Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Steller on Bering Island

The German naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, was born three centuries ago today. He took part in a famous Russian expedition, led by Vitus Bering, that landed in Alaska in 1741, and was shipwrecked on Bering Island. Steller kept a journal of the voyage which, a modern publisher says, ‘fully and dramatically’ describes the European discovery of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Steller was born in Windsheim, near Nuremberg, on 10 March 1709 exactly 300 years ago. He studied at the University of Wittenberg, then moved to work at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. He was appointed as naturalist on an expedition commanded by Bering to chart the Siberian coast of the Arctic Ocean and search for an eastern passage to North America. The expedition sailed to the Kamchatka Peninsula in September 1740, and Steller spent the winter there, helping to organize a local school.

The following summer he sailed with Bering to North America, landing in Alaska at Kayak Island in July 1741. During the return journey, the boat was shipwrecked on an island off Kamchatka - later called Bering Island - where half the crew and Bering himself died. Stellar, however, survived; he also wrote descriptions of the fauna of the island, and several animals are now named after him (see Wikipedia for a list). The surviving crew built a new vessel in the spring, and managed to return to Kamchatka (Avacha Bay), where Steller remained for another two years. He died in 1746 on his way back to St Petersburg.

A manuscript journal kept by Steller found its way to the Academy in St Petersburg, where eventually it was reorganised and partly rewritten by the professor of natural history, another German, Peter Simon Pallas. He published a first instalment in 1781, based on the journal’s appendix about the physical geography of Bering Island. The substance of the journal was published as a second instalment in 1793. A few years later, in 1803, a first summarised version appeared in English as one part of a larger work - the fourth edition of William Coxe’s Account of the Russian Discoveries Between Asia and America.

Much more recently, though, in 1988, Stanford University Press published Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742, as translated by Margritt Engle and O. W. Frost, and with a long and informative introduction by Frost. Most of the introduction can be freely viewed at Googlebooks. The publisher says: ‘The European discovery of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands is fully and dramatically recorded in this journal - a gripping narrative of human conflict, of nature as adversary, of terror and pain and death, and of final deliverance.’

The Avacha Bay Co website says this of the book: ‘Although more than 250 years have passed since Steller wrote his private journal, the text, translated from the original German, is lively, easily readable, and displays a compassion and insight which seems uncanny for the era. His observations are an invaluable resource for understanding what this region was like prior to European discovery and what it felt like to be a participant in one of the world's great expeditions of discovery.’

The introduction to Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742 can be read online at Googlebooks; and also at Googlebooks some extracts from the diary itself can be found in The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts (Island Press). Steller wrote, for example, about the suffering of his colleagues on Bering Island: ‘One screamed because he was cold, another from hunger and thirst, as the mouths of many were in such a wretched state from scurvy, that they could not eat anything on account of the great pain because the gums were swollen up like a sponge, brown-black and grown high over the teeth and covering them.’ And, of Bering, who died on 8 December 1740, he wrote that he died, ‘more from hunger, cold, thirst, vermin and grief than from a disease’.

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