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Waxell, Sven

Best known for his participation in Vitus Bering’s second expedition (1733-1742), Sven Waxell was a capable navigator, naval officer and chart maker. His contribution to the visual record of Alaska consists of two images he drew on his 1744 chart of the voyage: a kayaker and a group of sea mammals. These simple, almost schematic renderings hold a special place in the pictographic record of Alaska. The image of kayaker is the first representation of an Alaskan Native, sketched on September 4, 1741, when an Unangan man approached Bering’s ship in his kayak near the Shumagin Islands, thus initiating the very first documented encounter between Russians and Native peoples of Alaska. The group of mammals is notable for a drawing of Steller sea cow, the only known image of this animal made before its complete extinction.

Sven Waxell was born in Stockholm in 1701 and joined the British fleet at the age of fifteen. His Russian service began in 1725. Eight years later he was assigned to serve as a navigator and first officer of Bering’s ship Sv. Peter during the second expedition to America. The voyage, which marked the first Russian landing in Alaska, ran a tragic course. Returning to Kamchatka, the ship wrecked on an island in the Commander group, which now bears Bering’s name. Bering and many of Sv. Peter’s crew died during the difficult winter. After Bering’s death, Waxell assumed leadership. Survivors constructed a small boat out of Sv. Peter’s wreckage and returned to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the summer of 1742. Waxell’s account of the expedition was published first in France (1743) and then in Denmark (1747). He was also charged to check and compare the expedition logs and compile a chart of the voyage. Several handmade copies of this chart survived to the present day. A vast archive of Bering’s expedition, including several illustrated charts, is in the collections of the Russian Naval Archive (RGAVMF), St. Petersburg, Russia. After his work for the second Kamchatka expedition was completed, Waxell remained in service of the Russian navy until 1761. His last appointment was Superintendent of Kronshtadt, the main Russian naval base on Baltic Sea.

Sources and literature:

Pierce, Richard. Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary. Kingston, Ontario and Fairbanks, Alaska: The Limestone Press, 1990.

Waxell, Sven. The American Expedition. Translated with an introduction and notes by M.A. Michael. London: William Hodge and Company, 1952.

Waxell, Sven. The Russian Expedition to America. Translated with an introduction and notes by M.A. Michael. New York: Cromwell Collier Books, 1962.