Home > Generosity At Petropavlovsk

Generosity At Petropavlovsk


On April 23 the snow-clad hills and mountains of the Kamchatka coast could be seen dimly through the swirls of sleet which coated the ships with ice. "We stood in to take a view of the Land," wrote Clerke, "and a more dreary prospect I never yet came in the way of." While making boards in the fog off what appeared to be Avacha Bay, on the 26th, an especially disheartening incident occurred in Clerke's cabin when the Kendall watch stopped and would not be started again, despite the best efforts of seaman and watchmaker Benjamin Lyon. This was the famous timekeeper (now called K1) which had provided longitude so faithfully throughout the three years and eighteen days of the second voyage and the first two years and nine months of the third. That left the other Kendall (K3) and an Arnold (probably A3) aboard Discovery, which, meanwhile, had disappeared in the fog. The temperature in Clerke's cabin dropped to 35º. The fire was lit in his stove.5 The sickroom stank of decay and dank canvas.


The weather having cleared up one week later, Resolution began to pick her way gingerly among the ice floes disgorging out of Avacha Bay. On April 29, when William Bligh, the ship's master, found a proper bottom, the ice-draped ship dropped anchor at the edge of a parapet of ice extending about a mile out from shore. Not far beyond the snow-covered beach lay the wretched-looking"ostrog" of St. Peter and St. Paul, now the city of Petropovlovsk, which was founded by the Dane, Vitus Bering, in 1740.6 The place seemed an impossible source of supplies--sixteen head of cattle and 10,000 pounds of flour were at the top of Clerke's list.

The tiny hamlet of "Petra Pauluski" was plunged into a panic by the unforeseen appearance of Resolution. James King and John Webber, sent to treat with the Russians, were perplexed by the agitation and bustling about as they made their way over the ice. A dog sledge approached to reconnoitre, then turned and fled to safety. Fifteen nervous sentries were lined up under arms. When the ice broke under King, he was left to scramble out as best he could, frozen and agitated himself. The suspicious hosts and uninvited guests did not speak a word of the other's language, but the mariners, approaching circumspectly, were able to make known their nationality and peaceful intentions with a sergeant Surgutski, who turned out to be an agreeable and obliging chap. Surgutski led them into the hamlet, and a miserable place it was. The mariners found only a half dozen Russian log cabins and fifteen or so of the Kamchatka-style huts, which resembled those they had seen among the Chukchi and Aleutians. Most of the huts were cone-shaped on stilts, the rest partially underground with earth-covered roofs. Only about forty Russian solders were stationed in the place.

"The Very idea of our situation had we wintered here, made us Shudder again," sighed King. He handed over the two letters of introduction which Cook had been given in Unalaska the previous October by the trading agent Gerassim Ismailov. One letter was for the local commander, who was sergeant Surgutski, the other for the Governor of Kamchatka, one Marcus von Behm, who resided at the town of Bolsheretsk. Behm was from Livonia on the Baltic Sea and he spoke German.

Surgutski led them into his stifling-hot cabin and ordered up a dinner of beef, several kinds of baked fish and fowl, and pastry. King produced a bottle of brandy, which Mrs. Surgutski polished off. Communicating in sign language, King and Webber were dismayed to learn of the high cost of living in Kamchatka: forty pounds of flour would cost eight or ten rubles, and cattle went for one hundred rubles a head, although the tea was about the same price as in England, a little over four shillings a pound, or one ruble. No, the sergeant could not provide anything without the Governor's permission, but he would dispatch an express message with the Ismailov letter to Bolsheretsk--about 135 miles away by dog sledge and boat on the west coast of the peninsula. And no, neither he nor any of his people could visit the ship without Behm's permission. At one point during the dinner Mr. and Mrs. Surgutski abruptly left the room for a short time, leaving the guests puzzled and alone. The friendly sergeant gave them their first ride by dog sledge. "No boys could be more pleas'd than we were in being carried down to the boat by Dogs. We had all a separate carriage, & so polite were the Natives that one Sledge carried the boat hook."7

Shortly thereafter Discovery arrived, having found her way again. Resolution was in a bad place for repairs. Sitting far out from shore, she could not be heeled. But that forward leak demanded immediate attention, as did another one aft, making eight inches of water an hour somewhere below the stern. Her bow timbers were so "Rottin and Crazy" that the carpenters could pluck out the wooden fastening pins, called "trunnels," with their fingers.

