Russian officials had avidly followed the news of circumnavigations performed by other nations, including those of George Anson, James Cook, and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. All of these had also enhanced the geographic and ethnographic knowledge of the Pacific, an ocean which Russia bordered and which it saw as a possible location for imperial expansion. Russia also sought a Northeast Passage for trade with China.
In the late 1740s, Russian fur trading posts were established on the western coast of America, following in the wake of Vitus Bering’s expeditions. By the 1790s, some of these had become permanent settlements. Eager to protect and expand this trade, a circumnavigation was planned in 1787, but it was called off due to wars with the Turks (1787) and the Swedes (1788).
Over a decade later, Russia had become a major naval power and their sights turned again to the east and the Pacific. The newly-created Russian-American Company and Emperor Alexander I approved the plan for a circumnavigation and appointed as its leader then Captain-Lieutenant Krusenstern, who had returned to Russia in 1799 after six years with the British Royal Navy. While with the British, Krusenstern had visited North America, South Africa, the East Indies, and China. This experience, and his three written proposals suggesting a Russian circumnavigation, qualified him for the appointment.
The voyage was to ferry a diplomatic contingent to Japan in search of favored trading status. In this vein, Count Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov was appointed co-commander along with Krusenstern; he was also to be Russia’s ambassador to Japan. The ships were additionally meant to bring supplies to and receive cargo from the settlers on the North American coast. The Nadezhda and Neva, renamed English ships purchased especially for the circumnavigation, departed Kronstadt on August 7, 1803 with Krusenstern in command of the former and Yuri Lisyansky in the latter.
The ships headed west to Copenhagen, Helsingor, and Falmouth, then entered the open Atlantic. They stopped at Tenerife and then Brazil before rounding Cape Horn. In the dangerous waters of the Cape, the two ships were parted. The Neva waited for Krusenstern at Easter Island, but the Nadezhda had already sailed to the Marquesas. Lisyansky joined Krusenstern there in May of 1804. They sailed together to Hawai’i and then on to the Russian settlements in what is today Alaska.
In Alaska, Lisyansky came to the aid of Russian settlers at Sitka, who were besieged by Tlingit Indians. Krusenstern picked up a cargo of goods and delivered them to Kamchatka before continuing to Japan. He anchored in Nagasaki harbor for six months while negotiators tried to gain approval for a Russian Embassy on Japanese soil. The negotiations failed and the Nadezhda returned north to Kamchatka, where Rezanov departed to serve as Imperial Inspector and plenipotentiary of the Russian-American Company in North America. Then, Krusenstern explored the coast of Sakhalin, trying to discern whether or not it was an island.
The ships reunited in Macao, where they spent three months selling furs and taking on tea. From China, the ships crossed the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and entered the Atlantic. Lisyansky sailed straight home, but Krusenstern stopped at St. Helena briefly. He sailed back into Kronstadt on August 19, 1806.
Legacy of the voyage
Not only was this the first Russian circumnavigation, it was also one of the first scientific voyages commissioned by the empire. The accompanying naturalists gathered many new and rare specimens, while the navigators made important advancements in oceanography. For example, Lisyansky proved the existence of equatorial counterflow in the Atlantic Ocean. Ethnographic descriptions, particularly those from the Marquesas, were pivotal for the study of Pacific peoples. Two men who served on the expedition, Otto von Kotzebue and Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, would later lead their own voyages: Kotzebue a circumnavigation and Bellingshausen, with Lazarev, the first successful Antarctic exploration.
Krusenstern and his men were excellent sailors who surveyed many places with more accuracy than previous attempts; these included Easter Island, the Marquesas, Sakhalin, Hokkaido, the Tsushima Islands, the west coast of Japan, and other locations. They also discovered passages through the Kuril Islands. Krusenstern relied on maps from fifteen different authors in various languages while at sea. His own maps are renowned for their accuracy and his latitude calculations deviate from modern data by no more than two angular minutes and in longitude by no more than four minutes—a monumental feat.
Publication of the voyage
Upon his return to Europe, Krusenstern threw himself into revising his papers and preparing an account of the voyage. He was not alone, Lisyansky and other members of the voyage would also eventually publish their version of events. Krusenstern, however, was the most prolific.
In 1809 he published a three-volume account of the voyage in Russian, while a German version appeared in 1810 in three volumes with an accompanying atlas. Reise um die Welt, in den jahren 1803, 1804, 1805, und 1806 proved popular and was quickly reprinted in Leipzig and Berlin and translated into Dutch, Swedish, Italian, French, and Danish. In 1813, the English translation was published by John Murray, who specialized in the publication of travel and exploration books.
In England, the book struck a chord with a reading public that was then obsessed with the Northwest (or Northeast) Passage and the Arctic. Krusenstern was required reading for the Polar explorers that would venture north in the 1820s, including John Ross, William Edward Parry, and John Franklin. In fact, John Ross would edit a memorial to Krusenstern in 1856, translated from German and written by Krusenstern’s daughter.