Was the Northeast Passage first navigated in 1660?

In 1570, Abraham Ortelius, encouraged by Mercator, compiled the first modern atlas of the world, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. As seen in the image, the entire northern coast of Asia is also given as navigable.

wattsupwiththat.com | Feb 13, 2012

by Anthony Watts

If true, it suggests periods of reduced Arctic sea ice during that time that made this feat possible.

Reposted from the blog Ecotretas with permission


A graphical comparison between the North East Passage (blue) and an alternative route through Suez Canal (red)

David Melgueiro, a Portuguese navigator, might have been the first to navigate the Northeast Passage (known now as Northern Sea Route), between 1660 and 1662, more than 200 years before Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld, who did it in 1878. One of the most detailed accounts for this voyage is given by Eduardo Brazão in The Corte-Real family and the New World (French version here), 1965, in which he describes in pages 68 and 69:

Yet it is interesting to mention here the imaginary (so we believe) voyage of our Melgueiro, in which people believed for some time. On this topic we quote Duarte Leite (op. cit., vol. II, p. 261 et seq.):


«At the end of the 17th century the french naval lieutenant La Madeleine was in Portugal, on a mission from his minister, Count Louis de Pontchartrain, to get information on Portuguese navigation and trading in the East. In the course of his mission he heard, from a Havre sailor who lived in Oporto, of an extraordinary voyage from Japan to Portugal effected by a Portuguese with whom the French sailor was personally acquainted. In January 1700 he communicated the information he had got from him to his minister, who had it archived. It was reproduced in a memoir in 1754 by the French Philippe Buache, the distinguished royal geographer of Louis XV.

The French sailor told that on 14 March 1660 the Dutch sailing ship «Padre Eterno» under the Portuguese David Melgueiro was ready to set sail from the Japanese port of Cangoshima. It was loaded with rich oriental goods and carried passengers, Dutch and Spanish and perhaps also Portuguese, since they had already entered the Nipponic empire in the previous century. At that time Europe was in the throes of war, Holland against France, Spain against Portugal, Spain against England, Portugal’s ally, who was fighting for her independence. The Atlantic and the eastern seas were infested by armed warships, to which pirates should be added. If the tried to return by the sole route till then used, via the Cape of Good Hope it was almost certain to be taken, so that Melgueiro decided to risk taking the other route open to him, by the arctic seas surrounding the old continent. He thus sailed up the current which washes the eastern coasts of Japan and goes up as far as the Anian-Bering strait, sailed round the coast of North Siberia, presumably far off shore, since he did not know the area. He reached the latitude of 84º N, passed between Greenland and the Spitzberg archipelago and sailed down Norway, where he sailed to windward of Ireland and thus reached a Dutch port, where he disembarked his passengers and goods. His mission thus brought to a happy end, he set off in his ship for Oporto, ending his long and adventurous voyage at a date not known. In that city he died, shortly after 1673, and the Havre sailor had attended his funeral.

To his 1754 memoir Buache added the copy of a Portuguese map of 1649, by one Teixeira, which he examined in the French naval archives, on which he drew what he considered to have been Melgueiro’s itinerary. It goes from Japan via the Anian-Bering strait as far as the extremity of Siberia, then so far offshore that it goes beyond the pole and comes down between the islands of Greenland and Spitzberg, then down to the European coasts passing off Ireland».

This plan is nowadays considered to be impossible but in 1897 the scholar and diplomat Jaime Batalha Reis gave it a new form (in «O Comercio do Porto*, 3 February 1897, later re-edited in the collection of articles by the author, published posthumously, Lisbon, 1941) by moving it over to Siberia.

Recently, however, Teixeira da Mota has been able to identify the cartographer mentioned («Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica» vol. IV), and the possibility, hitherto considered implausible, of La Madeleine’s having seen a 1649 Portuguese map by one Teixeira in France is now admitted. But it remains to be found out whether at the date given a Dutch sailing vessel of the name «Padre Eterno» sailed from Congoshima and even more if there was any Portuguese of the name David Melgueiro, which hardly seems to be a Portuguese name. Perhaps it should be «Melguer».

This problem will remain for future study in the vast archives of historical fantasies.

This text refers to the writings of Philippe Buache, a French geographer. The original writings of Philippe Buache are in “Considérations Géographique et physiques sur les nouvelles découvertes au Nord de la grande mer“, 1753, and are available here. The interesting references to Melgueiro are available between pages 137 and 139.

Several expeditions seeked the Northeast Passage, many of them with few historical references. To find more about the real possibilities of Melgueiro’s voyage, we must understand who preceded him. Starting in the north of Russia, the Pomors entered the White Sea during the 12th century, through the Northern Dvina and Onega estuaries. From their base at Kola, they explored the entire Barents Sea, including Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya. Later, the Pomors discovered and kept the Northeast Passage between Arkhangelsk and Siberia. With their ships, called koch, specialized for navigation in the difficult conditions of the Arctic, the Pomors reached far-away places in Siberia, as Mangazeya, east of the Yamal penínusula. In this excellent document by Nataly Marchenko, we find a very interesting map of the Pomor navigations:

Read More


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s