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Henry Hudson's Exploration Of Russia's Arctic Waters Remembered

  • Nikola Krastev

Before he began his search for the Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson first tried to go northeast, through Russian waters.

Before he began his search for the Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson first tried to go northeast, through Russian waters.

NEW YORK -- It was September 1609 when the English explorer Henry Hudson voyaged up the North American river that would later bear his name, and discovered the island that would someday become the most valuable piece of real estate in the United States -- Manhattan.

But in two separate journeys in 1607 and 1608, Hudson was navigating the far more treacherous waters of Russia's Far North, in a bid to find a passage to China and India.

Both times, he made it as far as the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean before bad weather forced his return, disappointing his employer, the English-based Muscovy Trading Company. (It was on his third trip, for the Dutch East India Company, that he ended up in New York Harbor, after another failed Far East attempt.)

Jaap Jacobs, a Dutch historian specializing in New York's early history, has translated Hudson's travel journals. He says Hudson may have been hired by the Muscovy firm because of experience in sailing north.

"My suspicion is that he had experience in the northern waters -- either by sailing, let's say, to Newfoundland or the route to Arkhangelsk," Jacobs says.

"All those routes. And that is probably why he was hired by the Muscovy company, because from that background they would know [he was a good hire]."

Searching For A Northeast Passage

The Muscovy company, which was established in 1555, paved the way for trade between England and Russia. (The firm survived until the Russian Revolution in 1917.) As early as Muscovy's first year, co-founder Richard Chancellor had sailed to Arkhangelsk and traveled to Moscow to visit the royal court of Ivan the Terrible.

Hudson made it as far as Novaya Zemlya (in red).
Surviving documents don't indicate whether Hudson himself ever landed on Russian territory. But Douglas Hunter, a Canadian journalist and author of the book "Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World," says if he had, it was probably in Arkhangelsk, then the main trade port on the White Sea.

Hunter says that because of security concerns on those exploratory voyages, captains did not trust their crew and rarely, if ever, left their ships.

"So, for example, on the 1608 voyage they do end up scurrying along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, and several shore parties do go ashore from the ship," Hunter says. "So technically, they set foot on Russian soil. But Hudson himself gives no indication that he ever set foot in Russia. He stays on the ship all the time."

In 1611, Hudson set out on what was to be his final journey in search of the Northwest Passage around North America to the Far East. But after a long and difficult winter, his crew mutinied, leaving Hudson, his son, and seven crew members stranded in a small boat in what would be Hudson Bay. Their remains were never found.

Hudson never succeeded in finding a northern passage over Russia; his journeys also marked the end of the era of great geographic discoveries of the 15th-17th centuries. It was only 250 years later, with the introduction of powerful steam engines, that it became possible for ships to safely navigate Russia's northern Arctic waters.