The Northeast Passage

Map of the Arctic from Mercator's atlas (1613)

The ships 'Racehorse' and 'Carcass' on their 1773 voyage towards the North Pole

The picture above is from a book about a 1773 English expedition to Spitsbergen. It shows the freezing landscape that greeted explorers who travelled into the Arctic. Click on the images on this page to see more.

The Northeast Passage is the route from Europe to the Pacific through the arctic waters north of Russia.

Europeans started looking for the Northeast Passage in the mid-1500s because overland trade routes to Russia, China and India were blocked by wars. They wanted to find a way to go east by sea.

In 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby captained an expedition to find the Northeast Passage. The expedition was financed by London merchants who wanted to find a new route to the riches of Asia. Willoughby and his crew became lost when they got separated from the expedition’s expert navigator, Richard Chancellor. Their frozen bodies were found by Russian fishermen the following summer. This map (left) from Gerard Mercator’s atlas names ‘S. Hugo Willoughbes land’ off the Norwegian coast in his honour.

Forty years later (1594-1597) the Dutch explorer Willem Barents crossed the Arctic Ocean between Norway and Russia (now called the Barents Sea). He discovered Spitsbergen (shown on Mercator’s map as ‘t’Nieulant’). He also made the first known voyage around the north coast of Novaya Zemlya, a large island in the Russian Arctic (on Mercator’s map it is labelled ‘Nova Zembla’).

In 1728 Vitus Bering discovered that the continents of Asia and North America were separated by a strip of water (now called the Bering Strait). His discovery confirmed that there was a way into the Northeast Passage at the Pacific end. The Bering Strait and the Bering Sea are shown on this map from a 1917 atlas (below).

Map showing the Bering Strait

Despite Bering’s discovery, the Northeast Passage was not successfully navigated until the Swedish explorer Adolf Nordenskiold sailed through it in 1878-89. It is now used for modern Russian shipping.