If true, it suggests periods of reduced Arctic sea ice during that time that made this feat possible.
Reposted from the blog Ecotretas with permission
A graphical comparison between the North East Passage (blue) and an alternative route through Suez Canal (red)
David Melgueiro, a Portuguese navigator, might have been the first to navigate the Northeast Passage (known now as Northern Sea Route), between 1660 and 1662, more than 200 years before Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld, who did it in 1878. One of the most detailed accounts for this voyage is given by Eduardo Brazão in The Corte-Real family and the New World (French version here), 1965, in which he describes in pages 68 and 69:
Yet it is interesting to mention here the imaginary (so we believe) voyage of our Melgueiro, in which people believed for some time. On this topic we quote Duarte Leite (op. cit., vol. II, p. 261 et seq.):
«At the end of the 17th century the french naval lieutenant La Madeleine was in Portugal, on a mission from his minister, Count Louis de Pontchartrain, to get information on Portuguese navigation and trading in the East. In the course of his mission he heard, from a Havre sailor who lived in Oporto, of an extraordinary voyage from Japan to Portugal effected by a Portuguese with whom the French sailor was personally acquainted. In January 1700 he communicated the information he had got from him to his minister, who had it archived. It was reproduced in a memoir in 1754 by the French Philippe Buache, the distinguished royal geographer of Louis XV.
The French sailor told that on 14 March 1660 the Dutch sailing ship «Padre Eterno» under the Portuguese David Melgueiro was ready to set sail from the Japanese port of Cangoshima. It was loaded with rich oriental goods and carried passengers, Dutch and Spanish and perhaps also Portuguese, since they had already entered the Nipponic empire in the previous century. At that time Europe was in the throes of war, Holland against France, Spain against Portugal, Spain against England, Portugal’s ally, who was fighting for her independence. The Atlantic and the eastern seas were infested by armed warships, to which pirates should be added. If the tried to return by the sole route till then used, via the Cape of Good Hope it was almost certain to be taken, so that Melgueiro decided to risk taking the other route open to him, by the arctic seas surrounding the old continent. He thus sailed up the current which washes the eastern coasts of Japan and goes up as far as the Anian-Bering strait, sailed round the coast of North Siberia, presumably far off shore, since he did not know the area. He reached the latitude of 84º N, passed between Greenland and the Spitzberg archipelago and sailed down Norway, where he sailed to windward of Ireland and thus reached a Dutch port, where he disembarked his passengers and goods. His mission thus brought to a happy end, he set off in his ship for Oporto, ending his long and adventurous voyage at a date not known. In that city he died, shortly after 1673, and the Havre sailor had attended his funeral.
To his 1754 memoir Buache added the copy of a Portuguese map of 1649, by one Teixeira, which he examined in the French naval archives, on which he drew what he considered to have been Melgueiro’s itinerary. It goes from Japan via the Anian-Bering strait as far as the extremity of Siberia, then so far offshore that it goes beyond the pole and comes down between the islands of Greenland and Spitzberg, then down to the European coasts passing off Ireland».
This plan is nowadays considered to be impossible but in 1897 the scholar and diplomat Jaime Batalha Reis gave it a new form (in «O Comercio do Porto*, 3 February 1897, later re-edited in the collection of articles by the author, published posthumously, Lisbon, 1941) by moving it over to Siberia.
Recently, however, Teixeira da Mota has been able to identify the cartographer mentioned («Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica» vol. IV), and the possibility, hitherto considered implausible, of La Madeleine’s having seen a 1649 Portuguese map by one Teixeira in France is now admitted. But it remains to be found out whether at the date given a Dutch sailing vessel of the name «Padre Eterno» sailed from Congoshima and even more if there was any Portuguese of the name David Melgueiro, which hardly seems to be a Portuguese name. Perhaps it should be «Melguer».
This problem will remain for future study in the vast archives of historical fantasies.
This text refers to the writings of Philippe Buache, a French geographer. The original writings of Philippe Buache are in “Considérations Géographique et physiques sur les nouvelles découvertes au Nord de la grande mer“, 1753, and are available here. The interesting references to Melgueiro are available between pages 137 and 139.
