Vitus Jonassen Bering (also, less correctly, Behring) (August, 1681 - December 19, 1741) was a Danish-born navigator in the service of Russia, captain-komandor of the Russian Navy known among the Russian sailors as Ivan Ivanovich.
Bering was born in the town of Horsens. After a voyage to the East Indies, he joined the Russian Navy in 1703, and served in the Baltic Fleet during the Great Northern War. In 1710-1712 he served in the Azov Sea Fleet and took part in the Russo-Turkish war . He married a Russian woman, and in 1715 he made a brief visit to his hometown, never to see it again. A series of explorations of the north coast of Asia, the outcome of a far-reaching plan devised by Peter the Great, led up to Bering's first voyage to Kamchatka. In 1725, under the auspices of the Russian government, he went overland to Okhotsk, crossed to Kamchatka, and built the ship Sviatoi Gavriil (St. Gabriel). In her he pushed northward in 1728, until he could no longer observe any extension of the land to the north, or its appearance to the east.
In the following year he made an abortive search for mainland eastward, rediscovering one of the Diomede Islands (Ratmanov Island) observed earlier by Dezhnev. In summer of 1730 Bering returned to St. Petersburg. During the long trip through Siberia along the whole Asian continent he became very ill. Five of his children died during this trip. Bering was subsequently commissioned to a further expedition, and returned to Okhotsk in 1735. He had the local craftsmen, Makar Rogachev and Andrey Kozmin, build two vessels, Sviatoi Piotr (St. Peter) and Sviatoi Pavel (St. Paul), in which he sailed off and in 1740 established the settlement of Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. From there he led an expedition towards America in 1741. A storm separated the ships, but Bering sighted the southern coast of Alaska, and a landing was made at Kayak Island or in the vicinity. The second ship, under the command of Aleksei Chirikov, discovered the shores of the northwestern America (Aleksander Archipelago of present-day Alaska). These voyages of Bering and Chirikov were a major part of the Russian exploration efforts in the North Pacific known today as the Great Northern expedition .
Bering was soon forced by adverse conditions to return, and discovered some of the Aleutian Islands on his way back. One of the sailors died and was buried on one of these islands, and the group was named after him as the (Shumagin Islands). Bering became too ill to command his ship, which was at last driven to refuge on an uninhabited island in the Commander Islands group (Komandorskiye Ostrova) in the southwest Bering Sea, where Bering himself and 28 men of his company died. This island bears his name. A storm shipwrecked Sv. Piotr, but the only surviving carpenter, S. Starodubtsev, with the help of the crew managed to build a smaller vessel out of the wreckage. The new vessel had a keel length of only 12.2 meters (40 feet) and was also named Sv. Piotr. Out of 77 men aboard Sv. Piotr only 46 survived the hardships of the expedition which claimed its last victim just one day before coming into home port. Sv. Piotr was in service for 12 years sailing between Kamchatka and Okhotsk till 1755. Its builder Starodubtsev returned home with governmental awards and later built several other seaworthy ships.
It was long before the value of Bering's work was fully recognized; but Captain Cook was able to prove his accuracy as an observer. Nowadays, the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, Bering Island and the Bering Land Bridge bear the Russian explorer's name.
In August 1991, Bering's grave and the graves of five other seamen were discovered by a Russian-Danish expedition. The remains were transported to Moscow where they were investigated by the forensic physicians who succeeded in recreating Bering's appearance. Examination of Bering's teeth showed no sign of scurvy, leading to the conclusion that he died of some other disease.
In 1992, Bering and the other sailors were buried a second time on Bering Island.
- G. F. Müller, Sammlung russischer Geschichten, vol. iii. (St Petersburg, 1758)
- P. Lauridsen, Bering og de Russiske Opdagelsesrejser (Copenhagen, 1885)
Last updated: 10-17-2005 01:04:28