Willem Barentsz
Late 19th-century portrait based on an early 17th-century miniature engraving
Bornc. 1550
Died20 June 1597(1597-06-20) (aged 46–47)
at sea in the Arctic region
Known forExploration of the Arctic

Willem Barentsz (Dutch pronunciation: [ˈʋɪləm ˈbaːrənts]; c. 1550 – 20 June 1597), anglicized as William Barents or Barentz, was a Dutch navigator, cartographer, and Arctic explorer.

Barentsz went on three expeditions to the far north in search for a Northeast passage. He reached as far as Novaya Zemlya and the Kara Sea in his first two voyages, but was turned back on both occasions by ice. During a third expedition, the crew discovered Spitsbergen and Bear Island, but subsequently became stranded on Novaya Zemlya for almost a year. Barentsz died on the return voyage in 1597.

The Barents Sea, among many other places, is named after him.[1]

Life and career

Willem Barentsz was born around 1550 in the village Formerum on the island Terschelling in the Seventeen Provinces, present-day Netherlands.[2] Barentsz was not his surname but rather his patronymic name, short for Barentszoon "Barent's son".[3]

A cartographer by trade, Barentsz sailed to Spain and the Mediterranean to complete an atlas of the Mediterranean region, which he co-published with Petrus Plancius.[2]

His career as an explorer was spent searching for a Northeast passage in order to trade with China.[1] He reasoned clear, open water north of Siberia must exist since the sun shone 24 hours a day melting Arctic sea ice, indeed he thought the further north one went the less ice there would be.[1][4]

First voyage

Map of Willem Barentsz' first voyage

On 5 June 1594, Barentsz left the island of Texel[2] aboard the small[5] ship Mercury,[6] as part of a group of three ships sent out in separate directions to try to enter the Kara Sea, with the hopes of finding the Northeast Passage above Siberia. Between 23 and 29 June, Barentsz stayed at Kildin Island.

On 9 July,[7] the crew encountered a polar bear for the first time. After shooting and wounding it with a musket when it tried to climb aboard the ship, the seamen decided to capture it with the hope of bringing it back to Holland. Once leashed and brought aboard the ship however, the bear rampaged and had to be killed. This occurred in Bear Creek, Williams Island.

Upon discovering the Orange Islands, the crew came across a herd of approximately 200 walruses and tried to kill them with hatchets and pikes. Finding the task more difficult than they imagined, cold steel shattering against the tough hides of the animals, they left with only a few ivory tusks.[1][8]

Barentsz reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, and followed it northward before being forced to turn back in the face of large icebergs. Although they did not reach their ultimate goal, the trip was considered a success.[2]

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was a member of this expedition and the second.

Second voyage

Barentz flagship Gulden Windthunde nearly collided with that of the Vice Admiral on the second voyage 6 August 1595
Crew of Willem Barentsz fighting a polar bear

The following year, Prince Maurice of Orange was filled with "the most exaggerated hopes"[9] on hearing of Barentsz' previous voyage, and named him chief pilot and conductor of a new expedition, which was accompanied by six ships loaded with merchant wares that the Dutch hoped to trade with China.[10]

Setting out on 2 June 1595,[9] the voyage went between the Siberian coast and Vaygach Island. On 30 August, the party came across approximately 20 Samoyed "wild men" with whom they were able to speak, due to a crewmember speaking their language.[8] 4 September saw a small crew sent to States Island to search for a type of crystal that had been noticed earlier. The party was attacked by a polar bear, and two sailors were killed.[11]

Eventually, the expedition turned back upon discovering that unexpected weather had left the Kara Sea frozen.[12] This expedition was largely considered to be a failure.[13]

Third voyage

Map of the entire arctic from Willem Barentsz's third voyage
The tracks of the Dutch navigators (1596–97)

In 1596, disappointed by the failure of previous expeditions, the States-General announced they would no longer subsidize similar voyages – but instead offered a high reward for anybody who successfully navigated the Northeast Passage.[9] The Town Council of Amsterdam purchased and outfitted two small ships, captained by Jan Rijp and Jacob van Heemskerk, to search for the elusive channel under the command of Barentsz. They set off on 10 May or 15 May, and on 9 June discovered Bear Island.[8]

They discovered Spitsbergen on 17 June, sighting its northwest coast. On 20 June they saw the entrance of a large bay, later called Raudfjorden. On 21 June they anchored between Cloven Cliff and Vogelsang, where they "set up a post with the arms of the Dutch upon it." On 25 June they entered Magdalenefjorden, which they named Tusk Bay, in light of the walrus tusks they found there. The following day, 26 June, they sailed into the northern entrance of Forlandsundet, but were forced to turn back because of a shoal, which led them to call the fjord Keerwyck ("inlet where one is forced to turn back"). On 28 June they rounded the northern point of Prins Karls Forland, which they named Vogelhoek, on account of the large number of birds they saw there. They sailed south, passing Isfjorden and Bellsund, which were labelled on Barentsz's chart as Grooten Inwyck and Inwyck.