Several expeditions seeked the Northeast Passage, many of them with few historical references. To find more about the real possibilities of Melgueiro’s voyage, we must understand who preceded him. Starting in the north of Russia, the Pomors entered the White Sea during the 12th century, through the Northern Dvina and Onega estuaries. From their base at Kola, they explored the entire Barents Sea, including Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya. Later, the Pomors discovered and kept the Northeast Passage between Arkhangelsk and Siberia. With their ships, called koch, specialized for navigation in the difficult conditions of the Arctic, the Pomors reached far-away places in Siberia, as Mangazeya, east of the Yamal penínusula. In this excellent document by Nataly Marchenko, we find a very interesting map of the Pomor navigations:
In the early 17th century, in the three summer months, the transport of goods by boat was frenetic. The disappearance of Mangazeya was mainly due to political reasons, as in 1619 the death penalty was introduced for anyone doing business in the region. This happened because in previous years the volume of trade there had surpassed the whole of Russia’s trade, with Russians being unable to collect taxes… Interestingly, Mangazeya was devastated by a fire in 1662, which led to its evacuation, being rediscovered in 1967. More information about Mangazeya can be seen in this document, in Russian.
In the meantime, in Rome, diplomat Dmitry Gerasimov, in 1525, suggested a possible route between the Atlantic and Pacific. In 1553, Hugh Willoughby, commanding three ships, with pilot Richard Chancellor, searched for the Northeast passage. The ships were separated by heavy winds, and while Willoughby landed at a bay near the present border between Finland and Russia, and died during the winter, Chancellor managed to reach the White Sea, and then return to Moscow by ground. Later, Chancellor was able to find out what happened to Willoughby, recovering some of his documentation, and discovering references to Novaya Zemlya. However, Steven Borough, who also participated in Willoughby’s expedition, in a second expedition in 1556 discovered the Strait of Kara, but had to turn back, because of the heavy ice. A century before Melgueiro, Borough spent the winter in Kholmogory, in the White Sea.
Willem Barentsz , a Dutch navigator, actively sought the Northeast Passage in the late 16th century. In his first voyage in 1594, he managed to reach the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, but had to turn back because of the ice. The following year, Barentsz made his second attempt, but encountered a frozen Kara Sea, and was forced to turn back. The expedition was considered a failure.
In the third and last voyage, in which he died, Barentsz first discovered Spitsbergen, from where he proceeded to Novaya Zemlya. After crossing the northern tip of the island, they had to spend the winter, having built a cabin with driftwood and timber from their ship. The following summer they returned South, but in the meantime Barentsz died. A good description of this voyage is available in the book The North-west and North-east passages 1576-1611, by Philip Alexander.
The Dutch were the most active in seeking the Northeast Passage. Note that this is an important factor in the equation of Melgueiro’s voyage, since the Eternal Father, in which they made the Northeast Passage, was a Dutch ship. Even before Barentsz, Olivier Brunel in 1584 tried to find the route to the east through the Arctic. In the early 17th century, several navigators at the service of the Dutch East India Company actively sought the passage, including Henry Hudson.
According to Leonid Sverdlov, member of the Russian Geographical Society, there is evidence that a trading venture, launched from the Ob or the Yenisey, circumvented the northernmost part of Eurasia, Chelyuskin Cape, as early as 1617-1620. Archaeological finds from 1940-1945 in the Sims Gulf and the Faddeyevsky island seem to serve as evidence for such a venture. In fact, the island associated with Faddeyevsky, “Kettle Island”, was officially discovered in 1773 by Russian discoverers Ivan Lyakhov and Protod’yakonov, and derives its name from a copper kettle they discovered there. Whoever left it there still remains a mystery…
In 1648 Semyon Dezhnyov became the first European to sail through the Bering Strait, or Aniane, as it was previously known. In the company of Fedot Alekseyev, Andreev and Afstaf’iev, they sailed down the Kolyma River to the Arctic Ocean, rounded the Chukchi Peninsula, and arrived at the Anadyr River, in the Pacific. Their feat was not widely advertised , and has even been the subject of doubt. Also, according to the legend, some of the boats of the expedition may have been diverted to Alaska, but there is no evidence of this, beyond the disappearance of much of the expedition, since only Dezhnyov’s koch, one of seven, arrived at the Anadyr river.
In the first half of the 17th century, notable Russian explorers Mikhail Stadukhin, Ilya Perfilyev, Ivan Rebrov, Elisha Buza, Poznik Zyryan and Dimitry Ivanov, all explored areas of the Yana, Indigirka and Kolyma rivers. Another credit should go to Kurbat Ivanov, who in 1660 (the year Melgueiro sailed from Japan) departed from the Anadyr Bay to Cape Dezhnyov. Following this voyage, Ivanov created an early map of the Chukotka and Bering Strait.
Around 1490, German cartographer Henricus Martellus produced a map of the world then known, visible in the first image below, where a strip of water is visible above northern Asia, thus indicating the possibility of a passage in the Northeast. Martellus produced more maps, visible in this link . In the early 16th century, in 1507, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller produced a conterversial world map. A detailed analysis of his work can be found here. In the second map below (taken from here), it can be seen that there is also a possibility of the existence of a Northeast Passage.
Particularly relevant in this area were the maps of cartographer Gerardus Mercator. In 1569 he produced a map (picture below taken from here, more detail here) with his projection. Although it has notable errors in certain areas of the globe, the outline of northern Asia is close to real, except in the eastern part of Siberia. The Northeast Passage is given as a fact:
In 1570, Abraham Ortelius, encouraged by Mercator, compiled the first modern atlas of the world, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. As seen in the following image, the entire northern coast of Asia is also given as navigable:
In the National Library of Russia more interesting maps can be found. The first map below (image taken from here), from Abraham Ortelius, is given as from 1570, but another source dates it as 1584. The Aniane Strait is perfectly visible on the map, and it is clear that Siberia can de circumvented by the north. The second map of Jodocus Hondius, from 1600, is based on the Mercator map of 1569, incorporating the Barentsz expedition of 1595-1597. The third map, from Hessel Gerritsz, is from 1613, and maps Russia and its northern coast, also including Novaya Zemlya. An important detail about this map sequence is that all of them were made by the Dutch, whom Melgueiro was servicing.
Still before Melgueiro’s voyage, maps from cartographer Willem Blaeu also deserve some highlighting. He was also Dutch, and in 1633 was appointed the official cartographer of the Dutch East India Company. In 1635 he produced the Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula, visible below:
Note how this map is much more real than the maps from Mercator and Ortelius. Blaeu later produced more detailed maps, also part of his work at the Company. In the first of the maps below (first two maps taken from here), from 1638, we see in great detail the northern coast of Russia. In the second map, from 1640 , we can see the full extent of Arctic sea. The third map (image taken from here), also from 1638, we can observe the extreme east of Asia, with a few more details than previous maps.
The mystery surrounding these maps, as well as others, is addressed in an interesting way in this article. In any case, it is safe to say that David Melgueiro would have had access to this information when he eventually made the Northeast Passage in 1660.
|This testimony is confirmed by several collateral proofs of a north passage to India; the captain aud crew of a vessel called the Epervier, who having suffered shipwreck in 1653, near the islands of Japan, were thirteen years prisoners at Corea, affirm that many of the whales, which they saw in the sea between Corea and Japan, had hooks and harpoons in them belonging to the French and Dutch, who generally fish for these animals at Spitzbergen, the northern extremity of Europe.|
Burke goes even further, advancing reports of the time:
|Capt. Wood also reports, in 3 paper published before he performed his voyage, that two Dutch vessels had proceeded as high as lat. 89, which is within one degree of the pole, and there found the sea free and open, though of an unfathomable depth, as appears by four of their journals, which, though separately kept, concurred in this fact, Wood adds, that a Dutchman of great veracity had assured him, that he had even passed under the pole, and found the weather as warm as at Amsterdam. Nor will this appear strange, when it is considered that there being no ice in this part, for the reasons already assigned, the Sun must necessarily give a considerable warmth to the air, by remaining so long above the horizon: so that, upon the whole, the reality of a passage through the North Sea to India seems to be a fact supported by every kind of proof that the subject will admit, except the living testimony of mariners who have made the voyage.|
This latter text is also reported by Johann Reinhold Forster, in his book History of the Voyages and Discoveries made in the North, in pages 426-427.
Regarding the particular winter of 1660-1661, there is a very interesting observation in the diary of Samuel Pepys, writing of a particularly warm winter, for the United Kingdom, and that may expand the possibilities of better conditions for Melgueiro’s voyage:
|It is strange what weather we have had all this winter; no cold at all; but the ways are dusty, and the flies fly up and down, and the rose-bushes are full of leaves, such a time of the year as was never known in this world before here.|
All these guidelines enabled some historians to consider the possibility that David Melgueiro’s voyage was indeed possible. Perhaps the most recognized of these opinions comes from Damião Peres, who in his “History of the Portuguese Discoveries” from 1943, describes us (translation and highlights are my responsibility):
|Viagem de David Melgueiro sob bandeira holandesa
Em 1701, o oficial da marinha francesa La Madelène, que se achava em Portugal ao serviço da diplomacia do seu país, como agente secreto, comunicou ao Conde de Pontchatrain sensacionais notícias relativas a uma viagem do Japão para Portugal, realizada, através do Oceano Ártico cerca de quarenta anos antes, por um navio holandês cujo comando era exercido pelo capitão português David Melgueiro. A dita embarcação, que se chamava O Pai Eterno, saíra do Japão em 14 de Março de 1660, correra a costa da Ásia para o norte, atingira cerca de 84° de latitude setentrional, e daí fora até às vizinhanças da Spitzberg, donde, passando entre esta ilha e a Gronelândia e por oeste da Escócia e da Irlanda, viera demandar a foz do rio Douro. No Porto veio a morrer, por 1673, o dito capitão português, como testemunhava um marinheiro do Havre, que aí então ainda o vira.
A carta de La Madelène onde tais informações se encontravam, datada de 14 de Janeiro de 1701, foi publicada em 1853 pelo geógrafo Filipe Bouache numa memória intitulada Considérations geographiques et physiques sur les nouvelles découvertes au Nord de la grande mer appellée vulgairement la Mer du Sud avec des cartes qui y sont relatives, cuja substância se repetiu no ano seguinte num artigo das Memoires de Mathematique et de Physique tirées des registres de l’Académie Royale des Sciences.
Publicando a referida epístola, Buache mostrou-se convicto de que Melgueiro descobrira de facto uma nova via de comunicação entre os oceanos Pacífico e Atlântico – a chamada passagem de nordeste – percorrendo o Ártico de leste a oeste, após ter ali penetrado pelo estreito que separa a Ásia da América, estreito que ele, Buache, vira representado num mapa português, existente em Paris, desenhado em 1649 pelo cartógrafo Teixeira.
A opinião de Buache não logrou geral aceitação, combatendo-a sobretudo o geógrafo Nordenskiold, alegando: a) ser inverosímil a facilidade com que a viagem fora feita; b) não atingir a latitude de 84 graus boreais a costa asiática, que a epístola de La Madelène dizia percorrida até aí.
Sem dificuldade alguma desfez Jaime Batalha Reis – ao divulgar em Portugal, há meio século, os estudos de Buache – os argumentos de Nordenskiold, afirmando: a) que nada se sabe a respeito das facilidades ou dificuldades encontradas durante a viagem, pois quanto a isso é totalmente omissa a breve notícia redigida por La Madelène; b) que nela não se afirma ter sido costeada a Asia até 84º Lat. N., mas sim o navio correra ao norte até 84 graus, tendo primeiro acompanhado a costa.
Recentemente, mostrou-se também pouco inclinado a aceitar como realmente seguido por Melgueiro o dito itinerário um historiador português – o Visconde de Lagoa. Para este autor são suspeitas as condições em que a notícia da viagem de Melgueiro se tornou conhecida: fixada, tardiamente, por «um tal M. La Madelène, oficial de marinha francês em serviço de espionagem diplomática em Portugal, notícia, por seu turno, inspirada na outiva de um marinheiro do Havre que residiu no Porto e foi íntimo confidente de Melgueiro, a cujos derradeiros momentos assistiu», não tendo havido, por parte dos holandeses, qualquer esforço de propaganda dum tal efeito, que os honraria tanto como aos portugueses, mas antes, como até já La Madelène supunha, um deliberado propósito de ocultar o relato coevo, decerto redigido. Quanto à citação do mapa de João Teixeira, feita por Buache, crê o Visconde de Lagoa haver nela um equívoco, devendo tratar-se não dum mapa do dito cartógrafo português, mas sim duma das cartas do atlas anónimo atribuído a Baptista Agnese, de que existe um exemplar na Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, e na qual «se vê, de facto, o traçado da viagem em questão».
Observaremos, quanto a esta última afirmação, que no referido mapa atribuído a Baptista Agnese está de facto marcada uma viagem em regiões nórdicas, entre o Extremo-Oriente e um porto setentrional da costa ocidental da Península Ibérica, o qual bem pode ser o Porto. Simplesmente, tal percurso de nenhum modo corresponde à descrição da viagem que se atribui a Melgueiro, realizada pelo norte de Ásia e da Europa, ao passo que aquele liga o Pacífico ao Atlântico pelo norte da América setentrional, parecendo corresponder à discutida viagem de Maldonado (1588), em que se diz ter tomado parte o piloto português João Martins.
Furthermore, what Buache said was not that a path as that of Melgueiro was drawn in a Portuguese map of 1649, but that in this map a strait was marked between Asia and North America; this modest claim has nothing extraordinary, as this strait, with the name Aniam, is actually in many maps preceding the date in which it is said that Melgueiro made the voyage. And so, in our view, the fact that the strait was already known, gives credibility to the initiative attributed to Melgueiro, where he would stick through, seeking a passage to Europe, much shorter than the usual one across the Pacific, Indian and the Atlantic. However, it must be recognized that there is no documentary evidence for an absolute statement provided by La Madelene’s document, published by Buache, and that the extreme difficulty of an extensive voyage through the Arctic waters, seeded with ice, should put on guard against optimism acceptance.
However, even this extreme difficulty does not mean it is impossible – not only because one may believe in the possibility of having existed exceptional weather conditions, but also because the Arctic currents run westward across northern Asia and Europe – nor the document relied upon and its authorship gives us a motto for a possible fraud. And so, unable to peremptorily assert that the discovery of the Northeast Passage was made in 1660 by Portuguese captain David Melgueiro, nothing prevents in believing that so great feat was actually performed.
This detail of the Arctic currents is verifiable in several sites. The analysis of those currents naturally favors a Northeast Passage from east to west, especially given the characteristics of the ships of the time.
Equally curious is the fact that the Blaeu map of Spitsbergen from 1662 (image obtained here and visible below), is the first that maps the north coast of Spitsbergen. Note that references to Melgueiro’s voyage report that he had passed between Spitsbergen and Greenland, and he would have had to make the voyage along the northern coast of Spitsbergen. Even if it has no relation to Melgueiro, it is an evidence that those waters would have been free of ice during the summers before 1662.
I knew well that there were no reliable temperature records for the time. But I also knew temperatures for that century had been calculated by dendrochronology. Of all the work to date, there is one paper that is highly referenced in the scientific community: “Annual climate variability in the Holocen“, by Keith R Briffa, published in 2000 in the Quaternary Science Reviews, and available here in PDF. Visual analysis of the average temperatures of that paper’s Figure 1, visible in the chart below, actually shows a rise of temperatures around 1660:
I was also aware that Steve McIntyre had already analyzed this paper, and in this post I found important information on how to contextualize Briffa’s work, as well as his original data. The importance of Briffa’s work is that the average Briffa uses is called “Northern Chronology Average”, because it is obtained from a temperature series for high latitudes. These temperatures represent a good estimate of the temperatures experienced throughout history, for the area where the Northeast Passage is possible. I finally arrived at the following chart, using the average data compiled by Briffa:
We can verify that in the year of the beginning of David Melgueiro’s journey, but especially in the immediately preceding years, temperatures in the north of the northern hemisphere were well above average. In fact, temperatures were the highest in almost two centuries! Such temperatures may be a proof that there were “exceptional weather conditions”, as Damião Peres wrote.
For a better contextualization of the records of the Northeast Passage, I noted in the previous image the most important dates regarding the Northeast Passage. Particularly relevant are the cold years experienced by Barentsz, and yet he still managed to get around the northern part of Novaya Zemlya, not far from Cape Chelyuskin, the most northern part of Asia. Note that the temperatures experienced by Melgueiro would have been better than those experienced by Nordenskiöld, who also had in his favor, in his two years of travel, temperatures above average…
This evidence does not prove, however, that David Melgueiro’s voyage really existed. It just makes it more likely, according to the words of Damião Peres. Virtually no hard evidence exists, and a cloak of secrecy seems to have wrapped this part of history. Buache even complained that Dutch records weren’t made available. Who knows, maybe the definite proof is somewhere out there…