Vitus Jonassen Bering II

Post-mortem reconstruction of Vitus Jonassen Bering’s face.

On July 14, 1728 – three and a half years after leaving St. Petersburg – Bering’s newly constructed ship, the St. Gabriel, stocked with enough food to sustain its crew of forty for a year, sailed from the mouth of the Kamchatka River. Following the coast of the peninsula northward for five days, Bering turned northeast, and on the next day encountered land again just above 60 degrees north latitude. This was the underside of the Chukchi Peninsula (not clearly delineated on his map), and with some perplexity he coasted along it for about two weeks. On August 1, he lingered to explore a bay, but a week later encountered eight Chukchi, who approached the ship in a hideskin boat. “When we invited them to come aboard,” recalled Bering, “they inflated the bladder of a large seal, put one man in it and sent him out to us to converse.” Later, the Chukchi brought their own boat alongside and through the two interpreters Bering had brought with him learned that the land, trending in a northeasterly direction, soon turned back to the west, and that there was an island nearby in the sea. On August 10, Bering sailed past it, noticing dwellings but no people, and named it St. Lawrence, “since it was his feast day.”

By August 13 the ship had rounded the southwesternmost point of the Chukchi Peninsula. A few days later, without realizing it, Bering passed through the narrow strait between Asia and America which now bears his name. Although in clear weather (at the strait’s narrowest point) it is possible to glimpse both continents at the same time, on that historic day fog hid the American coast, and as far as Bering knew, it was 1,000 miles away. Without pause he steered due north (into the Bering Sea), but after the Asiatic coast disappeared from sight on the 15th, he decided to consult with Spanberg and Chirikov as to whether to continue the voyage or return to Kamchatka before cold weather set in. It was Spanberg’s advice that the expedition sail on for no more than two days, “because we have reached 65 degrees 30’ of the northern region and according to our opinion and the Chukchi’s report have arrived opposite the extreme end and have passed east of the land.” And so, “what more needs to be done?” Chirikov, on the other hand, argued that they could not know with certainty whether America was separated from Asia unless they went “to the mouth of the Kolyma River,” or at least until their path westward around the peninsula was blocked by ice. So they ought to follow the land, if possible (and as their instructions required), to see if it led to America.

Bering agreed with Spanberg. The Chukchi had told him the coast turned north, then west, and was surrounded by the ocean – and in fact, as Bering could see, the coast bent away to the west as he proceeded farther north. It seemed pointless to him to verify the obvious, at mortal risk to his ship and crew. Further delay might oblige him to winter among the Chukchi on the peninsula’s forbidding coast, which, so far as he could tell, consisted of nothing but great ridges of snow-covered rocks quite bare of trees with which to build winter huts.

Bering turned south. Once again the coast of Asia came into view, but by an unlucky chance, as he threaded the strait, Bering failed a second time to see America through the mist, though he discovered one of the Diomede Islands. Four days later the crew bartered rather profitably with forty Chukchi who came out to the ship in boats – the Russians trading pins and needles for “a good Quantity of dry’d Flesh, Fish, Water contain’d in Whale Bladders, 15 Fox Skins, and four Narval’s Teeth.” Without further incident, on September 2, the St. Gabriel returned safely to port.

Despite apparent confidence in having accomplished his mission, Bering had misgivings, and throughout the winter he consulted with a number of Cossack veterans and others knowledgeable about the local geography. Advised by several that land was supposed to lie not far off the coast – as evidenced by birds flying eastward and unfamiliar trees floating in the sea – toward the end of June 1729 he steered the St. Gabriel due east from the mouth of the Kamchatka River, and explored the seas for a radius of about 130 miles. He might have ventured farther, but storms cut short his quest. That done, from Nizhnekamchatsk he sailed around Cape Lopatka at the peninsula’s southern tip – “which Thing was never done before” – crossed over to Okhotsk, and began the long overland trek back to St. Petersburg, where he arrived on March 1, 1730.

