Amundsen's Historical Review - Part Two
Captain James Cook — one of the boldest and most capable seamen the world has known — opens the series of Antarctic expeditions properly so called. The British Admiralty sent him out with orders to discover the great southern continent, or prove that it did not exist. The expedition, consisting of two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure, left Plymouth on July 13, 1772. After a short stay at Madeira it reached Cape Town on October 30. Here Cook received news of the discovery of Kerguelen and of the Marion and Crozet Islands. In the course of his voyage to the south Cook passed 300 miles to the south of the land reported by Bouvet, and thereby established the fact that the land in question — if it existed — was not continuous with the great southern continent.
On January 17, 1773, the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time — a memorable day in the annals of Antarctic exploration. Shortly afterwards a solid pack was encountered, and Cook was forced to return to the north. A course was laid for the newly discovered islands — Kerguelen, Marion, and the Crozets — and it was proved that they had nothing to do with the great southern land. In the course of his further voyages in Antarctic waters Cook completed the most southerly circumnavigation of the globe, and showed that there was no connection between any of the lands or islands that had been discovered and the great mysterious “Antarctica.” His highest latitude (January 30, 1774) was 71° 10’ S.
Cook’s voyages had important commercial results, as his reports of the enormous number of seals round South Georgia brought many sealers, both English and American, to those waters, and these sealers, in turn, increased the field of geographical discovery.
In 1819 the discovery of the South Shetlands by the Englishman, Captain William Smith, is to be recorded. And this discovery led to that of the Palmer Archipelago to the south of them.
The next scientific expedition to the Antarctic regions was that despatched by the Emperor Alexander I. of Russia, under the command of Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen. It was composed of two ships, and sailed from Cronstadt on July 15, 1819. To this expedition belongs the honour of having discovered the first land to the south of the Antarctic Circle — Peter I. Island and Alexander I. Land.
The next star in the Antarctic firmament is the British seaman, James Weddell. He made two voyages in a sealer of 160 tons, the Jane of Leith, in 1819 and 1822, being accompanied on the second occasion by the cutter Beaufoy. In February, 1823, Weddell had the satisfaction of beating Cook’s record by reaching a latitude of 74° 15’ S. in the sea now known as Weddell Sea, which in that year was clear of ice.
The English firm of shipowners, Enderby Brothers, plays a not unimportant part in Antarctic exploration. The Enderbys had carried on sealing in southern waters since 1785. They were greatly interested, not only in the commercial, but also in the scientific results of these voyages, and chose their captains accordingly. In 1830 the firm sent out John Biscoe on a sealing voyage in the Antarctic Ocean with the brig Tula and the cutter Lively. The result of this voyage was the sighting of Enderby Land in lat. 66° 25’ S., long. 49° 18’ E. In the following year Adelaide, Biscoe, and Pitt Islands, on the west coast of Graham Land were charted, and Graham Land itself was seen for the first time.
Kemp, another of Enderby’s skippers, reported land in lat. 66° S., and about long. 60° E.
In 1839 yet another skipper of the same firm, John Balleny, in the schooner Eliza Scott, discovered the Balleny Islands.
We then come to the celebrated French sailor, Admiral Jules Sébastien Dumont d’Urville. He left Toulon in September, 1837, with a scientifically equipped expedition, in the ships Astrolabe and Zélée. The intention was to follow in Weddell’s track, and endeavour to carry the French flag still nearer to the Pole. Early in 1838 Louis Philippe Land and Joinville Island were discovered and named. Two years later we again find d’Urville’s vessels in Antarctic waters, with the object of investigating the magnetic conditions in the vicinity of the South Magnetic Pole. Land was discovered in lat. 66° 30’ S. and long. 138° 21’ E. With the exception of a few bare islets, the whole of this land was completely covered with snow. It was given the name of Adélie Land, and a part of the ice-barrier lying to the west of it was called C^ote Clarie, on the supposition that it must envelop a line of coast.
The American naval officer, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, sailed in August, 1838, with a fleet of six vessels. The expedition was sent out by Congress, and carried twelve scientific observers. In February, 1839, the whole of this imposing Antarctic fleet was collected in Orange Harbour in the south of Tierra del Fuego, where the work was divided among the various vessels. As to the results of this expedition it is difficult to express an opinion. Certain it is that Wilkes Land has subsequently been sailed over in many places by several expeditions. Of what may have been the cause of this inaccurate cartography it is impossible to form any opinion. It appears, however, from the account of the whole voyage, that the undertaking was seriously conducted.
Then the bright star appears — the man whose name will ever be remembered as one of the most intrepid polar explorers and one of the most capable seamen the world has produced — Admiral Sir James Clark Ross.
The results of his expedition are well known. Ross himself commanded the Erebus and Commander Francis Crozier the Terror. The former vessel, of 370 tons, had been originally built for throwing bombs; her construction was therefore extraordinarily solid. The Terror, 340 tons, had been previously employed in Arctic waters, and on this account had been already strengthened. In provisioning the ships, every possible precaution was taken against scurvy, with the dangers of which Ross was familiar from his experience in Arctic waters.
The vessels sailed from England in September, 1839, calling at many of the Atlantic Islands, and arrived in Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, in the following May. Here they stayed two months, making magnetic observations, and then proceeded to Hobart.
