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Vitus Bering on the Pacific

Since Drake's day more than a century had rolled on. Russia was awakening from ages of sleep, as Japan has awakened in our time, and Peter the Great was endeavoring to pilot the ship of state out to the wide seas of a world destiny. Peter, like the German Kaiser of today, was ambitious to make his country a world power. He had seen enough of Europe to learn that neighboring nations were increasing their strength in three ways, by conquest, by discovery, and by foreign commerce, and that foreign commerce meant, not only buying and selling, but carrying the traffic of other nations. The East India Company, in whose dockyards he had worked as a carpenter, was a striking instance of the strength that could be built up by foreign commerce. Its ships cruised from Nova Zembla to Persia and East India, carrying forth the products of English workshops and farms, and bringing back the treasures of all lands.

By conquest, Peter had extended the bounds of his empire from the Ural Mountains to the seas of China. By discovery, what remained to be done? France and England had acquired most of the North American continent. Spain and Portugal claimed South America; and Spain had actually warned the rest of the world that the Pacific was 'a closed sea.' But there were legends of a vast domain yet undiscovered. Juan de Fuca, a Greek pilot, employed, as alleged, by Spanish explorers between 1587 and 1592, was reported to have told of a passage from the Pacific to the Arctic through a mountainous forested land up in the region of what is now British Columbia. Whether Juan lied, or mistook his own fancies for facts, or whether the v/hole story was invented by his chronicler Michael Lok, does not much matter. The fact was that Spanish charts showed extensive unexplored land north of Drake's New Albion or California. At this time geographers had placed on their maps a vast continent called Gamaland between America and Asia; and, as if in corroboration of this fiction, when Peter's Cossacks struggled doggedly across Asia, through Siberia, to the Pacific, people on these far shores told tales of driftwood coming from America, of islands leading like steps through the sea to America, of a nation like themselves, whose walrus hide boats sometimes drifted to Siberia and Kamchatka. If any new and wealthy region of the world remained to be discovered, Peter felt that it must be in the North Pacific. When it is recalled that Spain was supposed to have found in Peru temples lined with gold, floors paved with silver, and pearls readily exchanged in bucketfuls for glass beads, it can be realized that the motive for discovery was not merely scientific. It was one that actuated princes and merchants alike. And Peter the Great had an additional motive, the development of his country's merchant shipping. It was this that had induced him to establish the capital of his kingdom on the Baltic. So, in 1725, five weeks before his death, one of the most terrible deaths in history, when remorse and ghosts of terrible memories came to plague his dying hours till his screams could be heard through the palace halls, he issued a commission for one of the greatest expeditions of discovery that ever set out for America, a commission to Vitus Bering, the Dane, to explore the Pacific for Russia.

Like Peter the Great, Vitus Bering had served an apprenticeship with the East India Company. It is more than probable that he first met his royal patron while he was in this service. While other expeditions to explore America had but to cross the sea before beginning their quest, Bering's expedition had to cross the width of Europe, and then the width of Asia, before it could reach even the sea. Between St Petersburg and the Pacific lay six thousand miles of mountain and tundra. Caravans, flatboats, and dog trains must be provided to transport supplies; and the vessels to be used at the end of the land journey must be built on the Pacific. The explorers were commissioned to levy tribute for food and fur on Tartar tribes as their caravans worked slowly eastward. Bering's first voyage does not concern America. He set out from Kamchatka on July 9, 1728, with forty-four men, and sailed far enough north to prove that Asia and America were not united by any Gamaland, and that the strait now bearing his name separated the two continents; but, like the tribes of Siberia, he saw signs of a great land area on the other side of the rain hidden sea. Out of the blanketing fog drifted trees, seaweed, bits of broken boats. And though Bering, like the English navigator Drake, was convinced that no Gamaland existed, he was confronted by the learned geographers, who had a Gamaland on their maps and demanded truculently, whence came the signs of land?
In March 1730, within one month of the time he returned to St Petersburg, Bering was again ordered to prepare to carry out the dead emperor's command, 'to find and set down reliably what was in the Pacific' The explorer had now to take his orders from the authorities of the Academy of Sciences, whose bookish inexperience and visionary theories were to hamper him at every turn. Botanists, artists, seven monks, twelve physicians, Cossack soldiers - in all, nearly six hundred men - were to accompany him; and to transport this small army of explorers, four thousand packhorses were sent winding across the desert wastes of Siberia, with one thousand exiles as guides and boatmen to work the boats and rafts on the rivers and streams. Great blaring of trumpets marked the arrival and departure of the caravans at the Russian forts on the way; and if the savants, whose presence pestered the soul of poor Bering, had been half as keen in overcoming the difficulties of the daily trail as they were in drinking pottle deep to future successes, there would have been less bickering and delay in reaching the Pacific. Dead horses marked the trail across two continents. The Cossack soldiers deserted and joined the banditti that scoured the Tartar plains; and for three winters the travelers were stormbound in the mountains of Siberia. But at length they reached Avacha Bay on the eastern shore of Kamchatka, and the waters of the Pacific gladdened the eyes of the weary travelers. At Petropavlovsk on the bay they built a fort, houses, barracks, a chapel, and two vessels, named the St Peter and the St Paul.

