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THE DISCOVERER'S GRAVE;
TIIE DEATH OF BEHRING.
MSOMN the first discovery of America, Europe be
held the new region as a totally distinct world, separated from the old homes of Europe by a wide ocean, and forming a circle of its own in
the great mundane system. Strange were its people, whose vast but barbaric mythology, and remnants of ruined cities, pointed to primitive ages when the first race of men—the giants of olden time-raised their Cyclopean walls and massive towers. Strange, too, were the reports of inexhaustible riches, of diamond-paved streams, and rivers sparkling with golden sands, which summoned distant nations to seize upon the glittering prize, and brought to the astonished natives of Mexico and Peru a Cortez and a Pizarro. But soon Europe became familiar with America, and began to regard it as part and parcel of the old world, and an essential member of the great geographical commonwealth ; for fast and full rolled the tide of emigration into the bright plains, dense forests, and far extended coasts of the new world. At length the once unknown region, discovered simply because it barred a western passage to the Indies, and which Columbus so unexpectedly lighted on in his road thither, was deemed to be united to the ancient earth ; and western America was supposed to join hands with Asia ; so that, instead of being separated on every side by wide oceans, its physical relationship with the old world was clearly admitted. This point of junction was reckoned to be in the
high north-western latitudes ; and its existence seemed confirmed by the repeated disappointments in the search for a north-western passage to Asia. Every attempt to discover such a route must have implied the conviction that some channel separated America from Asia ; and the non-discovery of the desired sea-path led geographers to believe in the union of the two continents. But this notion at length yielded to the progress of discovery, and the separation of the old from the new world became an established fact by the surveys of Behring, a Danish navigator who was induced to enter the Russian navy, then receiving the highest patronage from that imperial mind which laid the foundations of Russian greatness. The genius of Peter the Great enabled him to detect in the mariner of Jutland the spirit and energy of the discoverer, and the ruling mind of the North soon found ample work for Vitus Behring.
The Danish mariner did not, however, commence the discoveries, which have given him a name in the histories of all nations, during the life of Peter ; in the year of whose death Behring prepared for his first survey of the coast of Kamtschatka. His researches were pursued according to plans prepared by the emperor himself, who had drawn up a series of remarks for the guidance of those upon whom the task of examining the unknown waters north of the Aleutian Isles might fall. The results of Behring's labours were attained by two voyages; one, undertaken in 1728, when he proved the great point that Asia is not united to America ; and the other, made in 1741, when he completed his researches, and died amid his discoveries. The latter belongs directly to the subject of this chapter, and comprehends most of the great triumphs achieved by Behring.
In the year 1741 he saw his two vessels ready in the port of Alaska, to which place he gave the names of his ships the St. Peter and the St. Paul, calling it the harbour of St. Peter and St. Paul ; from which he sailed on June 4th. The harbour whence he departed is at the southern extremity of Kamtschatka, where the distance between Asia and America is much greater than at various points more towards the north, where the lands gradually approach, leaving at last but a strait of about fifty miles wide. Behring's course lay, therefore, to the north and northwest, in which direction he sailed fourteen days before discovering the opposite continent. He now began to explore the coast to make certain that it was indeed the American continent he beheld, as on previous occasions a group of islands had been taken for the mainland—a mistake likely to happen on a coast swarming with dark, volcanic-looking isles, which seemed like the remnants of some ancient causeway formerly uniting the now dissevered continents. The reader, who will trace the Aleutian isles stretching from the American Cape of Alaska to Behring's islands, will be struck by the appearance of something like a former junction between the two continents by these numerous and dark ocean-towers, which stand like sentinels guarding the pass between the old and new worlds. Through such groups Behring carefully steered his ship, and soon satisfied himself of the existence and extent of that strait which, whilst it separates America from Asia, connects the Pacific with the Arctic Ocean.
Succeeding navigators of the highest ability have surveyed that sea and those straits, which preserve, amid the changes of ages, the name of Behring ; but to him alone must be given the honour of discovering the celebrated channel through which the waters of either Pole communicate. A more perfect acquaintance with each bay and arm of that sea, both on the American and Asiatic shores, has since been obtained by the surveys of the Russians, and the labours of British navigators, especially those of Cook and Beechy ; but this more perfect knowledge lessens not the fame of Behring, for discoverers usually leave the filling up of their great results to succeeding minds.
