In 1897, the first scientific expedition reached Antarctica. Jeremy Duns looks at the dramatic story of the Belgica
In the late 19th century, the world’s major powers were gripped with the fever of exploration. By 1890, man had set foot on most of the globe. Only Antarctica remained a mystery: a few outlying parts had been explored, but the continent’s interior was still virgin territory.
In England, the head of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham, was pushing for a major scientific expedition to Antarctica. On July 5, 1895, the Society held the sixth International Geographical Congress in London. The conference closed with a speech by the Marquis of Lothian:
“I should, too, like to say one word, which I think will appeal to many people, and that is that the work of Antarctic research should be done by Englishmen.”
As the conference ended, it looked as if Britain or one of the other major powers would soon launch an expedition to Antarctica. Few would have guessed that one of the conference’s quieter attendees, a 29-year-old lieutenant in the Belgian navy, would beat them all to it.
Adrien de Gerlache (pictured, right) was a hydrographer for the navy. Two years earlier, he had decided he wanted to be an explorer. “An initially vague idea was born,” he later wrote. “Why should I not myself undertake, on my own initiative, a voyage of discovery in the so little known area of the Antarctic?”
De Gerlache offered his services to the Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, but nothing came of it. Undeterred, he turned to the Belgian government - but it was preoccupied with the Congo, and not interested in ploughing money into some mad excursion to distant icy wastes. However, when de Gerlache raised 100,000 francs for the project through the Belgian Geographical Society, Parliament chipped in another 100,000 francs. It was still a fraction of what he needed but, inspired anew by the speeches he had heard in London, he set up fund-raising committees in towns across Belgium, organising conferences, concerts and parties to drum up support.
Eventually, he managed to raise 600,000 francs. It was around one tenth of the sum Markham was looking for in London – 100,000 pounds – but it was enough to mount a small expedition. In 1896, de Gerlache bought a small Norwegian three-master ship, the Patria, and renamed her Belgica. Then he set about looking for a crew. Among the applicants were Frederick Cook, an American doctor and photographer, who became the ship’s surgeon, and a 25-year-old Norwegian called Roald Amundsen, who became first mate.
On the morning of August 16, 1897, the Belgica left Antwerp. Its crew consisted of nine Belgians, six Norwegians, two Poles, an American and a Romanian. This multi-lingual crew contained something that none other had yet done: scientists. The Romanian was Emile Racovitza, a zoologist and botanist; oceanographers, geophysicists and meteorologists were also on board. Nobody was being paid, but to these young men – the average age was 28 – that hardly mattered. They were about to discover a continent.
The first disaster struck on January 22, 1898, when, stuck in a ferocious storm, Norwegian sailor August-Karl Wiencke climbed over the ship’s railings in an attempt to free the scupper. He fell overboard and drowned.
The death did not deter the crew, however, and they pushed on to the Antarctic Peninsula. The strait they discovered is now known as Gerlache Strait, and many parts of Antarctica are named as a result of Belgica’s pioneering work: Antwerp Island, Brabant Island, Mount Solvay. The latter was explored by Gerlache, Amundsen, Cook and a couple of others for three days and nights. The sector was mapped, and specimens of plants and animals were collected.
On February 18, 1898, de Gerlache spotted a large gap in the pack ice leading south. He decided to follow it. The scientists on board were less than keen, because the chances were high that they would become trapped by the pack ice. On March 5, this is precisely what happened, and some of the crew turned on de Gerlache, saying that he had wanted it to happen, as it meant that the Belgica’s crew would be the first men to winter in Antarctica. De Gerlache denied the charge, but insisted that they make the most of it. He mapped out a rota whereby everyone had eight hours of work, eight of leisure and eight of sleep. Nobody was allowed to step out of sight of the ship’s mast.
The winter took its toll, as polar night set in and the crew’s world was covered in darkness, fog and snow. On bad days, the temperature reached -37°C with strong winds. When they became bored of skiing or card games, they invented bizarre competitions, such as a beauty contest in which they picked out women from magazines, convincing themselves that when they got home, the winners of the competition would be so flattered that they would agree to commemorate the expedition (this didn’t happen).
Scurvy and stomach aches were the least of the problems: some men became hysterical and suffered from temporary dementia. On June 7 1898, Belgian physicist Emile Danco died of heart failure, plunging the crew into even deeper despair. For those suffering from heart palpitations, Cook introduced a strict diet:
'I prohibit all food except milk, cranberry sauce and fresh meat, either penguin or seal steaks fried in oleomargarine.'
That any scientific work was done in these circumstances is impressive, but when it finally broke the pack ice and returned to Antwerp in November 1899, the Belgica returned in triumph. Two men had died, but the crew had secured a scientific bounty: as well as the first detailed maps of much of the continent, they had undertaken oceanographic measurements and brought back hundreds of samples of fish, birds, flora and fauna.
The Belgica made Belgium known across the world, and its crew became heroes. Frederick Cook’s career would later become mired in controversy when it was revealed that he had falsely claimed an ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska, while in 1911, Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole. As leader of the expedition, de Gerlache had the honour of naming islands and coastlines that had been discovered; some were given in honour of crew members (including the two dead men) and others to areas of Belgium. De Gerlache later led expeditions to the Persian Gulf, Greenland and the Barentz Sea, and died in 1934. The Belgian Navy’s current research vessel is called the Belgica in honour of de Gerlache’s ship.
Frederick A Cook, Through The First Antarctic Night (C Hurst, 1980)
Hugo Decleir (editor), Roald Amundsen's Belgica diary: the first scientific expedition to the Antarctic (Erskine Press)
TH Baughman, Before The Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)
This article was first published in The Bulletin magazine in January 2006.