Hardly any oakum was left in her seams, and the teredo worm had made a honeycomb of her sheathing. "She would never go Home," opined master's mate Alexander Home, safe and smug aboard Discovery. Water casks were slung over the side of the quarterdeck to make a kind of floating stage by which to prop up her stern, so that the other leak could be looked at. These repairs took up most of the six weeks stay.8

In a curious way the Kamchatkans and Russians recognized that something great had entered their lives, and seeing that their guests were incapable of being devious, they responded with open-hearted generosity. Benevolence and poignancy pervade the accounts of this visit to Avacha Bay. The mariners arrived empty-handed and forlorn, and they would depart laden and cheered.

On May 4 the sledges returned, bringing a Russian merchant named Vaselee Feodositch wearing powdered hair, and Behm's German-speaking secretary, a certain Iachim Pote, bearing a letter in German from Behm. At first the newcomers were alarmed at the sight of such large ships, but since Webber spoke German, matters could proceed. Clerke smiled when Pote told them of the various suspicions and apprehensions. It seems that sergeant Surgutski, when King and Webber were visiting in his cabin and in order to determine if the strangers were French pirates or really English sailors as they claimed, made some of his people hide in the kitchen to eavesdrop while he and his wife absented themselves. The Russians had reason to be afraid. Eight years previously a sensational adventurer named Maurice Benyowski, a Polish exile in Kamchatka, stirred up an insurrection and murdered the former governor before escaping back to Europe. Survivors in the bay region made clear that the affair was still fresh in local memories. It was easy for the Russians to worry that the English might also start something. Moreover, Pote went on, Behm had acquired the wrong idea from Ismailov's letter, which advised him to watch out for these English, as they were nothing but a bunch of "sharpers" (swindlers); but not to worry, as their ships were only two-masted affairs with no officers aboard, certainly no match for the Russian coastal sloops. At any rate, Behm was presenting his compliments, and gave his assurances that if the captain of the English packet would oblige him with a list of his requirements, all would be provided; furthermore, he extended an invitation to call on him at Bolsheretsk.

Behm's letter, however gracious in tone, was unmistakably a summons. But without supplies the ships were stranded. Because the mariners were scarcely more than supplicants, Clerke realized there was nothing for it but to send a delegation as invited. Accordingly, King, Gore, and Webber who would translate, bundled up for the cold ride to Bolsheretsk with the two messengers. The sailors, hearing of the 'shopping trip,' set up a clamor that they could not possibly continue the voyage without tobacco, the ships' stocks being exhausted. Clerke instructed Gore to make inquiry, hoping that the Victualing Board might overlook this extravagance at the local price of three shillings a pound. Just before departure, Feodositch the merchant heard of the sea otter skins, and before long a brisk traffic was going on between decks. The sailors knew nothing about the value of pelts, of course, but learning quickly, they raised the price to thirty rubles each, and sold a few at thirty-five rubles or seven pounds sterling--rather more than the merchant had intended. Before long the seafaring entrepreneurs were kicking their rubles about the decks, there being no waterfront bars in St. Peter and St. Paul.9

As the snow melted, the hills around the bay sprouted abundantly with celery, garlic, and nettles which the sailors picked to adorn their breakfasts; they even tapped the birch trees and made spruce beer. Several sailors, recalling Cook's fondness for anything green, ate what Samwell thought was a "species of Hemlock," and promptly took mildly sick. So well trained were the officers in applying Cook's dietary principles that they knew at once what to do when they found scurvy in the Kamchatka community. Sergeant Surgutski told them that many died every winter of this scourge; many more had the symptoms, and he himself was sorely afflicted. He must have been mystified to see all those sailors running around in perfect health after a long sea passage in winter, when a Russian sloop returning from a summer cruise in the Aleutians would have scarcely enough hands left to bring it into port. Early on two soldiers were found lying in the barracks desperately ill of scurvy. John Law, surgeon aboard Resolution, promptly began to make daily visits, bringing sauerkraut to the afflicted and explaining how to use the local plants in the diet. It was clear that the Russians also stood in need of help. But master's mate Home, eyeing the Russians with disdain, aired his views again: "They were too lazy to gather the green stuff with which the country abounded."10

