Antarctic Polar Regions | A short History of the Antarctic

The first Prisoners of the Antarctic (Page 2)

Disease, Depression, Schizophrenia, Dementia and Death… | Explosives And Muscle Power : Extraction At Any Price | An Historical "First" | Gerlache Strait, Antwerp Island, Solvay Mountains and so on….

Disease, Depression, Schizophrenia, Dementia and Death….
At the beginning of the wintering, the preparations for the great polar night and the work carried out by the scientific teams almost lead to their forgetting the decision that had been taken; some were observing the ice-floe from close-to-hand, other were making the acquaintance of the Krill, Danco was taking three series of magnetic measurements each day, whereas Dobrowolski was scrutinising the movement and nature of the clouds. "The fact that we have spent the winter ", Gerlache suggested later, "will at least have enabled science henceforth to have access to meteorological observations that were made from hour to hour throughout an entire year, or over a complete 365-day cycle".

But as the unsettling Polar night set in, the atmosphere aboard the Belgica deteriorated. Animals, which from time to time caused a distraction, deserted this part of the ice-floe to go and live further north, daylight gave out, the sun disappeared…. To pass the time when they were not working, the men darned their socks, sewed on buttons, went for walks on the ice, put on skis, played cards, organised competitions (see box), drew caricatures and so on. The botanist became a cobbler, the meteorological assistant, who hated doing his washing, waited to the very last moment then suspended his clothing on the mast hoping that the snow would do the work for him. They also played the accordion, told stories and read a great deal. The novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers, being, according to Gerlache, the crewmembers' favourite book.

"...Our features are drawn, our faces are lined, our skin is green and our eyes dull and lifeless. It only needed 1,600 hours of uninterrupted night to turn us all into old men….". (Georges Lecointe)

Despite that, the ice-floe was there as a constant reminder of the situation: at times, the pressure of the ice was so strong that it threatened to crush the ship's hull. At night, when the temperature could easily descend below 20°C or 25°C, muted cracking could be heard. And everybody was thinking that the Three-Master might have to be abandoned. At this juncture, one of the members of staff, the Belgian Emile Danco, fell ill: he had frequent bouts of suffocation and a heart disorder that became more worrying each day. One day, Doctor Cook came to find Gerlache to tell him that Danco was going to die but that happily he was completely unaware of the fact. Several more weeks were going to pass in an atmosphere that one would imagine to have been unbearable. For additional comfort, Danco was laid out on a couch in the wardroom. The rest of the team was thus witness to his slow agony whereas the unfortunate fellow would try until his last day to show signs of joviality by explaining to everybody for example that he wanted to be the first to cry "Land" when the Belgica would be in sight of the shores of dear old Europe. On 07 June at 11 O'clock in the morning, a funeral procession advanced on the ice-floe, dragging the sledge on which Danco's body was lying in a shroud of sailcloth. The day before, the staff had held a discussion to decide whether it would not be preferable to embalm the dead man until their return. But it was decided to bury him at sea. At the edge of a hole dug in the ice for this purpose, Gerlache pronounced a few words of farewell before delivering his mortal remains to the alabaster ice-floe that were so prominent in Danco's dreams.

The death of the Artillery Lieutenant plunged the Belgica into profound gloom. The men no longer spoke to each other and fell ill one after the other. Arctowski's pulse was too weak and Gerlache complained of persistent headaches. He thought he had scurvy. On the 04 December, he was to draw up, with his second-in-command, the expedition's last will and testament. The latter was not fully fit either; his ankles and hands were dangerously swollen, which encouraged him to dictate his last wishes to Amundsen. Arctowski and Racovitza, for their part, were suffering from serious stomach ache. One particular sailor would regularly leave the ship to return to it only in the middle of the night; he was suffering from dementia attacks. Another began to distrust everybody and to declare at the top of his voice that his comrades wanted to kill him: schizophrenia was doing its work….. A third suddenly claimed that he could no longer speak or hear anything. This was a system of hysteria. Finally a general malaise was eating away at the crew. Their mucous was discoloured and their faces took on a greenish yellow colour. "Polar anaemia has left traces of profound ravages on us", wrote Lecointe. "Our features are drawn, our faces are lined, our skin is green and our eyes dull and lifeless. It only needed 1,600 hours of uninterrupted night to turn us all into old men…." On top of that, it was snowing abundantly on the Three-Master, it was cold, and two days out of three, they could see nothing because of persistent fog…
Cook decided therefore to take things in hand and to make the team eat raw penguin and seal flesh. "Seal, ah no, how horrible! Never ever!" exclaimed Gerlache, who was repulsed by these animals but ended up killing them like all the others. On the subject of these ups and downs, the expedition leader noted: "At the end of the winter, we were able to capture some penguins and seal, whose fresh flesh came to settle our tired stomachs. The sick men even eat it regularly three times per day, on doctor's orders. We had finished by overcoming our initial repugnance for this oily flesh that literally had to be calcined to get rid of the excess fat".

