Wed, 08 Jul 2020

The wife of a New Zealand Maori chief, her nose decorated with a moko, a traditional face-marking made by chiseling ash into the skin with a sharpened albatross bone.

A bronze whaler shark, common in New Zealand waters. The species, known for its coppery coloring, sometimes attack people.

These are illustrations by artist Pavel Mikhailov (1786-1840), made while in New Zealand in 1820.

Mikhailov was one of 190 crewmen aboard two Russian vessels -- the Vostok and the Mirny -- that set sail from Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg, in July 1819 to discover whether a continent existed at the bottom of the world.

That mission was successful -- though Britain and Russia dispute whose explorers first sighted Antarctica proper.

But the state-funded Russian ships also spent months exploring the islands of the Pacific, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Artist Mikhailov, whose job was to document the adventure, closely followed his commission from Russia's Academy Of Arts: "Ensure everything drawn be an accurate representation of what you see."

Russian explorers capturing penguins for food on ice floes near Antarctica in early 1820.

The Russian vessels sailing at night under the light of an aurora australis in the icy waters around Antarctica.

A member of the expedition recalled nearly the entire night sky being "covered with rainbow-colored stripes that twisted sinuously with the speed of lightning, running from south to north, and shimmering with different colors."

The expedition's two ships were commanded by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (left) and Mikhail Lazarev. Bellingshausen was a Baltic German by birth.

The route taken by the two Russian vessels.

The expedition set off from Russia in July 1819 and returned after two full years of adventure, in July 1821.

A sketch of Sydney harbor, where the Russians traveled to resupply and repair their ships.

While in Australia, the Russian commanders met with the governor of New South Wales. An English-speaking member of the Russian expedition served as an interpreter for the meeting.

An aboriginal Australian man, Boongaree, served as a member of the welcoming committee for the Russian expedition.

The breastplate of Boongaree was gifted to him by the New South Wales governor.

Bits and pieces of Russian sailors from the expedition as drawn by Mikhailov

The sailors were selected for being in "excellent health, under 35 years of age, having knowledge of shipbuilding and, finally, the ability to shoot rifles well."

A native woman sits by a canoe, probably in Australia.

Although most interactions the Russians had with local inhabitants were peaceful, one exchange ended with Polynesian women "running out of the woods to the seaside and lifting their clothes to show us their backsides and slapping them while others danced."

The deck of one of the Russian ships, lined with carronades - a kind of short-range, lightweight cannon.

After the bum-slapping send-off, Bellingshausen noted, "Some of the men asked permission to punish the islanders for insolence, to shoot at them, but I did not agree to this."

Some of the whales spotted on the expedition. The quirky illustrations may indicate that the usually precise Mikhailov only saw glimpses of some of the whales through the waves.

Maori perform a haka -- a dance used in welcome or war -- as Russians arrive at a fishing settlement in New Zealand's Queen Charlotte Sound in mid-1820.

The settlement as viewed from the water

The circular objects on the right are crayfish pots, which were weighted with rocks, set with bait, and lowered onto the seafloor from canoes.

A Maori man with a moko

The sketches from the quiet fishing and trading settlement of central New Zealand capture a fleeting moment in Maori culture of the time. Seven years after the Russians left, the Maori drawn by Mikhailov were reportedly massacred by a rival tribe.

A rocky beach on Macquarie Island, south of New Zealand, populated with penguins and sunbathing seals.

One seal was caught and brought aboard the ship but died on the journey to Russia.

A southern rockhopper penguin

Penguins were a welcome source of fresh meat for the crews. The blubbery birds were soaked in vinegar, then added to porridge or served with cabbage. According to Bellingshausen, even well-fed officers were fond of the penguin meat.

A woman carrying water on the island of Timor.

After more than a year in the chilly southern oceans, the Russian expedition turned north for home. Mikhailov continued to sketch as they passed through the lush tropical islands of the Pacific.

Sketches of locals and the landscapes on a Tahitian island

A man (left) mashing breadfruit and coconut together for a breakfast for three of the Russian commanders and village leaders in Tahiti in 1821.

A page from Mikhailov's sketch pad showing snippets of the port of Lisbon, one of the last stops the expedition made before returning home to Russia.

Although the epic sea adventure is virtually unknown outside of Russia, one lasting legacy of the journey is a sea lapping at the shores of Antarctica today that was named after the commander of the expedition -- the Bellingshausen Sea.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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