Krusenstern’s circumnavigation of the globe, 1803-1806

Krusenstern's circumnavigation of the globe, 1803-1806. Taiohae Bay on the island of Nuku Hiva in Polynesia. National Archives of Estonia, EAA.1414.3.3.76
Krusenstern’s circumnavigation of the globe, 1803-1806. Taiohae Bay on the island of Nuku Hiva in Polynesia. National Archives of Estonia, EAA.1414.3.3.76

Between 1803-1806 the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe took place. It sailed by way of Denmark, England, Tenerife, Brazil, Nukahiva, Kamchatka, Japan, China, St. Helena, and Scotland before making its way home. The author of the idea for the expedition, as well as its leader and captain on one of the two ships was the Baltic German nobleman Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1770–1846), born in the Governorate of Estonia. In addition to its many scientific goals, the expedition was also meant to establish economic and diplomatic relations with China and Japan, as well as find a more efficient way to supply the Russian-American Company and raise Russia into the circle of naval powers.

The National Archives of Estonia are preserving the valuable collection of the original documents on the expedition, including travel journals, maps, plans and graphic drawings, as well as the Krusenstern’s official report published in three volumes and an atlas volume in St. Petersburg in 1810–1812 (Reise um die Welt).

Santa Cruz de Tenerife

The crew was compelled to anchor at Tenerife island for a week in order to obtain water and provisions before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike today, the reputation of the Canary Islands was rather bad at the beginning of the 19th century due to the wildnesses raging there. Krusenstern writes in his diary: The general misery of the people, depravity in the highest degree of the other sex, and swarms of fat monks who stroll about the streets as soon as it is dark. /…/ There is no place in the world where so many horrid objects are to be seen. Beggars of both sexes and of all ages, clad in rags, and afflicted with every kind of disgusting complaint, fill the streets, together with lewd women, drunken sailors, and lean and deformed thieves.

Nuku Hiva in Polynesia

Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands and had been visited repeatedly by European travellers before. The island’s habitants excelled as great swimmers, tirelessly spending hours around the Russian ships in hopes of getting on board.

„King” Keatonui, also written as Kätenuä or Kettenowee, was the chief of one of the tribes on Nuku Hiva. His tribe was situated close to the Taiohae Bay, where the Russian ships lay in anchor.

The Nuku Hivans were heavily tattooed with different geometrical shapes. Their tattoos also had a certain social meaning – the more tattoos someone had, the higher was his standing in the tribe. The local tattooist had a lot to do on the ship, with even Krusenstern getting a tattoo of his wife Julia’s name.

Harbour of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

Up to Krusentsern’s trip Russia’s American possessions were supplied up to the Kamchatkan Peninsula through the mainland. Considering Russia’s size, this was very time-consuming, taking at least three years, and expensive. One of the important benefits of Krusenstern’s circumnavigation was determining a shipping lane for supplying the Russian-American Company.

City of Nagasaki

During Nadezhda’s stay in Japan between 1804-1805, the empire was still closed off for foreigners. The Dutch were the only Europeans who were allowed contact with Japan through the city of Nagasaki, where the Russians also headed.

The seafarers’ contact with the Japanese and their culture was very restricted. Communication only took place with local officials and translators, who were schooled in Dutch, or, as they were called after the Dutch word, the „tolks”.


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