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Ancient Ships And Navigators
An Account Of Four Russian Sailors Abandoned On The Island Of East Spitzbergen
In the year 1743, a merchant of Mesen, in Russia, fitted out a vessel
for the Greenland whale-fishery. She carried fourteen men, and was
destined for Spitzbergen. For eight successive days after their
sailing the wind was fair, but on the ninth it changed; so that
instead of getting to the coast of Spitzbergen, the usual rendezvous
of the Dutch ships, they were driven eastward, and after some days
elapsed they found themselves near an island, called by the Russians
Little Broun. Approaching within three versts, or two English miles of
this island, the vessel was suddenly surrounded by ice and the crew
were reduced to an extremely dangerous situation.
In this alarming state, a council was held when the mate, Alexis
Himkof, informed his comrades that some of the people of Mesen
formerly intended wintering on this island, and for that purpose had
carried timber hither, fit for building a hut, and actually erected
one at some distance from the shore.
The whole crew, therefore, concluded to winter there, if the hut, as
they hoped, still existed, because they were exposed to imminent
danger by remaining in the ship, and they would infallibly perish if
they did so. Four of the crew were on that account, dispatched in
search of it, or any other assistance they might meet with.
The names of these four were, Alexis Himkof, Iwan Himkof, Stephen
Scharapof and Feoder Weregin. Two miles of ice intervened between them
and the shore, which being loose and driven together by the wind,
rendered their approach difficult and dangerous. Providing themselves
with a musket, a powder-horn containing twelve charges of powder, with
as many balls, an axe, a kettle, about twenty pounds of flour, a
knife, a tinder-box, some tobacco and each his wooden pipe, they soon
arrived on the island.
Their first employment was exploring the country, when they discovered
the hut alluded to, about a mile and a half from the shore. It was
thirty-six feet long, eighteen broad and eighteen high; and consisted
of two chambers. Rejoicing greatly at their success, they passed the
night in it; though having been built a considerable time, it had
suffered much from the weather.
Next morning the four men hastened to the shore, impatient to
communicate their good fortune to their comrades; likewise designing
to get such stores, ammunition and necessaries from the vessel, as to
enable them to winter on the island. But the reader may conceive their
sorrow and astonishment, when on reaching the place where they had
landed nothing was to be seen but an open sea, instead of the ice
which only the day preceding had covered it. Doubtless a violent
storm, which arose during the night, had operated the change. It was
not known, however, whether the vessel had been beat to pieces by the
ice, or whether she had been carried by the current to the ocean; not
an uncommon event in Greenland. Whatever accident befel her, certain
it is they saw her no more; whence it is probable that she sunk, and
that all on board perished.
This unfortunate occurrence deprived them of the hope of ever being
able to quit the island, and full of horror and despair, they returned
to the hut. But their first attention was directed to the means of
providing subsistence, and repairing their habitation. The twelve
charges of powder procured them as many rein-deer, for the island,
fortunately for them abounded with these animals.
Though there were many crevices in the building, the wood of the hut
was still sound and unimpaired, therefore the deficiency was supplied
and done the more easily, because the lower class of Russians are
expert carpenters. Here they had plenty of moss to assist them.
The intense cold of the climate prevents the growth of vegetables, and
no species of tree or shrub is found on the islands of Spitzbergen.
The Russians, however, collected a quantity of wood on the shore,
which at first consisted of the wrecks of vessels, and afterwards of
whole trees with their roots, the produce of some more hospitable
climate, though unknown. Fortunately they found several bits of old
iron, some nails, five or six inches long, and an iron hook, on a few
wooden boards washed in by the sea. They likewise found the root of a
fir tree, bent and nearly fashioned into the shape of a bow.
By the help of a knife, a bow was soon formed but wanting a string and
arrows. Unable at present to procure either, they resolved to make
two lances to defend themselves against the white bears. The iron hook
was therefore fashioned into a hammer, by widening a hole which it
happened to have about the middle, with one of the largest nails. A
large pebble served for an anvil, and a couple of rein-deer horns
served for the tongs.
By means of such tools, two spear heads were made, which were tied
fast with thongs to sticks about the thickness of a man's arm. Thus
equipped, the Russians ventured to attack a white bear, and, after a
most dangerous encounter, succeeded in killing it. This was a new
supply of provisions; they relished the flesh exceedingly, and easily
divided the tendons into filaments, which, besides other uses, served
for strings to their bow.
The Russians, in the next place, proceeded to forge some bits of iron
into smaller pieces, resembling the head of spears; and these were
fitted to arrows, by fastening them to fir rods.
