Amundsen's Historical Review - Part Three
The next great event in the history of the southern seas is the Challenger expedition. This was an entirely scientific expedition, splendidly equipped and conducted.
The achievements of this expedition are, however, so well known over the whole civilized world that I do not think it necessary to dwell upon them.
Less known, but no less efficient in their work, were the whalers round the South Shetlands and in the regions to the south of them. The days of sailing-ships were now past, and vessels with auxiliary steam appear on the scene.
Before passing on to these, I must briefly mention a man who throughout his life insisted on the necessity and utility of Antarctic expeditions — Professor Georg von Neumayer.
Never has Antarctic research had a warmer, nobler, and more high-minded champion. So long as “Antarctica” endures, the name of Neumayer will always be connected with it.
The steam whaler Grönland left Hamburg on July 22, 1872, in command of Captain Eduard Dallmann, bound for the South Shetlands. Many interesting geographical discoveries were made on this voyage.
Amongst other whalers may be mentioned the Balæna, the Diana, the Active, and the Polar Star of Dundee.
In 1892 the whole of this fleet stood to the South to hunt for whales in the vicinity of the South Shetlands. They each brought home with them some fresh piece of information. On board the Balæna was Dr. William S. Bruce. This is the first time we meet with him on his way to the South, but it was not to be the last.
Simultaneously with the Scottish whaling fleet, the Norwegian whaling captain, C. A. Larsen, appears in the regions to the south of the South Shetlands. It is not too much to say of Captain Larsen that of all those who have visited the Antarctic regions in search of whales, he has unquestionably brought home the best and most abundant scientific results. To him we owe the discovery of large stretches of the east coast of Graham Land, King Oscar II. Land, Foyn’s Land, etc. He brought us news of two active volcanoes, and many groups of islands. But perhaps the greatest interest attaches to the fossils he brought home from Seymour Island — the first to be obtained from the Antarctic regions.
In November, 1894, Captain Evensen in the Hertha succeeded in approaching nearer to Alexander I. Land than either Bellingshausen or Biscoe. But the search for whales claimed his attention, and he considered it his duty to devote himself to that before anything else.
A grand opportunity was lost: there can be no doubt that, if Captain Evensen had been free, he would here have had a chance of achieving even better work than he did — bold, capable, and enterprising as he is.
The next whaling expedition to make its mark in the South Polar regions is that of the Antarctic, under Captain Leonard Kristensen. Kristensen was an extraordinarily capable man, and achieved the remarkable record of being the first to set foot on the sixth continent, the great southern land — “Antarctica.” This was at Cape Adare, Victoria Land, in January, 1895.
An epoch-making phase of Antarctic research is now ushered in by the Belgian expedition in the Belgica, under the leadership of Commander Adrien de Gerlache. Hardly anyone has had a harder fight to set his enterprise on foot than Gerlache. He was successful, however, and on August 16, 1897, the Belgica left Antwerp.
The scientific staff had been chosen with great care, and Gerlache had been able to secure the services of exceedingly able men. His second in command, Lieutenant G. Lecointe, a Belgian, possessed every qualification for his difficult position. It must be remembered that the Belgica’s company was as cosmopolitan as it could be — Belgians, Frenchmen, Americans, Norwegians, Swedes, Rumanians, Poles, etc. — and it was the business of the second in command to keep all these men together and get the best possible work out of them. And Lecointe acquitted himself admirably; amiable and firm, he secured the respect of all.
As a navigator and astronomer he was unsurpassable, and when he afterwards took over the magnetic work he rendered great services in this department also. Lecointe will always be remembered as one of the main supports of this expedition.
Lieutenant Emile Danco, another Belgian, was the physicist of the expedition. Unfortunately this gifted young man died at an early stage of the voyage — a sad loss to the expedition. The magnetic observations were then taken over by Lecointe.
The biologist was the Rumanian, Emile Racovitza. The immense mass of material Racovitza brought home speaks better than I can for his ability. Besides a keen interest in his work, he possessed qualities which made him the most agreeable and interesting of companions.
Henryk Arçtowski and Antoine Dobrowolski were both Poles. Their share of the work was the sky and the sea; they carried out oceanographical and meteorological observations.
Henry Arçtowski was also the geologist of the expedition — an all-round man. It was a strenuous task he had, that of constantly watching wind and weather. Conscientious as he was, he never let slip an opportunity of adding to the scientific results of the voyage.
Frederick A. Cook, of Brooklyn, was surgeon to the expedition — beloved and respected by all. As a medical man, his calm and convincing presence had an excellent effect. As things turned out, the greatest responsibility fell upon Cook, but he mastered the situation in a wonderful way. Through his practical qualities he finally became indispensable. It cannot be denied that the Belgian Antarctic expedition owes a great debt to Cook.
The object of the expedition was to penetrate to the South Magnetic Pole, but this had to be abandoned at an early stage for want of time.
A somewhat long stay in the interesting channels of Tierra del Fuego delayed their departure till January 13, 1898. On that date the Belgica left Staten Island and stood to the South.
An interesting series of soundings was made between Cape Horn and the South Shetlands. As these waters had not previously been investigated, these soundings were, of course, of great importance.
The principal work of the expedition, from a geographical point of view, was carried out on the north coast of Graham Land.
A large channel running to the south-west was discovered, dividing a part of Palmer Land from the mainland — Danco’s Land. The strait was afterwards named by the Belgian authorities “Gerlache Strait.” Three weeks were spent in charting it and making scientific observations. An excellent collection of material was made.
This work was completed by February 12, and the Belgica left Gerlache Strait southward along the coast of Graham Land, at a date when all previous expeditions had been in a hurry to turn their faces homeward.