So many fish came aboard they were a nuisance. The sailors' nets broke to pieces in the bay, and the generous and grateful Kamchatkans could not do enough, frequently delivering so many the half could not be hoisted aboard--cod, trout, salmon, and herring served daily and salted down in casks, the excess pitched over the side or dumped on shore to freeze in the snow. The kindly Russian Orthodox priest, Romann Vereshagen, entertained a group of touring sailors at his cabin in the ostrog of Paratunka some twenty miles to the southwest. He helped Samwell to make word lists, and hearing of Clerke's illness, sent fresh milk, eggs, butter, and fresh-baked bread almost every day to the ship. One day a crowd of twenty sailors turned up in town, but as they had neglected to bring along any grog, there was no risk of a disturbance. Another time, several officers visiting on shore made some soldiers drunk from their supply of English rum, occasioning a healthy brawl between the English and the Russians. On May 17 carpenter's mate Alexander McIntosh died of a "Flux" or a "bilious Disorder" after a lingering illness, probably an intestinal infection, and was committed to the deep at the mouth of the bay. This was the seventh death on the voyage thus far, the fourth by illness; no one died from the sea disease scurvy.11


The expedition to Bolsheretsk, meanwhile, had left on May 7 by boat upriver (the Avacha) under the auspices of Behm's two messengers and various good-natured Cossacks. At a tiny ostrog the party transferred to sledges--abundantly furnished with bear skins and drawn by dogs yoked four abreast. "The mode of travelling was so curious to us that we enjoy'd it prodigiously." After this overland adventure they followed the next river, the Bolshaia, downstream to Bolsheretsk. Spotting a welcoming party standing on the riverbank, late on the 12th, King though it would be a good idea to stop first in a nearby cabin to get themselves cleaned up, but the smiling major would not brook delay. About fifty years old and on the portly side, he made an imposing figure, all six feet of him, affable and polite in his spiffy uniform. "I observed my Companions awkward as myself in making our first Salutations," wrote King; "bowings & scrapings being marks of good breeding that we had been now for 2 1/2 years totally unaccustom'd to."12

Behm's wife had dressed up in European clothes to meet her guests. The travellers' worn and dishevelled appearance made no difference, nor did their odd apparel--worn-out English uniforms patched with Tahitian fabric and sea otter fur. She charmed them with her cultivated manners. Gore politely mentioned their chief needs of flour and beef, adding a polite demurral that he could now see how impossible all this was considering the long trek back. Behm grandly cut him short, declaring that Gore need only state the particulars and everything would arrive in time for embarkation. Asked about what King called "our American difficulties," Behm replied that things surely must have settled down, as news of anything like a war would surely have reached him from the Royal Court at St. Petersburg in only six months, and he had heard nothing of the sort for two years. The travelers finally escaped this "accumulation of Politeness & Civility" when Behm led them past an honor guard to a guest log cabin, where Pote was ordered to serve them dinner English style, and where they had their baths.13

A puzzling dispatch Behm received from the far north, on the same day his English visitors arrived, was made perfectly clear by their presence. A Russian outpost notified the governor that some Chukchi tribesmen had turned up with unexpected tribute and expressions of friendship. They told of being visited the previous summer by two huge ships whose sailors, although speaking an unknown tongue, wore Russian-like clothes and who brought gifts, and the kindness they had shown the Chukchi had changed their opinion about the otherwise hated Russians.14 The Russians at the outpost realized that the two ships could not be Russian, but until this English visit with Behm their true nationality was not known.

Behm's good will continued; food supplies of all kinds began to pile up at the riverside. When the time came to ask him for a bill he would not budge. Behm could not oblige his mistress (the Empress Catherine II) more than by helping her friends the English, he replied. Because she would count it a satisfaction when she heard that in so remote a corner of her dominions some small assistance had been rendered to them, he certainly would not act in a manner so contrary to her character as to talk about a bill. And he would consider himself ill-used if his English guests failed to make known their every wish. Anyway, he only wanted to show these Kamchatkans and Russians how they should treat strangers.

The minute he heard of what the sailors craved, he had four hundred pounds of tobacco set aside; and for Clerke, figs, fresh butter, honey, rice, sugar, and tea. Clerke had sent along a map and prints of the second voyage for Behm and a silver watch for the governor's son. In return, Behm's little boy presented King with an elegant Kamchatka ceremonial fur cloak worth one hundred twenty rubles. The boy's little sister was made happy with a pair of earrings made of French paste, for which she gave King a sable muff. Even if Behm were only trying to promote the impression of Russian prosperity in the Far East, King had eyes to see: "It was in vain we tried to oppose this profusion of Bounty, for we were sure that it was not half, but near all that was in the Village."