Early on the morning of June 4, 1741, the chapel bells were set ringing. At dawn prayers were chanted to invoke the blessing of Heaven on the success of the voyage. Monks in solemn procession paraded to the water's edge, singing. The big, bearded men, who had doggedly, drunkenly, profanely, religiously, marched across deserts and mountains to reach the sea, gave comrades a last fond embrace, ran down the sand, jumped into the jollyboats, rowed out, and clambered up the ships' ladders. And when the reverberating roll of the fort cannon signaled the hour of departure, anchors were weighed, and sails, loosened from the creaking yardarms, fluttered and filled to the wind. While the landsmen were still cheering and waving a farewell, Bering and his followers watched the shores slip away, the waters widen, the mountains swim past and back. Then the St Peter and the St Paul headed out proudly to the lazy roll of the ocean.

Now the savants, of whom Bering carried too many with him for his own peace of mind, had averred that he had found no Gamaland on his first voyage because he had sailed too far north. This time he was to voyage southward for that passage named after Juan de Fuca. This would lead him north of Drake's New Albion in California, and north of the Spanish cruising about modern Vancouver Island. This was to bring him to the mythical Gamaland. Bering knew there was no Gamaland; but in the captain's cabin, where the savants bent all day over charts, was the map of Delisle, the geographer of French Canada, showing vast unnamed lands north of the Spanish possessions; and in the expedition was a member of the Delisle family. So Bering must have known or guessed that an empire half the size of Russia lay undiscovered north of Juan de Fuca's passage.

So confident were the members of the expedition of reaching land to the east at an early date that provisions and water for only a few weeks were carried along. Bering had a crew of seventy-seven on the St Peter and among the other men of science with him was the famous naturalist, George W. Steller. Lieutenant Chirikoff sailed the St Paul with seventy-six men, and Delisle de la Croyère was his most distinguished passenger. As is usual during early June in that latitude, driving rains and dense fogs came rolling down from the north over a choppy sea. The fog turned to snow, and the St Paul, far in the lead, came about to signal if they should not keep together to avoid losing each other in the thick weather; but the St Peter was careening dangerously, and shipping thunderous seas astern. Bering's laconic signal in answer was to keep on south 'to Gamaland '; but when the fog lifted the St Peter was in latitude 46°, far below the supposed location of the strait of Juan de Fuca, and there was in sight neither Gamaland nor the sister ship. The scientists with Bering were in such a peevish mood over the utter disproof of their mythical continent that they insisted on the commander wasting a whole month pottering back and forth looking for Chirikoff's ship. By this time the weather had become very warm, the drinking water very rank, and the provisions stale. Finally, the learned men gave decision that as the other ship could not be found the St Peter might as well turn north.

Bering had become very depressed, and so irritable that he could not tolerate approach. If the men of learning had been but wise in the dangers of ocean travel, they would have recognized in their commander the symptoms of the common seas courge of the age, scurvy. Presently, he was too ill to leave his bed, and Waxel, who hated all interference and threatened to put the scientists in irons or throw them overboard, took command. By the middle of July passengers and crew were reduced to half allowance of bad water. Still, there were signs that afforded hope. As the ship worked through the fog-blanket northward, driftwood and land birds, evidently from a land other than Asia, were seen.

