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Island of the Blue Foxes
Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition
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The immense 18th-century scientific journey, variously known as the Second Kamchatka Expedition or the Great Northern Expedition, from St. Petersburg across Siberia to the coast of North America, involved over 3,000 people and cost Peter the Great over one-sixth of his empire’s annual revenue. Until now recorded only in academic works, this 10-year venture, led by the legendary Danish captain Vitus Bering and including scientists, artists, mariners, soldiers, and laborers, discovered Alaska, opened the Pacific fur trade, and led to fame, shipwreck, and “one of the most tragic and ghastly trials of suffering in the annals of maritime and arctic history.
1580s Russian Cossacks begin the conquest of Siberia.
1587 Founding of Tobolsk.
1632 Founding of Yakutsk.
1648 Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnev first navigates the Bering Strait.
1689 Peter the Great becomes co-czar of Russia with Ivan, his disabled stepbrother. Under the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia is denied access to the Pacific Ocean along the Amur River.
1696 Vitus Bering first goes to sea as a ship’s boy on a voyage to India.
1703 Founding of St. Petersburg.
1724 Vitus Bering is promoted to be commander of the First Kamchatka Expedition.
1725 Death of Peter the Great. He is succeeded by his wife, Catherine I, who continues to carry out his policies and priorities, including the plan to explore Siberia.
1727 Catherine I dies, and Peter II becomes emperor. Bering sails the Archangel Gabriel north along the Pacific coast of Kamchatka.
1729 Death of Peter II, succeeded by Peter the Great’s niece Empress Anna Ivanovna, who continues his vision of imperial exploration.
1730 First Kamchatka Expedition returns to St. Petersburg. Bering forwards plans for a second expedition.
1732 Empress Anna Ivanovna approves plans for a second expedition to be led by Vitus Bering.
1733 April Contingents of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, also known as the Great Northern Expedition, depart St. Petersburg.
1734 October Vitus Bering arrives in Yakutsk, headquarters for the expedition.
1737 Fall Advance parties of the expedition arrive in Okhotsk.
1738–1739 Martin Spangberg sails to northern Japan in three ships.
1740 June The St. Peter and St. Paul are completed at Okhotsk and sail around Kamchatka to Avacha Bay. Georg Steller arrives at Okhotsk. Anna Bering and the wives and families of the expedition officers return west to St. Petersburg.
October 28 Empress Anna Ivanovna dies.
1741 May 4 Sea council of officers decides to sail southeast in search of Gama Land.
June 4 The St. Peter and St. Paul depart Kamchatka for the coast of North America.
June 20 The St. Peter and St. Paul are separated in a storm, head east independently.
July 15 Aleksei Chirikov on the St. Paul sights the coast of North America.
July 16 Bering and Steller on the St. Peter sight the coast of North America near Mount St. Elias.
July 18 Chirikov sends eleven men ashore in the longboat for freshwater.
July 20 Bering in the St. Peter approaches Kayak Island and sends crews ashore for water. Steller collects plants and animals.
July 24 Chirikov sends four more men ashore to search for the missing shore excursion.
July 27 Chirikov abandons shore crews as dead or captured and sets sail for Kamchatka without obtaining freshwater.
August Scurvy spreads through the crew of the St. Peter, including Bering, who seldom emerges from his cabin.
August 30 The St. Peter stops in the Shumagin Islands for freshwater. Nikita Shumagin is the first member of the expedition to die of scurvy.
September 4–9 Crew of the St. Peter meet Aleuts, in first encounter with native Americans.
September 9 The St. Paul crew encounter Aleuts at Adak Island but are unable to trade for freshwater. Scurvy is showing in the crew.
Late September and October Scurvy epidemic and storms ravage the St. Peter.
October 10 The St. Paul returns to Avacha Bay. Fifteen men are abandoned in Alaska, and six are dead from scurvy.
November 6 The St. Peter is driven into Commander Bay on Bering Island. Men die of scurvy daily. Feral blue foxes attack.
December 8 Bering dies. Lieutenant Sven Waxell becomes new leader of the shore camp.