On the final evening the good Mrs. Behm rummaged through her trunk for a gown she had not worn since departing Riga six years before, and the other village women turned up in silks for a party they threw for the mariners. Leave-taking was a bit much for them the next morning. They came out to find the Cossacks lined up, the major loading crates in the boats and preparing to go along, for he wanted to see those huge, three-masted English ships for himself, and "many individuals begging to throw in their mite." Mrs. Behm was there with some final presents, and the villagers sang a mournful Russian ballad. The travel-hardened seafarers turned and stumbled into the boats in confusion.

A return trip of five days brought the party to shipside late on May 21. King was shocked to find that after only two weeks Clerke was much altered for the worse. In deference to Clerke's rapidly failing health, Behm insisted on waiting for daylight to pay his respects; in the morning he regaled the sailors by appearing in his dark green uniform with burnished gold buttons, a scarlet waistcoat with gold trimming and a white cockade setting off his gold-laced hat. The marines were lined up in a guard of honor and he was given a salute of thirteen guns, "not more than he deserv'd but all we could pay," advised King.15

Behm could not get over the robust appearance of the sailors, many of them running around in shirt sleeves although it was still snowing. They looked as though they had just left England, he said, and he was astonished that after three years at sea only four men had died of illness, none of them by scurvy. Moreover they were all clean and did not stink. He kept shaking his head in wonder when he was shown the route on the map--to think they had been as far away as Cape Town by sea! Nor was he less surprised at the relatively small size of the ships' companies, reported Samwell: 112 aboard Resolution (468 tons) and seventy on Discovery (298 tons).16 Whereas a one-masted Russian sloop of seventy tons out of Okhtosk required sixty hands, usually only twenty or thirty of the Russian crew would return alive after a summer cruise in the Aleutians, Behm said, the rest having perished from scurvy. It was plain to Behm and to the entire garrison that the bold English reconnaissance had exposed the vulnerability of the Russians in the Far East. The Russians were outnumbered and outgunned. As Surgutski told King, since the English had found their way thither, others might. In future others would indeed, although for a reason that no one guessed.

The sailors, told of the handsome gift of tobacco for which Behm had refused payment, rushed aft with a spontaneous gesture of gratitude. They asked Clerke that their grog should be stopped so that several kegs of it could be collected for their benefactor. One hundred gallons of brandy were given to Behm. This gift was especially affecting in view of what they thought of their grog, one of their few pleasures at sea; previously they had agreed to a stoppage in the tropics only to make sure they would have sufficient in the Arctic. Naturally Behm protested, and the sailors also made up a collection of valuable island curiosities and prints for him to take along on his forthcoming trip home. How much better it would have been, everyone thought, if they could have passed out much-needed plates, kettles, and tableware, which were also in short supply aboard ship, instead of having thrown them away in the islands. The officers also gave the governor four sextants, a gift that needed no apology, and also a spy glass, and some rum and wine.17

Samwell wrote copiously of Avacha Bay, for he was beginning to emerge from his depression following the death of Cook, although he expressed himself with more gravity and with rather less of his usual humor than before. In 1769 a smallpox epidemic had killed ten thousand people in the region. He was also told that suicide was rather common among the Kamchatkans, and from him we have a picture of how the indigenous population was faring under the Russian yoke, however conquerors and conquered were intermingling. Many of the Russians were "transports"; living in exile, they intermarried with the Kamchatkans, and with a yearly income of about thirteen rubles they ate mostly rye bread and fish. The indigenous Kamchatkans were much reduced in numbers, owing to many of them having been killed off in their fruitless struggle for liberty and by the recent epidemic. Nor was their lot improved by the Russian presence. As a result the Kamchatkans were "modest & submissive" to their masters and in Samwell's opinion, "a very miserable Race of People."

The one source of hope and solace in this bleak life of the inhabitants was the priest Romann Vereshagen. Samwell the parson's son was drawn to this kindly man. Much affected by Clerke's appearance when he visited the ships, Vereshagen had a milk cow brought aboard for his use, and he brought him a fur quilt, which was sorely needed. One day Samwell and several companions set out by boat to visit this priest at Paratunka. On the way they came upon a Russian boat lying wrecked on shore. To their surprise they were able to rescue a disconsolate Kamchatka youth sitting on a rock quietly smoking his pipe and a Resolution sailor stranded halfway up the cliff frantically waving his shirt. It seems that the sailor had also set out to visit the priest. The Kamchatkan had given up all hope of deliverance, and having taken out his knife, had resolved not to survive his few remaining pipes of tobacco. But the sailor was "not so willing to leave this Wicked World."