While bering and his men had been in Kamchatka, a companion expedition of sorts, with tasks resembling those given originally to the Great Kamchatka Command, had been authorized by the Senate and the newly created Supreme Privy Council. Led by Afanasy Shestakov, a Cossack leader based in Yakutsk, it involved an army of fifteen hundred men (huge by Siberian standards) in a bid to strengthen Russian control over the entire northeast. Part of the force was placed under the command of Dmitry Pavlutsky, captain of dragoons in Tobolsk and Russia’s foremost Chukchi fighter, but the results of the expedition were not commensurate with the efforts made. Quarreling between Shestakov and Pavlutsky hindered the operation, and Shestakov’s attempts to pacify the Koryaks ended in disaster when he was killed in a battle in March 1730, and a contingent coming to his support was wiped out. Shestakov’s dried head was preserved long afterward by the natives as a trophy of their victory.

Encouraged by these developments, some Kamchadal leaders also began to consider ways to drive the Russians from their land. Bering, it seems, had left Kamchatka just in time. Although the area had never been free of lawlessness and misrule, the transport burdens placed upon the native population by his expedition had certainly contributed to the unrest. In 1731, rebellions occurred in the vicinity of Bolsheretsk and Verkhnekamchatsk; and then, around Nizhnekamchatsk, the Kamchadals coalesced under a baptized native named Fyodor Kharchin and captured the fort. A few survivors managed to make their way to a Russian ship about to sail for the Anadyr, and the crew hastily disembarked and dragged their cannon to the fortress walls. When the Russians began blasting through, the defenders panicked, and Kharchin himself made his escape disguised as a girl. Others, however, fought on, until a shot ignited the powder magazine and the entire fort blew up. Enraged by the rape of their women (mostly native concubines), the Cossacks killed their prisoners to a man. A month later Kharchin himself was seized, but some of his accomplices and their families chose mass suicide rather than fall into Russian hands.

In St. Petersburg, the authorities decided that Kamchatka was too remote from Yakutsk to remain under its effective jurisdiction, and transferred responsibility for the peninsula to Okhotsk. An official was also dispatched from Tobolsk to restore order; after investigating the causes of the revolt, he executed and otherwise punished with impartial justice a number of Russians as well as Kamchadals.

Meanwhile, after Shestakov’s death, Pavlutsky had taken over the expedition’s command and had made Anadyrsk his base for a conquest of the Chukchi. Although the Russians defeated these indomitable warriors in several battles, they could not subdue them, and the most tangible (yet elusive) result of the expedition turned out to be geographical – the search for the “Big Land” supposed to lie opposite the East Cape of the Chukchi Peninsula. Pavlutsky organized an expedition to find it, and placed the expedition under the direction of Mikhail Gvozdev, a metallurgist, with Ivan Fedorov as pilot. They appropriated Bering’s St. Gabriel for the purpose and assembled a crew of thirty-nine. Sailing from the mouth of the Anadyr in July 1732, they paused briefly at one of the Diomede Islands, and then continued eastward, apparently coming within sight of Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. Drawing near, they saw that it was quite large and covered with forests of poplar, spruce, and larch. After skirting the coast for several days, they found “no end to it in sight.” At one point, “a naked native paddled out to the vessel from shore on an inflated bladder,” and through their interpreter asked them who they were and where they were going. They replied that they were lost at sea and were looking for Kamchatka. The native promptly pointed in the direction from which they had come. They did not make a landing, however, and because after their return they failed to collate their notes and make an adequate map, their voyage did not come to official attention until a decade later, in 1743. By then the priority of their discovery had become a technicality, since far more momentous events had transpired.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in March 1730, Bering had reported to the Admiralty. From that moment on, criticism of his voyage began. Until quite recently, the consensus of posterity was that he had failed, out of excessive caution bordering on cowardice, to fully carry out his instructions. He had found the strait he was supposed to find, but had not absolutely proved that Asia and America were not joined by land – as he might have had he followed Chirikov’s advice. The passions expressed on this point for many years reflected the intense interest of statesmen, merchants, and academicians in a Northeast Passage; but a reexamination of the fundamental documents suggests that a very different conclusion should be drawn. As a leading scholar points out, the orders Peter the Great drafted “say nothing about a strait or a search for one,” but rather in their own somewhat cryptic but definite fashion demand that Bering follow “the land that goes to the north,” which “it seems is part of America.” If it led to America, he was to proceed if possible to a European settlement, and also reconnoiter the coast. What land was Peter talking about? To fully understand his orders requires a map – the one, that is, that Bering was given on February 5, 1724.