1742 January 8 Last scurvy death. With hunting and Steller’s medicinal plants, conditions on Bering Island improve.
April 25 Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth crowned empress after a coup the previous November.
May 2 Work begins to dismantle the wrecked vessel and build a new, smaller St. Peter.
August 13 Departure from Bering Island.
August 26 Arrival of survivors in Avacha Bay.
1743 Russian Senate officially disbands the Second Kamchatka Expedition.
THE GREAT EMBASSY
ON THE MORNING OF September 5, 1698, Peter Alexeyevich Romanov awoke in the chambers of his wooden house near the Kremlin with purpose and determination. He had just returned from eighteen months of travel in western Europe, full of new ideas to modernize the traditions of the Russian state and eager to begin implementing them. Soon a crowd of boyars, the most senior aristocrats, and prominent officials had gathered on the street to welcome him home and to publicly demonstrate their loyalty, for a rebellion had only recently been suppressed. Several of the closest courtiers prostrated themselves, groveling before him in the traditional manner. A few murmurs spread through the crowd when, instead of accepting as his due “the promptitude of their obsequiousness,” he instead “lifted [them] up graciously from their grovelling posture and embraced them with a kiss, such as is due only among private friends.” This breach of protocol was mildly disturbing, but Peter had set his mind on a course of action, and it was merely the first departure of the day from Muscovite propriety.
The young czar, then twenty-six years old, moved among the crowd, embracing his officials and nodding at their welcomes. He then reached into his coat, produced a razor, and without warning grabbed the long beard of the commander of his armed forces, Alexis Shein. He cut through the dense strands, letting them fall to the ground. Too astonished to do anything, Shein stood immobile while Peter finished a rough shave of his beard. Peter then reached for the next closest boyar and rudely trimmed that man’s beard. He worked his way through nearly all of those present, his most loyal and senior inner circle of advisers, until they had been shorn of their beards. Each one stood silent, none daring to voice opposition to the power of the czar, and in particular Peter, who had already earned a reputation for ruthlessness and an unpredictable temper.
Only three men were spared the indignity: an older man who Peter felt had earned the right to a beard, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and the personal bodyguard of his estranged wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina, whom he was about to force into a convent. Astonished and speechless, many of the highest-ranking social, political, and military men in the nation now sported new faces. There were a few bouts of nervous laughter. To some, the shaving of a beard was a direct assault on their religion. Under Peter’s reign, it would be not only foreign merchants, engineers, and military personnel who strode the streets of Moscow beardless in the later seventeenth century, but Peter himself wore no beard, in defiance of convention, and others soon followed.
Peter’s grand tour of western Europe, sometimes called his “Great Embassy,” had convinced him that Russia was a backward country in serious need of reforms on many levels of society and that it had failed to benefit from the technological advances then sweeping nations like Germany, the Netherlands, and England. He was saddened to discover that these nations considered Russia not quite part of Europe, a semi-Oriental backwater with its onion-dome architecture, rigid Orthodox Church, and medieval political institutions. Russia had not yet felt the touch of the Enlightenment. People’s minds, in Peter’s estimation, were still shackled to outmoded social belief systems, and he was determined to haul his country by whatever means into the orbit of Europe and into an era of what he considered modern thinking. The elaborate and ornate robes that impeded walking and physical work and the long coiffed beards made Russia a laughingstock in western Europe, and Peter was determined to put an end to these symbols of backwardness.
Peter saw these customs as a hindrance to the nation’s chances of modernizing. He issued decrees that regulated what was deemed acceptable clothing at official ceremonies or functions and what all government officials should wear while performing their duties—waistcoats, breeches, gaiters, low boots, and stylish hats for men; women could don petticoats, skirts, and bonnets. He also banned the practice of wearing long curved knives at the waist. Anyone wearing old-style dress had to pay a special fee to enter the city, and in time Peter ordered guards at the city gates to cut off the robes of anyone, no matter their status, as a requirement for entering the city.
