Sea Stories

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 water. 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 chambers. 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 bone. 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 narrative. 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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