Ever since European Russians settled Siberia from the 16th century, eccentric travellers have been drawn to the subcontinent. Some of these were Russians. Others were foreigners. As the 20th century approached, a wave of foreign explorers and tourists set out along Siberia’s northern coastline.
In 1894, while German-born Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine was learning Russian verbs in preparation for her marriage to Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, the New York Times ran a book review alongside its article on Russia’s future empress, entitled Woman at the Far North. “As every field is tempting women nowadays to invasion”, it began in a patronising tone, “it is not surprising that the sombre and uncertain one of polar exploration finds its devotees among the fairer sex”. The book, Polar Gleams, was written by London socialite Helen Peel, grand-daughter of former British prime minister Sir Robert Peel.
Polar Gleams is not the best travel book about Arctic Siberia. Actually, it’s one of the worst. But it is says much about the age: the year in which the events took place, 1893, saw a swarm of foreigners buzzing to the Arctic in pursuit of sports like hunting and fishing, scientific research, business or simply a good time.
In terms of business and trade, the idea of using the Northern Sea route (NSR) to deliver goods into and out of Siberia had waxed and waned in the second half of the 19th century. This was partly due to the exploits of the tea-totalling British mariner Joseph Wiggins. Wiggins led several expeditions into the Kara Sea around this time, and he is credited with being the first person – but undoubtedly only the first European — to reach Siberia via the Kara Sea, which he did in a boat called the Diana in 1874. As a reward, the tsar presented him with a punchbowl and 25 mugs. It probably wasn’t the best present to give a tea-totalling seafarer, but the thought counted.
Wiggins is also famous for some notable failed attempts, and for various reasons interest in the Northern Sea Route was on a wane throughout much of the 1880s. By the 1890s, however, the Russian government was again interested in the route and contracted Wiggins to transport rails for the new Trans-Siberian Railway.
The expedition, which Russians call the Yenisey Expedition, was instigated by a wealthy and eccentric British yachtsman, F.W. Leyborne-Popham. It seems to have started out purely as a pleasure trip for socialites with money to burn for a bit of high-kicking and fun in the Arctic. But the expedition grew to six vessels in total, three under the command of a Russian, Lieutenant Dobrotvorsky, and the other three under the command of our tea-totalling Captain Wiggins. These included the three-mast schooner, the Blencathra, which carried Helen Peel and her party of socialites, and the Orestes, loaded with 1600 tons of rails destined for the Trans-Siberian Railway. All going well, these would be transported to the mouth of the Yenisey River, and from there by barge upriver 3000 kilometres to the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Now business was being combined with pleasure.
Champagne on ice
Another guest on board the Blencathra was the British explorer Frederick G. Jackson. He was preparing for a later expedition to the North Pole, where, Peel writes, he intended to be “the first to plant the standard of his native land and sing God Save the Queen“. But first Jackson wanted to explore Franz Josef Land. The socialites entered the Yugor Strait on August 29, 1893. They celebrated reaching Siberia’s Kara Sea with champagne and kicked up their heels beneath a near midnight sun. Peel writes in Polar Gleams: “A more joyful gathering it would be impossible to find, surrounded as we were by all the luxuries which enhance the recreations of life. It was difficult to imagine that we were not in the very midst of civilisation, but steaming pleasantly on the waters of the much dreaded Kara Sea”. Retiring to her cabin each night, she notes, was like returning home in the early hours of the morning from London dances. At one point Leyborne-Popham rows out in a dinghy and kills a walrus with a clean shot in the neck. This was how things went for most of the journey: walruses and ice floes, and a plentiful supply of champagne during rollicking musical evenings.
Three days after passing through the Yugor Strait, they reached the Yenisey River. It was time for Wiggins to unload his rails. But things didn’t go well. Storms lashed the barges, some of which promptly sank to the bottom of the river. About one third of the rails were lost to the Yenisey’s currents and almost as many could not be unloaded at all. These were transported back to European Russia. Despite this setback, the venture was hailed a success.
As Peel and her party of socialites retreated westwards from Siberian waters, another famous traveller was sailing east across the Siberian Arctic. The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen had set off for Siberia to test theories of polar ice drift. His aim was to lock his vessel, the Fram, into ice and allow this drifting mass of ice to carry him via the North Pole back to Spitsbergen in Norway. If successful, he would be the first person to reach the North Pole. The Norwegian Nansen and the British Jackson were therefore rivals for the same polar crown.
By October 1893, the Fram was surrounded by ice and began its slow drift homewards across the top. In March 1895, however, after it had become clear that the vessel would miss the North Pole, Nansen and a fellow crew member, Hjalmar Johansen, left the Fram and set out on foot. At 86 degrees north, starving and exhausted, they were forced to abandon the attempt. Meanwhile, Frederick G. Jackson, who still hadn’t managed to plant his flag and sing God Save the Queen at the Pole, was biding his time on Franz Josef Land.
On June 17, 1896 a member of Jackson’s party peered across the frozen landscape at two bedraggled, approaching figures. Jackson describes greeting the grease-smeared, barely recognisable Nansen with the words: “Aren’t you Nansen?” Nansen, who disparagingly describes Jackson as wearing a check suit and high rubber boots, and being well-groomed and smelling of scented soap, replied: “Yes, I am Nansen.” This encounter between two very different characters is something of an Arctic equivalent of Stanley and Livingstone’s meeting in Africa. Nansen and Jackson, poles apart in terms of personality, give different versions of this famous encounter in their books: Jackson in A Thousand Days in the Arctic (1899), and Nansen in Farthest North (1897). Unlike Peel’s book, these are true masterpieces of Arctic travel.