The expedition of Willem Barentsz and Jacob van Heemskerck was the third serious Dutch attempt to reach Asia, more particularly China, through a northern route. After the rather calamitous second attempt of the previous year, interest and investments in the attempts had plummeted, and only enough money could be raised to equip two small ships.
Expedition and wintering
In May 1596, the two ships set sail from Amsterdam. The expedition first set a course due north, on the assumption that it was possible to sail straight over the North Pole during the summer months. When, near Spitsbergen, the ships were faced with huge amounts of ice, a difference of opinion between Jan Cornelisz’ Rijp on the one hand, and Barentsz and Heemskerck on the other, came out in the the open. Whereas Rijp wanted to follow the instructions and look for a route over the north pole by sailing along Greenland’s coast, Heemskerck and Barentsz wanted to give sailing past the Russian coast to the east, which had proven unsuccessful during the previous expedition, another try. On the 1st of July, the ships went their separate ways. Rijp unsuccessfully tried to find a route through the ice and then also turned east, in pursuit of Barentsz and Heemskerck. The latter had done so immediately, passed by the north of the island of Nova Zembla in Mid-August, but were then locked in by the ice, and driven into a bay on Nova Zembla’s northeast coast, which they dubbed IJshaven (ice harbour). As it became increasingly clear that the ship would remain stuck, the men started building a house on the shore out of driftwood and planks from the ship, in which they spent the harrowing subsequent winter.
Only in mid-June of the next year, some 10 months after they had gotten stuck did circumstances allow to attempt a return voyage in two open boats. The men succeeded at reaching the Russian port town of Kola at the end of August, and to their great surprise found Jacob Cornelisz. de Rijp there, who had been unable to make it past the ice and had spent the winter on the Russian coast. By the end of October, the remaining ship returned the combined crews to the Netherlands. Of the crew of Barentsz and Heemskerck, 5 out of the original 17 crew members had not survived the expedition, including Barentsz himself, who had died during the return voyage on the open boats.