At age 26, after three years as Russia’s sole ruler, Peter the Great took himself on a “Grand Embassy” through Europe. With a wink and a nod, he traveled incognito as one of the ambassadorial entourage, giving himself a chance to see other cultures from something like ground-level, which included actually working in the shipyards of Holland and England. He saw clearly that European nations had a strong marine force, whether for trade or conquest or both.
Peter was determined to drag his backward, insular country into the modern age. To help catapult the nation forward, Peter enticed skilled and learned foreigners to move to Russia. One of these was Danish naval commander Vitus Bering, whom Peter chose — almost on his deathbed — to lead the First Kamchatka Expedition.
The Island of author Stephen R. Bown’s title figures only in the final stages of the second expedition, also known as the Great Northern Expedition. His expansive book covers far more territory, though, ensuring readers understand the related history necessary to put both of these massive voyages in context.
Peter’s ambitions for Russia on the world stage were stymied by a lack of access to open water. Much of his Great Northern War was fought to secure one Baltic seaport, St. Petersburg, but the Chinese denied convenient access to the oceans to the east.
The First Kamchatka Expedition was conceived as a means to demonstrate Russia’s equality with Europe in scientific and geographical marine exploration, expand trade opportunities with China and Japan, and consolidate the czar’s hold on his vast, still-uncharted lands, possibly extending them into America.
The only problem was getting there.
To reach the open ocean on the far side of the Kamchatka Peninsula required a trek across the thousands of trackless miles of rivers, mountains, and open tundra of Siberia, carrying virtually everything necessary for a multi-year journey. (And, with the intention of building ships at land’s end, baggage included such inconvenient objects as anchors.)
Of the five years invested in executing the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-1730), a total of 50 days was spent at sea. Unbeknownst to Bering and his crew, they sailed up and back through the strait that would later bear his name, but bad weather prevented them from ever seeing the coast of America.
Still, the mission proved successful enough to compel Bering to submit a proposal for a second; unfortunately, Empress Anna accepted the proposal and then expanded it beyond all possibility of execution.
It took from April 1733, when contingents of the thousands of people who made up the Great Northern Expedition first left St. Petersburg, until June 1741 before the St. Peter, under Bering’s command, and St. Paul, helmed by Aleksei Chirikov, finally departed Kamchatka for North America.
Of the host of problems and delays to that point, the most devastating was the loss of the supply ship; without it, the expedition’s ships could not overwinter on their voyage as had been planned, but would need to sail out into uncharted waters, explore, and sail back in a single short season.
Already starting late, a full month into prime sailing season, their luck soon turned worse. Within weeks, bad weather permanently separated the two ships. Bering began staying in his cabin, possibly clinically depressed; second-in-command Sven Waxell stepped in as de facto commander.
Our understanding of the sea-based portion of the Great Northern Expedition is due in large measure to the last-minute addition of a young German naturalist, Georg Steller — he of the Steller’s jay and Steller’s sea lion, as well as his now-extinct eagle and sea cow, all observed and described while on this voyage — a man of great natural curiosity and intellect who also thoroughly irritated his shipmates. Both his insights and his complaints are captured in his journal.
Steller was one of the few members of the crew who remained mostly free of scurvy as the voyage began to collapse under the weight of fractured command, poor decision-making, bad drinking water, contrary winds, horrific storms, and fast-approaching winter.
All of that was capped by the scurvy epidemic, during which the bodies of the badly afflicted start to come apart; old wounds reopen, mended fractures separate. Ships hit hard by scurvy often founder or sink because no one remains capable of handling the vessels.
Just this circumstance conspired in early November to trap the St. Peter inside the reef of what is now called Bering Island, where their brutal winter of survival lay before them. Bering died on the island, but a significant number of his crew survived, able to sail back out the next August, thanks primarily to Waxell and Steller.
Though fascinating, Island is oddly undramatic, despite the author’s attempts to gin up tension. Maybe it’s the natural consequence of a story that involves so much waiting for something to happen.
In describing the separate camps that sprang up over the long winter, Bown seems to foreshadow some Lord of the Flies-like conflagration over the crew’s version of high-stakes poker, but it turns out they were just playing cards.
The Great Northern Expedition may have been beset by calamity through most of its ocean-based journey, but it undeniably succeeded in laying the Russian path through the Siberian wilderness and into Alaska.
Perhaps the greatest irony was that it was Steller who finally figured out how to hunt and kill the massive sea cows that fed the crew back to health. The lone naturalist ever to sketch and describe these whale-sized manatees that bear his name, Steller’s ingenuity saved the crew but presaged the sea cow’s extinction, since the slow-moving creatures served to feed the Russian crews that followed in the expedition’s wake.
This book review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 26 December 2017.