Joseph Billings, who sailed on the Third Voyage in Discovery as an able seaman (AB), was born in Turnham Green, West London, on 6 September 1758. He was one of four children of Thomas and Mary Billing, who had been married on 8 July 1754 at Chiswick. Joseph was baptised at St. Nicholas in Chiswick on 24 September 1758. He had a sister, Henrietta Maria, and two brothers, James and Randal. Henrietta and Randal both died in infancy. Joseph’s parents both died in 1768, when he was still only nine years old. The surname appears variously as Billing and Billings.
Billings joined Discovery on 8 April 1776 as AB. He transferred to Resolution on 14 September 1779. On both musters his name was listed as Bellens. In Discovery he assisted the astronomer, William Bayly. After the voyage Billings was one of several men who went with James King to the ships Conquestador, Crocodile and Resistance. It is unclear when and where the bond developed between Billings and King as, except for a period of about three weeks, they sailed in different ships during Cook’s voyage. It was probably Billings’s ability in astronomy that brought him to King’s attention. It is thought that Billings assisted King in the preparation of the official account of the Third Voyage in London or elsewhere.
Billings was imprisoned in December 1782 for a debt and Resistance sailed to the West Indies without him. However, he petitioned Sir Joseph Banks, whom he had met through King, and Banks secured his release from the King's Bench Prison on 14 January 1783.
Like several other men from Cook’s Third Voyage, Billings had seen the commercial potential of the sea otter fur trade in the Northern Pacific and tried to interest people in the opportunities. Trading on his Cook connection, he approached the Russian authorities in London who corresponded with St. Petersburg about employing him. A note of 8 October 1783 in the Journal of the [Russian] Board of Admiralties records:
The vice-president of the Board of Admiralties, Count Chernyshev, put forward a letter from Simolin, the minister in England, concerning the desire of an English warrant officer, Joseph Billings, to enter Russian service with the same rank, the appointment to run from the date of his departure from Gravesend; after 4 or 5 months at that rank he is to receive the rank of lieutenant, but if health or a recall by the English admiralty oblige him to leave the service, he would be permitted to return to his native country.
He joined the Russian Navy in October 1783 and was promoted lieutenant in January 1784.
The Russians were concerned about British, Spanish and French activity in the Northern Pacific and Catherine II ordered the Russian admiralty in August 1785 to send expeditions to the region to claim territory and forestall foreign claims. Billings was appointed leader in late 1785 of an expedition to carry out Catherine’s directives but that would also carry out scientific investigations including the charting the Arctic Ocean shoreline from the mouth of the River Kolyma as far as the Bering Strait and then charting of the Chukotskiy peninsula. Finally the Aleutian Islands across to Alaska would be charted.
The logistics of the expedition were enormous and difficult as supplies had to be taken by land across Siberia via Irkutsk and Yakutsk to Nizhnekolymsk on the River Kolyma where ships were built. In June 1787, the ships Pallas and Yasashna, commanded respectively by Billings and Gavriil Sarychev, attempted to sail east from the Kolyma only to be thwarted by pack ice. Billings gave up and returned to Yakutsk where, in November, he encountered John Ledyard. Billings knew him from their time on Cook’s Third Voyage when Ledyard had been a corporal in the marine. Ledyard noted that he “went to live with him [Billings] at his lodgings as one of his family and his friend.”
Martin Sauer, Billings’s secretary and translator wrote:
In Yakutsk we found to our great surprise, Mr. Ledyard, an old companion of Captain Billings in Cook's voyage round the world; he then served in the capacity of corporal but now called himself an American Colonel, and wished to cross over to the American Continent with our Expedition, for the purpose of exploring it on foot.
The expedition transferred to Okhotsk where two new ships had been constructed for them. In September 1789, Billings, in command of the ship Slava Rossii, with Sarychev in command of Dobroe Namerenie, set sail. However, Dobroe Namerenie was immediately lost as they left Okhotsk harbour. Everyone transferred to Slava Rossii, which sailed for Petropavlovsk, where they spent the winter. The ship continued under Billings’s command on to the Aleutians in May 1790. They charted along the island chain as far as Unalaska and then proceeded to Kodiak Island before returning to Petropavlovsk in the October.
In 1791, Billings sailed north into the Bering Strait and attempted a passage to the Kolyma River, but was again stopped by ice. Instead he put into Zaliv Lavrentiya, where he left the ship and undertook a land crossing and survey of the Chukotskiy peninsula. Meanwhile, Slava Rossii returned to Unalaska. The expedition reassembled at Yakutsk in late 1792, and set off for St. Petersburg, which they reached in April 1794. The expedition had made detailed descriptions of the peoples and places they had visited, and had achieved many of its instructions. Much of the credit for the success of the expedition was due to Billings’s deputy, Gavriil Sarychev.
In August 1795, Billings was awarded the order of St Vladimir and financially rewarded for his role in the expedition. He probably married his wife, Ekaterina (born 14 June 1772), about this time. Billings then joined the Russian fleet on the Black Sea in 1796 and was given command of the frigate Svyatoy Andrey. However, he soon returned to St. Petersburg, and remained there on official business until February 1797. Back at the Black Sea, Billings commanded the gunboat Rozhdestvo Bogoroditsy and began surveying the Crimean coast. He next resumed command of the SvyatoyAndrey and stayed with her until March, 1798, when he went back to Rozhdestvo Bogoroditsy and resumed surveying along the north coast of the Black Sea.
Billings was promoted Captain-commodore on 9 May 1799, but it appears sickness forced his early retirement as he was discharged from the service on 28 November 1799 with full pension. During the year he had published an atlas of charts of the Black Sea (Maps and views of the Black Sea area belonging to the Russian empire, compiled by Fleet Captain-Commodore Billings), which a review in 1916 stated, “The maps of Billings, which excelled all previous ones in accuracy, were already a fine guide for sailing the shores of the Crimea.”
Billings retired to Moscow to be with his wife, Ekaterina (née von Pestel). He died in 1806, aged 48. Ekaterina survived him and died at Moscow on 18 June, 1827. Mys Billingsa, a headland on the north coast of the Chukotskiy peninsula across the Proliv Longa from Ostrov Vrangelya, was named for him, as is a small settlement a few kilometres to the west. A glacier, headland and creek in Prince William Sound, Alaska, may have been named for him, but that is not certain.
This article has been compiled with much assistance from John Appleby (for which many thanks), drawing largely on his entry about Billings in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Alekseev’s article in the Geographical Journal. Also Jane Watson, Keeper of the Archive at St. Nicholas Church, Chiswick, contributed valuable information.
- Alekseev, A. I. “Joseph Billings” in Geographical Journal, vol. 132, no. 2, June, 1966. pp. 233–238.
- Appleby, John A. “Billings, Joseph (c.1758–1806)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 2004.
- Sarychev, Gavriil. Account of a voyage of discovery to the north-east of Siberia, the frozen ocean, and the north-east sea. Printed for R. Phillips by J. G. Barnard. 1806-07.
- Sauer, Martin. An account of a geographical and astronomical expedition to the northern parts of Russia by Commodore Joseph Billings in the years 1785 to 1794. London. 1802.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 22, volume 36, number 3 (2013).