Willem Barents

The Dutch navigator Willem Barents (died 1597) was his country's renowned Arctic explorer, having discovered Spitsbergen and the Barents Sea.

Willem Barents was born on the island of Terschelling off the Friesland coast of the Netherlands. He became the pupil of Petrus Plancius (Peter Platevoet), a theologian-cartographer whose sermons are often said to have been lessons in geography and astronomy.

Barents took part in two unsuccessful Arctic voyages before his memorable discovery. In 1592 Jan Huyghen van Linschoten of Enkhuizen returned from a voyage to Goa with a Portuguese fleet and wrote a widely read Itinerary. This stimulated Dutch interest in the Orient, though at the time it seemed dangerous to contest the Portuguese monopoly of the route around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1595 Amsterdam merchants, undiscouraged by the English failure to find a Northeast Passage 40 years earlier, decided to resume the search. They prepared two ships, placing one under Jacob van Heemskerck and the other under Jan Corneliszoon Rijp. Barents, who as pilot sailed with Heemskerck, became the acknowledged leader of the expedition.

The ships left Vlieland, a small port near Amsterdam, on May 18, 1596, and about three weeks later discovered Bear Island, south of the then-unknown Spitsbergen; they so named the island because of an encounter with a polar bear whose hide did not prove vulnerable to Dutch blunderbusses. Pressing northward, the Dutch ships came on June 17 to Spitsbergen, uninhabited islands. During the rest of June the Dutch explored the western coast of the main island, thinking it a part of Greenland.

After a return to Bear Island, the ships separated, Rijp to resume exploration of Spitsbergen, and Barents and Heemskerck to cross the Barents Sea to Novaya Zemlya, previously discovered but not explored to its northern limit. Barents and Heemskerck rounded the northernmost point, naming it Hook of Desire, and sailed eastward, at first believing, from the open water encountered, that they had discovered the Northeast Passage. By November, however, the ice had grown thick and it finally imprisoned the ship. Barents and Heemskerck were 81°N at their highest latitude, beyond any point previously reached. Still close to Novaya Zemlya, realizing that they must build a solid shelter ashore in order to survive, they made one of logs and driftwood and moved into this "Safe House" in October. They lived there until June 1597, suffering but at first in good spirits, calling themselves "burghers of Novaya Zemlya." At Epiphany they had a cheerful party on their remaining liquor and crowned one man "king" of Novaya Zemlya.

Conditions then deteriorated; the firewood gave out, and the ship was crushed by ice. The men began to construct two small boats. Scurvy had been present for months, and one of the worst sufferers was Barents. He left with the rest as they slowly worked down Novaya Zemlya, but he grew so weak that he could take no part in manipulating the craft. Barents died at the end of June, soon after asking Gerrit de Veer, chronicler of the expedition, to lift him up for a final look at Novaya Zemlya. Heemskerck and the other survivors reached the Kola Peninsula and were rescued there by Rijp, who had returned to Holland and come back for trade.

In the 1870s European ships visited Safe House and found it partially caved in by snow. Objects left there by the Dutch explorers are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.


Further Reading on Willem Barents

A translation of Gerrit de Veer, The Three Voyages of William Barents to the Arctic Regions, was published by the Hakluyt Society in 1876. Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Golden Book of the Dutch Navigators (1916; rev. ed. 1938), provides a racy but accurate account of Barent's voyages and many others. Edward Heawood, A History of Geographical Discovery in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1912), is also accurate. Some information on Plancius and his influence on Barents is contained in George Masselman's study of Dutch discovery and expansion, The Cradle of Colonialism (1963).