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  • Dora Ollivier Alarcon

Willem Barents

Willem Barents was the first true arctic explorer, eagerly and persistently trying to find a shorter and easier way from Europe to Cina and India, through the North-east Passage. 

Due to his multiple expeditions, his precise charting, and his invaluable meteorological data he collected, he became one of the most well-known explorers in the 16th century. That is also why the so called “Barents Sea” up north was named after him. 

Not much is known about Barents’ early life. Apparently, he was born around 1550 on the Tescherling island. In his era, until 1550, Spain and Portugal were the two dominant maritime nations. With a lot of success, they discovered and conquered many countries, repatriating infinite richesses. It was so much land that they could hardly keep track of it. After a while they weren’t capable of handling and transporting the wealth on their own over sea, so other countries (like the Netherlands), which were less powerful seafaring nations, assisted them. 

In 1581 the Netherlands became autonomous from Spain. Seven years after, Spain’s naval force was defeated by the British and the Dutch. After that, the Iberic Peninsula lost its leading status overseas. 

Around at that time, a man called Huygen von Lichtschote, came back to the Netherlands from his long trip to India. Since the Dutch were now independent, Lichtschote decided to organize an expedition to discover the North-east Passage. This useful shortcut is a short shipping route connecting northern Europe with Asia along the northern coast of the Eurasian landmass. 

By then Willem Barents had already become an experienced navigator and cartographer. He had the perfect profile for this risky journey. The first expedition began in July 1594. Barts was the captain of one of the boats (Lichtschote was in the other one). The vessels navigated up north. After having surpassed the North Cape in Norway, they headed further east. During the expedition the ships split up, to cover up more ground. Barents went north towards Nowaja Semlja (the new land). This is a giant island close to the European-Russian coast. With his group, Barents reached the Ice Cape (most northern point of the island). Although the Dutch geographer Petrus Plancius had planned this route, it was blocked with ice, so Barents had to return home. 

On the other hand, the other group had gone further south through the Yugorsky Strait into the Kara Sea. Having seen open waters, they instinctively believed that they had found the North-east Passage. Excited, they turned around towards the Netherlands. Everybody believed this. 

A year later another well-packed expedition with seven ships was sent to continue exploring the Kara Sea. Again, Barents was the captain. When they arrived at the Kara Sea, a desert of thick ice covered the water. They had come too late. In August everything was already frozen, so they turned back, disappointed, to the Netherlands. 

Although the expedition had not turned out like planned, Barents didn’t give up. He started his third expedition, supported by Dutch merchants, with two ships in 1596 as chief helmsman. This time Barent wanted to stick to the route planned by Petrus Plancius, since he was convinced that it was the way through to India and China. They began their journey in May to escape the ice. Before navigating to Nowaja Semlja again, both ships went further west and discovered some islands. After having been attacked by some bears there, they called the Islands the Bear Islands. Travelling further north they also encountered the Svalbard islands (believing that it was Greenland). Later, they returned to the Bear Islands, hence navigating along the western coast of Nowaja Semlja to continue their unfinished route.  

Same as last time the sea was covered in ice, so they didn’t manage to go much further than in the first expedition. By the time, the second ship had already decided to return to Netherlands. Every time Barents sailed further, there was more and more ice. Suddenly they were stuck. Their only option was to hibernate on the ice. Together they built a hut, using wood from the ship (they called it “the safe house”). The weather conditions were horrible. Some days they couldn’t even step out of the hut. Often the crew was threatened by bears. In total, they spent about eight months in the hut. In May the sea began to get free of ice. Since whole crew was eager to get back home, they built two small boats to transport the luggage. 

Fourteen days after having had started the 500km journey, Barents died an unpleasant death in the snow. After having buried their captain, the rest of the crew decided to carry on walking towards the coast, or else they would have died too. Helped be Russian fishers, they arrived at the Kola Peninsula 2400 km west and then took a merchant boat to the Netherlands. Twelve survivor arrives home in November and were treated like heroes. 

Only 200 years later, Adolf Erik Nordensjoelk managed through the North-east Passage thanks to the climate change. But without Willem Barents, Nordensjoelk wouldn’t have managed it either. 

In conclusion, Barents put the Netherlands on the map of the leading naval nations, able to put together major expeditions and discover new territories. 

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