Pulp non-fiction: the world’s first best-seller

Last week, my friend Allison posted a story about the HMS Terror, a ship that ran into a little trouble searching for a northwest passage to Asia in 1845. It ended poorly for the expedition, as the very name of the ship should have forewarned the crew. However, no one was certain exactly what went wrong, as there were no survivors of the expedition, though it is thought they tried to walk their way back home. But more answers may be coming, now that the wreck of the ship have finally been located in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean off King William Island.

I mentioned to her that the story was reminiscent of something that happened nearly 300 years earlier in the frigid waters off the Russian Arctic, where a crew of Dutch sailors were forced to overwinter on the island of Nova Zembla (or Novoya Zemlya). While that story had a somewhat happier ending — some of the crew actually made it home alive — it also happened because the expedition was seeking a shortcut to China and Japan.

Barentsz ship stranded in ice at Nova Zemla in 1596.

But there as a footnote to the story. Among the survivors of the Dutch expedition was a man who kept a journal of the ordeal. When he returned to Amsterdam, his journal was published, and his account quickly became a best-seller in several languages — one of the first best-selling books in the modern age, not including the Bible itself.

Sometimes the bear eats you

In the 1590s, the newly independent Dutch Republic looked to flex its economic muscle, but stronger, more-established nations like Spain and Portugal stood in its way. Their ships blocked the way to wealthy trading ports in Asian nations. Besides, even without their interference, the trip to the Spice Islands (now known as Indonesia) took the better part of a year. What was desperately needed was a faster route to the wealth of Asia that bypassed the military threats of European rivals.

Many of De Veer’s illustrations involved polar bears, as you’ll see …

Enter Willem Barentsz. Born around 1550, Barentsz made a name for himself as a cartographer making maps of the Mediterranean region. But as the potential for his homeland’s trading empire grew, so did his own aspirations.

Barentsz had a simple idea: since the Arctic region enjoyed sunlight 24-hours a day (at least sometimes), all that sunlight must definitely melt all the ice and snow, providing for a clear passage straight through the northeast to China and Japan. Science!

He must have been persuasive, because he convinced an expedition of three ships to come along with him to find this shortcut to Asia in 1594. They ultimately failed, but they were the first Dutchmen to encounter polar bear. They foolishly thought to bring it onboard and take it home, not knowing that polar bear are one of few animals who like to eat people just because we are tasty. They managed to bring the bear down, but not before it went on a merry rampage aboard the ship. They discovered walruses weren’t easy to manage, either, and brought home only a few tusks, not an entire walrus. And though they (of course) failed to make it to China, they did manage to make it home, and their new discoveries were enough to render the voyage a success.

Barentsz trip went so well that he caught the attention of Prince Maurice of Orange, who decided to sponsor a second voyage and named Barentsz the pilot of the expedition. The prince also sent six ships-worth of gifts and trading goods for China. This time, things didn’t go so well. An encounter with a polar bear led to the deaths of two sailors. Worse, Barentsz’ polar thermal theory was proven false when they encountered a frozen Kara Sea east of Nova Zembla. But again, everyone not killed by a polar bear or by some other accident made it home alive.

Cabin fever

Disappointed by the failure of the second voyage, the Dutch ruling States General declared in 1596 that it would no longer subsidize voyages of exploration; however, it would offer a large reward to anyone who found a shortcut to the Asian trading ports. The city of Amsterdam rose to the challenge by outfitting two ships and hired to command them, with Jan Rijp and Jacob van Heemskerk as the captains.

Yikes, a polar bear!

The expedition meandered around the Arctic off the coast of Norway for a while, discovering first Bear Island (Bjornoye) and Spitsbergen before meandering back to Bear Island again. There, a disagreement about where to go next broke out, with Barentsz and Van Heemskerk on one side and Rijp on the other. They decided to part ways, with Rijp continuing north and Barentsz going, once again, to Nova Zembla. With the Barentsz faction was Gerrit de Veer, a carpenter who kept a journal of what was about to become a harrowing ordeal.

The group meant to pass through a strait south of Nova Zembla, but found it blocked by ice. Instead, the 16-man crew found themselves forced to find shelter on the island, which was covered in permafrost and had few trees that could be used to make a shelter. They had to dismantle parts of their ship to create a cabin to survive what was about to become an unimaginable hell.

Sometimes you eat the bear; sometimes the bear eats you.

It became so cold that it was even impossible to warm their feet by the fire inside their cabin; their socks would catch flame before their toes would feel the heat. Instead, they heated the cannonballs and kept them near. And they used the cloth that was meant to be sold in the markets of China to make blankets for themselves as well.

Of course, relying on fires inside a closed structure for heat had its own dangers, too. On Dec. 7, the men almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning, managing to stagger outside for fresh air just in time.

In fact, death was near at every turn. The men had muskets to hunt with, and managed to take down a polar bear, but made the mistake of eating its liver first. This lead to the first recorded case of vitamin A toxicity, whose symptoms are vision changes, bone pain and skin changes. That made them swear off polar bear, though they still hunted them for their fat, which was burned in lamps.

Scurvy, or a vitamin C deficiency, became a very real danger. Symptoms of scurvy can emerge in as little as one month from the onset of a deficiency and include weakness, exhaustion and aching legs, progressing to bleeding gums and tooth decay, increased bruising, gastrointestinal bleeding, jaundice, organ failure, delirium and death. In fact, one of the men died of it.

Don’t let anyone tell you sensationalism in the media is a new phenomenon.

The crew endured what seemed to them to be an eternity of darkness during the long Arctic winter. When the sun finally rose again over the horizon, they waited to see if their ship would be freed from the ice. But it wasn’t. In desperation, they took wood from the ship to create two small boats and decided to make their way back to Amsterdam in little more than open canoes.

When all was said and done, a dozen of the crew survived. Barentsz did not. He died on June 20, 1597. Small consolation: that part of the Arctic Ocean was named the Barents Sea in his honor. The survivors

paddled on another seven weeks, when by some miracle they were found by a Dutch ship captained by none other than Captain Rijp. They eventually made it back to Amsterdam on Nov. 1, 1597.

A true and perfect description

In Amsterdam, the men were received like ghosts. Many had taken them for dead. Of course, everyone wanted to hear what had happened.

And after that, every man that dwelt thereabouts went home, but such as dwelt not neere to that place were placed in good lodgings for certaine dayes, untill we had recieved our pay, and then every one of us departed and went to the place of his aboade.”

Gerrit de Veer, “The Three Voyages of William Barents to the Arctic Regions

So wrote Gerrit de Veer in his journal, who was about to become one of the world’s first best-selling authors.

The “kept house” the Dutch crew built out of salvaged wood from their ship.

The Dutch, so eager to expand their trading power around the globe, were hungry to hear the adventurous tale. They snapped up De Veer’s book as fast as the thing came off the printing press. Soon, translations were made into German, French, English — even Latin.

Of course, there never was a northeast, much less a northwest, passage to Asia to be found. Until now.

Now, with the polar ice melting quickly, the route may be opening up. Of course, this is nothing to celebrate. It’s a crisis, and one the world must deal with immediately.

“The crew only had to wait a little while,” mused my friend as I told her about the tribulations of the Barentsz expedition.

As it turned out, just 422 years.

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