Antarctic Polar Regions | A short History of the Antarctic

The first Prisoners of the Antarctic (Page 1)

The Belgians Come to the Dance ... | Science Gets To Work In The Antarctic Waters | How does one buy a Three-Master? | What Were Gerlache's Real Intentions ?

The Belgians Come To The Dance….
What was it that drove a young Polytechnic student to get involved in such an intrepid adventure as the conquest of the Antarctic Continent? A fortunate combination of circumstances to which were added the desire of discovering unknown lands, the passion for far-off horizons, an inclination for the cold and unexplored regions, the will to advance science and the wish of having his country participate in the discovery of the last virgin lands of the globe.
For a better understanding of what could have gone on in the mind of a young naval officer accustomed to sailing all the seas of the world, one must also take stock of his desire to depart in the feverish atmosphere of that end of century which was seeing the mysterious continent reveal itself little by little…. It was certainly not by chance that the "Sixth International Geographic Congress" (London, July 1895) dealt with the state of the discoveries in the Antarctic and encouraged the participating countries to redouble their efforts to send scientists to the area as quickly as possible so that, before the end of the century, the ice-covered continent should no longer be the Terra Incognita. The young Gerlache wanted at any price to be part of the large family of people who were going to discover those phantom regions. Convinced that in Belgium he would find no response, he first wrote to the Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld to ask if he could accompany him on his next Antarctic voyage, but he received no reply. "However, an initially vague idea was born," wrote Adrien de Gerlache in his book "Fifteen Months In The Antarctic" "then took shape in my mind: why should I not myself undertake, on my own initiative, a voyage of discovery in the so little known area of the Antarctic?". It was thus that little by little, the project germinated and that one day, the young Belgian sailor threw himself body and soul into what was going to be the adventure of his life.

Although members of the Belgian Royal Academy and the Royal Geographic Society of Brussels (RGSB) - influential people therefore - showed an interest in the project, the funds were difficult to find. Belgium was in fact fully committed to colonial conquest and clearly had no desire to turn its attention toward distance enterprises. But Gerlache was possessed by a tenacious will to succeed, and with the aid of the RGSB, which launched a national subscription, he managed to convince 2,000 subscribers and thus saw the expedition's coffers swell to their first 100,000 francs. Impressed by such a level of public interest, the houses of Parliament voted an initial appropriation of another 100,000 francs. To tie up the final budget (300,000 francs at the time) was to be no easy matter; to do so, in effect, they had to create fund-raising committees in various towns throughout the country, organise popular parties, concerts and conferences, organise commercial balloon flights and convince large numbers of local authority councils….
Finally, three years after having first entertained the idea of flying the Belgian flag in the waters of the mysterious continent, Adrien de Gerlache saw the great day arrive: 16 August 1897, at 8 o'clock in the morning, he was on the bridge of the Belgica and left the port of Antwerp under a salvo of hurrahs and gun salutes, the ship was so loaded with scientific instruments that its plimsoll line was only 50 centimetres above the water. All around the Three-Master, a flurry of yachts was scrambling on the Escaut Estuary to escort the explorers: among them was the Kortenaar, a warship that Queen Wilhemina of Holland had dispatched to the area to pay tribute to the Belgians. Aboard the Belgica, excitement was at its peak: they were all convinced that the years ahead would mark their lives forever. This was because, apart from the originality of the destination, the Belgian explorer had devised a large-scale project that inaugurated many years of Antarctic discovery. "My first plan", Gerlache was to write at a later date, "was to devote the first year to reconnaissance in the George V Sea where Weddell had reached the 74th parallel, then to sail towards Victoria Land and to winter there with three of my companions, while the Belgica would go to Melbourne for re-supplies". Whatever the future unfolding of the expedition might have been (things were not in effect always going to work out well), the scientific and international character of the project was clearly apparent; in addition to the sailors, the steward, the cook, the engineer and the first mate (George Lecointe), there were on board a Polish geologist (Henry Arctowski, who was also anOceanographer and Meteorologist) and an American doctor-cum-photographer, (the famous Frederick Cook who would be embarking at Rio-de-Janeiro), an Artillery Lieutenant trained in Earth Physics before the departure (Emile Danco), a Rumanian Zoologist and Botanist (Emile-Gustave Racovitza), an assistant Meteorologist (Antoine Dobrowolski, also Polish) and a figurehead of Antarctic expeditions that history was to make famous several years later, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. On board, the average age was 28 years old; all those young lions who were thus setting off for adventure on a little yacht, armed by a little country, wanted to do battle as soon as they could with the unknown that was awaiting them in the terrible waters of the Southern Hemisphere.

Science Gets To Work In The Antarctic Waters.
At the beginning of the expedition, apart from the vicissitudes of sailing that temporarily immobilised the Belgica on the high seas off Ushuaïa, the project unfolded as planned.

