Willem Barentsz

Willem Barentsz

Dutch navigator and explorer
Country: Netherlands

  1. Willem Barentsz: Dutch Explorer and Navigator
  2. First Expedition
  3. Second Expedition
  4. Third Expedition and Tragic End
  5. Legacy

Willem Barentsz: Dutch Explorer and Navigator

Willem Barentsz was born in 1550 on the island of Terschelling, which is part of the Netherlands. After becoming a cartographer, he published a map of the Mediterranean region together with Petrus Plancius. On June 5, 1594, Willem and the crew of a small ship called the 'Mercury' set sail from their homeland on an expedition to find a shorter route for transporting goods, later known as the Northeast Passage.

First Expedition

During the first expedition, Willem Barentsz encountered a polar bear on July 9, 1594. Initially mistaken for a regular bear, the crew shot and killed the unusual creature. This discovery surprised Barentsz, leading him to name the island where it happened Bear Island. Although the expedition did not reach its original goal of finding the Northeast Passage due to a large number of icebergs, it was still considered successful.

Second Expedition

After returning home, Willem Barentsz was appointed as the commander of the second expedition. This time, the expedition consisted of not only the 'Mercury' but also six other ships loaded with various goods. The Dutch government was eager to establish trade connections with China at that time. During this expedition, the crew became fascinated with white bears once again, but this time, the bears took revenge and killed two members of the crew. The plan was to sail between the coast of Siberia and Vaygach Island, but the ships arrived too late, and the strait was almost completely frozen. In 1599, the government decided to stop sponsoring these expeditions and instead offered a significant reward to anyone who could finally discover the Northeast Passage.

Third Expedition and Tragic End

On May 16, 1596, the third expedition began with two small ships under the command of Jacob van Heemskerk and Jan Rijp. Shortly after setting sail, they fully explored Spitsbergen and then reached the Kara Sea, bypassing Novaya Zemlya. On July 1, a dispute broke out between the two captains, van Heemskerk and Barentsz, against Rijp. As a result, the expedition split into two groups - one continued northeast, while the other headed strictly north.

On July 17, Barentsz decided to stop at Novaya Zemlya, fearing being trapped by ice. He planned to proceed to the Kara Strait, but it was already too late. The ships could hardly move due to the vast number of icebergs and ice on the water's surface. The decision was made to spend the winter on the archipelago. The crew managed to build a makeshift house using wood, which saved them from the cold. During the winter, the sailors hunted around 30 foxes and an unknown number of polar bears. By June, the ice had not melted enough, and no rescue ships were in sight. Barentsz and a group of brave men crafted two small boats from the remaining wood and attempted to reach the Kola Peninsula. Unfortunately, Barentsz passed away on June 20, 1597. His final resting place remains unknown, and it is uncertain whether he was buried on Novaya Zemlya or given a burial at sea.


Despite his tragic end, Willem Barentsz's name and his discoveries have not been forgotten. The sea where he made his expeditions was named after him, numerous books have been written about his voyages, and countless ships have been named in his honor. His contributions to exploration and navigation continue to be recognized and celebrated to this day.