port of Archangel.
Soon after his return to England he was sent back to Russia
by Queen Mary, for the purpose of settling the terms of a treaty of commerce
between the two nations. Having accomplished his mission, he once more set sail from the White
Sea, accompanied by a Muscovite ambassador. But this time the return voyage was
extremely unfortunate. Two of the ships, richly laden with Russian commodities, ran
ashore on the coast of Norway, and Chancellor's own vessel was driven by a
dreadful storm as far as Pitsligo in Scotland, in which bay it was wrecked. Chancellor
endeavored to save the ambassador and himself in a boat, but the small pinnace was
capsized, and although the Russian reached the strand, the Englishman, after having
escaped so many dangers in the Arctic Ocean, was doomed to an untimely end within sight of
his native shores.
Twenty years later Martin Frobisher set sail with three small vessels of
thirty-five, thirty, and ten tons, on no less an errand than the discovery of a north-west
passage to Asia. With these miserable nutshells he reached the coasts of Greenland
and Labrador, but was prevented by the ice from a landing.
This first voyage was little remarkable in itself. Frobisher
brought home some glittering stones shining like gold. This greatly contributed to pave
the way for a second expedition to "Meta Incognita." This time Frobisher
sailed with three ships, of a much larger size, and, besides securing 200 tons
of the imaginary gold, discovered the entrance of the strait which bears his name.
His geographical knowledge may be understood from the fact that he
firmly believed the land on one side of this channel to be Asia, and on the other America.
We may be tempted to smile at his ignorance but he should be admired for fact that with
such inadequate means ventured to challenge the unknown terrors of the Icy Ocean.
The gales and floating ice which greeted Frobisher as he endeavored to
force a passage through the strait put a stop to all farther progress to India but,
as the gold delusion still continued, the expedition was considered eminently successful.
A large squadron of fifteen vessels was consequently fitted out for the summer of 1578,
and commissioned not only to bring back an untold amount of treasure, but also to take out
materials and men to establish a colony on those desolate shores.
But this expedition was doomed to end in disappointment. One of the
largest vessels was crushed by an iceberg at the entrance of the strait, and the others
were so beaten about by storms and obstructed by fogs, that the whole summer elapsed, and
they were glad to return to England without having done anything. The absolute
worthlessness of the glittering stones having meanwhile been discovered, Frobisher
relinquished all further attempts to push his fortunes in the northern regions, and sought
new laurels in a sunnier clime. He accompanied Drake to the West Indies,
commanded subsequently one of the largest vessels opposed to the Spanish Armada,
and ended his heroic life while attacking a small French fort on behalf of Henry
IV during the war with the League. He was one of those adventurous spirits
always thirsting for action
In the year 1585, John Davis, with the ships "Sunshine" and
"Moonshine," carrying, besides their more necessary
equipment a band of music "to cheer and recreate the spirits of the
natives," made his first voyage in quest of the north-west passage, and discovered
the broad strait which leads into the icy deserts of Baffin's Bay. But neither
in this attempt nor in his two following ones was he able to succeed. These repeated
failures cooled for a long time the national ardor for northern discovery.
In the year 1594 the Dutch appear upon the scene. This persevering and
industrious people, which in the following century was destined to play so important a
part in the politics of Europe, had just then succeeded in casting off the Spanish
yoke. All the known roads to the treasures of the south were at that time too well
guarded by the jealous fleets of Spain and Portugal to admit of any rivalry,
but if fortune should favor them in finding the unexplored northern passage to India,
they might still hope to secure a share in that most lucrative of trades. Activated by the
bold spirit of adventure a company of Amsterdam merchants fitted out an expedition
of northern discovery under a pilotage of William Barentz, one of the most
experienced seamen of the day.
Barentz left the Texel on the 6th of June, 1594,
reached the northern extremity of Nova Zembla, and returned to Holland.
Meanwhile his associate, penetrating through a strait to which he gave the very
appropriate name of Waigats or "Wind-hole," battled against the floating ice of
the Sea of Kara. Then, rounding a promontory, he saw a blue and open sea extending
before him, and the Russian coast trending, away towards the southeast. He now no
longer doubted that he had sailed round the famous cape "Tabis" of Pliny,
an imaginary promontory which according to that inaccurate guide formed the northern
extremity of Asia. The voyage was supposed to be short and easy to its eastern and
southern shores but he had only reached the Gulf of Obi, and within the Arctic
Circle the continent of Asia still stretched 120 degrees to the east. This was
then unknown, and the Dutchman, satisfied with the prospect of success, did not
press onward to test its reality, but started in full sail for Holland to rouse the
lazy hopes and golden visions.
