Author Tags: 1700-1800
Sven Waxell (1701-1762) was the Swedish second-in-command to Vitus Bering when his men made their North American landfall. [See Bering entry] This expedition used a wildly speculative 1731 map drawn by Joseph-Nicolas de L’Isle, revised in 1733.
Bering, at age sixty, was ill with scurvy early in the voyage and Waxell had control of the ship’s day-to-day operations. Accompanied by his twelve-year-old son, Waxell produced the best-known account of the fateful expedition, although Bering’s log was also kept by his assistant navigator, Kharlam Yushin.
Waxell wrote, “By now so many of our people were ill that I had, so to speak, no one to steer the ship. Our sails, too, had worn so thin that I expected them to fly off at any moment. When it came to a man’s turn at the helm, he was dragged to it by two other of the invalids who were still able to walk a little, and set down at the wheel. There he had to sit and steer as well as he could, and when he could sit no more, he had to be replaced by another in no better case than he.... Our ship was like a piece of dead wood, with none to direct it. We had to drift hither and thither at the whim of the winds and waves. I tried to instill courage into the men, appealing to them; for there was no question of exerting authority in such a situation, where desperation already held sway.”
With 12 crew members already dead, a group decision was made on November 4, 1741 to try anchoring near some land they sighted, presuming they had reached Kamchatka on the Russian mainland. In fact, this was Bering Island, located about 175 km. from Kamchatka. Their ship was unable properly to anchor due to the harsh conditions of wind and surf. It was gradually torn asunder as the death toll mounted. Here blue foxes on Bering Island ate the hands and feet of the dead before they could be buried. “Men were continually dying,” Waxell wrote of that winter. “Our plight was so wretched that the dead had to lie for a considerable time among the living, for there was none able to drag corpses away, nor were those who lived capable of moving away from the dead. They had to remain lying all mixed up together in a ring with a little fire in the centre.” During his final voyage Vitus Bering was mostly too ill to perform even the job of making journal entries.
When Bering died on December 8, Waxell formally took command. Their diet of sea otters was varied in March with arrival of fur seals and manatees, plus herbs and other plants for making broth. From the wreckage of the St. Peter the marooned survived starting building a smaller craft in April. They finally put to sea on August 13 and arrived at Petropavlovsk on August 27. "I am not able to describe," Waxell wrote, "the joy and heart-felt delight we one and all felt and exhibited on our deliverance. From the utmost misery and distress we plunged into a veritable superabundance, for there was a whole storehouse full of provisions, comfortable warm quarters and other amenities."
According to Allen A. Wright in Prelude to Bonanza, "Waxell's original manuscript, which was in German, became part of the Tsar's private archives, and after surviving somehow the ransacking of the Imperial Palace during the Bolshevik Revolution, re-appeared in a bookshop in Leningrad in 1938. A Danish edition appeared a few years later, and this was eventually translated into English and published under the title The American Expedition, nearly 200 years after the events described."
Journal of Captain-Commander Vitus Bering and Lieutenant Sven Waxell 1741-1742 from Petrovskaia Harbor to the East written on the boat Petr, from May 24, 1741 to September 7, 1742. First published in Russian in 1938; then in Danish.
Waxell, Sven. The American Expedition (London: William Hodge and Company, 1952).
Waxell, Sven. The Russian Expedition to America (New York: Cromwell Collier Books, 1962). With an introduction and notes by M. A. Michael (first published in English as The American Expedition).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "1700-1800" "Russian" "Swedish"