Saturday, December 2, 2017

Q&A with Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown is the author of the new book Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph in the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition. It focuses on the Great Northern Expedition, an 18th century project that stretched from St. Petersburg to Siberia to the North American coast. His other books include The Last Viking and White Eskimo. He lives near Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Great Northern Expedition?

A: I’ve had the idea to tell this story for over 15 years now, but I just didn’t think there was quite enough information to truly bring it alive. It was only in the last several years that additional information about the expedition has been uncovered in Russian archives and translated into English.

But the reason that I was initially interested in the story for so long is that it is simply the most incredible exploration story that I have ever read about.

It involves fascinating personalities such as Peter the Great, the famous naturalist Georg Steller (Steller Jay and Steller Sea Lion) and the legendary commander Vitus Bering (the Bering Strait). The expedition explored Siberia and pioneered the Russian discovery of Alaska. And that is just the background.

The real story, the human element, involves storms, scurvy and shipwreck on an uncharted, uninhabited island in the North Pacific. Then they survived a winter, spring and summer on a tiny island – building shelter and hunting for food even though their gunpowder had been ruined in the wreck.

What is fascinating to me is how they changed their social hierarchy – from a rigid, naval structure to a democratic system where input was and a show of hands was required before any major decision was made. This prevented mutiny and infighting and ensured their survival.

Incredibly, by August, they had built a smaller ship from the wreck that lay offshore and sailed back home to Kamchatka. It is simply an amazing story with an unusually interesting historical context.

Q: What role did Peter the Great play in the expedition, and what did the expedition accomplish for Russia?

A: Peter the Great isn’t known for being great by accident. His dream was to transform Russia from a medieval cultural backwater hamstrung by religious orthodoxy into a vibrant pre-eminent European nation.

He wanted to improve the economy, the political institutions, the culture and scientific achievement all at once. He also founded a Baltic based Russian Imperial Navy, after conquering from Sweden the territory surrounding St. Petersburg and founding the city.

The Great Northern Expedition was his grand dream to show Europe how a new vibrant Russia was contributing to global science and geography. Now he also wanted to consolidate Russian political claims to the farthest flung regions of his vast and sprawling empire.

His great plan was supported and financed by his successors, Empress Catherine and Empress Anna. They hoped to establish trade routes to the Pacific and perhaps to Japan, support Russian towns and industry in Siberia and perhaps claim new territory for the Russian Empire in western North America.

The Great Northern Expedition lasted a decade, involved at times up to 3,000 scientists, laborers and naval personnel. It was a staggering undertaking.

Here is just a brief list of the most important accomplishments of the expedition: Scientifically it collected information on Siberia, previously a vast but sparsely populated and little known region of the world, from climate, plants and animals, minerals, geology.

Politically it consolidated Russian control over an enormous swath of the globe’s geography, the value of which increased over time as Siberia became more than a place for political exiles once the mineral and oil and gas wealth was discovered and exploited.

And in America, which was also conquered and claimed by Russia, the German naturalist Georg Steller, gave Europe its first scientific description of Pacific America’s flora and fauna, including the Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea cow, and Steller’s jay.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what was the significance of the blue foxes? 

A: I encourage you to Google “arctic blue foxes.” They look cute and friendly in photos. But in November of 1741, never having encountered humans before, they were vicious and feral.

The shipwrecked mariners located their beach camp near a clear stream and a series of sand dunes. These dunes were the abode of the foxes, and so the two species were fighting over the same territory.

The foxes swarmed from the hills by the hundreds, descending upon the ragged makeshift encampment of tattered tents, snarling and biting and eating the dead and immobilized men who were stricken with scurvy and unable to defend themselves, gnawing on their hands and feet.

They ran through the camp heedless of being caught, urinating and defecating on clothing, food and sleeping men. They attacked at all hours and tore at clothing and dragged away utensils, tools, shoes, blankets. The dying mariners stabbed and kicked the foxes, killing hundreds, and then used their frozen bodies to plug gaps in the sailcloth tents.

The battle of the species dragged on for months into the winter when they finally retreated into the hills. The blue foxes were the defining aspect of life on the island and it seemed appropriate to name the book after them since I’ve never read anything like it happening on any other expedition.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you find especially surprising in your research? 

A: The most surprising thing to me was that no one had ever told the story before in the manner it deserves – with the full historical context of the ambitious dreams of Peter the Great, and his fellow Romanov Empresses and successors Catherine and Anna Ivanovna, to extend the Russian Empire to decisively include Siberia and to lay claim to Pacific America, what they called Alaska – the Great Land.

Russia of course famously sold its colony to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million once the sea otters, and their valuable pelts, were depleted – but before the oil was discovered.

As I mentioned earlier, it was only in the last few years that some of the material became available to me. This new information included a collection of letters between Bering and his wife Anna and their children.

She accompanied him on the years-long expedition with their younger children but left the older two living with family friends in St. Petersburg. They worried about them, naturally.

I was also amazed at the luxury goods the Berings brought across Siberia – the fancy clothing, furs, silks, shoes – that would have been totally out of place in the rough-and-tumble towns and on the trail.

They even carried a clavichord, strapped to a poor horse’s back, over the thousands of miles of roadless overland travel. They lived like royalty amidst the Siberian wilderness. Amazing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m just putting together a proposal tentatively titled The Curse of the Wager – about another 18th century shipwreck that had a very different outcome.

The 28-gun supply ship Wager, with a crew of 120, ran aground on a jagged rock outcropping of a desolate island in Patagonia in 1741. The survivors set up a chaotic camp of tattered lean-tos on the beach beneath what they aptly named Mount Misery.

In the freezing rain and winds of the following weeks all order disintegrated and the men degenerated into a mob of drunken fighting and starvation.

Faced with the grim spectacle of their predicament, many of the mariners cast their eyes about and settled on the captain as the cause of their horrifying fate. Why obey the captain when they no longer had a ship?

There was mutiny and murder and the survivors split into three separate groups and worked to return home to England. What happened to the disparate parties over the next several years is so fantastical, involving such outrageous adventures as they each wended their way back home, as to be scarcely creditable.

When these various groups arrived in London, it was not to a hero’s welcome but to be placed on trial for mutiny.

The legal aspect of the story is also fascinating and has never yet been fully explored. What technically is a mutiny? And can marooned sailors mutiny against their captain and the power of the crown after their ship has been destroyed?

During the public court martial in London, lawyers for the survivors argued that while abandoning the captain and some of his loyalists was in poor form, it could not be considered a mutiny – a hanging offence – since the mariners’ pay had been cut with the destruction of the ship.

Rather than have this become known and contribute to future mutinies, the navy quietly abandoned the trial. None of the mutineers were charged with murder, mutiny or any other crime, and the following year the Royal Navy quietly changed its mutiny laws. It was a significant point in legal history. But it’s also an incredible tale of adventure and survival in South America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Of course!  One interesting question is why we know so little about this globally significant expedition. It was hushed up by the Russian government.

Contrary to what Peter the Great envisioned – a publicity stunt to raise Russia’s status as a global power – by the time the expedition was finished politics had shifted and secrecy was supreme. Empress Elizabeth wanted to keep the discovery secret so that only Russians could profit from the new and lucrative fur trade.

Also because it was a shipwreck they thought it might not reflect positively on Russia – the opposite of the British approach, which was to publicise and celebrate all of their achievements, even the disasters, so that we all know about Cook’s voyages but few have head of the Great Northern Expedition.

Because the expedition was never made famous during its era it has remained little known. When one of the main journal accounts was made public in the 1950s, few in the English world were interested in celebrating a Russian expedition. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stephen R. Bown.

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