At last came a land wind from the southeast, lifting the fog and driving it back to the north. And early one morning there were con fused cries from the deck hands, then silence, then shouts of exultant joy! Everybody rushed above decks, even the sick in their night robes, among them Bering, wan and weak, answering scarce a word to the happy clamor about him. Before the sailors' astonished gaze, in the very early light of that northern latitude, lay a turquoise sea, a shining sheet of water, milky and metallic like a mountain tarn, with the bright greens and blues of glacial silt; and looming through the primrose clouds of the horizon hung a huge opal dome in mid-heaven. At first they hardly realized what it meant. Then shouts went up, 'Land!" "Mountains! "Snowpeaks!" "The St Peter glided forward noiseless as a bird on the wing. Inlets and harbors, turquoise green and silent, opened along a jagged, green and alabaster shore. As the vessel approached the land the explorers saw that the white wall of the inner harbor was a rampart of solid ice; but where the shore line extended out between ice and sea was a meadow of ferns and flowers abloom knee deep, and grasses waist high. The spectators shouted and laughed and cried and embraced one another. Russia, too, had found a new empire. St Elias they named the great peak that hung like a temple dome of marble above the lesser ridges; but Bering only sighed. 'We think we have done great things, eh? Well, who knows where this is? We're almost out of provisions, and not a man of us knows which way to sail home.'

Steller was down the ship's ladder with the glee of a schoolboy, and off for the shore with fifteen men in one of the rowboats to explore. They found the dead ashes of a campfire on the sands, and some remnants of smoked fish; but any hope that the lost ship's crew had camped here was at once dispelled by the print of moccasined feet in the fine sand. Steller found some rude huts covered with sea moss, but no human presence. Water casks were filled; and that relieved a pressing need. On July 21, when the wind began to blow freshly seaward, Bering appeared unexpectedly on deck, ashen of hue and staggering from weakness, and peremptorily ordered anchors up. Bells were rung and gongs beaten to call those ashore back to the ship. Steller stormed and swore. Was it for this hurried race ashore that he had spent years toiling across two continents . 'He wanted to botanize, to explore, to gather data for science; but the commander had had enough of science. He was sick unto death, in body and in soul, sick with the knowledge that they were two thousand miles from any known port, in a tempestuous sea, on a rickety ship manned for the most part by landlubbers.

As they scudded before the wind, Bering found that the shore was trending south towards the home harbor. They were following that long line of reefed islands, the Aleutians, which project out from Alaska towards Asia. A roar of reefs through the fog warned them off the land; but one midnight of August the lead recorded less than three feet of water under the keel. Before there was time for panic, a current that rushed between rocks threw the vessel into a deep pool of backwash; and there she lay till morning. By this time many of the sailors were down with scurvy. It became necessary to land for fresh water. One man died as he was lifted from the decks to the shore. Bering could not stand unaided. Twenty emaciated sailors were taken out of their berths and propped up on the sand. And the water they took from this rocky island was brackish, and only increased the ravages of the malady.

From the date of this ill fated landing, a pall, a, state of paralysis, of inaction and fear - seemed to hang over the ship. The tiderip was mistaken for earthquake; and when the lurid glare of volcanic smoke came through the fog, the sailors huddled panic stricken below decks and refused to obey orders. Every man became his own master; and if that ever works well on land, it means disaster at sea. Thus it has almost always been with the inefficient and the misfits who have gone out in ships - landlubbers trying to be navigators. Just when Bering's crew should have braced themselves to resist the greatest stress, they collapsed and huddled together with bowed heads, inviting the worst that fate could do to them. When the tiderip came through the reefs from the north along the line of the Aleutian Islands with the swiftness of a millrace, the men had literally to be held to the rudder at pistol point and beaten up the masts with the flat of the officers' swords. But while they skulked, a hurricane rolled up the fog; and the ship could but scud under bare poles before the wind. Rations were now down to mouldy sea biscuits, and only fifteen casks of water remained for threescore men.

Out of the turmoil of waters and wind along the wave lashed rocks came the hoarse, shrill, strident cry of the sea lion, the boom and snort of the great walrus, the roar of the seal rookeries, where millions of cubs wallowed, and where bulls lashed themselves in their rage and fought for mastery of the herd. By November, Waxel alone was holding the vessel up to the wind. No more solemn conferences of self important, self willed scientists filled the commander's cabin! No more solemn conclaves and arguments and counterarguments to induce the commander to sail this way and that! Bedlam reigned above and below decks. No man had any thought but how to reach home alive. Prayers and vows and offerings went up from the decks of the St Peter like smoke. The Russians vowed themselves to holy lives and stopped swearing. To the inexpressible delight of all hands the prayers seemed to be heard. On November 4 the storm abated, and land loomed up on the horizon, dim at first, but taking shape as the vessel approached it and showing a well defined, rockbound harbor. Was this the home harbor? The sick crawled on hands and knees above the hatchway to mumble out their thanks to God for escape from doom. A cask of brandy was opened, and tears gave place to gruff, hilarious laughter. Every man was ready to swear that he recognized this headland, that he had known they were following the right course after all, and that he had never felt any fear at all.

