It was not so long ago that there was one last continent that remained completely untouched by man. And, in a sense, this generation does not know how it feels as a culture to have that type of barrier breached during our lifetimes. The first lunar landing is the closest moment that some of us can recall, even though that 7th and final continental frontier is now far more accessible to any one than the surface of our lone satellite. Despite the distances varying in orders of magnitude, the race to be first on the moon has many parallels to the early expeditions attempting to reach the South Pole. The first nation to get there and document it would be making a statement about their scientific prowess, substantiating their seat at the international table. Today, a trip to the Antarctic costs little more than any other international vacation, with anyone able to go, but how did we get here?
The shroud of mystery surrounding the Antarctic began to be lifted with James Cook’s second voyage in 1772. Cook had established the best contemporary coastal maps of the southernmost continent, then commonly known as “Terra Australis”. Cook’s conclusion was that a land mass probably existed beyond the massive ice flows of the region, but it was so isolated and so far south, that it was unlikely to be habitable or and of little economic value. This conclusion caused interest to subside for several decades.
Such things never last, as the years passed the world had become smaller. With technological advances in a period of prosperity, inquisitive minds and economic speculators would not allow the question of the southern content to go unanswered. In a new wave of expeditions, the continent itself was first seen by Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazerev during their circumnavigation of the region between 1819 and 1821. The pair discovered Victoria Land and subsequently named the volcanoes, Mount Terror and Mount Erebus. This breakthrough jumpstarted an era of many commercial voyages, mostly sealers and whalers who did in fact make landfall on the continent, but this was limited to coastal camps designed to prolong hunting expeditions. None of them made significant strides toward the interior, toward the pole. Much like we would later experience during the space race, commercial enterprises focused on short term gains are unlikely to take the risks required to breach great barriers for glory, but when it comes do demonstrating scientific superiority on the international stage, nations have been known to step up to the plate.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is so called due to the relatively early stage of transportation and communication technology available, making each crew member’s living return home an accomplishment. The impetus for many of the 17 major expeditions of this era was reaching the geographic and magnetic South Pole for the first time. The voyage of the RV Belgica in 1897 would mark the beginning of this dramatic period.
Adrien de Gerlanche de Gomery purchased the Patria in 1896, this Norwegian-built whaling ship was extensively retrofit and renamed Belgica. Gerlanche had long been attracted to the sea, and after spending many years in mundane roles aboard Navy and commercial vessels he yearned for exploration and adventure. After being turned down by Sir Henry Morton Stanley to captain an expedition to the Congo, he set his sights on the Antarctic. Crewing and supplying this expedition would only become financially viable after the Belgian government voted in favor of two large subsidies. This was a new era for Antarctic Exploration and Belgium wanted to be part of it. It had been decades since James Cook’s “second Voyage” in 1772, and whether it was soundly founded in an understanding of the technological limitations of the day or not, there was a perception that reaching the South Pole was now possible.
The Belgica set sail out of Antwerp on August 16th, 1897. First Mate Roald Amundsen from Norway, Romanian zoologist Emil Racovita, and Polish geologist Henryk Arctowski were among the international crew. The expedition stopped in Rio de Janeiro. They had a warm reception from the local Belgian community, and American Fredrick Cook joined the expedition there. Cook was a surgeon, anthropologist, and photographer (who was likely the source of the voyage’s breathtaking images).
Not long after the Belgica reached the coast of Graham Land, Norwegian crewman Carl Wiencke was washed overboard during a storm on January 22nd,1898. Wiencke Island was named after him, and over the next few weeks the Belgica would make no less than 20 separate landings, naming each of those islands on its journey south, finally crossing the Antarctic Circle on February 15th.
The enormity of their task would soon reveal itself. While searching for a way into the Weddell Sea, the Belgica became trapped in the ice on February 28th. It is possible that Gerlache knew the ship would become trapped in the Bellinghausen Sea and did not venture this information to the crew. They had a chance to be the first to collect over-winter data this far south, and not having the option to leave would keep them collecting measurements.
Unfortunately, the ship was woefully understocked for this challenge. The crew’s clothing wasn’t warm enough and there were insufficient preserves. The men were able to hunt several penguins and seals before the onset of winter, that stored meat would prove invaluable as the region would soon become completely devoid of game. Ships Surgeon, Frederick Cook wrote: "We are imprisoned in an endless sea of ice ... We have told all the tales, real and imaginative, to which we are equal. Time weighs heavily upon us as the darkness slowly advances." Cook knew that the polar night was imminent, they would experience perpetual darkness from May 17th until July 23rd.
