Vitus Jonassen Bering

August 5, 2019

Vitus Jonassen Bering, Danish cartographer, naval officer with the Russian Imperial Navy, and explorer, was baptised 5 August, 1681, having been born in Horsens, Denmark. The straits that separate the continents of Asia and North America are named in his honour.
Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev sailed, in 1648, from the Kolyma River on the Arctic Ocean to the Anadyr River on the Pacific, making him the first European to sail through the Bering Strait. However, his achievements were forgotten after his report was lost in a government archive. Bering is usually credited with the discovery.
After his young years with Danish maritime ventures, Bering joined the Russian navy in 1704. The reign of Tsar (later Emperor) Peter the Great was a period of great change in Russia as he expanded territorially through a series of military campaigns, led a cultural revolution and, most significantly here, grew the navy.

Engraving print of Peter I by Jacob Houbraken (British Museum).

At the time it was unknown whether the continents of Asia and North America were connected by land or separated by sea. Peter of Russia commissioned an expedition under Bering to solve this by sailing up the coast of furthest Siberia until North America was reached.
After the long, treacherous, overland trek to the Kamchatka Peninsula, the expedition set sail in the ship ‘St Gabriel’. Though the expedition did not sight the American continent, it sailed through waters separating the continents and did not observe any land bridges. Though Bering was content that he had fulfilled the purpose of the expedition, he found different feelings upon his return to St Petersburg.
The Great Northern Expedition, an immense project of voyaging and exploration, was planned and Bering was appointed as its leader. In 1741 the expedition’s two ships, ‘St. Peter’ under Commander Bering and ‘St. Paul’ under Lieutenant Aleksey Chirikov, embarked from Kamchatka.
Early on, the two ships were separated by a storm and thick fog. The ‘St Paul’ sighted the American continent and even sent a small party ashore to investigate. These men did not return and Chirikov decided it too dangerous to send another party. The ship returned to Russia without making contact with Bering.

A coloured woodcut of a nineteenth-century illustration shows both the expedition’s ships in storms—the ships were, in reality, separated and had lost contact with each other. AKG/Album via National Geographic.

The crew of the ‘St Peter’ sighted the St. Elias Mountains and were the first Europeans to set foot on Alaska although only for a very brief time. With winter coming and scurvy symptoms beginning, Bering decided to return. However, after a near fatal encounter with a storm, the ‘St Peter’ manage to anchor on an island now named Bering Island. The ship was further damaged and the crew had to overwinter on the island. It was here, in December, 1741, that Bering died of scurvy.
After a failed rescue attempt by Chirikov, the ‘St Peter’ survivors built a boat on the island and they finally made it back to the Kamchatka Peninsula in September, 1742.

Thomas Jefferys, The Russian Discoveries, from the Map Published by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg.

For a musical interlude, have a listen to ‘Bering Strait’ by Bearing Straight: 
Wikipedia entries: First Kamchatka expedition, Kamchatka Peninsula, Peter the Great, Semyon Dezhnev, St Lawrence Island.
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