How Does One Buy a Three-Master

It was in 1895, when he was in the service of the Scottish and Norwegian ship owners to carry out a fishing expedition in the area of the Greenland pack-ice that Adrien de Gerlache saw, for the first time, the Patria, which was later to become the Belgica. At that time, the ship was not for sale, but the young Lieutenant of the Belgian Navy was to benefit from favourable circumstances. The following year, in effect, the company to which the Patria belonged went bankrupt and the ship was put up for sale. According to the custom of the time, a right of preference was automatically reserved for the Captain who was in command of the ship, and the latter wanted to buy it. To do so, he had to spend all his savings and when his first fishing expedition arrived, the new ship owner's purse was empty. He was therefore obliged to borrow a large sum to complete the deal. Frightened by this debt and pressed by the Belgian Lieutenant to sell his ship, the owner of the Patria agreed to a purchase option at the price of 50,000 Crowns. The deed was signed on 29 February 1896. The Patria was a three-masted bark whose hull had been reinforced with metal strips in all the parts exposed to rubbing against ice. Its net tonnage was 244 tonnes; it measured 34.6 metres long and 7.50 metres wide. "This Patria was in reality a very small ship," wrote Adrien de Gerlache in his book "Fifteen Months In The Antarctic" "so small that for a moment I thought I would name it Shell…"

In June 1896, the fishing expedition was more fruitful than the Captain had envisaged, and suddenly he no longer wanted to hear talk of transactions. Three weeks later however, submitting to the stubborn will of the Belgian Lieutenant, he finally sold the Patria to Gerlache. On 04 July, the Norwegian flag was definitively brought to the keys of Sandefjord and, under a 21-gun salute, the Three-Master was renamed the Belgica.

Arrived in the cold latitudes, they set to work; while the sailors amused themselves by hunting albatross and making pipe stems out of their bones, the scientists took the temperature of the water at various depths and took soundings; from these observations, it is known that an oceanic ditch of 4,000 metres separates the Andes Chain from the one that divides the Antarctic continent. But, in the afternoon of 28 January 1898, a drama occurred. The weather was at storm-force and the Belgica was shipping masses of seawater; attempting to free an obstructed scupper which was retaining too much water on the deck, the sailor Auguste-Karl Wiencke straddled the ships rail, which was forbidden, and fell into the water. It was impossible to put a boat to sea in that weather, and Lecointe, the first mate, therefore offered to let himself be slipped into the water at the end of a rope in an attempt to grab Wiencke, who had attached himself as well as he could to the log-line. He took him in his arms and tried too bring him closer to the hull. But vicious waves were lifting the ship all the time and, on several occasions, the pair was tossed violently about in the water. "Wiencke was not moving", wrote Lecointe in his book "In Penguin Country", "his eyes were wide open, looking into the distance. He kept his mouth shut and powerfully expelled the air he was breathing through his nose. On two or three occasions the rope tightened and jolted me in the same way; I was holding Wiencke in my arms, but my strength betrayed me and I had to let the poor fellow go". This was the first drama that tainted the expedition; nobody had the slightest doubt that there would be others….
As horrible as it was, this accident did not call the unfolding of the voyage into question. Three months after having left Antwerp, the Belgica entered the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time and explored, bay after bay, coast after coast, the strait that stretches between the West of the Peninsula and Antwerp Island - the strait that, later, was to bear the name Gerlache. From reading the accounts of the leader of the expedition and his second-in-command, one realises the extent to which the scientific experiments were of paramount importance for these young adventurers. During the three weeks spent in that region, not a day went by, in effect, without the men landing on one corner of the land or another, without readings being made, from the ship and from land, without measurements being taken on samples of seawater, ice and rock collected by the expedition, "When we land" wrote Gerlache "Arctowski, breaking off splinters of vulgar granite with his hammer, seems like a prospector looking for gold-bearing quartz; Racovitz in the scanty patches of open water among the continuity of the thick mantle of ice that covers the land, would sometimes collect a minute graminaceous plant as though it were an extremely rare orchid. We do not have a single hour to waste, and to make the work useful, we must work quickly, without paying attention to detail, in order to obtain a good map of the whole area, indicating, for navigational needs, the physiognomy of these waters. While some are on land, others, aboard the Belgica, go from one bank to another, searching for reference points, measuring angles, drawing the map…."
For three whole days and nights, a team consisting of the Captain, Cook, Amundsen, Arctowski and Danco were even to explore certain promontories, (the Solvay Mountains on Brabant Island), sleeping under canvas, crossing impossible crevices and walking through thick snow towards the highest points in order to map the sector better. While Racovitza, the expedition's Biologist, for his part was gathering a host of information on the various species of penguins populating this corner and drawing up an inventory of terrestrial fauna - midges with atrophied wings, mites - while removing from any corner of land not covered with ice the smallest pieces of lichen and the smallest pieces of moss. Despite the penury of vegetation that characterises those places, the specimens brought back by the Belgica were to double the number of species of Antarctic flora that were known at the time.