On the 15th the Antarctic Circle was crossed on a south-westerly course. Next day they sighted Alexander Land, but could not approach nearer to it than twenty miles on account of impenetrable pack-ice.
On February 28 they had reached lat. 70° 20’ S. and long. 85° W. Then a breeze from the north sprang up and opened large channels in the ice, leading southward. They turned to the south, and plunged at haphazard into the Antarctic floes.
On March 3 they reached lat. 70° 30’ S., where all further progress was hopeless. An attempt to get out again was in vain — they were caught in the trap. They then had to make the best of it.
Many have been disposed to blame Gerlache for having gone into the ice, badly equipped as he was, at a time of year when he ought rather to have been making his way out, and they may be right. But let us look at the question from the other side as well.
After years of effort he had at last succeeded in getting the expedition away. Gerlache knew for a certainty that unless he returned with results that would please the public, he might just as well never return at all. Then the thickly packed ice opened, and long channels appeared, leading as far southward as the eye could reach. Who could tell? Perhaps they led to the Pole itself. There was little to lose, much to gain; he decided to risk it.
Of course, it was not right, but we can easily understand it.
The Belgica now had thirteen long months before her. Preparations were commenced at once for the winter. As many seals and penguins as could be found were shot, and placed in store.
The scientific staff was constantly active, and brilliant oceanographical, meteorological, and magnetic work was accomplished.
On May 17 the sun disappeared, not to be seen again for seventy days. The first Antarctic night had begun. What would it bring? The Belgica was not fitted for wintering in the ice. For one thing, personal equipment was insufficient. They had to do the best they could by making clothes out of blankets, and the most extraordinary devices were contrived in the course of the winter. Necessity is the mother of invention.
On June 5 Danco died of heart-failure.
On the same day they had a narrow escape of being squeezed in the ice. Fortunately the enormous block of ice passed under the vessel and lifted her up without doing her any damage. Otherwise, the first part of the winter passed off well.
Afterwards sickness appeared, and threatened the most serious danger to the expedition — scurvy and insanity. One of them by itself would have been bad enough. Scurvy especially increased, and did such havoc that finally there was not a single man who escaped being attacked by this fearful disease.
Cook’s behaviour at this time won the respect and devotion of all. It is not too much to say that Cook was the most popular man of the expedition, and he deserved it. From morning to night he was occupied with his many patients, and when the sun returned it happened not infrequently that, after a strenuous day’s work, the doctor sacrificed his night’s sleep to go hunting seals and penguins, in order to provide the fresh meat that was so greatly needed by all.
On July 22 the sun returned.
It was not a pleasant sight that it shone upon. The Antarctic winter had set its mark upon all, and green, wasted faces stared at the returning light.
Time went on, and the summer arrived. They waited day by day to see a change in the ice. But no; the ice they had entered so light-heartedly was not to be so easy to get out of again.
New Year’s Day came and went without any change in the ice.
The situation now began to be seriously threatening. Another winter in the ice would mean death and destruction on a large scale. Disease and insufficient nourishment would soon make an end of most of the ship’s company.
Again Cook came to the aid of the expedition.
In conjunction with Racovitza he had thought out a very ingenious way of sawing a channel, and thus reaching the nearest lead. The proposal was submitted to the leader of the expedition and accepted by him; both the plan and the method of carrying it out were well considered.
After three weeks’ hard work, day and night, they at last reached the lead.
Cook was incontestably the leading spirit in this work, and gained such honour among the members of the expedition that I think it just to mention it. Upright, honourable, capable, and conscientious in the extreme — such is the memory we retain of Frederick A. Cook from those days.
Little did his comrades suspect that a few years later he would be regarded as one of the greatest humbugs the world has ever seen. This is a psychological enigma well worth studying to those who care to do so.
But the Belgica was not yet clear of the ice. After having worked her way out into the lead and a little way on, she was stopped by absolutely close pack, within sight of the open sea.
For a whole month the expedition lay here, reaping the same experiences as Ross on his second voyage with the Erebus and Terror. The immense seas raised the heavy ice high in the air, and flung it against the sides of the vessel. That month was a hell upon earth. Strangely enough, the Belgica escaped undamaged, and steamed into Punta Arenas in the Straits of Magellan on March 28, 1899.
Modern scientific Antarctic exploration had now been initiated, and de Gerlache had won his place for all time in the first rank of Antarctic explorers.
While the Belgica was trying her hardest to get out of the ice, another vessel was making equally strenuous efforts to get in. This was the Southern Cross, the ship of the English expedition, under the leadership of Carstens Borchgrevink. This expedition’s field of work lay on the opposite side of the Pole, in Ross’s footsteps.
On February 11, 1899, the Southern Cross entered Ross Sea in lat. 70° S. and long. 174° E., nearly sixty years after Ross had left it.
A party was landed at Cape Adare, where it wintered. The ship wintered in New Zealand.
In January, 1900, the land party was taken off, and an examination of the Barrier was carried out with the vessel. This expedition succeeded for the first time in ascending the Barrier, which from Ross’s day had been looked upon as inaccessible. The Barrier formed a little bight at the spot where the landing was made, and the ice sloped gradually down to the sea.
We must acknowledge that by ascending the Barrier, Borchgrevink opened a way to the south, and threw aside the greatest obstacle to the expeditions that followed. The Southern Cross returned to civilization in March, 1900.
The Valdivia’s expedition, under Professor Chun, of Leipzig, must be mentioned, though in our day it can hardly be regarded as an Antarctic expedition. On this voyage the position of Bouvet Island was established once for all as lat. 54° 26’ S., long. 3° 24’ E.
The ice was followed from long. 8° E. to 58° E., as closely as the vessel could venture to approach. Abundance of oceanographical material was brought home.