Willem Barentsz's ship amidst the Arctic ice

The ships once again found themselves at Bear Island on 1 July, which led to a disagreement between Barentsz and Van Heemskerk on one side and Rijp on the other. They agreed to part ways, with Barentsz continuing northeast, while Rijp headed due north in an attempt to cross directly over the north pole to reach China.[1][14] Barentsz reached Novaya Zemlya on 17 July. Anxious to avoid becoming entrapped in the surrounding ice, he intended to head for the Vaigatch Strait, but their ship became stuck within the many icebergs and floes.[9] Stranded, the 16-man crew was forced to spend the winter on a barren bluff.[7] After a failed attempt to melt the permafrost, the crew used driftwood and lumber from the ship to build a 7.8×5.5-metre lodge they called Het Behouden Huys (The Saved House).[4]

Het Behouden Huys on Novaya Zemlya

Dealing with extreme cold, the crew realised that their socks would burn before their feet could even feel the warmth of a fire – and took to sleeping with warmed stones and cannonballs. They used the merchant fabrics aboard the ship to make additional blankets and clothing.[8] The ship bore salted beef, butter, cheese, bread, barley, peas, beans, groats, flour, oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, beer, wine, brandy, hardtack, smoked bacon, ham and fish. Much of the beer froze, bursting the casks. By 8 November Gerrit de Veer, the ship's carpenter who kept a diary, reported a shortage of beer and bread, with wine being rationed four days later.[8]

In January 1597, the crew became the first to witness and record the atmospheric anomaly now coined the Novaya Zemlya effect, due to this sighting.[15]

The Death of Willem Barentsz (1836) by Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman

Proving somewhat successful at hunting, the group caught Arctic foxes in primitive traps.[4] The raw flesh of the Arctic fox contains small amounts of vitamin C, which, unknown to the sailors, reduced the effects of scurvy.[1] The crew were continually attacked by polar bears that infested the area where they camped.[1] The bears turned the stranded and now empty ship into a wintertime abode. Primitive guns usually did not kill the bears on first or even second shot (unless well aimed at the heart) and were difficult to aim, while the cold and brittle metal weapons often shattered or bent.[1]

By June, the ice had still not loosened its grip on the ship, and the remaining desperate scurvy-ridden survivors took two open boats. Barentsz died at sea soon after on 20 June 1597. It is not known whether Barentsz was buried on the northern island of Novaya Zemlya, or at sea.[16] It took seven more weeks for the boats to reach the Kola Peninsula, where they were rescued by a Dutch merchant vessel commanded by former fellow explorer Jan Rijp who by that time had returned to the Netherlands and was on a second voyage, assuming the Barentsz crew to be lost, and found it by accident.[1] By that time, only 12 crewmen remained. They did not reach Amsterdam until 1 November.[17] Sources differ on whether two men died on the ice floe and three in the boats,[4] or three on the ice floe and two in the boats.[9] The young cabin boy had died during the winter months in the shelter.[7]

Excavation and findings

The remains of the wooden lodge of Willem Barentsz on Novaya Zemlya, sketched by Elling Carlsen in 1871

The wooden lodge where Barentsz' crew sheltered was found undisturbed by Norwegian seal hunter Elling Carlsen in 1871. Making a sketch of the lodge's construction, Carlsen recorded finding two copper cooking pots, a barrel, a tool chest, clock, crowbar, flute, clothing, two empty chests, a cooking tripod and a number of pictures.[18] Captain Gunderson landed at the site on 17 August 1875 and collected a grappling iron, two maps and a handwritten translation of Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman's voyages. The following year, Charles L.W. Gardiner also visited the site on 29 July where he collected 112 more objects, including the message by Barentsz and Heemskerck describing their settlement to future visitors. All of these objects eventually ended up in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam,[14][19] after some had initially been held in The Hague.[20]

Objects found in Het Behouden Huys

The amateur archaeologist Miloradovich's 1933 finds are held in the Arctic and Antarctic Museum in St. Petersburg. Dmitriy Kravchenko visited the site in 1977, 1979 and 1980 – and sent divers into the sea hoping to find the wreck of the large ship. He returned with a number of objects, which went to the Arkhangelsk Regional Museum of Local Lore (Russia). Another small collection exists at the Polar Museum in Tromsø (Norway).[14]

In 1992, an expedition of three scientists, a journalist and two photographers commissioned by the Arctic Centre at the University of Groningen, coupled with two scientists, a cook and a doctor sent by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg, returned to the site,[14] and erected a commemorative marker at the site of the cabin.[21]

The location of Barentsz' wintering on the ice floes has become a tourist destination for icebreaker cruiseships operating from Murmansk.[4][22]


Memorial to Barentsz in Vardø, Norway.

Two of Barentsz' crewmembers later published their journals, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten who had accompanied him on the first two voyages, and Gerrit de Veer who had acted as the ship's carpenter on the last two voyages.

In 1853, the former Murmean Sea was renamed Barents Sea in his honour.[23][24] Barentsburg, the second largest settlement on Svalbard, Barentsøya (Barents Island) and the Barents Region were also named after Barentsz.