Explosives And Muscle Power: Extraction At Any Price.
With the return of the first glows of the southern summer, the months passed more quickly. But, in December, although spaces of open water were forming here and there in the areas around the Belgica, not one of these clearings was positioned close enough to the ship to envisage the possibility of digging the slightest channel. On 22 December, the Captain decided to get the machinery going. Just in case… On 07 January, when the inactivity on board had become unbearable, Gerlache decided nevertheless to attack the ice, an open water clearing being by chance close enough to the Three-Master at a distance considered to be sufficiently small (about 600 metres) to start the work. Until the end of the month, the crew of the Belgica were to work day and night. With the help of explosives (which did not work very well because the ice, instead of exploding in blocks, was reduced to slurry that quickly reformed), saws, ropes and methodical sectioning of the ice. The men rivalled each other in their ingenuity for finding the best cutting line, for succeeding in cutting to a greater depth than the length of the saws and for inventing the most astute means for getting rid of the blocks of ice that had been cut. Because it was a question of working 24 hours a day, they had to distract themselves while they were sawing. But is not every Belgian blessed with the gift of story-telling? "Yes", wrote Lecointe, "For 35 days, Somers spoke for 9 consecutive hours every day, and with a great deal of humour, I have to say, for the greatest entertainment of us all…."

At the beginning of February, when the men were beginning to glimpse the end of the channel, a double catastrophe occurred. Its mouth became permanently blocked and its width was shrinking all the time in such a way that it would soon be too narrow for the Belgica to get into it… A month of work brought to nothing in a few short hours!
Thunderstruck by this new quirk of fate, Gerlache and his men now saw no other way out other than preparing the lifeboats for a flight to the sea ahead. Direction due North for Tierra del Feugo and Cape Horn. But before embarking on such a perilous adventure they had to make one last attempt to find a solution for the channel at any price. And once more, the sailors fenced with the saws to extract themselves and manipulated the prongs to guide the blocks toward the open water. Because this was a question of a "last chance" solution, why not add the power of the ship's machinery to the men's efforts? After all, the Belgica, before it came to Antwerp, had indeed undergone reinforcement work on its hull in a specialised shipyard in Norway, with lead sheets being added to the stern frame and the submerged parts of the rudder. On 14 February there was an initial deliverance; the Belgica managed to break up the ice that was blocking the entry to the channel. Now the three-masted bark was again travelling in its natural element. It had however to leave the clearing, going from lake to lake to rejoin the ocean which, in view of the progressive thaw, should no longer be so very far away. Gerlache and his companions were to have a last bout of fear when, arriving upon the view of the blue/black line on the horizon which announced the ultimate deliverance, the ice-floe was to move dangerously right up to the very sides of the ship, threatening to dislocate it at any time.

Finally, the so-long-awaited moment arrived; on 14 March at 2 o'clock in the morning, the final ice fields gave way and the Belgica was sailing in the open sea definitively free of all obstacle. Seven months later, after having decided not to continue with the expedition, Gerlache triumphantly sailed up the Escaut Estuary again in his Three-Master. The wintering of the expedition had lasted a little more than a year. During that time, without making any mileage whatsoever itself, nor moving an inch from its glacial grip, without motor and without apparent momentum, the Belgica had covered, under the effect of the drifting ice-floe, the bagatelle of 1,700 nautical miles; as for the ship, it extracted itself from the ice pack at a point 335 miles to the Northwest of the position observed the day when the ice-floe's grip had surprised them.

An Historical "First".
Over and above the historical feat, the Belgica's voyage was distinguished from other Antarctic endeavours by its exclusively scientific nature. This was the first time in history, in effect, that the very notion of Antarctic had been so profoundly associated with science. In that, Gerlache was a pioneer. A detail shows the extent to which the scientific priority of the expedition took precedence over any other consideration; because the coal reserves had been largely used up during their stay in the ice-floe, the Belgica had to return to Europe by sail. This encouraged Adrien de Gerlache to send his colleagues Racovitza, Arctowski and Dobrowolski directly home and to make a bee-line by steam ship so that they would waste no time and could begin to compile their scientific observations as quickly as possible.

Among the scientific results obtained from this first Belgian expedition in the Antarctic (1897-99), one must mention, apart from the oceanographic readings (bathymetry, water density and temperature) made aboard the Belgica in the Drake Strait, which proved the existence of a deep 4,000-metre long oceanic ditch between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, the discovery of numerous new species of marine and terrestrial fauna and flora.