Several of the men began to suffer from scurvy, the cause of which (vitamin C deficiency) would not be discovered until the 1920s. Gerlache fell so ill that he wrote his will. He and Captain Lecointe were eventually removed from command and replaced by Cook and Amundsen. Despite Gerlache’s aversion to the seal meat, Cook was astute enough to understand that maintaining nutrition was the only way the ailed men would survive the winter. He insisted that they eat a small amount of the game meat each day. This act gave the men enough vitamin c and energy to eventually recover some strength.
The long night was hard on them. Even as spring arrived, the Belgica was still trapped in 2-meter-thick ice on all sides and several failed attempts to free she ship had left the men weak and in poor spirits. The winter had claimed the lives of two crewmen, one died from heart failure and the other lost his sanity, and possibly walked off into the night. As subsequent attempts to free the ship failed, the prospect of a second winter on the ice entered their minds.
Open water was visible from the deck, only half a mile away from the ship. Cook eventually directed the fading crew to carve a trench using dynamite and other tools remaining on the ship. It took them nearly a month to slowly move out of an 11 km area thick with ice, but on March 14th, 1899 the ship was finally clear of the ice and free to make the 6 month journey home.
It's curious why some names become so tied their fields and others fade away, to be found only by those who go looking. Shackleton has become synonymous with the Antarctic, while the first explorers to get there, venture a record distance south (and collect meaningful scientific data) are relegated to the dustbin of history, at least as far as the cultural zeitgeist is concerned. Perhaps it has more to do with the sound of a last name and having few enough names for a reader to remember in Gerlache’s case. At any rate, in the minds of the individuals who finally did return home aboard the Belgica, their countrymen enthusiastically applauded their efforts. When they arrived in Antwerp they were met with a hero’s welcome. Belgians took great pride in their explorers; a special committee had been planning the homecoming celebration for some months. Gerlache and his men were made members of the Royal order of Leopold and the City of Antwerp honoured them with medals and had their names recorded in the Golden Book of the City. Perhaps more importantly these men successfully collected the first annual cycle of Antarctic observations.
The data collected by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition was published by the Belgica Commission. Funded via a generous grant from the Belgian government (at King Leopold II’s recommendation), “Résultats du voyage de la Belgica en 1897-99 sous le commandement de A, de Gerlache de Gomery – rapports scientifiques” consisted of 9 volumes, released over 40 years (the last of which was published in 1949). The date of the publication, the fact that it was printed in French and the manner of its dissemination have resulted in the data being largely overlooked by relevant projects seeking to map change in the region over the years. Many of the original 500 odd recipients of the volumes were politicians and dignitaries rather than scientific institutions, as such, it wasn’t the easiest resource to find in the decades following its publication. Fortunately, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels has now made the “Résultats” series available on the website of the Marine Institute in Ostend. This development should eventually see projects like The World Ocean Atlas, (an often cited and regularly updated oceanographic reference) finally take the Belgica’s data into account. The Belgica’s publications feature a vast array of data on atmospheric pressure, air temperature and humidity with detailed collection notes. Such data could be useful as environmental scientists try to accurately project the rate of change in a warming Antarctic.
The Belgica’s first mate, Roald Amundsem would eventually go on to lead the first successful attempt to reach the south pole in 1911. If that story interests you, you needn’t search too hard to find it.
Patrick De Deckker (The Australian National University) published a wonderful article in June of 2018 titled “On the long-ignored scientific achievements of the Belgica expedition 1887-1899”. It describes the true value of the Belgica’s environmental data in scientific terms and how it could be better utilized by several contemporary research institutions.
Voyage de la “Belgica”: Quinze mois dans l’Antarctique by Adrien Victor Joseph Geralache de Gomery, 1902, Ch. Bulens (Dates and details of planning stages of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition)
Kaye, I. (1969). Captain James Cook and the Royal Society. London: Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 24, No. 1. (Discoveries made and Cultural/Mapping impact of Cook’s Second Voyage)
Huntford (Last Place on Earth) pp. 64-75 (Post-voyage details of Belgica Personnel)
Patrick De Deckker (2018) On the long-ignored scientific achievements of the Belgica expedition 1897–1899, Polar Research, 37:1, DOI: 10.1080/17518369.2018.1474695
Cook, Frederick A. (1900). Through The First Antarctic Night 1898–1899: A Narrative Of The Voyage Of The "Belgica" Among Newly Discovered Lands And Over An Unknown Sea About The South Pole. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co. ISBN 978-0-905838-40-3.
The Marine Institute in Ostend (http://www/vliz.be)
Footnotes from The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration