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Down to the Seas

In pursuit of land, knowledge, and adventure

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JOSHUA GELERNTER
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At the end of the 19th century, physicists smugly proclaimed their field closed. 

William Dampier

William Dampier

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics,” said one of them, possibly Lord Kelvin. “All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” This was just before Planck and Einstein. At the beginning of the 21st century, students who trickle through primary school smugly dismiss Christopher Columbus—after all (they say), everyone already knew that the world is round! What the little darlings don’t understand is that Columbus isn’t famous for discovering the roundness of the earth; what he discovered wasn’t a globe but a globe with a giant blank spot.

That was 1492. Two hundred years later, a lot of the blank part was still blank. The Americas were being charted, but the Pacific remained a mystery. Even the parts that made it onto maps were unknown quantities, full of mysterious animals, plants, and peoples. Then, as the 17th century ended, the exploits of William Dampier began to stir up Europe. Dampier was a sometime pirate, part-time explorer, amateur naturalist, and avid journalist. When his journals were published in England, tales of tropical wonders triggered new interest in the New World. “Their appeal was widespread,” writes Glyn Williams in Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travelers from Dampier to Darwin. “Scholars, publishers, seamen and merchants, and casual readers after a good yarn were all attracted. For some .  .  . Dampier’s books became the standard model for voyages sailing to distant parts of the world.”

Before Williams gets to Darwin, however, he relates 13 other voyages over the bounding main, and every one of them is a good yarn. 

They start in Russia. “When Peter the Great visited West European capitals in 1716 and 1717,” Williams writes, “he was unable to give specific answers when questioned about the extent of the Asian Continent.” Russia was then a scientific backwater; the embarrassed Peter rectified the situation by establishing a Russian Academy of Science and bringing some Western Europeans east.

In the 1720s, they began to study Russia’s unexplored extremities. In 1731, a Dane in the Russian Navy named Vitus Bering was commissioned to investigate the newly discovered Alaskan coast. He would be accompanied by a German naturalist named Georg Steller, whose ascetic zest for science prompted an amused colleague to write that Steller’s “drinking cup for beer was the same as his cup for mead and whiskey. Wine he dispensed with entirely. .  .  . He needed no chef. He cooked everything himself. .  .  . It was no hardship for him to go hungry and thirsty a whole day if he was able to accomplish something advantageous to science.” 

In 1741, after a decade of preparation, which included a trans-Siberian trek and ship construction in situ at the Pacific’s edge, the Bering/Steller expedition set off. A month and a half later, they reached the American coast. 

This Alaskan landfall was one of the defining moments of world geography, although this was clearer in retrospect than at the time. Amid the crew’s mutual congratulations, Bering remained unmoved, simply shrugging his shoulder as he looked at the distant land. Later, in his cabin, he complained to Steller about the hysterical reaction of the “pregnant windbags” on board, and he worried about the accidents that could befall a ship so far from home.

Bering’s crotchetiness—not the ideal attitude for an explorer—was brought about by failing health. Three days later, they docked at Kayak Island. Steller went ashore with a crewman to assist him and found an abandoned Eskimo settlement. Steller sent his assistant back to the boat to request that Bering send additional men to explore the area. By himself, Steller set off towards some smoke in the distance: “His solitary venture on a totally unknown island, armed with only a knife for digging up plants, showed professional commitment and personal courage of the highest order,” says Williams. As he explored, Steller received word from Bering that he wouldn’t be getting any more men and that if he wasn’t back on the ship within an hour, he would be left behind. Steller was furious: “The only reason no landing was attempted on the mainland was a sluggish stubbornness and cowardly fear of .  .  . savages .  .  . and a cowardly longing for home. .  .  . [T]he time spent for the investigation bore an arithmetical relationship: the preparation for this ultimate purpose lasted ten years; twenty hours were devoted to the matter itself.”

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