The year was 1596, and Barentzoon’s men were falling ill. The arctic had always been harsh, but this wasn’t frostbite, or madness, or scurvy. Back in the Netherlands, Barentzoon was known as a capable leader and explorer, but how can you navigate with a ship locked in ice? How can you lead your crew? Novaya Zemlya can barely be called habitable. Hell, it can barely be called land, just a spit of low islands north of Siberia. Barentzoon had ordered them to cannibalize their ship; a house on a bay, Ice Haven, was to be their home until the next summer. Food would be scarce, polar bear attacks frequent.
The disease was caused by an expected source. Most of the men’s meat came from walruses or foxes, but the bear attacks, although dangerous, did occasionally provide extra rations. But not all were fit to eat.
The men were afflicted with a condition known as hypervitaminosis A. Some vitamins, C for instance, are water soluble and will pass right through our systems. Others, like A, are fat soluble and can accumulate in our bodies. Reach a certain amount and these formerly beneficial substances can prove deadly. Polar bears have so much vitamin A in their livers that less than three ounces can far surpass this threshold.
Barentzoon’s men would have been irritable, confused, and plagued by headaches. Vomiting, sleepiness, and peeling skin (usually around the mouth, but sometimes all over the body) would have occurred in some cases too. The bears, used to eating other animals full of vitamin A, had evolved a tolerance, the men did not. Luckily none of the men died from this affliction.
Barentzoon’s men did eventually make it through the winter. Come June of 1597 they made a break for the Russian mainland, where they would eventually make their way overland back to Holland. Sadly, Barentzoon wouldn’t be with them. He fell to a more common disease, scurvy, and was buried at sea.