On the base of this expedition, six large vessels were immediately
fitted out, and richly laden with goods suited to the taste of the Indians. A small
swift-sailing yacht was added to the squadron to bear it company as far as the imaginary
promontory of Tabis. Then, the yacht would return with the good news that it had
safely performed what was supposed to be the most perilous part of the voyage.
But, as may well be imagined, these hopes were destined to meet with
disappointment, for the Windhole Strait, doing full justice to its name, did not
allow them to pass. After many fruitless endeavors to force their way through the mighty
ice-blocks that obstructed that inhospitable channel, they returned discouraged and
crest-fallen to the home port.
Despite great disappointment at this failure, the scheme however was
not abandoned, and on the 16th of May, 1596, Barentz, Van Heemskerk
as his navigator
and second in command, and Cornelis Ryp
once more started for the northeast. Bear Island and Spitzbergen were
discovered, where the ships separated. Cornelis returning to Holland,
while Barentz and Van Heemskerk enclosed by the ice, was obliged to spend a long and dreary winter in
the dreadful solitude of Nova Zembla.
Fortunately a quantity of driftwood was found on the strand, which
served the Dutchmen both for the construction of a small hut and for fuel. At the
same time it raised their courage, as they now no longer doubted that Providence, which
had sent them this unexpected succor in the wilderness, would guide them safely through
all their difficulties. And indeed they stood in need of this consolatory belief, for as
early as September the ground was frozen so hard that they tried in vain to dig a grave
for a dead comrade, and their cramped fingers could hardly proceed with the building of
The attacks of the white bears also gave them great trouble. One day
Barentz, from the deck of the vessel, seeing three bears stealthily approaching a party of
his men who were laboring at the hut, shouted loudly to warn them of their peril, and the
men, startled at the near approach of danger, sought safety in flight. One of the party
fell into a cleft in the ice, but the hungry animals fortunately overlooked him. Bears
gained the vessel and began to scaling the ship's sides, evidently determined to have
their meal. Matters now became serious. One of the sailors was dispatched for a light, but
in his hurry and agitation could not get the match to take fire. The sailors in
despair kept their enemies off by pelting them with whatever articles came first to hand.
This unequal conflict continued for some time, until a well-directed blow on the snout of
the largest bear caused the monster to retire from the field followed by his two
By the middle of October the hut was completed and they were glad, to
be able to move in it at once. Than began the long, dreary, three months' night of the
77th degree of latitude, during which snow-drifts and impetuous winds confined them to
their miserable dwelling. The ice was two inches thick upon the walls and even on
the sides of their sleeping-cots, and the very clothes they wore were whitened with frost,
so that as they sat together in their hut they were all as white.
Some weeks afterwards the sun appeared once more above the horizon and
the glorious sight was a joyful one indeed, full of delightful images of a return to
friends and home. Now, also, the furious gales and snow-storms ceased.
When summer came, it was found impossible to disengage the ice-bound
vessel, and the only hopes of escaping from their dreary prison rested on two small boats,
in which they ventured onto the capricious ocean. On the fourth day of their voyage, their
fragile barks became surrounded by immense quantities of floating ice, which so crushed
and injured them, that the crews, giving up all hope, took a solemn leave of each other.
But in this desperate crisis they owed their lives to agility of De Veer, who with
a well secured rope leaped from one fragment of ice to another till he gained a firm
field, onto which first the sick, then the stores, the crews, and finally the boats
themselves, were safely landed.
Here they had to remain while the boats underwent the necessary
repairs. During this detention upon a floating ice-field the Barentz closed
the eventful voyage of his life. He died as he had lived, calmly and bravely, thinking
less of himself than of the safety of his crew, for his last words were directions as to
the course in which they were to steer.
Van Heemskerck brought his man back in open boats.
After a most tedious and dangerous passage, they had finally arrived at
Kola in Russian Lapland, where to their glad surprise they found their old
comrade, John Cornelis, who received them on board his vessel and conveyed them
Van Heemskerck became a national hero and commanded a number of
successful early expeditions to the East Indies. He was killed in 1607 while
commanding the Dutch fleet in their victory over the Spaniards at the Battle of
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