Next: June - August 1596

Barentsz's Third Arctic Voyage: May - June 1596

This adventure picks up after the failure of the first two Dutch attempts to discover a northeast passage. Pinkerton presented the third arctic voyage from beginning to end but I have only included the account up to the time of Barentsz's death. The following account includes a problematic astronomical passage and some spellings which may be unfamiliar to present day readers. I have corrected only about ten word spellings which were obviously typeset in error. Plancius was instrumental in planning the arctic routes in hopes of finding a northeast passage to the Orient and East Indies. Pinkerton's text, as follows, is in the public domain. It is taken from John Pinkerton's, "A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World"; London, 1808: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, Paternoster-Row and Cadell and Davies, in the Strand; pages 90-114.


After these two voyages, which had failed of the desired success, the idea of undertaking a third was not relinquished: but their High Mightinesses were unwilling to countenance the attempt. Nevertheless it was decreed, that if there were individuals, cities, or corporations, willing to bear the expences of the voyage, they would not be prevented: and that if they could furnish sufficient proofs of having succeeded, and passed, the state would make a considerable recompense in money, and the sum was stipulated.

The council of the city of Amsterdam, which was not discouraged, ordered two vessels to be equipped, at the commencement of the year 1596, and the crews engaged under two conditions, which were, that they should be paid according to a certain rate if they accomplished their design. The recompense to be made in the latter case was considerable. They took as few married persons as possible, lest their affection for their families should occasion them to think too much of return.

The two vessels were ready to sail at the beginning of May. James Heemskerk was appointed master and steward, as before, and William Barentsz first pilot of one, and John Cornelisz Ryp was appointed steward of the other.

On the eighteenth of May they departed from Vlie, and on the twenty-second were in sight of Hitlandt of Faverhill *. On the thirtieth they found themselves in lat. 690 24', and on the first of June they experienced no night. On the second of June, at half past ten in the morning, they saw a surprising phenomenon in the heavens. On each side of the sun appeared a mock-sun, with a rainbow passing through these three suns. There were besides two other rainbows, one surrounding the suns, the other crossing the true sun, the lowest part of which was elevated 280 above the horizon. At noon they observed the sun with the astrolabes, and found them in lat. 710.

The vessel of John Cornelisz being always to the windward of that of William Barentsz, without coming up to him, induced Barentsz to stand to the N.E., in order to come to the wind and join him, thinking that he lay too much to the west; and indeed this appeared in the end. In the evening, when they joined, Barentsz told him they lay too much to the westward, and that he must bear to the east. Cornelisz answered that he did not wish to enter the straits of Weigats.

They then sailed N.E. and by N., and were nearly sixty leagues in the main sea. Barentsz was of opinion that they should rather bear to the E.N.E. than to the N.N.E., on account of their having drifted so much to the west. He even thought that they should steer to the east, at least for some time, and until they had recovered what they had lost. But Cornelisz would not yield to these reasons; on the contrary, he persisted in the design of always running in a N.N.E. direction, convinced that if they bore to the east they would enter the Weigats. Barentsz was finally compelled to join him, and steer N.E. and by N.; whereas they should have stood to the N.E., and even have steered more to the E.

On the fifth of June they began to see ice, which so surprised them that they imagined at first they saw swans, and those on deck cried out they beheld a quantity swimming. The others who were below having ascended to the quarter-deck, and considered the thing with a calmer eye, told them that the swans were just converted into flakes of ice: in fact, they were floating banks of ice which had been detached. At midnight they came up with this ice, the sun then being elevated about a degree above the horizon to the north.

On the seventh they were in lat. 740, sailing along the ice, as if running between two shores: the water was as green as grass, and they presumed they were near Greenland. In the mean time the ice thickened as they advanced. On the ninth they discovered an island, lying in lat. 740 30', which appeared to them to be about five leagues in length. On the eleventh they landed and found a quantity of sea-gulls' eggs. They afterwards ascended a mountain, so steep that the sides seemed almost perpendicular, from which they descended with the greatest difficulty and danger, not being able to look down without dismay, and beholding nothing but rugged points of rocks, where they would have been dashed to pieces if they had fallen or slipped. They therefore descended gently, some on their knees, some sliding, without meeting any accident, although Barentsz, who remained in the shallop, observing them, was in doubt if he should ever behold them again alive. On the morning of the twelfth they saw a white bear, and directed the shallop after him, to endeavour to throw a strong noose about his neck; but they found him so furious, that they dared not attempt it. John Cornelisz having sent a reinforcement of men and arms, they all attacked him together: the combat lasted four glasses, or two hours, and in the end they cut off his head with a hatchet. He was carried on board the vessel of Cornelisz, where he was flayed: the skin was twelve feet long: part of his flesh was eaten, but was not found good. This incident induced them to name the island Beeren-eilandt, or the Isle of Bears.

On the thirteenth they weighed anchor, and while sailing perceived towards the evening something very large floating on the water: they imagined at first it was a vessel, but approaching they found it to be a dead whale, upon which were a great number of sea-gulls. On the seventeenth and eighteenth they met with much ice, through which having passed, they came to the southern point of the island, and exerted every effort to double it, without being able to succeed.

