Author: by Captain Mikhail TSIPORUKHA, retired
On August 20, 1826, a Russian sloop of war, the Senyavin, set sail for a voyage of discovery which lasted three years. The route of the voyage passed through the Baltic and North Seas, the Atlantic and some of the southern and northern regions of the Pacific. The man in charge of the expedition was Captain Fyodor Litke, a naval officer who is remembered as a brilliant researcher and organizer. In 1864 he was honoured with the post of the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences which has just celebrated its 275th birthday. Fyodor Litke held this post for 18 years.
With the ship still m sight of the harbour, the Captain lined up her crew on the upper deck and wished his men a happy voyage. He then invited the officers to a special meeting at his quarters where he proceeded to share with them his personal views on ways of maintaining the discipline on board which practically ruled out manhandling and corporal punishment of the crew-things which were common at that time both in the Russian Army and in the Navy. Captain Litke, who was not yet 30, was dead set against such vile practices-an attitude which must have promoted in no small measure the brilliant success of his expedition.
In his preparations for the voyage Captain Litke relied on a tangible background of his previous studies. He prepared for publication the results of four years of studies of some areas of the arctic seas, the Murman coast and Novaya Zemlya. These were accomplished under his guidance in 1821-1824, and the book on the expedition was published in 1828. The research team on board the Senyavin included Dr. Martens, a natural scientist, Professor Postels, a mineralogist and painter, and Dr. Kitlits-a zoologist. The task of the expedition was to study the Russian possessions in the Pacific and provide a description of their northern coast. During the winter months studies had to be shifted to the equatorial waters of the Pacific. Litke attached special importance to studies of the Caroline Islands. He fully shared the views of Admiral Ivan Kruzenstem, a celebrated Russian navigator and Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg Academy, who pointed out that "while having volumes of observations on the customs and traditions of the islanders of the Tonga, or Friendly Islands, not a word has been said by our seafarers of today about the inhabitants of the Carolines and all we have to be content with are missionaries' notes written more than a hundred years ago". Fyodor Litke deemed it necessary to close that gap.
On that particular voyage the Senyavin was accompanied by another sloop of war, the Moller, under the command of Captain Mikhail Stanyukovich, though the two vessels often parted ways in pursuit of some particular objectives. After a visit to Copenhagen, the Senyavin set sail for Portsmuth from where Litke took a special trip to London to collect a
previously ordered pendulum instrument for gravity measurements. And although they left the British coast during autumn storms, their crossing of the Atlantic towards the coast of Brazil occurred mostly in dead calm and took about two months during which time the crew were suffering from scorching heat.
During the crossing of the equator the crew enjoyed the traditional Neptune rite which was a welcome break from the daily routine. In general the captain encouraged amateur art shows by his sailors, their use of the ship's library, and supplied the illiterate ones with primers. The officers were expected to deliver some educational lectures now and then.
After a brief stopover at Rio-de-Janeiro, where Captain Litke carried out geophysical studies and his team of natural scientists explored the surrounding area, the sloop set sail for Cape Horn. And contrary to their worst expectations, even despite occasional storms, fair winds attended their voyage.
They reached the Pacific waters on March 4, 1827. In Valparaiso, Chile, Litke rented a house in the suburbs which became their shore base. It was used for magnetic and astronomical observations, and the natural scientists stored there their finds recovered on tours of the area.
From Valparaiso the expedition set sail northwards-towards what was known as Russian America. The haunting hope of new discoveries guided Captain Litke to parts of the Pacific away from the commonly accepted sea lanes. He also wanted to reach the crossing point of the geographical and magnetic equators which, as was believed at that time, was located close to 130 West. But during the ten weeks at sea they never saw so much as an islet, and on June 12, 1827 the Senyavin cast anchor in the roads of Novoarkhangelsk-the then administrative center of Russian America on the Isle of Sitka (Baranoff island). They remained there for more than a month during which time the crew did some repairs of the ship's hull and rigging. Their next port of call was the Unalashka Island in the Aleutians. Once there the expedition took on board several tribesmen together with their boats which helped them in their explorations of the coast. Next on the agenda was St. Matthews Isle located in the center of the northern part of the Bering Sea. It was thoroughly investigated. With the approaching autumn storms, Captain Litke decided not to push his luck on the northward tack and set course first for the Commodores and then for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
On October 29, 1827, they left the port and headed south and towards the Caroline Archipelago. Two months later they reached the Island of Yualan on its easternmost tip. The stopover, which lasted for almost one month, was used for the first-ever gravity measurements on the archipelago after which the Senyavin sailed down south along the meridian in a bid to locate the position of the magnetic equator thereupon. That done, the sloop again turned north in a bid to locate some small islands traced on the maps of that time, but found nothing. As the Captain recalled later, during their passage through the archipelago they cut their sail down to the minimum after dark so as not to miss some unknown piece of land. He broke this rule in the small hours of January 2, 1828. But at daybreak they saw ahead of them some land not marked on the maps.
Reaching the Island of Ponape (in the East Carolines), they found the natives to be so hostile that it was decided not to risk a landing. Even boats sent to fathom depth in one of the bays came under attack. But Captain Litke did not loose his temper even then, though he named the spot the Bay of Hostile Reception.
The explorers described the low-lying islands near Ponape. In the eastern part of the archipelago, which had been known to the Europeans for almost three centuries already, he was surprized with the discovery of some populated islands (including the biggest one in that archipelago). He named them after Dmitry Senyavin "in honor of the highly esteemed man after whom our ship was named"(*).