While Peter was enacting his dress and personal-grooming reforms, he was also punishing the conspirators who had sought to place his elder half-sister Sophia on the throne during his absence—a rebellion by elements of the Streltsy, Russia’s elite military corps. This no doubt added an undercurrent of fear to his beard and clothing declarations. Although the rebellion was short and easily repressed by loyalists, Peter had already endured other uprisings by the Streltsy and by his half sister while he was still a child. This time his patience was short: Sophia was forced to become a nun and renounce her name and position in the aristocracy, he disbanded the Streltsy, and more than seventeen hundred of the surviving conspirators were tortured in specially converted cells in Moscow in an effort to uncover the leaders of the conspiracy. Peter occasionally took a personal role as inquisitor, growling “Confess, beast, confess!” while flesh was flayed, beaten, and burned. In the great purge around twelve hundred were killed by hanging or beheading, many hundreds of bodies left on public display, while many hundreds of others were maimed and exiled to Siberia or other remote rural areas, their widows and children driven from Moscow. It served amply as a warning to any would-be rebels—or anyone else who might think of challenging his decrees. Peter eventually disbanded the regiments of the Streltsy in favor of his newly formed Imperial Guards.
In the violent context of the eighteenth century, Peter’s actions appear to have been done not to satisfy his sadistic urges but rather for reasons of state, to eliminate treason and provide political stability. He berated a church official who appeared before him to beg for leniency for the traitors: “It is the duty of my sovereign office, and a duty that I owe to God, to save my people from harm and to prosecute with public vengeance crimes that lead to the common ruin.” The purge solidified his power through fear and example, so now none would rise to challenge the European reforms that he planned for his country.
IN A FAMOUS PAINTING created during his visit to England, Peter looks resplendent in polished armor and a heavy gilded ermine cape. His stance is bold: one arm grips a rod, while the other is defiantly placed on his hip. Warships with billowed sails can be seen in the background through a window over his shoulder. His eyes are wide and his lips full, his hair curled and artfully ruffled. His head seems disproportionately small for his body, which is encased in its finery and steel. Peter was an unusually tall and striking individual; at more than six foot seven, he towered over most of his contemporaries. But he was also narrow shouldered, and his hands and feet were notably small in relation to his long body. While vigorous and stubborn, he suffered a mild form of epilepsy and had obvious facial tics. Sophia, the widowed electress, or ruler, of Hanover, provided a detailed description of her meeting with Peter in the summer of 1697 and pronounced that he “is a prince at once very good and very bad; his character is exactly that of his country.”
At the time of Peter’s Great Embassy to Europe in the spring of 1697, no Russian czar had ever traveled abroad—at least not without an invading army—particularly into such distant territory. But Peter had already embarked on schemes to break this isolation. He began by expanding his fleet so that Russia wouldn’t be essentially landlocked, with only a remote port at Arkhangelsk on the White Sea in the Far North. The Baltic was controlled by Sweden, while the Caspian and the Black Seas were under the sway of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires. Peter had attacked the Ottoman fortress of Azov, at the outlet of the Don River, and seized the fortress in 1696. To defend his new territory, he began building a stronger navy, sending dozens of young men to western Europe to learn seamanship and naval strategy. Peter had then announced that he would be organizing a journey of more than 250 high-ranking Russians to the capitals of western Europe. Even more shocking was the rumor that he planned to go himself, to see the world and form his own opinions, to help set Russia on the path to greatness and prosperity. Only three years after the death of his mother, when he had assumed full authority as czar, the young autocrat wanted to travel in disguise, as a mere member of an ambassador’s entourage.
To understand how this greater world worked, how best to achieve his ambitious goals, Peter planned to avoid pompous ceremony and political displays of honor. Ambassadors to his court reported to their respective countries and speculated that Peter’s most likely reasons were for personal amusement, a little diversion and holiday, to see how regular people lived their lives, and to make himself a better ruler. Peter also knew he needed allies in his struggle against the Ottoman Turks. The Great Embassy made plans to visit the capitals of Warsaw, Vienna, and Venice as well as Amsterdam and London. He would not travel to France to see the famous Sun King, Louis XIV, as France was then allied with the Ottomans.
