Steller, Georg Wilhelm

At a Glance:

Naturalist, Explorer

Nationality:

German

Bird names: 3

Regions studied:

Russia, North Pacific

Modern imagining of Georg Wilhelm Steller – image via University of Tyumen, The Center of Russian-German Cooperation of Georg Wilhelm Steller. No images or descriptions of him exist.

Content note: this profile contains discussion of SETTLER COLONIALISM.

The Birds:

Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Steller’s Eider (Polycsticta stelleri)

Steller’s Sea Eagle [link]
Steller’s Eider [link]
Steller’s Jay [link]

The Name:

Perhaps of all naturalists with eponyms, Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746) is potentially one of the first many people encounter. Though having what is by some metrics the world’s largest eagle named for him in Steller’s Sea Eagle, as well as two other bird species, most will probably encounter his first through a mammal, one of the great tragic icons of human-caused extinction: Steller’s Sea Cow.

The majority of what is recorded about Steller is his participation in Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Mission, but when contextualised in time this is perhaps unsurprising – he left St Petersburg in 1738 at the age of 28 to join the expedition and would die eight years later en route back to St Petersburg, having never returned to Europe.

The expedition was essentially an exercise in Russian expansionism; following the collapse of the last remnants of the Mongol Empire, Russia had found itself in a position to rapidly expand. Once a comparatively small nation on the fringe of Europe, its East had now became a vast frontier that its colonists poured into. Over a short few centuries, it would span the world’s largest continent.

Steller’s Sea Lion [link]

This drive East was driven by the trade in exhorbitantly valuable furs like sable, and by the time of Steller was reaching the Pacific. The expansion had moving so quickly that the Russian Empire didn’t have a clear understanding of it’s own geography, and of particular interest was whether it connected by land to North America. So Emperor Peter the Great would set in motion an expedition to explode this new frontier. Joining this would be two figures of note to this story – Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer after whom the straights between Russia and Alaska would later be named, and Georg Wilhelm Steller.

The initial phase of the expedition explored Kamchatka, where the rapid colonialism by Cossack settlers was already eroding indiginous culture in the area. Steller professed to being impressed with the Itelmens and other peoples of the area for their knowledge of the natural world and critiqued Russian exploitation on the abuse. But yet his proposed solution to this was pleading for Russian Orthodox missionaries to be sent to the area to convert them. While this suggestion may be aimed at trying to protect people, it was but a softer-edged colonialism.

But as the mission continued on into the Pacific, it would prove to be one of numerous new discoveries to Western Science, and Steller would be the first to describe Steller’s Eider, Steller’s Sea Eagle, Sea Otter and Steller’s Sea Lion to Western Science. The ultimate objective of the expedition was however to find a route to North America, and in this they were successful – the Bering expedition would land upon Kayak Island in Alaska in 1741; the first Europeans to see the West Coast of North America. However, it would prove an unsatisfying experience for Steller; he was only given 10 hours to search the island. It was in this short stretch he would encounter the only of his eponymous birds to be endemic to North America; Steller’s Jay. Indeed it was the discovery of this species and it’s clear similarities to the Blue Jay that would help assure him that they had indeed found North America.

However, this single trip would be the extent of their exploration of North America, with Bering refusing to allow exploration of the mainland due to fear and superstition, and thus the only accounts of it were in the form of a sketch imagining what landfall would be like.

The return journey would be a cruel one. Against Steller’s advice, many of the crew including Bering refused to follow Steller’s dietry advice and as a result contracted scurvy. With only a handful of crew functional, the result would be becoming shipwrecked on the Commander Islands. Bering and over half the crew died here, but Steller was able to help save the rest by using knowledge he had aquired interacting with the indigenous Kamchatkans to help keep the remaining crew fed.

It would be here that Steller would become the only naturalist to see the vast Steller’s Sea Cow alive. The population on the Commander Islands was a relict population even at that point, and it represented the largest herbivore to survive into human history, with only a handful of whales and filter feeding sharks being larger. The species would survive less than 30 years from its discovery.

One year later, and with the surviving crew construction a new ship from the wreckage, Steller would escape the Commander Islands. However, he would never return home; the next several years would be spent exploring the Kamchatka penninsula, but due to his sympathies with the indiginous peoples there was accused of instigating rebellion. Recalled to St. Petersburg, he would not survive the journey home, dying of a fever in the Central Russian town of Tyumen.

On the one hand, Steller can in some ways be viewed as being very progressive for his time; while Bering expoused a blanket opinion that neither natives nor cossacks could be trusted, Steller expoused actually learning from them. On the other however, he did expouse cultural colonialism via missionaries as a solution to tensions.

It is perhaps also worth considering the specifics birds and mammals named for him. The jay seems particularly egregious – a species collected in his 10 hours ashore in North America, essentially a common bird he spotted on a day trip being prioritised over the knowledge of people he was never even allowed to encounter. Much like Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Steller’s Sea Eagle is a species sacred to certain indiginous peoples of North east Asia who had held the species in high regard far before Steller was ever born. Meanwhile both Steller’s Edier and Steller’s Sea Lion both have large ranges that would have been very familiar to various peoples.

But as for the Sea Cow, found on the uninhabited Commander Islands, this was a true discovery so much as such a thing can ever be. A lost Pleistocene titan clinging on in a cold, unforgiving corner of the world. An event that should genuinely have been a fantastic discovery had it not lead so quickly to tragedy. For the Sea Cow, as well as the specialist parasites that lived upon them, and the also now extinct Spectacled Cormorant that shared their home, Steller may have been their discoverer, but he was also the harbinger of their end.

Alex Holt

Sources:

  • “The Beast of the Sea” by Georg Wilhelm Steller, Translation by Walter Miller [link]
  • Journal of a Voyage with Bering by Georg Wilhelm Steller – translation by Margritt A. Engel and O. W. Frost [link]
  • Georg Steller and Stepan Krasheninnikov: Pioneer Scolars on the North Pacific Rim [link]
  • Vitus Bering and Georg Steller: Their Tragic Conflict during the American Expedition [link]