Barely had the grief become joy, when a chill silence fell over the ship. The only sounds were the rattling of the rigging against the masts, the groaning of the timbers of the vessel, and the swish of the waves cut by the prow. These were not Kamchatka shores. This was only another of the endless island reefs they had been chasing since July. The tattered sails flapped and beat dismally against the cordage. Night fell. There was a retributive glee in the whistle of the mocking wind through the rotten rigging, and the ship's timbers groaned to the boom of the heavy tide.

Bering was past caring whether he lived or died. Morning revealed a shore of black basalt, reef upon reef, like sentinels of death saying, 'Come in! come in! We are here to see that you never go out '; and there was a nasty clutch to the backwash of the billows smashing down from those rocks.

Waxel called a last council of all hands in the captain's cabin. 'We should go on home,' said Bering, rising on his elbow in his berth. 'It matters not to me. I am past mending; but even if we have only the foremast left and one keg of water, let us try for the home harbor. A few days must make it. Having risked so much, let us risk all to win! ' As they afterwards found, they were only one week from Kamchatka; but they were terrified at the prospect of any more deep sea wanderings, and when one of the officers dared to support Bering's view, they fell on him like wild beasts and threw him from the cabin. To a man they voted to land. That vote was fate's seal to the penalty men must pay for their mistakes.

Above the white fret of reefs precipices towered in pinnacles two thousand feet high. Through the reefs the doomed ship stole like a hunted thing. Only one man kept his head clear and his hand to the helm - the lieutenant whom all the rest had thrown out of the cabin. The island seemed absolutely treeless, covered only with sedge and shingle and grass. The tide began to toss the ship about so that the sick were rolled from their berths. Night came with a ghostly moonlight silvering the fret of a seething sea that seemed to be reaching up white arms for its puny victims. The lieutenant threw out an anchor. It raked bottom and the cable snapped. The crazed crew began throwing the dead overboard as an offering to appease the anger of the sea. The St Peter swept stern foremost full on a reef. Quickly the lieutenant and Steller threw out the last anchor. It gripped between rocks and - held. The tide at midnight had thrown the vessel into a sheltered cove. Steller and the lieutenant at once rowed ashore to examine their surroundings and to take steps to make provision for the morrow. They were on what is now known as Bering Island. Fortunately, it was literally swarming with animal life - the great manatee or sea cow in herds on the kelp beds, blue foxes in thousands, the seal rookeries that were to make the islands famous; but there was no timber to build houses for wintering in. It was a barren island. They could make floors of sand, walls of peat, roofs of sea moss; but what shelter was this against northern gales? By November 8, a rude pit shelter had been constructed to house the invalided crew; but the sudden transition from the putrid hold to the open, frosty air caused the death of many as they were lowered on stretchers. Amid a heavy snow Bering was wrapped in furs and carried ashore. The dauntless Steller faced the situation with judgment and courage. He acted as doctor, nurse, and hunter, and daily brought in meat for the hungry and furs to cover the dying. Five pits sheltered the castaways. When examined in 1885 the walls of the pits were still intact - three feet of solid peat. Clothing of sea otter skins of priceless value, which afterwards proved a fortune to those who survived, and food of the flesh of the great sea cow, saved a remnant of the wretched crew. During most of the month of November the St Peter rode safely at anchor while storms thundered around her retreat; but on the 28th her cable snapped beneath a hurricane, and she was driven high and dry on the shore, a broken wreck. In all thirty-one men had perished of scurvy by January 1742. Among these was the poor old commander. On the morning of December 8, as the wind went moaning round their shelter, Steller heard the Dane praying in a low voice. And just at daybreak he passed into that great, quiet Unknown World whence no traveler has returned.

How the consort ship, the St Paul, found her way back to Kamchatka, and how Bering's castaways in the spring built themselves a raft and mustered their courage to essay the voyage home which they ought to have attempted in the autumn, are matters for more detailed history. But just as Cartier's discovery of the St Lawrence led to the pursuit of the little beaver across a continent, so the Russians' discovery of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands led to the pursuit of the sea otter up and down the North Pacific; led the way, indeed, to that contest for world supremacy on the Pacific in which the great powers of three continents are today engaged.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915


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