While Peter undoubtedly had a healthy ego, being raised a prince, he was also humble and insightful enough to realize that he, and Russia, had a lot to learn if he was to take advantage of the new technology and knowledge of the age. Writing later in life, Peter observed that he
turned his whole mind to the construction of a fleet.… [A] suitable place for shipbuilding was found on the River Voronezh.… [S]killful shipwrights were called from England and Holland, and in 1696 there began a new work in Russia—the construction of great warships, galleys and other vessels.… [A]nd that the monarch might not be shamefully behind his subjects in that trade, he himself undertook a journey to Holland; and in Amsterdam at the East India wharf, giving himself up, with other volunteers, to the learning of naval architecture, he got what was necessary for a good carpenter to know, and, by his own work and skill, constructed and launched a new ship.
Peter Mikhailov, as he would be known, also craved freedom, to see and hear and observe for himself the state of the world and not be hidden behind a facade of luxury and ceremony. He didn’t care to spend his days just swanning with royalty; rather, he preferred to have the freedom to come and go anonymously. He wanted Russia to become part of the exciting world of western Europe—and the new lands that its mariners had been exploring and were continuing to explore with their fleets. The world was becoming globalized in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and western Europe was the technological and inspirational epicenter of this endeavor. New technologies, such as clocks or chronometers, compasses, thermometers, telescopes, barometers, and instruments for accurate cartography, supported navigation and exploration. The enterprising mariners and financiers of the Dutch and English East India Companies as well as the Dutch West India Company were bringing coffee, tea, sugar, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to European markets. Exotic plants and animals were in everyday use. Freed to a certain extent from religious dogma, scientists such as Descartes, Leibniz, Leeuwenhoek, and Newton were actively experimenting and exploring the natural environment and the properties and principles that governed the world. This new science was changing the European worldview, and Peter didn’t want to miss out personally or let Russia be left behind. He also had more prosaic designs. He purchased new ship cannons, rigging, anchors, sails, and the latest instruments of navigation so that they could be better understood and replicated in Russia to improve the economy.
Most people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lived in rural environments, engaged in some activity directly related to farming with animals. Waterwheels and windmills provided the only energy beyond sheer muscle power. People seldom traveled, as the roads were poor and surplus food or time was scarce. Daily life began with the rising of the sun and ended after dark. Wood was the only source of light and heat. Russia, being on the geographical fringe of Europe, was not part of the transfer of new ideas and knowledge then sweeping the continent, and Peter wanted that to change—to bring about a new way of life for his people.
The thought of a Russian Great Embassy did not bring joy to the courts of the countries that were to receive the group. The Russian ambassadors of the time knew little of the customs of other nations and consequently had difficulty communicating their ideas. They were usually seen as rude and uncouth, bumpkins who refused to follow the protocols of courtly behavior common in western Europe.
The Russian court itself was seen as beyond the pale. According to the Austrian ambassador’s secretary Johann Georg Korb, meals at the Russian court were frequently unscheduled and abruptly preceded by the announcement that “the Tsar wants to eat!” Servants would promptly arrive with platters of food and place them on the huge table, seemingly at random, while people grabbed for them, perhaps hitting each other jokingly with long loaves of bread or squabbling over the great bowls of wine, mead, beer, and brandy. Heavy drinking was common along with heated arguments, lively dancing, and even wrestling. Trained bears sometimes roamed the dining hall, proffering cups of pepper brandy and knocking off hats and wigs to much merriment. These antics, while no doubt amusing to the Muscovites in Peter’s court, were not much appreciated by European dignitaries preoccupied with the order and timing of entering rooms and table seating, with which long-winded title each person was to be addressed, with which cup to drink from, and in which order to eat the varied dishes. Peter particularly disliked official or formal functions, considering them to be “barbarous and inhumane,” preventing monarchs “from enjoying the society of mankind.” He wanted to talk and dine, drink, and joke with people of all ranks, while being the first among equals naturally. Peter was proud of his calluses, of laboring with shipwrights, of marching with his soldiers, of working the ropes on a ship, of drinking beer with craftsmen. He was eager to meet with men who had risen to respect out of merit rather than birth or influence.
