Great Northern Expedition

The Great Northern Expedition (Russian: Великая Северная экспедиция) or Second Kamchatka expedition (Russian: Вторая Камчатская экспедиция) was one of the largest exploration enterprises in history, mapping most of the Arctic coast of Siberia and some parts of the North America coastline, greatly reducing "white areas" on maps. It was conceived by Russian Emperor Peter I the Great, but implemented by Russian Empresses Anna and Elizabeth. The main organiser and leader of the expedition was Vitus Bering, who earlier had been commissioned by Peter I to lead the First Kamchatka expedition. The Second Kamchatka Expedition lasted roughly from 1733–1743 and later was called the Great Northern due to the immense scale of its achievements.

The goal was to find and map the eastern reaches of Siberia, and hopefully the western shores of North America. Peter I had a vision for the 18th-century Russian Navy to map a Northern Sea Route from Europe to the Pacific. This far-reaching endeavour was sponsored by the Admiralty College in St. Petersburg.

With over 3,000 people directly and indirectly involved, the Second Kamchatka Expedition was one of the largest such projects in history. Its cost, completely financed by the Russian state, reached an estimated 1.5 million rubles, an enormous sum for the time; roughly one sixth of the income of the Russian state in 1724.[1]

The achievements of the expedition included the European discovery of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, the Commander Islands, Bering Island, as well as a detailed cartographic assessment of the northern and north-eastern coast of Russia and the Kuril Islands. It definitively refuted the legend of a land mass in the north Pacific, and did ethnographic, historic, and scientific research into Siberia and Kamchatka. When the expedition failed to round the north-east tip of Asia, the dream of an economically viable Northeast passage, sought since the 16th century, was at an end.

Systematic exploration and scientific discovery in the eastern part of Asia was at the initiative of Tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725). In 1697 and 1698, he traveled in a number of European nations, and became enthused at the idea of a scientific academy in Russia. In 1723/24, he drew foreign scholars to St. Petersburg, hoping to replicate the scientific culture of Europe in his own land and to educate native scholars.

In December 1725, the institution was inaugurated with celebrations. Young, mostly German-speaking scholars formed the core of the Academy in its first decades. One of their tasks was to organize and eventually accompany scientific expeditions to then-unexplored parts of the empire. During Peter’s lifetime, the German doctor Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt (1685–1735) traveled from 1720 to 1727 to western and central Siberia. This was the beginning of investigation in geography, mineralogy, botany, zoology, ethnography, and philology there, as well as an opening-up of the region to trade. Messerschmidt's Expedition was the first in a long series of scientific explorations of Siberia.

Shortly before his death in February 1725, the Tsar signed an order authorizing a second great expedition to the east. Over the course of his life, Peter had met many times with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). At their final meeting at Bad Pyrmont in 1716, Leibniz spoke of a possible land bridge between northeastern Asia and the North America, a point of great relevance in contemporary discussion about the origins of humanity, among other matters. The common origin of humans was generally accepted, but it posed the problem of the origins of human settlements in the New World. To resolve the question of a land bridge, Peter the Great sent in 1719 the geodesists Iwan Jewreinow (1694–1724) and Fjodor Luschin (died 1727) to the easternmost reaches of his empire. The expedition was unsuccessful, at least as to the land bridge question. In 1724, Peter gave the same task to another expedition, the First Kamchatka expedition. [2]

This undertaking, lasting from 1728 to 1730, was led by the Danish captain Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681–1741), an officer in the Russian imperial navy since 1704. In the ship St. Gabriel, which had been built at the outlet of the Kamchatka River, Bering made two voyages northeast in successive years (1728 and 1729), and at one point reached 67 degrees north, from which point the coast no longer extended north. He failed to reach North America in either trip, due to adverse weather. Despite the new knowledge about the northeast coast of Siberia, Bering's report led to divisive debate, because the question of a connection with North America remained unanswered. This prompted Bering to propose a second Kamchatka expedition.

This page was last edited on 30 January 2018, at 00:11 (UTC).
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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