On the nineteenth they again discovered land, and having observed the altitude, found themselves in lat. 800 11'. The country in sight was of great extent, which they coasted, running westward to lat. 790 30', where they met with a good road; but they could not approach nearer on account of a N.E. wind, which came directly from the land, the bay stretching into the sea N. and S.

On the twenty-first they cast anchor in sight of land, in eighteen fathoms of water, and the crew of Barentsz went with that of Cornelisz to seek for ballast on the western coast. As they were returning on board a white bear entered into the water and swam towards their vessel. Leaving the labour of the ballast, they threw themselves into the shallop and directed it towards the bear, who swam more than a league into the sea. They followed him with three shallops and small boats: most of the arms with which they struck him broke on this body. Once also on his side, he darted his paws with so great a force against the stem of one of the boats, that if he had darted against the middle of the vessel in the same manner, there is every appearance that he would have overset it. At last they killed him and carried him on board: his skin was thirteen feet in length. After this affair they sailed in a shallop for more than a league towards the land, where they met with a good port, sixteen, twelve, and ten feet in depth; and entering farther towards the east, they saw two islands extending eastward into the sea. On the western side was a very large gulf, and another isle in the centre, having sailed towards which they landed and found plenty of wild geese, and the geese themselves in their nests, which flew away on seeing them: they killed one, which they dressed with some eggs.

They were of the same species which come every year in such great flocks into Holland, and especially to Wieringen, in the Zuiderzee, between North Holland and Friesland, it not having been known before where they went to lay. Some authors had asserted that those eggs were the fruit of certain trees in Scotland, planted on the sea shore, and that those which fell to the ground broke to pieces, while those which fell into the sea were immediately hatched; and that the little goslings swam as soon as they were born. It is not to be wondered at that the place of the nests of these geese should be unknown, since it does not appear that any person till then had ever sailed as far as lat. 800, nor that this country had ever been discovered. It should be remarked, that although this island, which these navigators conceived to be Greenland, lies in lat. 800, and even still higher, there is nevertheless verdure and grass, and beasts of pasture, as rein-deer and other animals; and that neither herbs nor verdure ever existed in Novaya Zemlia, which is farther distant from the arctic pole by four degrees, and where are only seen carnivorous animals, as bears and foxes.

"This country, which the author of the journal here followed believed to be Greenland, is the most northern country which has been discovered to the present time. It is situated between Greenland, which depends upon Norway, and Novaya Zemlia, which belongs to Muscovy, directly by the side of Finmarch, or the northern part of Norway. This island extends, at least according to the knowledge possessed when this journal was published, from the seventy-sixth to beyond the eightieth degree, and consequently is more than sixty German leagues in length.

"It was the difference of opinion between William Barentsz and John Cornelisz, which has been mentioned above, that occasioned the discovery of the western coast of the island. Since that time, Henry Hudson, an Englishman, has also sailed there, of whom Hondius relates in his great planisphere that he met with a coast quite covered with ice to the N.W. of the isle, by the latitude of between eighty-one and eighty-two degrees.

"Since that time the English have sailed there every summer, to fetch the teeth of the sea-cow, whale fins, and the blubber of the same fish. This fishery was first undertaken by the Russian company at London; but the Dutch, French, and Biscayans have since also sailed there. From the knowledge we have of that country, which the English call Greenland, and the Dutch Spilberg, Spitsberg, or Spisberg, we have designed a map **, which is here annexed, principally founded on the map of John Daniel, of London.

"This island, as before mentioned, lies between lat. 760, and lat. 800 N.N.W. from the Isle of Bears, which is beyond Norway. It is under the climates which the ancients had reason to believe uninhabitable on account of its cold. There is no country in the world in which the nights are shorter. During the six months of summer the light never wholly fails; and during two months of the six months of winter, when the sun is beyond the line, and in proportion as it recedes the days are only of twelve, ten, eight, and finally of one hour; it does not cease when it is at the lowest, and in the middle of this long night, to rise twelve degrees and a half above the horizon, that is, in lat. 800, and during the twenty-four hours is seen the light of day-break; thus, according to Ptolemy and others, the dawn may appear when the sun is only eighteen degrees under the horizon.

"But although the day is of such length, and the sun shines for so long a time, without intermission in this rigorous climate, it does not prevent the summer from being the shortest and the least warm of all the countries north of the line. The ice has sometimes been seen so thick and strong on the thirteenth of June along the coasts, and at the mouth of the harbours, that the vessels could not enter. The snow itself, which always remains in certain places, had melted so little in others, that the rein-deer could find nothing to graze on, and were become perfectly meagre.

"The cause of this excessive cold, and these long winters, is that the sun never rises higher on the horizon than 320 20': this its rays strike the earth obliquely; so that only gliding over it, instead of penetrating, they cannot sufficiently warm it. By the same reason the rays of the sun are not of sufficient strength to dissipate the vapours and fogs which rise from the earth, and which remain on the mountains and the sea, often preventing the crews of the vessels from seeing farther than the length of a ship.

* Pinkerton's Footnote: "Probably Faverhill in Shetland."
** Pinkerton's Footnote: "This map is now very antiquated and erroneous."

Next: June - August 1596