PETER PERSONALLY CHOSE THE members of his Great Embassy, and the sprawling cavalcade included not only his three principal ambassadors, senior members of Peter’s nobility, but also twenty other aristocrats and thirty-five skilled artisans. They would all travel together in addition to priests, musicians, interpreters, cooks, horsemen, soldiers, and other servants. “Peter Mikhailov,” a nondescript brown-haired, blue-eyed jack-of-all-trades noteworthy only for his height, joined the ranks. It would be an open secret that he was traveling with the embassy, but it was not to be officially acknowledged, which created unusual dilemmas with protocol. Peter left Russia in the hands of three older trustworthy men, a regency council that included one of his uncles.
The Great Embassy set off overland through the Swedish-controlled territory that bordered the eastern Baltic, which included Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Here Peter paid particular attention to the fortifications of the city of Riga, a fortress that his father had failed to conquer forty years earlier and that would be a nicely situated place for a Russian port on the Baltic Sea. He considered his reception here to be rude and inhospitable—not fit for a czar. Of course, he was traveling incognito, but he still expected to see the recognition that he was there. Having his entourage ignored and left to fend for themselves and to pay high prices for their food and lodging was not acceptable. Three years later, Peter would use this apparent or perceived ill treatment in Riga as an excuse for starting the war that would consume most of his life and reign, the Great Northern War with Sweden. Riga would eventually be incorporated into the Russian Empire. Certainly, it was convenient that he was treated so poorly there, since there was no other way for him to expand Russia and gain access to the Baltic Sea than by seizing Swedish-held territory. The cavalcade then traveled overland to Mitau in Poland. Growing impatient, Peter boarded a private yacht and sailed ahead to the northern German city of Königsberg, where Frederick III, the elector of Brandenburg, met him to discuss an alliance against Sweden. Like Peter, Frederick also wanted to expand his territory, to become king of a newly formed kingdom of Prussia.
After laying the foundation for future joint military action against Sweden, Peter continued overland to Berlin. By this time, his presence was an open secret, and word traveled throughout northern Europe. People thronged to see the czar of the mysterious eastern land with the outlandishly dressed people and the Oriental customs, known for their hard drinking and barbaric behavior. The Great Embassy became like a traveling circus, and Peter was annoyed at the intrusive scrutiny, as if he were a curiosity, which he was. But he was a charming curiosity, well liked by the gentry of Germany for his good humor, fun-loving displays, and lively conversation. He proved to be nowhere near as uncivilized a bear as had been reported. His many foreign tutors had prepared him well.
"A gripping account of 'the most extensive scientific expedition in history,' whose impressive results were certainly matched by its duration and miseries. A rapidly paced story of adventure 'to be appreciated as a reminder of the power of nature and of the struggle and triumph over disaster...and of the powerful urge to persevere and return home.'"
- "[An] excellent work of historical reconstruction that will enamor fans of the Age of Exploration."—Booklist
- "Island of the Blue Foxes is a rip-roaring tale of adventures, hardship, sacrifice, human hubris and--dare I say--madness...set in inhospitable landscapes and told with breezy energy. Wonderful."—Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt's New World
"One of the most significant and harrowing expeditions in the annals of European and American exploration, the Bering voyages remain largely unknown to modern readers. Inspired by the European Enlightenment, Peter the Great and his successor Empress Anna sent Danish navigator Vitus Bering 5,000 miles eastward across Siberia, then another 3,000 miles across the Pacific to the unknown coasts of North America, decades before Captain Cook's well-known voyages. Bering left his name on a sea and a strait, and his naturalist Steller identified dozens of unknown plants and animals in the New World, but perhaps the most inspiring legacy is the remarkable forbearance and human ingenuity employed by the expedition's survivors in the face of scurvy, starvation, and shipwreck. A gifted chronicler of Northern exploration, Stephen Bown tells this incredible tale with grace, authority, and a deep grasp of its significance."