On the basis of his observations of the length and shape of the numerous clusters of isles in the Caroline archipelago, and taking into account the relief of the seabed in coastal waters, Captain Litle put forward a hypothesis on their origin and inner structure which echoes on many points the more recent theories on the formation of coral islands. He pointed out, for example, that the Namonuito isles can be regarded "as the foundation of a future cluster of islands, or one big island, since this place... typifies the original form of all such coral islands. Maybe due to its more recent origin, or because of its size, it lags behind the other isles and does not form one single chain of islands and reefs, although all of the prerequisites for that are there. The bottom of the future lagoon... with an even depth of about 23 fathoms, covered with shallows, is already there. At the windward edge... there are already several islands, linked with reefs. And an island also grew up at the opposite end". While investigating the Carolines, Captain Litke and his team of scientists combined hydrographical studies with astronomical, magnetic and gravimetric measurements. The natural scientists gathered rich collections of local flora and fauna.
Thereupon the Senyavin set sail for the Island of Guam in the Mariana archipelago in order to replenish the food stocks and conduct gravimetric measurements (since a considerable anomaly had been established there before). Then the sloop returned to the Carolines and completed four months ofhydrographic explorations in its western part.
During its voyages to both of the above archipelagoes the expedition studied the customs and traditions of the islanders. These ethnographic studies provided an important contribution to science especially since the
* D. Senyavin-Russian admiral who rose to fame during the Russian-Turkish campaign of 1806-1812-Ed.
Captain of the expedition and his colleagues restrained from any arrogant ways in dealing with the natives. During a long stay on the Yualan the sailors made friends with the islanders, taught them European farming methods and demonstrated some of the tools.
On April 3, 1828, the Senyavin set sail for a northward voyage to the Bonin-Sima islands which were the next target of the expedition. The islands proved to be uninhabited; the Russians found and resqued just two British sailors from a whaler which had sunk there two years before. As always Captain Litke conducted magnetic and gravimetric measurements, and the natural scientists replenished their collections. With the two Britons on board, the Senyavin weighed anchor on May 2, arriving in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the 29th of that month. On June 15 the voyage was resumed with the ship bound north, over to the eastern coast of the Bering Sea. On the way Captain Litke conducted astronomical observations to pinpoint some of the most prominent features on the Kamchatka coast and determined the height of some of the local mountains. Descriptions were made of the Karaginsky and Verhoturov islands after which the ship sailed on to the north.
The party reached the Bering Strait on July 14 where they determined the position of Cape Vostochny (now Cape Dezhnev). Two days later the ship cast anchor at Lavrenty Bay on the shore of Chukotka.
The ship returned to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on September 22, 1828, where the Mollerhad been waiting for them for more than a month; and on October 30 the two ships set out on a homeward voyage back to Kronstadt, but in a storm two weeks later they lost sight of each other and Captain Litke decided to use that chance for yet one more visit to the Carolines. They spent there about a month doing hydrographical studies and descriptions of the islands.
As it was. Captain Litke was able to bring all of his plans to fruition. In his report on the expedition he wrote: "In the Carolines archipelago we have studied the area occupied by the archipelago itself from Yualan to the Yulufy group; we have discovered 12 and described a total of 26 clusters of separate islands. The Carolines archipelago, regarded so far as most dangerous for navigation, will now be as safe as some of the best-known areas on the globe".
The Senyavin returned to Kronstadt on August 25, 1829, after a voyage which lasted 3 years and 5 days. Back home, the leader of the expedition lost no time in sorting out the wealth of his findings. From 1833 to 1838 a total of five books were published in Russian summing up the whole range of these studies. The author was honoured with the Demidov Prize of the Russian Academy of Sciences and in the subsequent years his books were also published abroad bringing their author truly international recognition.
The expedition led by Fyodor Litke provided a tangible contribution to science. His magnetic and pendulum measurements, for example, covered areas of the globe from 60 N to 33 S. Large amounts of data were collected on the temperature of oceanic water, air temperature and pressure in various regions and marine currents. Captain Litke left, for example, a detailed description of what we call the Pacific Tradewind Countercurrent, streaming eastwards in the low latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere (it was first observed by the Russian navigator Ivan Kruzenstem during his round-the- world voyage of 1803-1806).
As has been mentioned before, the expedition on board the Senyavin conducted the first ever hydrographic studies in the Carolines archipelago; maps and descriptions in the Eastern coast of the Bering Sea made by the Litke team were still in use with Russian seamen up to the 1930s.
The expedition gathered a wealth of data on zoology, botany, geology and ethnography. It described several varieties of bats and one hitherto unknown seal species, 100 reptile species, 300 fish species, 700 species of insects, and made a large collection ofseashells. Of particular interest was a collection of herbs amassed by Dr. Martens (of 2,500 different plants, including ferns), and there was also a collection of more than 300 mineral samples.
The ethnographic collection featured a range of garments, tools, utensils and ornaments of the islanders and inhabitants of the Northern coastal regions.
At the end of 1829, four months after his return from the expedition, Fyodor Litke was elected Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1855 he was made its Honorary Member and became its President in 1864.
After Captain Litke's death, his role as President of the Academy received this appreciation from another leading member of the Academy, Prof. Otto Struwe: "An unbiassed verdict of history, void of personal impressions, will give credit to the obstacles which Litke had to overcome and pass its better judgement... Remember ...his tireless efforts for the benefit of the Academy... Remember the warm welcome and encouragement he gave to every new step in science. Look at the affluent resources and activities of the Main Physical Observatory, at the exemplary meteorological and magnetic observatory in Pavlovsk. Compare the number of prizes with which we can crown the outstanding works of science and literature with their limited number available before. Compare the present state of our museums, collections and other teaching aids with their previous condition. And you will probably agree to attest to the whole world how fruitful was Litke's administration for the Academy. But we shall credit him above all else for his ceaseless efforts to revive and preserve among us the spirit of pure and serious science...".
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