Sir John Franklin, the eminent polar explorer, was at that time Governor of Tasmania, and Ross could not have wished for a better one. Interested as Franklin naturally was in the expedition, he afforded it all the help he possibly could. During his stay in Tasmania Ross received information of what had been accomplished by Wilkes and Dumont d’Urville in the very region which the Admiralty had sent him to explore. The effect of this news was that Ross changed his plans, and decided to proceed along the 170th meridian E., and if possible to reach the Magnetic Pole from the eastward.
Here was another fortuitous circumstance in the long chain of events. If Ross had not received this intelligence, it is quite possible that the epoch-making geographical discoveries associated with his name would have been delayed for many years.
On November 12, 1840, Sir John Franklin went on board the Erebus to accompany his friend Ross out of port. Strange are the ways of life! There stood Franklin on the deck of the ship which a few years later was to be his deathbed. Little did he suspect, as he sailed out of Hobart through Storm Bay — the bay that is now wreathed by the flourishing orchards of Tasmania — that he would meet his death in a high northern latitude on board the same vessel, in storms and frost. But so it was.
After calling at the Auckland Islands and at Campbell Island, Ross again steered for the South, and the Antarctic Circle was crossed on New Year’s Day, 1841. The ships were now faced by the ice-pack, but to Ross this was not the dangerous enemy it had appeared to earlier explorers with their more weakly constructed vessels. Ross plunged boldly into the pack with his fortified ships, and, taking advantage of the narrow leads, he came out four days later, after many severe buffets, into the open sea to the South.
Ross had reached the sea now named after him, and the boldest voyage known in Antarctic exploration was accomplished.
Few people of the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic deed; this brilliant proof of human courage and energy. With two ponderous craft — regular “tubs” according to our ideas — these men sailed right into the heart of the pack, which all previous polar explorers had regarded as certain death. It is not merely difficult to grasp this; it is simply impossible — to us, who with a motion of the hand can set the screw going, and wriggle out of the first difficulty we encounter. These men were heroes — heroes in the highest sense of the word.
It was in lat. 69° 15’ S. and long. 176° 15’ E. that Ross found the open sea. On the following day the horizon was perfectly clear of ice. What joy that man must have felt when he saw that he had a clear way to the South!
The course was set for the Magnetic Pole, and the hope of soon reaching it burned in the hearts of all. Then — just as they had accustomed themselves to the idea of open sea, perhaps to the Magnetic Pole itself — the crow’s-nest reported “High land right ahead.” This was the mountainous coast of South Victoria Land.
What a fairyland this must have seemed to the first voyagers who approached it! Mighty mountain-ranges with summits from 7,000 to 10,000 feet high, some covered with snow and some quite bare — lofty and rugged, precipitous and wild.
It became apparent that the Magnetic Pole was some 500 miles distant — far inland, behind the snow-covered ridges. On the morning of January 12 they came close under a little island, and Ross with a few companions rowed ashore and took possession of the country. They could not reach the mainland itself on account of the thick belt of ice that lay along the coast.
The expedition continued to work its way southward, making fresh discoveries. On January 28 the two lofty summits, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, were sighted for the first time. The former was seen to be an active volcano, from which smoke and flames shot up into the sky. It must have been a wonderfully fine sight, this flaming fire in the midst of the white, frozen landscape. Captain Scott has since given the island, on which the mountains lie, the name of Ross Island, after the intrepid navigator.
Naturally there were great expectations on board. If they had penetrated so far south, there might be no limit to their further progress. But, as had happened so many times before, their hopes were disappointed. From Ross Island, as far to the eastward as the eye could see, there extended a lofty, impenetrable wall of ice. To sail through it was as impossible as sailing through the cliffs of Dover, Ross says in his description. All they could do was to try to get round it. And then began the first examination of that part of the great Antarctic Barrier which has since been named the Ross Barrier.
The wall of ice was followed to the eastward for a distance of 250 miles. Its upper surface was seen to be perfectly flat. The most easterly point reached was long. 167° W., and the highest latitude 78° 4’ S. No opening having been found, the ships returned to the west, in order to try once more whether there was any possibility of reaching the Magnetic Pole. But this attempt soon had to be abandoned on account of the lateness of the season, and in April, 1841, Ross returned to Hobart.
His second voyage was full of dangers and thrilling incidents, but added little to the tale of his discoveries.
On February 22, 1842, the ships came in sight of the Barrier, and, following it to the east, found that it turned north-eastward. Here Ross recorded an “appearance of land” in the very region in which Captain Scott, sixty years later, discovered King Edward VII. Land.
On December 17, 1842, Ross set out on his third and last Antarctic voyage. His object this time was to reach a high latitude along the coast of Louis Philippe Land, if possible, or alternatively by following Weddell’s track. Both attempts were frustrated by the ice conditions.
On sighting Joinville Land, the officers of the Terror thought they could see smoke from active volcanoes, but Ross and his men did not confirm this. About fifty years later active volcanoes were actually discovered by the Norwegian, Captain C. A. Larsen, in the Jason. A few minor geographical discoveries were made, but none of any great importance.
This concluded Ross’s attempts to reach the South Pole. A magnificent work had been achieved, and the honour of having opened up the way by which, at last, the Pole was reached must be ascribed to Ross.
The Pagoda, commanded by Lieutenant Moore, was the next vessel to make for the South. Her chief object was to make magnetic observations in high latitudes south of the Indian Ocean.
The first ice was met with in lat. 53° 30’ S., on January 25,1845. On February 5 the Antarctic Circle was crossed in long. 30° 45’ E. The most southerly latitude attained on this voyage was 67° 50’, in long. 39°41’ E.
This was the last expedition to visit the Antarctic regions in a ship propelled by sails alone.