—Peter Stark, author of Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire
- "Bown's readable history should elevate Bering into the top tier of explorers. For fans of adventure, exploration, and discovery."—Library Journal
- "[A] little-known, white-knuckle tale of ambition, ingenuity and the raw fight for survival. Bown has a stellar track record of chronicling the larger-than-life tales of explorers...An amazing story, both in its intimate details of day-to-day adventure and survival and its large-scale political and scientific implications."—Calgary Herald
- "Brings North American readers into a part of history seldom written about anywhere."—CBC News
"A worthwhile read and perhaps one of [Bown's] best. In sharing what is a remarkable story of Arctic exploration, Bown has added a welcome addition to what is already a rich catalogue of books about the Arctic and maritime exploration."—Rocky Mountain Outlook
- "[Bown] has weaved a story which details the highs and lows of one of the greatest expeditions in world history and one which has been largely forgotten by mainstream humanity. Consequently, this book is an opportunity for all to learn about Bering and his contributions to the geographic and scientific knowledge gained as a result of his efforts."—New York Journal of Books
- "Well-written, fast-paced."—Portland Book Review
- "The story of [an] epic undertaking...It should draw new readers to a neglected chapter in maritime history. Bering's voyage shows the lengths to which humans are driven by their curiosity, and demonstrates the environmental consequences of our greed."—Nature
- "[An] engrossing narrative...Naturalist Georg Willhelm Steller['s]...heroics, and the story of his mates' survival, so expertly recalled by Bown, exemplifies the unstoppable momentum of human curiosity."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Bown has drawn on journals, logs, letters and official reports to piece together a story never fully told before. And what a story: adventure and discovery, misery and death, and a cast of characters by turns admirable and appalling, brilliant and hopeless, annoying and plain nasty."
"The curious tale of an ambitious sea voyage spent mostly on dry land...The Island of author Stephen R. Bown's title figures only in the final stages of this expedition, also known as the Great Northern Expedition. His expansive book covers far more territory, though, ensuring readers understand the related history necessary to put both of these massive voyages in context."
—Washington Independent Review of Books
"The account is based on source materials, but reads like an adventure novel...Profiles of individual courage, scientific determination, and insights into the politics and struggles of expeditions create an engrossing history that's hard to put down."
- "A moving account of how the great Kamchatka expedition morphed into a ten-year odyssey of hardship and conflict...A fine addition to the literature of Arctic exploration."—Natural History
"Island of the Blue Foxes moves quickly, and [Stephen] Bown does a fine job of giving readers a strong feel for both what the men endured and how the personal characters of the major players were tested by their tribulations...A must-read."
—Anchorage Daily News
- "A focused, interesting summary...The book ends with an adroit summing up of the post-expedition history of events that Bering's voyages set in motion, which had huge consequences for the wildlife and peoples native to Alaska and its eventual acquisition by the US...Recommended."—Choice
- "Tells the fascinating story of Danish explorer Vitus Bering's overly ambitious and ultimately doomed scientific expedition."—Military Officer
- "This makes Bown's third book that might be found in the frozen-food section, and his best yet...This tale twists over an uncharted early eighteenth-century world where ship-wreck often spells certain doom. However, in this case, the sea gives up her dead to return and tell the living of the lessons learned."—Seattle Book Review
"Nearly every story of Arctic and Antarctic exploration is fraught with tragedy, privation and death. However, Bown's expert account in The Island of the Blue Foxes is a particularly grisly tale...Bown's other books include the excellent The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, the greatest polar explorer of all time. He was first to the South Pole and among the earliest to the North Pole. Who better than Bown to write about the Great Northern Expedition?"
—Internet Review of Books
- "This book will appeal to a general readership, but also to students of Arctic history and specialist Arctic historians."—Arctic Journal
- "A riveting account of two expeditions...Various characters come alive in the book...But the ultimate character in the story is Russia itself and its dark colonial past."—Down to Earth
- On Sale
- Nov 7, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Da Capo Press