On the morning of the third day, July 29, they spotted an iceberg at least half a mile long moving through the channel. If the current nudged it sideways, it could close the strait entirely. […] The visible parts of the behemoth blocked their view, filling the sailors with awe as it approached. It pulled alongside them in all its grandeur, then moved on without turning, and passed them by. They began to wonder where else such massive islands of ice could come from but the open sea.
The Arctic is a treacherous and dangerous place at the best of times, and not least for sixteenth-century navigators, to whom it remained a mysterious and exciting expanse. The promise of a northern route to China was a powerful incentive to brave the unknown. Icebound tells the story of a group of Dutch explorers who set out to find the Kingdoms of China and Cathay via a potential passage north-east of Russia. It was a journey through harsh and unforgiving conditions. The freezing and thawing created a sea in constant flux, replete with “islands of ice” that could not be mapped. The ice, driven by hidden currents, would trap and release ships with little forewarning. Ice appeared as canyons that formed weaving, shifting labyrinths through which the sailors found themselves navigating. And it was not just the sea about which the sailors had to worry, for the air around them would also be obscured by deep, dark fog. Yet the Dutch sailors came to learn that “danger could disappear as arbitrarily as it had arisen”. On their third voyage, the sailors, led by now famous William Barents, rounded the northern coast of Nova Zembla, an island north of Russia that separates Barents Sea (named after the protagonist of this story) and the Kara Sea. There they found themselves trapped in the ice. They experienced dangers they never thought possible, fending off both polar bears, who were deeply interested in the sailors’ potential as a new food source, and the searing cold. The sailors were forced to weather a polar night, spending the full winter in near constant darkness and suffering temperatures well below zero until they could return home.
Pitzer makes their peril palpable. She describes in detail the dangers from the seemingly small (when trying to build a shelter, sailors holding nails in their mouth found them frozen to their lips) to the imminently threatening (during their stay on Nova Zembla, they had close calls with several polar bears). Pitzer recalls how they suffered too little Vitamin C (causing scurvy) and consumed a toxic level of Vitamin A (from polar bear liver). At times they had to choose between the unbearable cold and the threat of smoke inhalation from their indoor fire. This story of survival against the odds is told well by Pitzer: the reader feels hope and despair alongside the sailors, and every near-death moment is filled with tension. At times the flow of the narrative is beset by a ‘this happened, then this happened’ style of writing, especially in the first 100 pages which cover the first two of the three journeys. This is necessary background, though it seems that Pitzer is anxious to reach the drama – as is the reader. The emphasis on events means that less time is spent talking about the people on the voyage. This may be because the source material is limited, though more quotes from the journals used would at least have displayed more character – when this is done, especially towards the end of the book, it is effective, and deepens the reader’s understanding of the depths of the explorers’ despair. More maps would also have been welcome, as would more detail on the maps provided – including a scale to give the reader a sense of distance. Despite these minor issues, Pitzer fulfils her role as the conduit through which the story can be told in a way comprehensible to a twenty-first century audience. There are several interesting and very welcome detours that provide extra information on other expeditions which puts the experience of Barents and his crew into context. She explains aspects of the journey and the art of navigation which the reader may not understand well, making this very suitable to a general audience.
This is necessary, because this is a story well worth retelling today. As Pitzer points out towards the end of the book, accessing a northern route from Europe to China, not completed until 1879, is becoming easier with climate change. Indeed, some, who prize economic prosperity over the habitability of the planet, are anticipating with excitement the possibility of commercially viable trade routes via the North Pole. The broader theme of exploration, in this case where the Earth still had mysteries left to uncover, resonates with our own exploration of space; we have our own company of merchants ready to fund exploration in Musk, Bezos and Branson. Finally, as we sit in our homes in the age of covid, venturing out only for necessities, it can feel easy to relate to those Dutch sailors confined to their log cabin (though I would much rather be confined to my – much more comfortable, and much more hospitable – brick house). The reflections of Gerrit de Veer, whose journal forms the basis for this story, that “we entered into ye yeare of our Lord God 1597, ye beginning whereof was in ye same maner as ye end of anno 1596 had been” felt all too familiar this January. Yet just as these sailors could look forward to the spring, and with it the thawing ice, so too can we look forward to escaping our own misfortunes. Just like the Dutch sailors stranded on Nova Zembla, we must not lose hope.
Andrea Pitzer, Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World (London: Simon & Schuster, 2021), pp. 320.