Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2004 Issue

Voyages and Travels from<br>The William Reese Company


Voyages and Travels from William Reese Co.

By Michael Stillman

The William Reese Company has issued its catalogue number 229, “Voyages and Travels.” Offered are 174 rare books, manuscripts, and illustrations pertaining to the early voyages and travels which “discovered” the world. The earliest dates to the 15th century, the latest to the 20th. There is no particular regional focus. You will find items here covering voyages to the south seas, the Americas, the northern passages, and more.

Attempts to locate a Northwest Passage over Canada were frequent, particularly in the 19th century, but earlier, attempts were made to locate a Northeast Passage north of Russia. In both cases, the costs in human life and suffering far outweighed the number of successes. Three times, Dutch explorer William Barents (or Barentsz) led expeditions east by north. In the first voyage of 1594, they reached the western coast of the islands of Novaya Zemlya (Nova Zembla) but were turned back by ice. The second voyage of 1595 was even less successful as a result of an early winter. However, the third voyage of 1596 managed to circle over the northern edge of Novaya Zemlya before the ship was trapped in ice. The crew had no choice but to winter on the desolate, frigid islands. They built a house to protect themselves from hungry polar bears and trapped for food. No trees grow in this bitter cold region, but many from the Siberian mainland do wash up on shore, providing lumber. The following June, using two sloops, the men returned west. Unfortunately, Barents died along the way.

Almost three centuries later, their house was rediscovered and many of the artifacts were returned to the Netherlands. Part of their ship was found in 1980. Novaya Zemlya went on to be the primary nuclear test site of the old Soviet Union. More recently, it has been considered as a nuclear waste repository. And, it wasn’t until 1878-1879 that Swedish explorer Nils Nordenskjold finally succeeded in making it all the way through the Northeast Passage to the other side.

One of those who traveled with Barents was Gerrit de Veer, and he retells the story of these voyages in Vraye Description de Trois Voyages de Mer… This is the first French edition, translated from and published in the same year as the original Dutch, 1598. De Veer is also noted for describing the “Novaya Zemlya Effect” where refraction of light makes a distorted, rectangular-appearing sun visible even after it has set. De Veer’s work is item 164 in this catalogue and is priced at $22,500.

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