The North Cape
The North Cape



Archangel 1613


The habour of


Map of Northwest
Russia, c.1640.


The Trade Route around the North Cape to the White Sea
Equipped by London merchants of The English Company of Merchant Adventures for the Discovery of Lands, Territories, Isles, Dominions and Seignories Unknown, three ships sailed out of the river Thames in May 1553. The vessels headed north with the intention of finding the one thing that had been talked about in England for decades: the discovery of the sea route leading to Japan, China and India - the Northeast Passage. The English not only dreamed of immense riches in the Far East. They also believed Russia's northern passage could be quicker and safer than the trade routes which the Spanish and the Portuguese had discovered and taken control of.

The expedition's leader, Sir Hugh Willoughby, neither got to the see the promised land, Cathay (the ancient name of China), nor his home again. Along with two of the ships' 70 men, Willoughby starved and froze to death in the arctic wasteland. Their deaths may possibly have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning in an attempt to survive the winter. In 1554, Russian fishermen found their remains on the eastern Murman Coast. And nearly 300 years later - in 1872 - A.E. Nordenskiöld became the first man to discover the sea route leading through the Northeast Passage. The 1553 English expedition, however, had failed in regards to its original intentions. But even though two of the ships foundered, the third and largest ship, the Edvard Bonaventura, reached the mouth of the Dvina in the White Sea. This vessel was commanded by Richard Chancellor (d. 1556). The event marked the prelude to one of the era's most important geographical discoveries. It was Chancellor's good fortune that his finding paved the road for direct trade between England and czarist Russia. Remarkably, too, the British discovery of Russia came about as a coincidental effect of their attempt to find the northeastern trade route to China.

In late August 1553, Richard Chancellor reached the White Sea, where he and his crew were welcomed with open arms by local Russian officials. Arrangements were then made for a court audience, in Moscow, during this stay. Chancellor traveled inland, by sled, to Czar Ivan IV - Ivan the Terrible (d. 1584). Upon arrival, the Englishmen were welcomed with "barbarian splendor". And when Chancellor and his men returned to England, in the summer of 1554, The seal of the russian company they carried with them a letter from the czar which granted privileges to the English to conduct trade at Dvina harbors. The Muscovy Company (The Russia Company) first saw the light of day in 1555, in London. Regular trade was conducted with northern Russia from 1557 onward.

When Sweden gained dominion over the Baltic harbors that exported Russian products, the White Sea became the only alternative trade route to use between the European seafaring nations and the Moscow czardom. Most trade with Russia moved northward, therefore, and the czar had built a large port - New Kholmogory (called Archangel from 1613) - for the export trade in 1584.

The Scots and English dominated all "Pomorje" (a Russian word meaning coastland) trade during the 16th-century, while the Flemish and Dutch played a greater role in the second-half of the 1570s. Throughout the entire 17th-century, the Dutch sailed to Archangel and the Murman Coast. These voyages were dangerous for the Europeans, but they were also highly lucrative. European tradesmen carried with them textiles, salt, wine, precious metals, costly goods and even weapons, according to some accounts. The same tradesmen would return from Russia with ropes, lumber, cod, salmon, cod liver oil, furs and saltpeter.

The rise in traffic around the North Cape eventually led to increased interest in the northern regions and became the cause of bitter strife between the northern realms. And even today the issue of sovereignty over land and sea resources has still not been resolved adequately in the northern countries.

   © University Library of Tromsø - 1999.
The Northern Lights Route is part of The Council of Europe Cultural Routes. The Cultural Routes are an invitation to Europeans to wander the paths and explore the places where the unity and diversity of our European identity were forged.