Overwintering in Fagel

The True and perfect Description of three Voyages soo strange and woonderfull, that the like had never been heard of before”    –   Journal of Gerrit de Veer, 1598

Ten months of Arctic winter, ice-bound on the island of Novaya Zemlya  (Nova Zemla) “…with the cruell beares, and other monsters of the sea, and the unsupportable and extreme cold that is to be found in those places”. This was the ordeal undergone by the crew of a Dutch expedition which set out on the 10 May, 1596 from the port of Amsterdam to find a passage to Asia by a northern route. Two ships sailed out, one under Jan Cornelisz Rijp, the other under Jacob van Heemskerck with navigator and cartographer Willem Barentsz as expedition leader. Van Heemskerck’s ship became trapped in the ice off the island of Novaya Zemlya, when Rijp had already turned back, and the crew of seventeen were forced to overwinter on the island. Thanks to the journal of crew member Gerrit de Veer we have a detailed description of the experience, along with a series of contemporary engravings by an anonymous artist. De Veer was an officer on Van Heemskerck’s ship, and he published a rich description of three adventurous voyages (1594, 1595, 1596), to find the Northeast Passage.

The men were constantly under attack by ferocious polar bears, who were undaunted by   firearms, and pursued the sailors on land and sea. Two men were killed by a bear on the  second voyage when they went ashore searching for rock crystal; after a long struggle the bear was finally overcome, and her skin was brought back to Amsterdam. On Novaya Zemlya  the bears stalked the crew daily and raided the ship’s stores.

The crew built a wooden shelter which they called their Behouden Huys, or house of safety, which they built using timber from a massive conglomeration of driftwood, with decking and sail from the ship for the roof.  Here they brought various provisions from the ships; Arctic foxes, seen here outside the shelter, provided meat, skins for clothes and fur for warm headgear.

This drawing of the interior of the Behouden Huys gives a vivid idea of the set-up within the shelter – a sick crew member has been placed close to the fire and we see a barrel for bathing and a clock on the wall at the right. Conditions within the shelter were harsh, but on the 6 January they celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, having saved their rations of wine: “…and so that night we made merry and and drunke to the three kings”.  They crowned the gunner king of Novaya Zemlya, made pancakes and ate biscuits dunked in the wine: “And so supposing that we were in our own country and amongst our frends, it comforted us as well as if we had made a great banket in our owne house”.

Around two hundred objects found in the collapsed remains of the Behouden Huys are now housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, having lain untouched on Novaya  Zemlya  for almost three centuries. During several 19th-century expeditions, starting in 1871, the remains of the house and its contents were discovered, and many objects were brought back to the Netherlands.

Johannes Janssen’s Atlas Contractus published in Amsterdam in 1666. Atlases were compiled from different sources and variants;  this map of the Russian Empire and Scandinavia is based on the maps and information brought back to the Netherlands by Issac Massa (1586-1643),  a Dutch grain trader, traveller and diplomat.

Close to Novaya Zemlya lay the land of the Samoyedic peoples of Northern Russia, with whom the Dutch expeditions had positive encounters on Barentsz’s second voyage.  De Veer describes their means of transport thus: Their sleades stood always ready, with one or two hartes in them, that runne so swiftly with one or two men in them, that our horses are not able to follow them.  Communication was in Russian through the expedition’s interpreter.

The ‘wonder in the heavens’ depicted in this drawing is an atmospheric phenomenon now known as the Novaya Zemlya effect, a kind of mirage in which the sun’s rays are reflected from below the horizon by a thermal inversion of warm air on top of cold. On the 24 January the men were overjoyed to see the sun, which should not have been visible for another two weeks. Bets were made, and they consulted a copy of Schala’s Ephimerides and made calculations to try and explain and confirm its sighting so early.  De Veer commented that it was a sorrowful situation to be deprived of the sun: “…the most beautiful creation by God, which is enjoyed by the entire world”.  Despite the sun’s early appearance, conditions were not right for departing the island until the 13 June 1597, when they left in two open longboats.

Detail from a map of Northern Europe from Bergen to Novaya Zemlya.

This map published in Amsterdam ca. 1750 shows us that: ‘”Here overwintered Willem Barentse in the year 1596″ and includes a drawing of the shelter (Behoudehuys) and ship.

A farewell document was written by Willem Barentsz and Jacob van Heemskerk, and placed in a powder horn, which was hung in the chimney. In it was written how  “..  we had come from Holland to sail to the kingdom of China, and everything that had happened to us, and all our experiences, in case anyone came after us”.  Barentsz was not to make it back; he was already ill and died on 20 June 1597, and the Barents Sea in that area of the Arctic is named after him.

In October the adventurers finally reached Holland, arriving in Amsterdam at noon on 1 November 1597. Of the crew of seventeen, twelve returned, and these were met with great surprise, having been presumed lost; they were officially received and got the opportunity to tell the tale of their voyages and adventures. “And after that, every man that dwelt thereabouts went home, but such as dwelt not neere to that place were placed in good lodgings for certaine dayes, untill we had recieved our pay, and then every one of us departed and went to the place of his aboade”.

From the Fagel Collection:

De Veer’s account with illustrations from one of the most important Dutch collections of travel literature published during the seventeenth century:

Begin ende voortgangh van de Vereenighde Nederlantsche Geoctroyeerde OostIndische Compagnie (Amsterdam, 1645-46)  Shelfmark: Fag.M.7.65-66

Map: Nieuwe groote verbeeterde en seer curieuse gelyk gradige paskaart van’t noorder deel van Europa : streckende van Bergen tot Nova Zembla.  (Amsterdam,ca. 1750). Shelfmark: Fagel Portfolio XVI / 1096

Atlas: Joannis Janssonii Atlas Contractus, Sive Atlantis Majoris Compendium. (Amsterdam, 1666). Shelfmark: Fag.A.1.38-39


Quotations taken from: A true description of three voyages by the north-east towards Cathay and China : undertaken by the Dutch in the years 1594, 1595 and 1596 / by Gerrit de Veer ; published at Amsterdam in the year 1598, and in 1609 translated into English by William Phillip. Republished by the Hakluyt Society (London,1853). Shelfmark: Research Area / Alcove No. 25.  Hakluyt Society. First series; no. 13.

The second edition is available to read online from the Library’s Stella Search, accessible via the  Library PCs only.

Information on the Fagel Collection.