Bering: The Russian Discovery of America
An imperial mission
A review by Lindsey Hughes
On July 20, 1741, the Russian ship St Peter, captained by the Dane Vitus Janssen
Bering, dropped anchor off Wingham Island in the Gulf of Alaska, an event that
inaugurated "a new era of exploration and colonization, the beginning of
the history of a huge territory to be called, however presumptuously, Russian
America". Five months later, sixty-year-old Bering was dead, more from the
effects of "hunger, cold, thirst, vermin, and grief", in his physician's
view, than from the scurvy that wiped out a large number of his men on the homeward
voyage. As Bering wrote not long before his death: "I have been in the (Russian)
service for 37 years and have not reached the point where I can have a home in
one place for myself and my family. I live like a nomad".
This fascinating book by a leading authority, seventeen years in the making,
focuses on Bering's two missions for the Imperial Russian government, the First
(1725-30) and Second (1733-43) Kamchatka Expeditions. On the first it took three
years to cover the 6,000 miles from St Petersburg to the North Pacific, after
which a ship had to be built and launched into uncharted waters. "Search
for a place where that land might be joined to America", Tsar Peter I had
instructed Bering. At one point his men were probably within sight of America,
but Bering turned back (rightly, according to Orcutt Frost's calculations) to
avoid becoming ice-bound in that high latitude. The Second Kamchatka Expedition
was a massive effort involving several thousand individuals overall. Scientific
observations were entrusted to such "troublesome" academicians as
Gerhard Friedrich Muller and Johann Georg Gmelin, who together with other gentlemen
of the party were greatly vexed by Russia's wild Siberian frontier, with its
rough fur trappers and traders, given to ungodly drinking. Bering's German wife,
Anna Christina Pulse, dressed in fine silks and equipped with a clavichord and
silver tea service, endured seven years in Yakutsk and Okhotsk before returning
to St Petersburg with her two youngest children.
The dramatic climax to the expedition began in early June 1741, when the St
Peter and St Paul set sail from Avacha Bay, Kamchatka. Aboard St Peter was the
physician and botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, whose reports and journal form
the core of the narrative. The St Paul, captained by Aleksei Chirikov, reached
America (Baker Island) on July 15. Bering, now on a separate course, sighted
Wingham and Kayak Islands on the following day. "So we have come only to
carry American water to Asia", exclaimed Steller, when ordered to land
for just as long as was needed to collect fresh water, one of many occasions
when his curiosity clashed with Bering's caution. Steller's remarkable account
of his ten hours on land provides some of the most gripping passages in Frost's
The journey home was a nightmare of scurvy (then poorly understood) and storms.
Eventually Bering's ship lost 41 per cent of its men. When the St Paul regained
Avacha Bay in September 1741, the St Peter was still an estimated 1,071 nautical
miles away. In November 1741 sixty-six survivors landed not at Kamchatka, but
on what is now Bering Island. Here Steller emerges as a sort of hero, acting
as "pastor, cook, nurse and cheerleader".
The last chapters provide a fascinating account of successful survival techniques,
as the men construct a camp, build a new ship out of the remains of the wrecked
St Peter and stay alive on a varied diet of sea otter and sea cow (meat and
milk), fox, whale, fresh salmon and antiscorbutic soups, helped down with their
remaining flour fried in blubber and crake-berry tea. Forty-six men made it
back to Kamchatka in late August 1742, to find that they had been given up for
dead and their possessions sold.
Orcutt Frost is not an authority on Russian domestic history Peter I became
co-ruler in 1682 not 1698, and Yavorsky was never Patriarch of Russia, to cite
just a couple of the errors detected but by setting Bering's missions in
their wider context he illuminates Russia's rise as a major power. Peter I died
before Bering even set out on the first expedition, but the whole enterprise
was born of Peter's desire to chart and map his territories and impose his imperial
stamp on the vast spaces and unexplored regions that he ruled. The first mission's
most concrete achievement was, in fact, a new map of Siberia from Tobolsk to
Kamchatka. As for Bering himself, Frost does his best to bring him to life.
Anna, too, is revealed in letters sent from Okhotsk to St Petersburg in 1740.
She possessed, it seems, "a pleasing woman's touch in acknowledging and
promoting friendship" and in furthering the career prospects of their elder
sons, Jonas and Thomas. The book ends with thoughts of Bering and Anna, who
learned that she was a widow only in September 1743, but for all Orcutt Frost's
efforts, it is Steller and his soups, and St Peter and St Paul on the icy seas
that remain in the memory.
Hughes is Professor of Russian History at UCL. Her biography of Peter
the Great appeared in 2002.