In the late 19th century, the Maritime Institute Willem Barentsz was opened on Terschelling.[25]

In 1878, the Netherlands christened the Willem Barentsz Arctic exploration ship.[26]

In 1931, Nijgh & Van Ditmar published a play written by Albert Helman about Barentsz' third voyage, although it was never performed.

In 1946, the whaling ship Pan Gothia was re-christened the Willem Barentsz. In 1953, the second Willem Barentsz whaling ship was produced.[27]

A protein in the molecular structure of the fruit fly was named Barentsz, in honour of the explorer.[28]

Dutch filmmaker Reinout Oerlemans released a film called Nova Zembla in November 2011. It is the first Dutch 3D feature film.

In 2011, a team of volunteers started building a replica of Barentsz' ship in the Dutch town of Harlingen. The plan was to have the ship ready by 2018, when the Tall Ships' Races was scheduled to visit Harlingen.[29]


This article cites its sources but does not provide page references. You can help providing page numbers for existing citations. (June 2021) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Andrea Pitzer (2021). Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-9821-1334-6.
  2. ^ a b c d "Historic expedition led by Willem Barentsz nears 400th anniversary". Retrieved 8 December 2007.
  3. ^ De Veer, Gerrit (17 July 2017). "A True Description of Three Voyages by the North-east Towards Cathay and China: Undertaken by the Dutch in the Years 1594, 1595 and 1596". Hakluyt Society. Retrieved 17 July 2017 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b c d e "God and the Arctic survivor". New Scientist. April 1993.
  5. ^ Alexander, Philip Frederick. The North-west and North-east passages, 1915.
  6. ^ Mirsky, Jeannette. "To the Arctic!: The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times", 1997.
  7. ^ a b c Synge, J.B. (c. 1912). A Book of Discovery.
  8. ^ a b c d e De Veer, Gerrit. "The Three Voyages of William Barentsz to the Arctic Regions" (English trans. 1609).
  9. ^ a b c d e De Peyster, John Watts. The Dutch at the North pole and the Dutch in Maine. 3 March 1857.
  10. ^ "The Northern Lights Route – Willem Barentsz". www.ub.uit.no. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  11. ^ Beechey, F.W. "A Voyage Of Discovery Towards The North Pole, In The Majesty's Ships", 1843.
  12. ^ Van Der Werf, Siebren Y. (November 1997). "Astronomical Observations During Willem Barents's Third Voyage to the North" (PDF). Arctic. 51 (2). doi:10.14430/arctic1055.
  13. ^ Scoresby, William. "An Account of the Arctic Regions", 1820.
  14. ^ a b c d Hacquebord, Louwrens (September 1995). "In search of Het Behouden Huys: a survey of the remains of the house of Willem Barentsz on Novaya Zemlya" (PDF). Arctic. 48 (3). CiteSeerX doi:10.14430/arctic1246.
  15. ^ "Homage to Gerrit de Veer". Retrieved 7 December 2007.
  16. ^ "Search for Barents: Evaluation of Possible Burial Sites on North Novaya Zemlya, Russia", Jaapjan J. Zeeberg et al., Arctic Vol. 55, No. 4 (December 2002) pp. 329–338
  17. ^ Goorich, Frank Boott. "Man Upon the Sea", 1858.
  18. ^ De Jonge, J.K.J. "Nova Zembla: De voorwerpen door de Nederlandsche Zeevaarders na hunne overwintering aldaar in 1597 achtergelaten en in 1871 door Kapitein Carlsen teruggevonden, beschreven en toegelicht.", 1872.
  19. ^ Braat, J. (December 1984). "Dutch Activities in the North and the Arctic during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" (PDF). Arctic. 37 (4). doi:10.14430/arctic2229.
  20. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Barents, Willem" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  21. ^ "Nordic Travel". Archived from the original on 29 August 2007. Retrieved 29 August 2007.
  22. ^ "Quark Expeditions". Archived from the original on 15 October 2008. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  23. ^ "Barentsz Sea." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 5 December 2007
  24. ^ C. Michael Hogan and Steve Baum. 2010. Barents Sea. Eds. P. Saundry & C. Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC
  25. ^ "MIWB – NHL Hogeschool. Vergroot je perspectief". www.miwb.nl. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  26. ^ Bruijne, Antonius de; Balje, Bastiaan Gerardus (1985). De eerste tocht van de Willem Barentsz naar de Noordelijke IJszee 1878.
  27. ^ Boot, W.J.J. (1987). De Nederlandsche Maatschappij voor de Walvischvaart. Amsterdam: Bataafsche Leeuw. ISBN 978-90-6707-129-1.
  28. ^ Van Eeden, F.J.M.; Palacios, I.M.; Petronczki, M.; Weston, M.J.D.; St. Johnston, D. (2001). Barentsz is essential for the posterior localization of oskar mRNA and colocalizes with it to the posterior pole.
  29. ^ (in Dutch) Website of the Stichting Expeditieschip Willem Barentsz

Further reading