History of Holland > Holland on sea history > Nova Zembla

Nova Zembla

Nova ZemblaThe first stimulus given to maritime enterprise and discovery in Holland was the publication of Linschoten's work on the East. Linschoten was the son of a Frieslander, who had that passion for travel and foreign experience which, when wisely directed, has bestowed such benefits on mankind. He lived for two years at Lisbon, and then, getting employed among the attendants of the Archbishop of Goa, thirteen years in Bombay. Here he patiently collected all the information he could amass as to the country in which he lived, as well as the character of the voyage to the East, its trade winds, harbours, islands, and other matters of knowledge to the sailor, accompanying his work with maps and charts. This was the first information given to the Dutch, and indeed to the world, for the Spaniards and Portuguese kept their knowledge of the navigation in these regions a profound secret.

For a very long time it was believed that a passage could be found by the northern seas to China and India, and should such a discovery be successfully made and carried forwards, that a journey of several thousand miles would be saved. There was an ancient belief too, as old as the time of Herodotus, that if one could once get through the barrier of ice and snow, the navigator could sail into a new region of perpetual spring, sunshine, and calm. The age was still uncritical, or at least unscientific, and the fable of Hyperborean felicity of a race which lived free from the vicissitudes of climate was still gravely believed. Linschoten, Plancius the preacher, and Maalzoon, were eager to attempt the North-east Passage, and van Oldenbarneveldt lent them his powerful patronage. There were indeed no maps of the regions lying beyond the White Sea and the port of Archangel which had been sought for disastrously by Sir Hugh Willoughby, fifty years before; but there were strong beliefs, which were accepted as certainties by these enthusiastic Dutchmen, that the voyage would be easy and successful, and would enable Holland at little risk to herself to take her Spanish and Portuguese rivals in the rear.

In those days the appliances of navigation were far behind those of modern experience and science. The vessels were clumsy and ill-built, the nautical instruments were rude and few, and the victualling of ships was so imperfect, that a prolonged voyage turned the best-appointed ship into an hospital within a few weeks. Men had no experience of an Arctic winter and no expedients by which to meet or mitigate its rigour and severity. The weapons with which they might defend themselves from wild animals and fierce enemies were to be sure the best then known, but awkward to handle, and slow to use.

On June 5, 1594, the first expedition to the Polar seas was begun. The voyagers started in three vessels and a fishing yacht, the vessels being supplied by the cities of Amsterdam and Enkhuizen, and the province of Zeeland. Barendz was captain of the Amsterdam vessel, Linschoten of the other two. The former of these visited the islands of Nova Zembla, and accurately mapped them. Linschoten passed through the Straits of Waigatz, between these islands and the mainland, and made for the open sea which he was informed would be found there. After sailing for 150 miles, he was met by violent storms and huge ice-drifts, and saw that it was impossible, at least on that occasion, to achieve the object of his expedition. On August 15th he discovered Barendz's ship, and the little fleet reached Amsterdam by the middle of September. They had strange stories to tell of the Polar bears, and the seals, and of a new and terrible kind of animal, the walrus; which half in sport, half in rage tried to sink their boats with its long protruding tusks.

Linschoten was convinced that they should reach China by the North-east and next year Van Oldenbarneveldt and Maurice of Nassau, as well as many of the States-General, shared his belief. They resolved to send seven ships in 1595, and to load them with broadcloths, linen and tapestries for the trade which they were to open up with China. So long a time did they take in these mercantile arrangements that the summer was half over before the fleet started. Barendz, Linschoten, and Jacob Heemskerk were at the head of the expedition. They sailed as before through the Straits of Waigatz, and landed on Staten Island on the second of September. Here they were attacked by a white bear, and two of their number were slain and half-eaten by the beast before they could dispatch him. They soon were forced to return with the bear's skin and a supply of what they took to be diamonds, and were picking up when the bear attacked them. They got back to Amsterdam on November 18th, and the States-General, greatly disappointed, refused to have anything more to do directly with Arctic navigation, though they offered a prize of 25,000 florins to any navigator who should discover the passage, and a proportionate sum to any one who might fail of success, but might make a praiseworthy venture.

Barendz and others with him determined if possible to assay the North-east Passage again. They got two ships from Amsterdam, and started on May 18, 1596. On June 19th they reached a latitude, which was within ten degrees of the pole. To the land which they found here, they. gave the name of Spitzbergen. But in July the ice began to close about them, and they resolved if they could to avoid it. They got back to Nova Zembla, and after various experiences with ice and Polar bears, reached the extreme north-eastern part of the island. Here they found open water, and were full of hope that the end of their voyage was achieved. But they were soon undeceived, and the growing masses of ice drove them anew into the harbour. On September 1st the ship was frozen fast into the bergs, and it was clear that they would have to pass through an Arctic winter. Fortunately for them the shores of the island were covered with drift-wood, borne by ocean currents from far distant places. They built themselves a hut, and gathered stores of fuel for the long winter that was coming. Part of their provisions was bears' flesh, and indeed the bears would have eaten them, if they had not been on the alert, and retaliated. On October 2nd they finished their house, sixteen men being left of the expedition. On November 4th the sun rose no more.

It was now too cold for the bears. They disappeared, and white foxes took their place. The Dutchmen caught them, ate them, and clothed themselves in their skins. It was time, for their European clothing was frozen stiff. They nearly in December stifled themselves by lighting a coal fire and stopping up all the crevices in their hut. Fortunately, and before it was too late, one of them forced open the door. As often as they could, they constantly made their nautical and astronomical observations. On January 24th the sun just reappeared, and on the 27th the whole disk was seen. Soon afterwards the foxes disappeared, and the bears came back as hungry and ferocious as ever.

On April 17th they saw open sea in the distance. In May they determined to start back home. But there was no hope that they could again use their ship, and they had only two open boats to make the voyage in. On June 14th they began to return. On June 20th Barendz, though still full of hope, died of exhaustion. After many adventures, but without further serious danger, they arrived at Amsterdam on the first of November. They had been absent for seventeen months, and for ten of these months they had suffered the extremities of an Arctic winter. The expedition closed all experiments after a North-east Passage and the sea of the Hyperboreans. Heemskerk returned to make a great name for himself elsewhere, and to be as great a terror to Spain as Drake had been.

In 1595, the Dutch reached the East Indies by the Cape Passage, and began the establishment of that great institution, the "Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie" or "VOC" (in English: "United East Indies Company", the Dutch East India Company). In 1598 another fleet started for the purpose of passing through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific, at that time supposed to be the only way to the other ocean. Of the fleet which made this voyage one only returned to Holland. The Dutch had simultaneously explored the North and the South Poles.