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Museum catalogue: Kamchatka Catalogue


Background to the first depictions of Kamchatka

The earliest knowledge of Kamchatka comes from the translation of Stepan Krasheninnikov’s History of Kamtschatka, first published in 1755 and translated into English in 1764. This had a few illustrations, but the first real knowledge of Kamchatka in western Europe comes from the third voyage of Captain Cook, 1776-1780, and the many depictions by the expedition’s official artist John Webber.

There had long been interest in discovering a north-west passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which might shorten the journey between Europe and China and the spice islands of the Far East. Cook’s instructions were to search for this passage from the Pacific end.

The voyage took them through the Pacific, sighting the previously unknown Hawaiian Islands where they stopped briefly, then on to the west coast of North America, arriving at Nootka Sound in March 1778. The ships then pressed northwards, charting the coastline, threading through the Aleutian Islands, and passing through the Bering Straits. In latitude 70°41´N. they were halted by a solid mass of pack-ice. Turning eastwards to avoid being crushed between the shore and the ice, the ships steered towards the coast of Asia. They made brief contact with the Chukchi and returned through the Bering Strait on the Asian side and headed for Hawaii to winter in more hospitable waters. This was of course to end tragically for Cook.

After Cook’s death in February 1779, the voyage continued on the original plan under Captain Charles Clerke, to probe for a passage starting on the Russian side. The two ships, Resolution and Discovery, arrived in April 1779 at Avacha Bay on the west coast of Kamchatka.

The visitors on this first visit were not impressed by Kamchatka which was still in the grip of winter. However contacts were made with the Russians at the village of Petropavlovsk (St. Peter & St. Paul). Webber, who spoke German, was called upon to act as interpreter as this was the only language in common. He was among the party which made the journey by dog sledge to visit the Russian Governor of Kamchatka, Major Behm, at Bolsheretsk, on the other side of the peninsula. Behm (who was himself of German origin) was very helpful to the party, and Clerke gave him copies of Cook’s journals and charts to be sent to England via St. Petersburg. It was thus from here that the news of Cook’s death eventually reached London.

In June the ships left to sail northwards once more. The ice-pack formed an impenetrable barrier, despite repeated efforts to get through. The ships only reached 70°33´N., not as far as the year before.

Clerke, who was by now seriously ill, ordered the ships to return to Kamchatka for repairs, and then sail for England. He died shortly before arriving back in Petropavlovsk and was buried there. Captain James King then took over command. The ships remained several weeks before setting sail in October 1779.

The Kamchatkans

The Kamchatkans were one of the many peoples of eastern Siberia brought under Russian rule as the Empire spread eastwards. They converted to Orthodox Christianity, and intermarried with the Russians. The people were described as short in stature, with broad faces, high cheekbones and little noses, and the British remarked on their similarity to the natives of the Aleutian Islands. Most used Russian dress, but well adapted for a harsh climate and rugged travel. The British visitors were intrigued by dog sledges. Traditional forms of dwelling were retained – the winter homes were yurt-shaped, semi-buried in the ground. The summer dwellings, or balagans, were raised on stilts.

Webber – Artist of the Third Voyage

John Webber (1751-1793) was the son of a Swiss sculptor who had settled in London. He trained in Berne and Paris, then entered the Royal Academy Schools in London. His work there impressed Dr. Daniel Solander, who recommended him to Sir Joseph Banks, both of whom had sailed on Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific. As a result Webber was engaged in 1776 to join the third voyage as ‘Draughtsman and Landskip Painter’. He was 24 years old.

Webber was talented and worked hard, producing many drawings. His skill and stamina proved equal to the most extreme conditions and locations. His work included landscapes and individual portraits, as well as drawings of record which show details of native dress, artefacts and activities. His work was intended for publication and many were turned into engravings for the published account of the Voyage. The drawings form an exceptional record of the indigenous inhabitants of Kamchatka during the first British contact with the region. What is striking is the sympathy with which Webber portrayed the Kamchatkans as individuals, rather than treating them as specimens of another strange and exotic race.

Further reading

  • Williams, Glyndwr; Quilley, Geoff; Arutiunov, Sergey and Forgan, Sophie. Smoking coasts and ice-bound seas: Cook's voyage to the Arctic. (Whitby: Captain Cook Memorial Museum, 2008. 52 p.)
  • Joppien, Rudiger and Smith, Bernard. The art of Captain Cook's voyages. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1985. 3 vols.)
  • Webber, John, 1752-1793. Taken from the life : the Farquhar collection of North Pacific drawings by John Webber. (Potts Point, N.S.W. : Hordern House, 2000. 55 p.)