Soldier, topographer, polar explorer, but also painter, Julius von Payer was a man of many skills. Despite being born in the West Bohemian spa town of Teplice, he is a figure unknown to most Czechs today. Nevertheless, his efforts were immortalised by the discovery of a polar archipelago which he named Franz Josef Land.
“In the year of 1868, during our ascent of the Ortler Alps, just one newspaper made it to the tents where my expedition was camping. It told the story of [Captain] Koldewey’s preliminary expedition. That evening, I brought the herdsmen and foresters who were accompanying me to our campfire and held a lecture about the North Pole, astounded that there could be such people, who were capable of surviving such terrors of the cold and dark. I had no idea back then that, in a year’s time, I myself would be taking part in an expedition to the North Pole…”
This is how Julius Payer begins his account of the Austro-German expedition to an uncharted land near the North Pole. He would end up would end up discovering an archipelago to the far north of Russia and call it Franz Josef Land, a name it still carries today.
Payer was born in Šanov, Teplice, in today’s Czech Republic to a retired officer of the Austrian army. His now deceased biographer, sociologist and cultural ethnographer Dr Jitka Ortová, wrote that he left Teplice while he was still a child.
“Julius spent his childhood in Teplice, but at the age of ten he had to leave the city to attend cadet school in distant Lobzów near the polish city of Krakow [which was then part of Austria-Hungary]. He was fourteen when his father died. Then he went to the Theresian Military Academy in Vienna's New Town where he learned to honour military uniforms and virtues, to serve the Emperor and his homeland (meaning the monarchy), but also gained an interest in exploration and gaining new knowledge.”
“I had no idea back then that, in a year’s time, I myself would be taking part in an expedition to the North Pole.”
After leaving the academy Payer served in the Austrian army as a lieutenant and fought in the Battle of Custoza against the Sardinians in 1848 during the first Italian War of Independence. He was commanded by another accomplished Bohemian-Austrian – Field Marshal Radetzky – and distinguished himself in the battle, winning the honorary cross for capturing two Italian cannons.
Nevertheless, as he wrote himself years later in his book on exploration, Lieutenant Payer was already being tempted by another challenge while in Italy.
“For three years I was looking from the Verona plain full of desire towards the Alpine chain. I considered exploring the mountains of the Tyrolean Alps as my life mission.”
This he would indeed start doing from the age of 21, while still an active army officer. His lust for adventure made him scale Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner, and a year later he became the first man to conquer Italy’s 3,539 metre high mount Adamello.
These ascents were often dangerous. During one climb he fell down 250 meters into a gorge, but managed to walk away virtually unscathed.
It would be wrong to think of Julius Payer as a simple adventurer. His expeditions were accompanied by rigorous scientific notetaking and led to a relatively detailed map of the surrounding alpine region, a major advance when compared to previous attempts.
By the age of 26 Payer had already scaled some 118 alpine peaks and established a reputation as a competent topographer. It was at this time, in 1868, that Payer was invited by the German geographer August Petermann to participate in the Second German North Polar Expedition to study the shape and features of land surfaces in the Arctic. Dr. Ortová described its mission in her book on Payer in 1972.
"It was the first major voyage of German ships into the Arctic and included plans for spending the winter in the polar region.
“The expedition set out from the port of Bremen in the middle of June 1869 in early summer. It consisted of two ships with distinct names - the parent liner Germania and the auxiliary sailboat Hansa, which carried mainly a supply of coal.
“A month after setting sail Germania hit impenetrable ice off the coast of Greenland and only managed to reach the 75. degree north latitude in mid-August, despite dedicated attempts by the crew to break through.”
Payer was intent on overcoming the natural obstacle and by using sleds he managed to travel two degrees further north, mapping out north eastern Greenland in the process.
The expedition only managed to return to Germany two years later in September 1870 amid celebrations of a different kind – the German states under the leadership of Prussia had defeated France and paved the way towards full German unification.
Payer’s first trip to the Arctic may not have been a great success, but it was not by his own doing. Just two years later he was already leading another, this time Austro-Hungarian expedition to the polar region, together with ship captain Karl Weyprecht.
Rather than heading west towards Greenland, this expedition’s task was to map out the regions north of Scandinavia and Russia. It was assumed that the warm Gulf Stream flowed through the seas in this area and that there was an unknown landmass east of the Svalbard – the Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
“Unobstructed, as smoothly as on an inland lake, our ship glided across the shiny water. But rather than shores covered in blooming shrubs, we encountered pale, moving icebergs, which soon took on the appearance of fantastic ghosts in the fog, dissolving into nothingness.”
