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What can 16th-century sailors teach us about resolve in the time of Covid?

The stories of 16th century Arctic sailors are testimony to how far human endurance can be stretched, says Andrea Pitzer
The stories of 16th century Arctic sailors 
are testimony to how far human endurance can be stretched, says Andrea Pitzer.

Months of polar darkness. Disease slowly eating men from within while predators stalked them in snow and ice.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World tells the story of sailors stranded for the winter more than 400 years ago on Nova Zembla, an archipelago in the frigid sea above what is today Siberia.

With William Barents as navigator, the Dutch sent an expedition north each year from 1594 to 1596. Their mission: discover a northeastern passage over Europe and Asia that could serve as a trade route to China.

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On the first voyage, a scouting run, the sailors saw their first polar bear and imagined they might tame it and carry it back to Amsterdam. It was a short-lived dream. That expedition identified promising routes both north and south of the long, narrow islands of Nova Zembla before the punishing ice made them turn back.

On the second voyage, Dutch patrons outfitted a seven-ship fleet carrying cargo and trade representatives. The expedition followed a route south of Nova Zembla and north of the mainland.

Everything that could go wrong did: crew members devoured by polar bears, collision, drowning, mutiny, and keelhauling – a particularly harsh punishment that involved dragging the offending sailor underneath the boat. Once again, ice blocked their eastward progress, and they turned for home.

“By the time the sailors made it back to the eastern side of the islands, they were off every map in existence.”

With such miserable results, only Amsterdam remained willing to sponsor a third expedition in 1596. Just two ships set out, with instructions to try to sail due north in search of an open polar sea. The idea that somewhere north of all the ice that had already foiled Barents twice there might be a navigable body of water went back at least to ancient Greece. But it was lethally wrong.

After sailing far north of Norway and being the first to record the existence of the island of Spitsbergen, Barents tried to sail even closer to the Pole. But again, any path forward was closed to them as the sea turned solid. Amid disagreements over navigation, the expedition split, with Barents heading back to Nova Zembla.

By the time the sailors made it back to the eastern side of the islands, they were off every map in existence.

The crew saw wonders in the heavens that no one had ever recorded before. As summer began to turn to fall, the crew realised that ice had defeated them once more.

This time, however, when they tried to turn for home, it was too late. “In great cold, poverty, misery and griefe,” they decided that they had no choice but to overwinter on Nova Zembla.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at 
the Edge of the World by 
Andrea Pitzer is out now 
(Simon & Schuster, £20)
1450_books_Icebound
Icebound: Shipwrecked at 
the Edge of the World by 
Andrea Pitzer is out now 
(Simon & Schuster, £20)

The men began to build their cabin, hauling driftwood from up the coastline on sleds to serve as lumber. They moved into their new home before the end of October. During months without the sun, the sailors faced scurvy and relentless attacks by polar bears.

The snow and ice drifted up the walls of the shelter they built then swallowed it altogether, with more than an inch of ice accumulating on the interior walls.

On the first week of the new year they set aside extra provisions to make a Twelfth Night feast, a ghost of the celebration they would have had back home. They had no way of knowing that their ordeal would in only a few years become so legendary that Shakespeare would nod to their suffering on Nova Zembla in his own Twelfth Night.

Barents was not the only memorable figure on these expeditions. Gerrit de Veer, the smallest man aboard, kept the journal and crossed a field of moving icebergs in a heaving, crushing current to save his mates. The captain on the last voyage, Jacob van Heemskerck, fought polar bears one-on-one more than once to protect his men.

No one would come to rescue them. No one even knew where they were. If they were going to get home, they would have to do it on their own.

Researching this book, I went to museums in Amsterdam, Norway, and Russia to see relics that were carried back from Barents’s cabin centuries after his death. I met with historians and went on a replica of the ship from the final voyage, as well as visiting as a full-scale copy of the cabin, which now sits halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. In an attempt to retrace Barents’s expeditions, I went into the Arctic three times myself, just as he had.

Icebound, to me, reveals human endurance beyond imagining. I came to this story in 2008 while researching my first book, and it stayed with me for more than a decade. Despite the challenge of writing about characters from so long ago, I felt their struggle to survive could be understood by anyone. And in our current pandemic, it can be useful to recall that amid so much suffering, it is still possible to carry on.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer is out now (Simon & Schuster, £20)