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.

Among The Ice Floes An Account Of The Whale Fishery With Anecdotes Of The Dangers Attending It facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail