In the National Maritime Museum in London, there is a marvellous oil painting by the Dutch artist Christiaan Portman which records the death of the explorer Willem Barents. Savage icebergs form the backdrop to a scene of lamentation that is full of symbolism. Barents, even at the hour of death, has his hand on a map of the Arctic region; the empty hour-glass by his side is a comment on the inevitability of death.
Can you imagine what it might have been like to be an early explorer in the Arctic? When Willem Barents set out from Amsterdam in 1594, bound for northern seas, he would have had a much hazier idea of what he might encounter than the first men who travelled to the moon almost four centuries later. Travel to the islands of the Arctic today, and you will find little trace of Barents and other pioneer explorers. How many modern travellers in the Barents Sea region have any real inkling of the ordeals suffered by Barents and his crews, who, on three successive years attempted to sail to China and the Indies via the Arctic seas off Russia's north coast? On his third and last journey, Barents' ship became stuck in ice, and he was forced to overwinter near the north-eastern tip of Novaya Zemlya. No Europeans had ever before wintered so far north. Barents died the following June, most probably a victim of scurvy. The route to Cathay eluded those early Dutch explorers, yet Barents' three expeditions - and particularly his ill-fated final journey - resulted in an important early map of the Arctic. That was posthumously published. And the detailed diaries of Gerrit de Veer remain one of the most insightful accounts of early polar exploration.