They had thus a complete bow and arrows, and were more easily enabled
to obtain food.
With these, during their abode on the island, they killed no less than
two hundred and fifty rein-deer, and a great number of blue and white
foxes. They fed on the flesh of the animals and used their skins for
clothing. They killed only ten white bears during their residence, and
that at the utmost hazard, for these creatures are amazingly strong,
and defended themselves with surprising vigour and fury. The first was
attacked intentionally; the other nine were killed in self-defence,
for the animals even ventured to enter the outer room of the hut to
devour them. Some, less ferocious than others, were repulsed on the
first attempt, but a repetition of their attacks exposed the sailors
to the continual apprehension of being destroyed.
As they could not afford wood for a constant fire, they dried a
portion of their provision in the open air, and afterwards hung it up
in the hut, which was always full of smoke. Prepared in this way, they
used it for bread, because they were under the necessity of eating
their other flesh half raw.
Unfortunately, one of the Russians was attacked by the scurvy. Iwan
Himkof, who had wintered several times on the coast of West
Spitzbergen, advised his companions to swallow raw and frozen meat in
small pieces; to drink the blood of the rein-deer, as it flowed warm
from the veins of the animal, and to eat scurvy-grass, although it was
not very abundant. Those who followed his injunctions found an
effectual antidote, but Feoder Weregin, being naturally of an indolent
disposition, averse to drinking the rein-deer blood, and, unwilling to
leave the hut when he could possibly avoid it, was soon seized with
the scurvy. Under this afflicting distemper he passed nearly six
years, enduring the greatest sufferings. At length he became so weak
that he could not sit erect, nor even raise his hand to his mouth, so
that his humane companions were obliged to attend on, and feed him
like a new born infant, until the hour of his death.
In the course of their excursions through the island, the seamen had
met with a slimy loam, or kind of clay, of which they contrived to
make a lamp, and proposed to keep it constantly burning with the fat
of the animals they should kill.--Thus they filled it with rein-deer's
fat, and stuck a bit of twisted linen for a wick. But, to their
mortification, always as the fat melted, it not only was absorbed by
the clay, but fairly run through it on all sides. On this account they
formed another lamp, which they dried thoroughly in the air, and
heated red hot. It was next quenched in their kettle, wherein they had
boiled a quantity of flour down to the consistence of thin starch.
When filled with melted fat, they found to their great joy that it did
not leak. Encouraged by this attempt, they made another, that, at all
events, they might not be destitute of light, and saved the remainder
of their flour for similar purposes. Oakum thrown ashore, as also
cordage found among the wrecks of vessels, served for wicks; and when
these resources failed, they converted their shirts and drawers to the
same purpose. By such means they kept a lamp burning from soon after
their arrival on the island, until the day of their embarkation for
their native country.
Clothes, in so rigorous a climate, next became an object of necessity.
The uses to which they had applied what they had brought with them
exposed them still more to its severity. The skins of rein-deer and
foxes had hitherto served for bedding. It was essential to devise some
method of tanning them, the better to withstand the weather. This was
accomplished, in a certain degree, by soaking the skins in water until
the hair could be rubbed off, and then putting rein-deer fat upon
them. The leather, by such a process, became soft and pliant. The want
of awls and needles was supplied by bits of iron occasionally
collected; of them they made a kind of wire, which, being heated red
hot, was pierced with a knife, ground to a sharp point, which formed
the eye of a needle.--The sinews of bears and rein-deer, split into
threads, served for sewing the pieces of leather together, which
enabled the Russians to procure jackets and trowsers for summer dress,
and a long fur gown with a hood for their winter apparel.
The wants of these unfortunate persons being thus provided for, the
only reflections disturbing them were regret for those left behind at
home, or the apprehensions of some one of them surviving all his
companions, and then either famishing for want of food, or becoming a
prey to wild beasts. The mate, Alexis Himkof, had a wife and three
children, who were constantly in his mind, and he was unhappy from the
dread of never seeing them more.
Excepting white bears, foxes and rein-deer, with which the island
abounds, no other animals inhabit it. A few birds are seen in summer,
such as geese, ducks and other water-fowl. Whales seldom approach the
shore; but there are great numbers of seals; other fish are scarce,
and indeed their being in plenty would little avail the Russians, who
were unprovided with the means of taking them. Sometimes they found
the teeth and jaws of seals on the shore, but never an entire carcase;
for when these animals die on land, the white bears immediately eat
them. The common food of this ferocious creature, however, is the
flesh of dead whales, which are frequently seen floating about in the
polar regions, and are sometimes cast on shore. When this provision
fails, they fall upon seals, devouring them and other animals sleeping
on the beach.