At Paratunka the sailors were shown the log church built by Bering and saw the icons of Peter and Paul left by the famous navigator, and they shared their provisions in the pastor's home. Vereshagen, aged forty-four, was born at Bolsheretsk of a Russian father and a Kamchatka mother. Supporting his wife and six children on eighty rubles a year, he was highly respected in the parishes of Paratunka and Bolsheretsk that comprised 2,422 souls, and he spoke the local dialects; every year he visited the nearby Kurile Islands to give instruction in Christian doctrine and to baptize children. While drinking "a few dishes of tea" with him, Samwell worked on his word lists. The words bore no affinity to those spoken at Norton Sound, he thought, although the accents and guttural sounds were similar.

Vereshagen helped his guests celebrate King George's birthday, on June 4, with an evening of local dances. Samwell left him a present of a few pewter plates, some portable soup, a cask of pork and a keg of rum. His only disappointment, it seems, was to find that this otherwise liberal and intelligent man could not persuade himself to think highly of Luther and Calvin. "He is a Man of a good Address & of a free humorous Conversation & Behavior," wrote Samwell, "and on account of these Qualifications he was more esteemed & noticed among us than any other Person at Kamtschatka."18

Behm had given orders that twenty head of cattle should be sent to the ships by June 5, the date Gore had given for departure. On the 6th they did arrive from one hundred miles away, to be butchered at sea. About ten thousand pounds of flour were also delivered from various ostrogs. All of this was free, in addition to the many other gifts of food.19 Behm gladly showed his own map of the Siberian coast. King saw nothing new, he wrote, except that the map did not have a cape extending north for seventy-five miles into the Arctic, as did the map produced by Gerhard Müller of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, whose cartography had caused so much consternation. The more King thought about the matter the more he was convinced that Gerhard Müller was mistaken, and that Müller's "nos" was actually "East Cape." But soon he would have a close look and settle the question.

Because Behm was leaving soon for St. Petersburg and in view of his magnanimous character, Clerke readily entrusted to him a package of documents, including maps and copies of journals, for transmission to England. Behm said that if all went well on his trip to Okhotsk, in eastern Siberia, he would send some of these papers ahead by express mail to arrive in St. Petersburg as early as December (they did), and he himself would arrive with the rest the following February or March. And so the first news of Cook's death reached Europe via Siberia by dog sledge, riverboat, and probably also by horseback, arriving in London early in January of 1780.

Russian surprise at British prowess in the Far East could not have been diminished on perusing one particular document that arrived as a gift for the Russians; this was an accurate chart of Avacha Bay, showing the harbor, soundings, and tide levels, that was prepared by two ordinary British midshipmen. The maps, which apparently came in the second batch of papers, were copied out at Irkutsk and at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, and were quickly used in Russian maps of the Far East. To the English, this was perfectly fair and expected, for the information belonged to all the world.20

Behm, his worries about the ships unabated, made Clerke give him a list of cordage and flour which he promised to send back from Okhtosk in time for the return of the ships from the Arctic. He often told King that because the English sailors were employed to the common advantage of mankind, they were entitled to services rendered by all humanity and to the privileges of citizenship in any country where they might be thrown. This generous man graced the eighteenth century. His magnanimity toward the third voyage marked the beginning of the high regard and esteem the Russians have held to this day for Cook.21 Much affected, King wrote: "The whole of his disinterest'd conduct could not fail of making us regret the parting with a man who we had little prospect of ever seeing again."22 The sailors gave him three cheers.

On June 13 Bligh shouted the order to weigh anchor. As the ships moved slowly downstream to seek an offing, the volcano Avachinskaya suddenly erupted, showering the decks with cinders and casting a dismal and portentous gloom over the bay. The tide was at the ebb, and Clerke set his face to the north as to the hour of his exaltation.

No comments

Unsolicited e-mail warning

It has come to our attention that spam mailers (senders of bulk unsolicited e-mail) have been forging their mail with this domain as the point of origin. As a matter of policy, we do not send out e-mail from our domain name. If you have received an email that appears to be from "@CaptainCookSociety.com" it was forged and sent without our consent, knowledge, or the use of our servers.