It was Emile Racovitza, the team's naturalist, who was the first to report the presence on the continent of little terrestrial vertebrates that were quite unexpected at those latitudes, which included the Belgica Antarctica, a small wingless gnat of 12mm long at the most.

Gerlache Strait, Antwerp Island, Solvay Mountains and so on….

At that time, to name a particular land was a matter for the expedition leader. Adrien de Gerlache could therefore distribute palms as he wanted. He preferred however to refer them to his employees and to discuss the names to be given to their discoveries with their leaders. It should be clarified that naming a land did not occur at the time of its exploration, but considerably later, when all the data was to hand allowing the place to coincide as far as possible with the person chosen to give it a name. It was thus only when the inventories of the lands to be named had been drawn up that Gerlache embarked upon his task. For that, he consulted Lecointe, Racovitza, Cook, Arctowski and Amundsen; he had to avoid forgetting people and to endeavour to distribute the names of the sponsors of the expedition in a way that was proportional to the importance of the geographical places and the quality of the services rendered by them in Europe before the departure. In any case, precedence was given to those who paid for their participation in the adventure with their lives: Danco Land and Wiencke Island. Then came the names of the three provinces that had been Gerlache's most loyal partners: Brabant Island, Antwerp Island and Liege Island. As for the mountains bordering the strait, they were called Solvay, Osterrieth (the "generous mother of the expedition" as Gerlache called her) and Brugmann. It was on their return that his shipmates proposed to the Commission set up to promote the scientific harvest to substitute to the name Belgica (attributed during the voyage to the strait that he had discovered) with the name of its Captain, Adrien de Gerlache.

The fish and invertebrate fauna of the seabeds were also, for the first time, sampled by dredging and trawling to a depth of 600 metres. In his book "In Penguin Country", the second-in-command of the expedition, Georges Lecointe, summarised the scientific results (2): "From the geographical point of view" he wrote, "the expedition studied the region located to the North of Graham Land. It discovered an enormous strait there - the Gerlache Strait - whose shores were drawn with care and on which 20 landings were made. Geology has harvested a rich selection of samples and important information on glaciers, astronomy and earth physics and have been the subject of our intention; we have in particular traced the relative curves of terrestrial magnetism with precision, curves for this place that had previously been drawn hypothetically. Meteorology has been enriched by the observations that were made, for the first time in these regions, from hour to hour throughout an entire year. The "aurora australis", the optical atmospheric phenomena, the clouds, the snow and the frost have all been studied in a methodical fashion. Before the Belgian expedition, there was only very imperfect knowledge of the Antarctic terrestrial flora and fauna and we were the first to have brought back samples of marine fauna living beyond the southern polar circle. The collections contain 1,200 zoological numbers and 400 botanical numbers - and these numbers only represent categories, with the individual species being far more numerous. We have been able to enrich human physiology with studies, in situ, of the phenomena that occur in man after a prolonged period of time in this rigorous climate".

In the monograph that he devoted to Adrien de Gerlache in 1936, Charles Pergameni, Archivist of the City of Brussels, specified that as far as the biological sciences were concerned, the botanic collections brought back from the Antarctic and Tierra del Fuego contained 55 species of lichen and 27 species of moss instead of just the 3 that had been known until then. Gerlache, for his part, specified in his book "Fifteen Months in the Antarctic" that, although the many soundings made during the imprisonment in the ice proved that the Belgian Three-Master was effectively in the waters of Antarctica, they had also pushed back further to the South the limits which until then explorers and geographers had assigned to the continent. The naval lieutenant also insisted on the fact that the Belgian expedition should be considered, in view of the lack of means at its disposal, as an initial reconnaissance. Nothing more. Indeed, he often compared the English expedition of Discovery, which set-out from Cowes in 1901, which had benefited from an appropriation of 1,750,000 francs (500,000 francs of which were by public subscription) or indeed that of the German vessel Gauss, which had had even larger financial means at its disposal, with the expedition of the Belgica, which, for its part, had cost hardly more than 400,000 francs!

On his return from the expedition, a Belgica Commission was created by Royal Decree, composed of members of the scientific staff of the Belgica and members of the Royal Academy, in order to select 84 Belgian and foreign scientists who were going to have to study in minute detail the reports and scientific samples brought back by the expedition.
Let us finally mention one aspect of things, which at the time, was still touching the hearts of Belgian citizens: the adventure of the Belgica made Belgium known throughout the entire world and demonstrated to all and sundry the capacities of this small nation. It had had the merit of conveying beyond our narrow borders the notion according to which our country, if it could devote itself to large-scale commercial operations such as the colonisation of the Congo, was also capable of working disinterestedly in the service of science.



(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.