The island had many mountains and steep rocks of stupendous height,
perpetually covered with snow and ice; not a tree nor even the poorest
shrub was to be met with; neither is there any vegetable but
scurvy-grass, although plenty of moss grows in every part. The
Russians found no river; however, there were many small rivulets
rising among the rocks and mountains, which afforded a quantity of
They saw the sun moving for months together round the horizon during
summer, and in winter they were an equal length of time in total
darkness; but the Aurora Borealis, which was then frequent,
contributed to lessen the gloominess of so long a night. Thick cloudy
weather, great quantities of snow, and almost incessant rain at
certain seasons, often obscured the stars. The snow totally covered
the hut in winter, and left them no way of getting out of it,
excepting by a hole which they had made in the roof of one of the
When the unfortunate mariners had passed nearly six years in this
dismal abode, Feoder Weregin, who had all along been in a languid
state, died, after suffering the most excruciating pains. Though his
companions were thus freed of the trouble of attending on him, and the
grief of witnessing his misery, they were deeply affected by his
death. They saw their number lessened, and each wished to be the next
to follow him. Having died in winter, a grave as deep as possible was
dug in the snow to receive his corpse, and the survivors then covered
it over to the best of their power, to prevent the white bears from
getting at it.
While the melancholy reflections excited by Weregin's death were still
fresh in the minds of his comrades, and while each expected to pay the
like duties to the companions of his misfortunes that they had done to
him, or to be himself the first to receive them, a Russian vessel
unexpectedly came in view on the 15th of August 1749.
This vessel belonged to a trader who had come to Archangel, and
intended to winter in Nova Zembla; but fortunately it was proposed to
him to winter at West Spitzbergen, to which, after many objections, he
assented. Contrary winds on the passage prevented the ship from
reaching the place of her destination, and drove her towards East
Spitzbergen, directly opposite to the residence of the mariners. As
soon as they perceived her, they hastened to light fires on the
nearest hills, and then ran to the beach waving a flag made of a
rein-deer's skin fastened to a pole. The people on board observing
these signals, concluded there were men ashore imploring their
assistance, and therefore came to an anchor near the island.
To describe the joy of the unfortunate mariners at seeing the moment
of their deliverance so near, is impossible.--They soon agreed with
the master of the vessel to take them and all their riches on board,
for which they should work during the voyage, and pay him eighty
rubles on arriving in Russia. Therefore they embarked, carrying with
them two thousand weight of rein-deer fat, many hides of the same
animals, the skins of the blue and white foxes and bears they had
killed. Neither did they neglect to carry away their spears, their
knife and axe, which were almost worn out, or their awls and needles,
which were carefully preserved in a box, very ingeniously made of
After spending six years and three months in this rueful solitude,
they arrived safe at Archangel on the 25th of September, 1749. But the
moment of landing was nearly fatal to the affectionate wife of Alexis
Himkof, who happened to be present when the vessel came into port.
Immediately recognizing her husband, she ran with such eagerness to
embrace him, that she slipped into the water, and very narrowly
escaped being drowned.
All the three survivors were strong and healthy; having lived so long
without bread, they could not be reconciled to the use of it; neither
could they bear spirituous liquors, and drank nothing but water.
As they were vassals of Count Schuwalow, who then had a grant of the
whale fishery, M. Le Roy requested of him that they might be sent from
Archangel to St. Petersburgh, where he could satisfy himself
respecting their adventures.--Accordingly two of them arrived, Alexis
Himkof, aged about fifty and Iwan Himkof about thirty. They brought
some curious specimens of their workmanship, so neatly executed, that
it was doubtful with what tools it could have been done. From their
account, both to M. Klingstadt, auditor of the Admiralty at Archangel,
and what they now communicated, M. Le Roy composed the preceding
For centuries past Spitzbergen has been greatly resorted to on account
of the profitable whale-fishery of the surrounding seas, and several
shipwrecks, as well as incidents similar to the preceding, have
occurred there, and in the vicinity.--Spitzbergen is a bleak and
barren country, and received its name from the lofty pointed mountains
by which it is covered; perpetual snow prevails, few plants spring
from the soil, and it is destitute of wood. But to compensate in some
measure for the scanty productions of nature by land, its seas,
abundantly stored with fish, can afford a copious supply both of food
and clothing to mankind.
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