“Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World”
By Andrea Pitzer; ScribnerBooks, 2021; 320 pages; $29 hardcover/$18 paperback
The Dutch navigator William Barents was the first European polar explorer to achieve heroic status. Over the course of three journeys into the high Arctic during the final decade of the 16th century, Barents and his men charted northern geography previously unknown to Europeans, discovering the island of Spitsbergen and the northern extent of Nova Zembla along the way. His men were also the first group of Europeans known to have become trapped by ice and forced to spend a harrowing winter far above the Arctic Circle, beset by extreme weather, scurvy and repeated polar bear attacks. Barents would die there, while his remaining crew made one of the epic escapes from ice-laden seas back to civilization.
Nearly all of the stereotypical plot elements of the great Arctic exploration sagas were pioneered by Barents. His story is hardly new, but always worthy of retelling, something veteran journalist Andrea Pitzer does handily in “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World.”
Pitzer 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 personality can only be guessed at from the records others kept of the voyages he served on. The backstory story is well documented, however.
The Netherlands in the 1590s was newly independent from Spain, although war with the crown would persist for decades. Seeking to make their nation a great empire as quickly as possible, Dutch governmental and business interests viewed the establishment of global trade, especially with Asia, as the linchpin for accomplishing this. Portugal was the primary sea power at the time, and Spain was biting at its heels. Safe passage across the oceans was far from assured for sailors from a breakaway republic. Reaching China by circumnavigating the globe was fraught with many additional perils as well. So the Dutch looked north, seeking to find a route along the northern coast of Asia that would allow ships to travel unencumbered to Chinese ports.
It sounds easy on paper, but Europeans would spend centuries trying and failing to achieve this goal, whether via a Northeast Passage over Asia, or a Northwest Passage over North America. Generally speaking, those efforts did not go well.
Pitzer does a good job of summarizing the political and socioeconomic origins of Barents’ travels, but she doesn’t let them distract from the larger story, which involves his three trips north. Barents, who would serve as navigator and later as a vessel captain, was never in full command of any of the voyages he’s renowned for, but he was often the default leader.
On his first trip north, he left the island of Texel aboard a two-ship expedition in search of open water that was rumored to exist north of Russia and that could carry them to China. Needless to say, they never made it, but Barents’ boat traveled up the western coast of Nova Zembla, which sits in Russian waters. It was then unknown if this land was part of an undiscovered northern continent or, as Barents ultimately showed, an island.
The first trip was remarkably free of the sort of drama that makes these Arctic tales so gripping, but the second one, undertaken the following year, made up for it. Convinced that the waters beyond Nova Zembla were ice-free, seven ships laden with trade goods were dispatched via this unproven northern route to open up trade with China. The expedition was jinxed from the start, and was plagued by accidents, collisions, ice, a mutiny, and a deadly polar bear attack that left two men dead. Pitzer reports it with the stark, just-the-facts narrative of a trained journalist:
“The bear bit away its prey’s jaw and cheek while the bleeding man stabbed ineffectively at it,” Pitzer writes of the first victim. And as the other men, failing in their efforts to save their crew mate, turned to run, “The bear seized the slowest of those making their retreat ... and tore him to pieces.” She writes little more about it because little more needs saying. We get it.
Pitzer’s economy of language is no small part of this book’s success. As she moves on to Barents’ third, most dramatic — and for him, fatal — trip, she’s cooking along with this story, turning history into a page-turner.
The Dutch, and indeed most Europeans who gave the topic much thought, were convinced that an open Polar Sea could be found beyond the ice that kept stopping ships. In 1596, Barents was part of an expedition sent due north to attempt to penetrate into these nonexistent waters and arrive in Asia via the North Pole. Instead they discovered Spitsbergen. Then Barents’ boat turned east, intending to round the northern tip of Nova Zembla and enjoy smooth sailing to China.
They rounded the tip, but that was it. Iced in, they spent a winter on the far northeastern coast of the island. No one knew they were there. Rescue would not be coming. They were marooned.
Pitzer recounts the ordeal in rich detail. Sickness was a constant companion, as were marauding polar bears — the sheer number of encounters is stunning. Hunger, scurvy, frostbite and misery took their toll. Men died, including Barents. The survivors escaped the following summer, traveling thousands of miles in open boats on Arctic waters since the ice refused to let go of their ship. It’s quite the story.
Barents, Pitzer tells us, mapped “places no European — and perhaps no human — had ever seen.” Prior to his journeys, the Arctic was as alien to Europeans as Jupiter is to us. After his journeys, she writes, the polar regions became “a new frontier in and of themselves, a force to be reckoned with, an obstacle.”
Barents helped kickstart the Age of Exploration. We’re still reckoning with all that led to. But his travels are historically pivotal. They set the stage for centuries of Arctic journeys to come. Pitzer does a fine job of telling us why.