Nova Zembla (Russian: Novaya Zemlya, or new land) is the name of an island in the Russian arctic (Barentsz Sea). The history of the island is closely tied to the 1596 expedition by Jacob van Heemskerck and Willem Barentsz. Being trapped by winter ice, the expedition was forced to shelter at Nova Zembla. Living in a hut made of driftwood, the crew members would be the first Europeans to survive a winter in the arctic, although two members including Barentsz would not survive the journey.

Van Heemskerck and Barentsz tried to sail to Asia across the North Pole. During this period, Holland was at war with Spain, and therefore the Southern Route was swarmed with hostile Portuguese and Spanish ships. Also, rounding of Cape of Good Hope had always been an extremely dangerous undertaking due to the treacherous storms and currents.

Thus, an alternative route to the East Indies had to be found. The famous cartographer Petrus Plancius was convinced that there would be an open route through the ice of the North Pole, if the expedition stayed clear of the Siberian coastline. Supposedly, this route would also be much faster than the Southern Route.

Two previous attempts (1594, 1595) to travel the Northern Route had failed due to encounters with massive fields of ice. Rather than giving up, captain van Heemskerck and expedition leader Barentsz decided to leave early in the year. The third expedition set sail on May 15, 1596. Along the way, they discovered Spitsbergen. Barentsz and the second vessel's captain Rijp got into arguments and decided to each go their own way. Rijp went north, encountered even more ice, and returned home. Barentsz and Heemskerck went east, but eventually got stuck at the north point of Nova Zembla.

Barentsz, van Heemskerck and the other fifteen crew members had no choice but to remain at Nova Zembla for the winter. Fortunately, the Siberian rivers had supplied enough driftwood to build a shelter that the men called "Het Behouden Huys" ("The Saved House"), finished on 12 October 1596.

The forced winter stay on Nova Zembla proved to be extremely difficult. One of the crewmen, Gerrit de Veer kept an accurate diary of their hardships1,2. The men had to fight off polar bears, deal with the cold, malnutrition and scurvy. At one point, the entire crew was nearly killed due to carbon monoxide poisoning; someone had blocked the chimney to keep the heat inside. Two of the seventeen men, including Willem Barentsz would ultimately die.

When the summer came, the situation on Nova Zembla became better, but van Heemskerck urged his crew to hurry, cautioning them not to get stuck on the island forever. However, the main ship was still ice-bound. Using two small open boats, the island was abandoned on June 13, 1597. The men landed at some isolated place where they were greeted by a local. Using sign language, this man informed them of the presence another ship in the area. After eleven weeks, they indeed found this ship. It was a Dutch vessel, under the command of captain Rijp, who had returned for another expedition. Finally, the fifteen survivors of Nova Zembla could return to their homes.

1: Gerrit de Veer, Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien ... drie jaeren achter malcanderen deur de Hollandtsche ende Zeelandtsche schepen., Amsterdam, C. Claesz, 1599

2: Gerrit de Veer, A true description of three voyages by the North-East towards Cathay and China, undertaken by the Dutch in the years 1594, 1595 and 1596, translated into English by William Phillip, edited by Charles T. Beke, London, Hakluyt Society, 1853.

The diary by Gerrit de Veer was published in many languages (including English, French and Italian) almost directly after the Nova Zembla voyage. The text should be in the public domain for a couple of centuries now, but unfortunately I was unable to find it as e-text. Please /msg me if you do!

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