The North-East Passage Opens

Last summer a huge merchant ship, the Yong Sheng, succeeded in making it through the ‘North-East Passage’ – or the ‘Northern Sea Route’ as it is sometimes known. She was the first to do so. And she won’t be the last.

On 8 August she set out from Dalian, China’s most northerly warm-water port, carrying steel and industrial machinery. She paused briefly in Shanghai, and then in Busan in South Korea. Twenty-one days later, after rounding the North Cape, as the English long ago named the uppermost tip of Scandinavia, she arrived in the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

Had she sailed along the traditional southern route, beneath China, India, and through the Suez Canal, the passage would have taken almost two weeks longer, a significant period of time in the world of modern commerce. Perhaps, then, the North-East Passage will one day come to transform world trade just as Europeans – and the English foremost among them – thought that it would, at the time that they first ventured to explore it, midway through the 16th century.

The first voyage was a memorable one. In the early summer of 1553 three ships set out from London, led by their overall captain Sir Hugh Willoughby, and by the chief pilot of the expedition, Richard Chancellor. Diplomatic observers, including some from a great, global power like Spain, fretted about their intended route. They meant, it was reported, to forge a new route to the ‘Indies’. But none was sure which way they meant to go: north-west, north-east, or directly north?

They went north-east – towards the coast of Scandinavia, and up towards the point at the tip of Europe which they christened the ‘North Cape’, in common with the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ beneath Africa. They believed that land on the surface of the Earth must be broadly symmetrical – that God must have fashioned things thus, beautifully, and simply, and that the northern coastline of Eurasia would descend, after the cape, southward, into warmer, less hazardous water.

They certainly didn’t expect things to be easy. Nobody knew for sure, it was admitted, whether a passage really existed by this route. There were reasons to think that it must do – such as the ancient story of a party of Indians shipwrecked on the coast of Germany who must, it was thought, have got there through a channel to the north-east. And even if the passage did exist, of course, the English did not know what hostile navies, or what creatures of the deep, they might encounter on the way. The expedition’s inspiration and organiser, Sebastian Cabot, warned the crews before they went, on the basis of his personal experience in South America, of hostile men who could swim in the water, and who would kill and even eat visiting strangers given the chance.

The story of that voyage was an extraordinary one. Needless to say, it didn’t work out as planned. Separated in a great storm, two of the three ships became lost in the Arctic ocean, muddled by maps which were hopelessly misleading. The third, led by Richard Chancellor, made its way into the White Sea, thinking to press on through a passage, if it was there, the following year.

When they found themselves in Moscow, at the court of Ivan the Terrible, the new trading relationship they looked like being able to establish with Russia meant that their plans changed, and that Chancellor preferred to head back to England. But over the ensuing years attempts were made to sail further, it proving rather harder than was hoped. After a number of voyages became stranded amid snow and ice, as the land moved further and further to the north, the attempt was abandoned.

The world, then, was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. Conditions in the Arctic were a good deal more inclement than they are now. And even today the Yong Sheng had to travel in the company of a Russian ice-breaker, because the land of northern Asia, of course, reaches further north than had been hoped.

But the world is warming. Ice, in the Arctic, is retreating. And while climate scientists disagree about how long it might take – a few decades being the favoured estimate – most believe that the north-east passage will, before long, become a viable option. Regarding its merits, again, there is disagreement, but unquestionably it is shorter and in significant ways preferable to the route to the south.

The north-east passage probably will, then, have the sort of impact on world trade about which merchants dreamed long ago. But now, of course, the passage is being explored from the other end. The Yong Sheng, as its name suggests, is Chinese, not European. And that, of course, tells its own story about shifts which have taken place since the 16th century in the balance of economic power.

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