Aside from the Teplice-born Austrian, the crew also included four Czechs - Josef Pospíšil, Eduard Orel Gustav Brosch and Ota Kříž, for whom it would prove fatal.
The expedition set out from Bremerhaven in 1872 headed for the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Payer described the voyage in his account.
“Unobstructed, as smoothly as on an inland lake, our ship glided across the shiny water. But rather than shores covered in blooming shrubs, we encountered pale, moving icebergs, which soon took on the appearance of fantastic ghosts in the fog, dissolving into nothingness. Our immediate surroundings became intangible and colourless, only faint shadows still hovering behind that fog. It seemed to us as if we were sailing without any proper destination.”
It soon became clear that the original aims of the expedition could not be accomplished. The ships became trapped in the impenetrable ice sheets around Novaya Zemlya and were forced to drift into the unexplored north eastern regions, captives of their surroundings.
And yet it was this seeming disaster which led the expedition to their great discovery, carrying the helpless ships to the shores of a previously unknown land. Quick on his feet, Payer hoisted the Austro-Hungarian flag over the newly discovered landmass and proclaimed it Franz-Josef Land in honour of his emperor, the name which it still carries today.
Many sled expeditions were soon undertaken under Payer's leadership. The explorers reached as far as the 82. northern latitude, just 8 points away from the North Pole. The officer turned explorer did not forget to pay tribute to his native West Bohemian homeland, giving parts of the newly discovered archipelago the names Teplitz (Teplice) Bay and Šanov Island.
However, the hardest part of the journey was yet to come. It was clear that the ships would remain trapped in the ice. The two commanders therefore had to salvage the lifeboats and make their way some 360 kilometres south to Novaya Zemlya. Peyer described the situation in his book.
“Year after year passes in just the same manner over this inhospitable region in the far north. The feeling of loneliness here does not change with time. Only the sea birds could be heard whizzing over the rocky slopes and the ice sheets never ceased in their advance towards the coast, driven on by the incessant drum of the wind.
“Connected by rope, we made our way over the glacier and, as soon as we reached our stored provisions in Cape Germania, we started melting ice into water. We had learned that the liquid we had stored in our rubber bottles - coffee, rum and bouillon - did not give us strength, but simply increased our thirst.”
“We had learned that the liquid we had stored in our rubber bottles, coffee, rum and bouillon, did not give us strength, but simply increased our thirst.”
By a combination of luck and strong leadership, they eventually managed to reach water, and row on their lifeboats towards the archipelago, where the expedition was saved by the Russian fishing schooner Nikolai. This enabled them to reach Norway and the European mainland some two and a half years after they had set out.
A triumphal return to Vienna followed, but it was soon soured by the scepticism Payer encountered among his countrymen. Apparently, even his own brother did not believe the claims that the expedition had discovered a new landmass, which Payer had carefully sketched and mapped out. He was awarded just 44 Gulden for his discovery, the equivalent of an Austrian lieutenant’s monthly salary, and was never brought on another expedition to the north again.
Some vindication came in 1876, when he was knighted and became Ritter Julius von Payer.
With his exploring days over, von Payer instead focused on his other hobbies. He studied painting at one of the most prestigious German art galleries in Frankfurt, producing a number of paintings depicting the struggles of polar explorers, and wrote an account of the Austro-Hungarian polar expedition. He also finally married, fathering a son and a daughter.
“…since there were no cameras at that time, everything was painted and drawn. And that was also great.”
Payer never gave up on his dreams of venturing north again. His plans in his latter years, included a trip on which he could paint the Kejser Franz Josef Fjord in Greenland and at the age of seventy, he intended to join an expedition to the North Pole in a submarine.
None of them materialised and, in 1915, as war was being waged across the world, Payer let out his last breath in the small town of Bled situated near his beloved Alps.
Perhaps due to his Austrian nationality, Julius von Payer is a largely unknown figure in today’s Czech Republic. However, his hometown of Teplice remedied this by erecting a monument to the explorer in 2017. One of those behind the initiative to build such a tribute was teacher and local politician Martin Ryba.
“He climbed the Alps, during his time in the army, and he was the first man to get to the top of many of their peaks. The army noticed him, and he was recruited into a polar expedition, and since there were no cameras at that time, everything was painted and drawn, a skill which he also excelled in.“
Visitors of the spa town can find Julius von Payer‘s memorial in Šanov Park, just outside his birthplace.