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Vitus Bering’s Kamchatka Expeditions

Postdoc-stipendium i Danmark | 14/10/2016

The general map of the Russian Empire, produced by The Russian Academy of Sciences in 1745 as result of the Second Kamchatka Expedition.

As one of his last major initiatives Peter the Great charged the Danish captain Vitus Bering with an expedition to Kamchatka to explore the American coast. Even during the expedition, later known as the First Kamchatka Expedition, Bering came to see it as a kind of pilot project that was to pave the way for a much larger expedition in the future.

Map of the Kamchatka peninsula and the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, 1734. 

After his return to St Petersburg five years later, Bering began to work on a proposal in which he launched many new ideas not only about new routes to be navigated and geographical destinations to be reached, but also about how to improve life in Siberia. 

Vitus Bering was a very good observer, who also had a keen eye for the welfare of the local population and for the possible benefit to the Russian state. Such a new expedition would have to include scientists from a number of fields. Having contemplated Bering’s proposal, in April 1732, the government issued a first instruction for a new expedition, soon followed by further instructions of which the last from May 1733 is of particular importance. It dealt in detail with the tasks that would challenge the expedition while traversing the huge land mass, before the coasts of the Artic and Pacific oceans could finally be reached. This is how the Second Kamchatka Expedition, also known as the Great Northern Expedition, was born. And this is the expedition that our project is concerned with.

By publishing for the first time a very substantial portion of the Russian archival records of Bering’s expeditions, our project will shed light on an important, but hitherto underexposed chapter in the history of geographical exploration. It will document Vitus Bering’s position among the greatest explorers of our world.

The two Kamchatka Expeditions

The Russian Columbus was a Dane, born in Horsens in 1681. His name was Vitus Bering. He joined the Russian navy in 1704 and died in 1741, in the northern Pacific, on a remote island (later named Bering Island) off the east coast of Kamchatka. His life’s work was to be in charge of two great expeditions, the so-called Kamchatka expeditions, which served both scientific and political goals. They were to find new goals for Russian colonization and trade beyond the Pacific coast of Siberia.

Vitus Bering (1681-1741) was born in the town of Horsens in Denmark, but spent the majority of his life in Russia, faithfully serving the Russian emperors as a naval officer. Their reliance on him was so strong that they appointed him leader of two of the greatest geographical expeditions the world has ever seen. The First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-1730) was the more modest of the two, in terms of personnel and equipment, but it was nevertheless grandiose in its aim: its mission was to solve one of the age-old riddles of the learned world: are the continents of America and Asia united by a land bridge? The Second Kamchatka Expedition (1732-1746) may well be considered the most ambitious scientific and political project throughout the whole of 18th century Europe. 

Vitus Bering’s wax seal. In the center, a bear holding a ring that “spells” bear-ring, that is “Bering”.

It consisted of several marine detachments plus one academic detachment, all of them under the supreme command of Vitus Bering. The so-called northern detachments were the first to traverse and describe Siberia’s entire northern coast, the length of which amounts to nine time zones. One marine detachment under the command of another Dane – M. Spangberg – made several voyages to Japan, which at the time was a country closed to foreigners. He discovered a new sea route for Europeans going to Japan: from the north. Another detachment of two ships, one under Bering’s command, and the other under the Russian captain Chirikov, repeated Columbus’ famous achievement by finding a sea route to America, this time from the northeast. This proved that the Asian and American continents are not connected with one another by land, and that notions still current at that time in Europe about a number of “lands” located between Kamchatka and America – Esso Land, Da Gama’s Land, Company Land – were fictitious. The academic detachment (the first cross-disciplinary expedition ever) accomplished a thorough “discovery of Siberia”. They were the first to describe the flora, fauna and geography of Siberia; they compiled a description of its people, their languages, history and culture. Furthermore, the Second Kamchatka Expedition solved several social problems in Siberia: It built factories, organized farming, founded towns, and opened schools and roads. In short: the expedition did a number of things that went far beyond the usual tasks of a geographical expedition.

N.L. and P.U.M. explain: “In order to understand the significance of the Kamchatka expeditions, it suffices to look at the history of geographical maps. On maps before Bering, the sketches of Siberia and North-Eastern America are shown either as curious fantasies or, more honestly, as enormous white spaces. On maps drawn as a result of Bering’s voyages, we see something quite similar to our modern maps”.

The North-East Passage

While the scientific goals of the Kamchatka Expedition are quite clear and well documented, its political goals have on the contrary been a point of discussion among scholars through many years. Our studies indicate that, in sending Bering to Siberia, the Russian government was pursuing economic and political interests. The expedition indicated great imperial ambitions. Its chief purpose was to explore and take possession of the North-East Passage.  

Plan of the Okhotsk fortress, where the Kamchatka Expedition was stationed for several years. The map dates from 1737. (Now in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts in Moscow). 

