“Icebound: Shipwreck at the Edge of the World”
By Andrea Bitzer Scribner Books, 2021; 320 pages $29 hardcover / $18 paperback
Dutch navigator William Barents was the first European polar explorer to achieve heroic status. Over the course of three voyages to the high Arctic during the last decade of the 16th century, Barents and his men mapped a northern geography previously unknown to Europeans, discovering the island of Spitsbergen and the northern extension of Nova Zembla along the way. His men were also the first group of Europeans known to have been trapped by ice and forced to spend a horrific winter far above the Arctic Circle, surrounded by severe weather, scurvy and frequent polar bear attacks. Barents will die there, while his remaining crew makes one of their epic escapes from ice-soaked seas to civilization.
Almost all the stereotypical plot elements from the great Arctic epics were invented by Barents. His story isn’t new, but it’s always worth retelling, something veteran journalist Andrea Bitzer easily does in “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World.”
Bitzer faced the same dilemma as anyone writing about Barents: little is known about him. His birthplace and early life are shrouded in mystery, and his character can only be guessed from records kept by others of the travels he served. However, the dramatic story is well documented.
The Netherlands in the 1890s was newly independent of Spain, although the war with the Crown continued for decades. Seeking to make their nation a great empire as quickly as possible, Dutch governmental and commercial interests viewed the establishment of world trade, especially with Asia, as the mainstay for achieving this. Portugal was the main naval power at the time, and Spain was nibbling in its wake. Safe passage across the oceans was never guaranteed to seafarers from a breakaway republic. Getting to China by sailing around the world was fraught with many additional risks as well. So the Dutch looked north, seeking to find a route along the northern coast of Asia that would allow ships to travel unimpeded to Chinese ports.
It sounds easy on paper, but Europeans would spend centuries trying and failing to achieve that goal, whether through a Northeast Passage over Asia, or a Northwest Passage over North America. In general, these efforts did not go well.
Bitzer does a good job of summarizing the political, social, and economic origins of Barents’ travels, but she doesn’t allow them to distract the larger story, which includes his three travels north. Barents, a navigator and later a ship captain, was not in full command of any of the voyages for which he was famous, but was often the default captain.
On his first voyage north, he left the island of Texel on a two-ship expedition in search of open waters rumored to be located north of Russia that could take them to China. Needless to say, they never succeeded, but the Barents boat traveled along the western coast of Nova Zembla, which is in Russian waters. It was not known then whether this land was part of an undiscovered northern continent or an island, as Barents eventually showed.
The first voyage was remarkably devoid of the kind of drama that makes these arctic tales so poignant, but the second voyage, which took place the following year, made up for it. Convinced that the waters outside Nova Zembla were free of ice, seven ships laden with commercial goods were sent through this unproven northern route to open trade with China. The expedition was peerless from the start, plagued by accidents, collisions, ice, mutiny, and a deadly polar bear attack that left two men dead. Bitzer told him a stark account, Just the Facts of a Trained Journalist:
Bitzer wrote of the first victim: “The bear clipped the jaw and cheek of its prey while the bleeding man ineffectively stabbed it.” As the other men failed to save their fellow crew, they turned to run, “the bear caught the slowest of those coming down…and ripped him to shreds.” She writes a little more about it because she doesn’t need to say more. We’ve got it.
Bitzer’s language economy is no small part of this book’s success. As she moves on to Barents’ third and most dramatic – and fatal for him – voyage, she cooks along with this story, turning history on the page turned.
The Dutch, and indeed most Europeans who have thought about the subject often, were convinced that an open arctic sea could be found behind the ice that kept stopping ships. In 1596, Barents was part of an expedition sent north to try to break through these non-existent waters and reach Asia via the North Pole. Instead they discovered Spitsbergen. Then Barents’ boat turned east, intent on circling the northern tip of Nova Zembla and enjoying the smooth sailing back to China.
They rounded the edge, but that’s it. Snowed in, they spent the winter on the island’s far northeastern coast. Nobody knows they were there. Rescue will not come. You are stranded.
Bitzer recounts the ordeal in rich detail. Disease was a constant companion, as was marauding polar bears – the sheer number of encounters was staggering. Hunger, scurvy, frostbite, and misery cost lives. The men died, including Barents. The survivors survived the following summer, traveling thousands of miles in open boats in Arctic waters since the ice refused to leave their ship. It’s just the story.
Bitzer tells us that Barents mapped “places that no European – and perhaps no human being” – had ever seen. Before his travels, the North Pole was as alien to Europeans as Jupiter is to us. After his travels, she wrote, the polar regions became “a new frontier in themselves, a force to be reckoned with, an obstacle.”
Barents helped start the Age of Discovery. We’re still thinking about all that led up to it. But his travels are historically pivotal. They paved the way for centuries of upcoming voyages into the Arctic. Bitzer did a good job of telling us why.