In all probability, this was the so-called “Homann map,” created around 1722 at Peter’s request byjohann Baptiste Homann, a German mapmaker and copyist in his employ. It included the first printed presentation of Kamchatka as a peninsula, and two unknown lands (cut off by the frame) off the North Pacific coast of Asia. One was apparently meant to represent the “Big Island” in the sea of which the Chukchi spoke, the other “Juan de Gama Land,” sometimes portrayed as being linked to America. So, depending on how Peter’s orders were interpreted, “the land which goes to the north” could be the land off Kamchatka (Da Gama Land), the finger of land north of that off the Chukchi Peninsula, or the coast of Asia itself. Actually, no one knows for sure, but Bering seems to have tested all three hypotheses. He sailed north along the Kamchatka coast, then northeast in search of the Big Island (only to run into the Chukchi Peninsula, not known to project as far out into the ocean as it did), and then, the following summer, subsequently sailed east of Kamchatka where the other land was supposed to be.

In fact, the location of a strait (which Peter was already sure existed) was subordinate to his larger mission, which was to find the way to the western coast of America. Bering didn’t go to America because the coast he followed to the north didn’t lead there; and if he failed, it was because the cartographical information he’d been given was imprecise. Bering had followed the Homann map as best he could, but found it completely erroneous in placing the Chukchi Peninsula directly north of eastern Kamchatka, instead of projecting far to its east. In trying to make his experience fit with the map he had, which was supposed to guide him, Bering correctly assumed that he had passed the utmost part of East Asia and that the two continents were not joined.

“Having become a naval power,” as one authority notes, “Russia need no longer look on the ocean as a barrier to continued eastward expansion. Other powers had to sail halfway around the globe to reach the North Pacific. The Russians were already there.” Peter’s secret long-range intention was colonial conquest – to reconnoiter the American coast with a view to gaining a foothold (as the French, Spanish, and English had already done) in the New World. The supposed geographical objective, as publicized to foreign ambassadors, cartographers, and others (like Andrei Nartov, who dutifully spread the word), was part of what today would be called a disinformation campaign, designed to mislead other governments by appearing to pursue the question with which they were preoccupied. “There is no doubt,” remarks a student of Bering’s voyage, “that Peter looked upon the annexation of the unknown lands of the northwest coast of North America as a continuation of the colonization of Siberia.” Nevertheless, he had to proceed covertly, so as not to prompt other powers to block his designs.

Bering had explored and mapped the coasts of both Kamchatka and the Chukchi Peninsula, and he had confirmed the existence of a strait. Although criticized by some for not having rounded the Chukchi Peninsula westward to the Kolyma River (to prove a Northeast Passage did exist), and by others for not having been more venturesome in attempting to discover how far America actually was from Siberia’s coast, posterity’s grumblings have little to do with the Admiralty’s own estimate of Bering’s accomplishment, for he was promoted to the rank of captain-commander (the third highest rank in the Russian Navy) and given a 1,000-ruble reward.

A new map of the Siberian northeast prepared by his staff also more accurately depicted that corner of Asia as a large double-headed peninsula, shaped like a “bull’s horn.” As for the land he had conjectured slightly to the east of Kamchatka, and which he had sought in vain in the summer of 1729 – it was, in fact, there. But it was not the “Juan de Gama Land” of the speculative maps, nor the America of which he dreamed. It was a lonely, uninhabited little island. And it would be the land where he would die.