Society for the History of Discoveries

Frost, Orcutt.  Bering: 
The Russian Discovery of America.  New Haven & London:  Yale University Press, 2003.  Pp. 384, 11 b/w illus. + 10 maps.  $30.00.  ISBN 0300100590.

Møller, Peter Ulf and Natasha Okhotina Lind (eds.).  Under Vitus Bering’s Command:  New Perspectives on the Russian Kamchatka Expeditions.  Århus, Denmark:  Aarhus University Press, 2003.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 8772889322.

Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) is one of the most significant and daring, yet lesser known figures in the history of discovery and exploration.  The Danish-born Bering joined the Russian navy in 1703 and was initially commissioned by Peter the Great in 1725 to explore and map Siberia and the Russian Far Northeast. This assignment consequently resulted in the two long and large Kamchatka Expeditions from St. Petersburg to the North Pacific of 1725-1730 and 1733-1743 under his leadership until his death in 1741 on the barren island that now bears his name.  Although not the first to record the sea passage between Asia and North America that now also bears his name, he is generally given credit for proving them to be separate continents in 1728.  Near the end of his life, he also was the first European to map the coast of Alaska, and he established the original Russian claims to a part of North America.  Like those of his earlier counterparts Magellan and Drake to the South, his voyages first brought prominence to the more obscure North Pacific.

As attested to by these two fine volumes, there recently has been a revival of scholarly interest in Bering.  There have been two stimuli to this renewed attention:  newly discovered Bering family letters from Second Kamchatka or Great Northern Expedition and the excavation of his last campsite and reputed grave on Bering Island.  Orcutt Frost, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Alaska Pacific University and author of numerous other works relating to Bering, prominently cites these two events in his “Preface” for motivating his biography of Bering, and the archeology is discussed extensively and sixteen of the letters a published for the first time in the volume by Møller and Lind.  

Yale University Press claims Bering to be the first new biography (perhaps outside of Russia?) in a century.  It is a clearly written, thorough, analytical, and largely objective study, concentrating on Bering’s years in Russian service.  He has done a good deal of archival research as evidenced by his extensive endnotes and bibliography of Danish, English, and German sources, and he has been onsite to Bering Island and elsewhere as well.  Frost for example readily acknowledges that Semyon Dezhnev made the first voyage through what is now known as the Bering Strait in 1648, and his bibliography reflects an awareness of the scholarship of the late Raymond H. Fisher and other historians on Dezhnev.  The author likens the denial of full credit to Dezhnev in favor of Bering to that denied the Norse in favor of Columbus.  Frost also is good at relating the work of the Second Expedition’s naturalist George Steller, especially with the natives, much of which was carried out as Bering lay dying.  The comparatively few illustrations and maps throughout the text are helpful to bringing Bering and his adventures to life as are the “Bering Family Tree” and “Chronology of Events” in the introductory material.

Under Vitus Bering’s Command is an anthology of twelve essays in English and Russian by eleven authors from “an international workshop on ‘recent results and new perspectives in the study of Vitus Bering and two Russian Kamchatka Expeditions’” of twenty-one invited participants at the University of Copenhagen on 4-5 December 1998.  The first essay, “The First Kamchatka Expedition in Focus,” by Carol Urness from the University of Minnesota and the only American scholar in volume, questions the real purpose behind the First Expedition, merely to explore or to map.  She makes a good case for the cartography mission.  Here again Frost apparently is aware of this book and of the scholarly controversy, but largely ignores it in favor of the more traditional exploration motive.

There are several very good Russian essays by Tatyana Fedorova from St. Petersburg and Lind from Århus for example on archival materials in Russia.  For those who cannot read one or the other language, at the end of the volume there are abstracts of the Russian essays in English and of the English essays in Russian.  There is also a very extensive bibliography of Russian, English, and other sources.

Bering and Under Vitus Bering’s Command are both excellent books on the voyager and his not insignificant achievements, but for somewhat different audiences.  Frost’s biography will appeal to scholars and knowledgeable and more general readers alike; it is ideal for students.  Møller and Lind’s anthology is for the more committed scholar of the history of discovery and exploration, Russian history, and historical interpretation.  Together they reveal the amazing story of an exceptional and intrepid explorer, his adventures, and his age.

Dennis Reinhartz
The University of Texas at Arlington

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