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BILLINGS, JOSEPH, sailor and explorer; m. Ekaterina von Pestel; d. 1806, probably in Russia.

Although British documents indicate that Joseph Billings was born in 1758 at Turnham Green (London), England, other sources place his birth at Yarmouth, and his Russian service record states that he was 37 in 1798. He enlisted in the Royal Navy on 8 April 1776 as an able seaman and joined the Discovery which, with the Resolution, was sailing under James Cook*’s command for the north Pacific. In the course of the voyage, during which Billings became an astronomer’s assistant, the expedition was at Nootka Sound (B.C.) from 29 March to 26 April 1778, and subsequently visited Alaska, the Bering Sea, the Kamchatka peninsula (U.S.S.R.), and the Portuguese port and depot of Macao (near Canton, People’s Republic of China). Billings was still an able seaman when he was transferred to the Resolution in September 1779, but he was promoted warrant officer upon the expedition’s return to England in October 1780.

Nothing is known of Billings’s activities immediately following his arrival home, but in 1783 he made application to enter the Imperial Russian Navy at the same rank he held in Britain. His Russian service record shows him as a lieutenant from 1 Jan. 1783, but he was probably not in Russia until October at the earliest. At that time the Empress Catherine and her advisers were planning explorations of the extreme northeastern parts of her dominion, and Billings, as Cook’s former “companion,” appeared a suitable choice as a leader. In August 1785, spurred by news that the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup*] had commenced his exploratory voyage, Catherine formally commissioned Billings to command “an expedition . . . for bringing to perfection the knowledge acquired under her glorious reign, of the seas lying between the continent of Siberia and the opposite coast of America.” Billings was also to report on the fur trade in Alaska and to claim for Russia territory not previously discovered by any European power.

Billings set out from St Petersburg (Leningrad) on 25 October. In his travels eastwards through Russia he met his former shipmate, the New Englander John Ledyard; he would have enlisted him, but Ledyard was arrested as a French spy. Captain James Burney, who knew them both from the voyage with Cook, recorded later in a book on Russian northeastern exploration that Catherine should have jailed Billings and given his commission to Ledyard. Travel overland to the east coast and preparations there took a great deal of time, and it was not until the summer of 1789 that Billings made his first attempt to set out to sea; when one of his two ships succumbed to a storm he went only as far as Petropavlovsk (Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii) to winter over. On 9 May 1790, the lost ship replaced, the expedition finally set sail and, moving up the Aleutian chain, landed on Unalaska Island on 3 June. The ships went as far as Prince William Sound before turning back toward the Kamchatka peninsula to seek winter quarters. During the stormy return voyage Billings’s deficiencies as a navigator, combined with his arrogance and stubbornness, became increasingly apparent. In June 1791 Billings’s ship was again in the Aleutians, but Billings decided to abandon further exploration of America for his other commissioned task: to map the northeastern Russian coastline. Disappointment was general, but, as his secretary Martin Sauer wrote, “the representations of every officer who had hitherto presumed to have an opinion, were always treated by the Commander with petulant and illiberal retorts.” At St Lawrence Bay (Guba Sv. Lavrentiya) on the Chukotsk peninsula Billings put his plans into effect. He led a survey party overland to the northwestward, but it suffered starvation and ambush and produced little of value; meanwhile the vessel, commanded by the expedition’s surveyor, Gavriil Andreevich Sarychev, went back to explore the Aleutians.

The expedition was largely reunited at last on 2 Jan. 1794 at Yakutsk, and it returned to St Petersburg in March, having added little in its nine years to geographical knowledge of the north Pacific littoral. Nevertheless, reports of the expedition brought to light the Alaskan natives’ “abject slavery” to Russian traders, and possibly led to improvements in their circumstances, which George Vancouver* was to observe when he visited an Alaskan trading post. In 1790 Billings had been in communication with the Spaniard Salvador Fidalgo near Kodiak, but this encounter of rival imperial interests had no immediate political consequences owing to Spanish preoccupation with the Nootka Sound controversy [see James Colnett; Esteban José Martínez*], which was to undermine Spain’s claims to all the northwest coast of America. Valuable charts of the north Pacific were compiled by Sarychev; a later explorer, Admiral Ivan Fedorovich Kruzenshtern, in describing these hydrographic accomplishments tended to praise Sarychev at the expense of Billings.

In 1796 Billings was transferred to the fleet in the Black Sea, where he conducted coastal surveys. In 1799 he published his findings in an atlas which surpassed in accuracy and completeness anything previously available. In November of that year he was retired on full pension with the rank of captain-commodore. He died in 1806, leaving an uncertain record of achievement in Arctic and north Pacific discovery, but clearly having aided the process whereby Russian interests in Alaska were expanded, consolidated, and eventually regulated.

Barry M. Gough

James Burney, A chronological history of north-eastern voyages of discovery; and of the early eastern navigations of the Russians (London, 1819; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1969). The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, ed. J. C. Beaglehole (4v. in 5 and portfolio, Cambridge and London, Eng., 1955–74), 3, pt.ii: 1474. G. A. Sarychev, Puteshestvie flota kapitana Sarycheva po severovostochnoĭ chasti Sibiri . . . (2v. in 1, St Petersburg [Leningrad], 1802); Puteshestvie kapitana Billingna . . . (St Petersburg, 1811). Martin Sauer, An account of a geographical and astronomical expedition to the northern parts of Russia . . . by Commodore Joseph Billings . . . (London, 1802; repr. Richmond, Eng., 1972). Bolshaia Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, ed. A. M. Prokhorov et al. (3rd ed., 30v., Moscow, 1970–78), 3: 949. DNB. Cook, Flood tide of empire. B. M. Gough, Distant dominion: Britain and the northwest coast of North America, 1579–1809 (Vancouver, 1980). R. V. Makarova, Russians on the Pacific, 1743–1799, ed. and trans. R. A. Pierce and A. S. Donnelly (Kingston, Ont., 1975). L. H. Neatby, Discovery in Russian and Siberian waters (Athens, Ohio, 1973).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry M. Gough, “BILLINGS, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 11, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/billings_joseph_5E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/billings_joseph_5E.html
Author of Article:   Barry M. Gough
Title of Article:   BILLINGS, JOSEPH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   December 11, 2023