What Were Gerlache's Real Intentions ?
On 18 February 1898, when the expedition was travelling along the pack ice, the men saw a large gap in the ice in a southerly direction. In the same way as a similar opportunity was offered to James C. Ross in 1841, there was this enormous sea of ice miraculously opening up before the explorers. Adrien de Gerlache was fully aware of the benefit that he could draw from the discovery of an enormous area of free water located beyond the ice-pack; he also knew that the scientists did not share his frenzy of discovery and that none of them wanted to rush into it for fear of losing the precious samples that they had just collected. But, in this type of adventure, it is the leader who decides. "It was a unique opportunity and we had to take advantage of this dislocation of ice to head towards the South", wrote Georges Lecointe "Gerlache came to find me on the bridge; our conversation was short; it ended with a vigorous handshake and, with profound joy, I transmitted to the helmsman the order to head South! We did not however conceal the risks of our daredevil enterprise. The bad weather season was going to condemn us to spending a winter for which we were only partially equipped. If we were to succumb, who would bring back to the country the valuable documents that we had already assembled?"

Several days later when the whaler could no longer reverse, a dispute erupted aboard on the subject of the Captain's real intentions. Had he consciously wished, from the outset, to have himself trapped by the pack ice in order to be able to be the first person to winter in Antarctica? Or did he adventure there by chance? A first element of response was given by Gerlache in his book at the end of Chapter 8, "Southwards". "We were going to be the first people to winter on the Antarctic ice-floe" he wrote "and this fact alone promises us an ample harvest of information to collect and phenomena to study. Is it not that that we wanted, that which we have been looking for?" What one can then assert, from reading the pages that retrace the first weeks of wintering and the atmosphere that resulted, is that the Captain did not seem in the least put out by what was happening to him. The tranquillity of the preparations, the scrupulous attention to the orders given, the calm with which he analysed the problems, the diversity of the solutions provided and the speed of their implementation; all the elements proved that the hypothesis of wintering had been meticulously studied. One year later when the Belgica was on the point of extracting itself from its Calvary, unknown to all, the Captain had to consider, for just a few days, the terrible eventuality of a new wintering in the area; there, in a few lines, the tone becomes more solemn and the rhythm of the writing more dramatic. A third item of information is to be added to the little file of this controversy; between Lecointe and his skipper, there had been until then perfect complicity. Proof of this is the solution proposed by the latter to Gerlache, who had confessed to him that he was no longer entirely sure of the obedience of his men should they have to spend another winter, namely to interfere with the liquid compass with large magnets and replace the rose of the compass by a spare one so that one could, in a flash, achieve inverse magnetism in such a way that the helmsman would be heading South whereas he would think he was heading North! In conclusion, one has to refer to Lecointe's writings, which specify that when he was reproached for not having used all the possible power of the machinery and done his utmost to break the pack-ice; "How can one reply to this accusation? It is certain that we had honestly tried to return to the North, but it is also certain that Gerlache and I were delighted that our attempt failed".

Be that as it may, the Belgian whaler was blocked, with effect from 05 March 1898, in the Antarctic ice at 70° latitude South. In terms of fuel, the expedition had enough food supplies and coal (there were 100 tonnes of anthracite remaining), but nevertheless the order was given to cut the fires of the boiler for additional safety. In terms of everyday life, this had to be organised as well as possible. The Captain decided upon a cycle of 28 days for meals, in order to avoid monotony setting in too quickly on board. An example of the menu for the first Wednesday of the month:- In the mornings: coffee, bread and butter (they were able to bake fresh bread every day because of the sterilised flour that they had on board), and orange marmalade. Midday: mashed peas, bacon and sauerkraut, jellied calf's head, Malaga grapes. In the evenings, fried rice, pig's liver pâté, canned mackerel, tea. All of it canned, of course. Alcohol was forbidden, apart from 15cl of Bordeaux wine, meticulously distributed each Sunday. And then, they busied themselves with the boat. A roof was fixed over the bridge, they packed the sides of the ship with snow, and they laid out work areas. A strict timetable was displayed, which Gerlache called the "Socialist division of time"; eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of rest. The men dug holes in the ice-floe to fish, plumb the depths and draw water in case of fire on board. The diet was the same for everybody, sailors, scientists and officers. It was furthermore forbidden to distance oneself from the ship in such a way that one could no longer see the mast. Gerlache knew in effect that the pack ice moved and that its traps were sometimes mortal.

To be continued next page

(1) The "In Penguin Country", an account of the voyage of the Belgica, Georges Lecointe, Société Belges de Librarie, Oscar Schepens & Cie, Editeurs, Brussels, 1904, page 350 and 351

(2) Adrien de Gerlache, "Maritime Pioneer", 1866-1934, Charles Pergameni, Brussels, Editorial-Office, 1936, page 60 to 64

(3) Initially envisaged for making polar cruises, the Polaris was finally bought by Ernest Shackleton, for his Antarctic expedition of 1914, and became the Endurance.