What rewards attended him, the reader may inquire. Did he retire to some Russian palace in the new capital of the Czars, and live the idol of the people, and the honoured of the nobles? Or did he, retiring to Jutland, pass his days in the pleasing seclusion of some Danish village, listening to the roar of the distant sea, but unshaken by its tempests? Let the reader take down his chart of the sea between Kamtschatka and the shores of Russian America, and observe that arc of a circle formed by the Aleutian Isles : at one end is Cape Alaska, and the other is terminated by Behring's Island. That isle is so called because it witnessed the navigator's last moments, and a few feet of its sandy shore became his grave
It was the month of December in 1741 : the icebergs, and storm, with bitter frost, had gathered their forces in the northern seas, and the black tempest howled over the wastes of a desolate island near the Asiatic shore of Behring's Strait. A small group of sailors might be seen cowering in the most sheltered part of the beach ; and a man, bearing the marks of authority, lying, exhausted by disease, in a hole scooped out of the sand. This was Behring : he lay, dying, in this lonely isle, having left the captain of the St. Peter actively surveying the American shore. What sad tide of suffering had borne him hither?
Whilst occupied in tracing the trending of the straits, a furious tempest swept his bark from her course, hurrying her to the south, from the narrower parts of the channel towards the open sea. In vain the sails were closely clewed : hour by hour the ship lost way, and it seemed as if the storm-spirit of the Arctic Sea had despatched his hosts to repel the daring navigator from invading the ancient, untouched passes of the deep. But the storm was not the only evil : the terrible sea-scurvy
had attacked them, and day by day some soul passed from the plague-stricken ship. To escape from the pestilential air of the vessel became now absolutely necessary; and to find some wintering-place on the coast either of America or Kamtschatka was the great object of both captain and crew. But a spell seemed upon the ship : the reckoning was lost, water failed, the crew were dying, and the steersman so enfeebled that two men were compelled to support him at his post. The days were becoming short, and the long nights exposed the drifting ship to numerous dangers amidst the rocks and islands of the unknown sea. To increase their perilous condition, the rigging of the vessel began to yield before the constant action of the elements ; and thus the masts seemed likely to fall upon the sea-beaten hull.
The struggle was, however, soon over. One night the doomed vessel was shattered upon a line of breakers off Behring's Island, on which, however, the crew were safely landed, November the 8th. Not one regarded the loss of
the ship as a subject of regret, so certain were all that nothing but an escape to land could deliver them from the
So enfeebled had some become that they died immediately after their removal to the land ; and most of the remaining crew shrunk through weakness from the slightest exertion, preferring to lie down in despairing lethargy rather than undertake the smallest labours. Nor is this surprising, when their physical sufferings are considered. The usual symptoms of their disease comprehended mental and bodily prostration ; a strange indifference to life, and deep inelancholy fell upon them ; whilst acute inflammation piercing through the limbs, a livid skin, and the general decay of the vital functions, added to the horrors of their condition.
Behring was attacked by this sea-plague, and rapidly sunk under its wasting influence, which neither a constitution inured to all climates, nor the attention of his officers and crew could furnish him with the means of resisting. In this state lay, in the month of December, 1741, the favourite of Peter the Great, dying amid the regions which his perseverance had opened to the world. His course was now clearly over : the fatal melancholy, accompanied by delirium, had seized him; and on December the 8th, in 1741, Behring died, leaving his name to the guardianship of the old and new worlds, between the boundaries of which he found his grave.
The island on which Behring died and was buried is about a hundred miles long and fifteen broad, and placed at the western extremity of the Aleutian Chain, which extends directly across the southern entrance to the Straits. This island, so desolate in 1741, has now become a trading station for the agents of the Russian Free Company, who have thus broken in upon the solemn stillness of Behring's grave. It was not found to be an island until after his death, when the crew sent out an exploring party, and ascertained the bearing of the coast.
A few words may suffice for detailing the adventures of Behring's crew after their commander's death. The men contrived to weather the storms of winter, and constructed a boat from the materials of their ship; which, as if sympathising with her departed captain, fell to pieces in a tempest shortly after his death. They began to build their new vessel