At that time, Europeans who wished to go to South-East Asia had to navigate the long and dangerous route around the southern tip of Africa. The hypothetical North-East Passage seemed to offer a chance for European and Russian merchants to round Siberia by the Arctic Ocean, to pass through the present-day Bering Strait, and to reach the American coasts, or to choose to sail on to Japan and China. This might even have made it possible for the Russian Empire to control the whole of the European trade with America and Asia. However, the results of the Second Kamchatka Expedition’s many years of work proved disappointing to the government: it became clear that such navigation in the Arctic Ocean, under the existing conditions, was quite unrealistic. It is interesting that in our age, as a result of the present climatic heating, the idea of navigating the North-East Passage has again acquired topical interest. Bering’s expedition, however, sailed in small, wooden, and one-decked ships, without maps and accurate instruments, while modern navigation makes use of icebreakers equipped with modern technology and electronics. Still, the observations of 18th century sailors, published as a result of our project, on the conditions for navigation and the sea-ice may prove useful even for modern seafarers.

During his sojourn in the remote north-eastern parts of the Russian Empire, Bering was on several occasions forced to defend himself against malevolent accusations. The local population often experienced the arrival of the explorers as a burdensome intrusion. Thus, in April 1737, in Yakutsk in Eastern Siberia, Bering had to answer to charges of destilling and selling vodka, rather than buying the local, state authorized stuff. His apology is a moving document, in defence of quality vodka. We were amused to find it and publish it. For a Danish version, cf. our article “Vitus Bering og de våde varer” (Vitus Bering and spirits) in Tværkultur nr. 6, Årbog for ToRS, Copenhagen 2015, pp. 76-87.

Archival treasures and how we use them

The Second Kamchatka Expedition has left behind archival sources that are rich in content and enormous in quantity. All of the expedition’s official correspondence was conducted in Russian (except for separate documents in German), and is now kept mainly in various Russian archives, first and foremost in Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

Model of a lighthouse on the coast of the Arctic Ocean 1735, by D. Ovtsyn (Russian State Naval Archives (St Petersburg)).

Until recently only a very small portion of these treasures has been published, and even though much has been written about the Kamchatka expeditions, the major part of the archival sources has never been used. This situation explains the basic idea of our project: to publish and make accessible to the readers (specialized historians as well as a broader public) at least the most important and interesting documents from the thousands of documents, which are kept in the various archives. Over many years, we have been visiting archives, primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg (and also in other cities of Russia and Europe). We have located and examined all the enormous collections of documents from the Kamchatka expeditions, selected the most interesting and important, ordered Xeroxes or digital copies, and brought them to Denmark. In Denmark, all these copies have been analysed, registered in a detailed database, and put into cardboard boxes. In this way, a “Bering Archive” has now come into existence at the University of Copenhagen. It consists of approximately 400 boxes. Today, the database registers about 7000 documents. Out of these, the most important ones have been selected for publication. As of today, four volumes have been published (cf. the list of publications), and volume five is almost ready for publication. On top of the publication of documents, a final sixth volume is indispensable, and the documents from the First Kamchatka Expedition require yet another volume.

N.L. and P.U.M. believe: “The archives from the Kamchatka expeditions have preserved unique documents about the native people of Siberia, the oppression exercised by the Russian administration, and the colonial policy of the empire. It is interesting to note that Bering and his officers were always siding with the natives, and did what they could to improve their situation. These archival sources have even preserved much of their present day relevance.”

The publication of archival documents is a task that requires the utmost responsibility. Our material will be used by generations of scholars and readers: they are the scientific foundation that future research will build upon. Consequently, our ambition is to publish them on the highest possible level of scholarship. All of our volumes, each one about 1,000 pages long, are being published according to the strictest principles of textual criticism, including historical and philological commentaries, an extensive scholarly foreword, numerous supplements (such as a chronological list of events, a register of the relevant archival resources, a bibliography, and a glossary) and three indexes.

Bering på Dansk (or: Bering in Danish)

Our project to publish documents from Bering’s Kamchatka Expeditions began in 1996, when we were awarded our first three years grant from the Carlsberg Foundation for this purpose. Our scrutiny of the Russian archives proved successful, and we  have had the good fortune of receiving five grants in all (1996-99, 2002-05, 2006-08, 2010-12, 2013-16), without which our further search for the Bering papers, our acquisition of copies, and eventually our publication of a wide selection of them in book form, would have been impossible.

Vitus Bering is one of the greatest names in the history of geographical discoveries. Unfortunately, we often have to face the fact that his fellow countrymen in Denmark know very little about him, and far from always understand the significance of his expeditions. One of the most obvious causes for such neglect of a great compatriot is that the documents from the Kamchatka expeditions have largely remained untranslated into Danish.  In English, too, only a few translations are available. We seek to make up for this injustice, and therefore, along with our main project, we publish selected documents in Danish: beringpaadansk.ku.dk

N.L. and P.U.M. say: “Bering’s expeditions were enormous in terms of ambition, participants and cost, which explains why the project of publishing the materials from these expeditions must also be monumental in scope and ambitions.”