How 19th Century Antarctic Explorers Barely Escaped The ‘End of the Earth Madhouse’
The Scheldt meandered languidly from northern France to Belgium, taking a sharp bend to the west at the port of Antwerp, where it became deep and wide enough to accommodate ocean-going ships. On that summer morning without clouds, more than twenty thousand people flocked along the city’s banks to greet the departure of the Belgica and exult in its glory. Freshly painted in steel gray, the 113-foot-long, three-masted steam whaler, powered by a coal engine, was heading for Antarctica to map its unknown coasts and collect data on its flora, fauna, and wildlife. geology. But what drew crowds today was not so much the promise of scientific discoveries as national pride: Belgium, little Belgium, a country that had declared independence from Holland sixty-seven years earlier and was therefore younger than many of its citizens, playing a claim to the next frontier of human exploration.
At ten o’clock the ship weighed anchor and sailed at full speed towards the North Sea, so laden with coal, provisions and equipment that her deck was only a foot and a half above sea level. ‘water. Escorted by a flotilla of yachts carrying government officials, supporters and journalists, the Belgica marched past the city. She passed the flag-adorned townhouses lining the waterfront, past the flamboyant Gothic cathedral that dominated the skyline, past Het Steen, the fortress that had dominated the river since the Middle Ages. From a pontoon, a military band played “La Brabançonne”, the Belgian national anthem, a theme as grandiose as the country was small. Cannons fired in homage, from both banks of the river. Ships from all over the world detonated their fog horns and hoisted the black, yellow and red flag of Belgium. Cheers spread through the crowd as the Belgica passed. The whole city seemed to vibrate.
The expedition commander, Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, thirty-one, gazed back at the choppy sea of banners, hats and handkerchiefs from the ship’s deck. His face betrayed little emotion, but behind his heavy lidded eyes it burned with excitement. Every detail of his appearance had been meticulously taken care of in preparation for this moment, right down to the twist of his mustache, the flush of his beard and the knot of his tie. De Gerlache’s black double-breasted hood was too hot for that August morning, and not hot enough for the freezing ends of the earth, but it gave him a dashing look worthy of a man making history. . From time to time, basking under the cheers, he would take off his ornate Belgica cap by its patent-leather brim and wave it in the direction of the jubilant crowd. He had long been hungry for these cheers. The starting point seemed to him the finish line. “My state of mind,” he wrote, “was that of a man who has just achieved his goal.
In a way, he had. It was a personal triumph for the ship to depart. Despite the sincere patriotism displayed this morning, the Belgian Antarctic expedition was less a national enterprise than the manifestation of Adrien de Gerlache’s unwavering will. He had spent over three years planning, staffing and fundraising for the trip. His determination alone had won over skeptics, untied purse strings and rallied a nation behind him. Now, if he stayed ten thousand miles from his destination, he was already tasting the glory. But on this euphoric day, with his compatriots cheering him on, it was easy for de Gerlache to forget that this glory was on credit. To win it, he would have to survive in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, a continent so hostile to human life that no man had yet spent more than a few hours on its shores.
The Belgian border with Holland stretched over the Scheldt about a dozen kilometers north-west of Antwerp. Before crossing it, the Belgica docked at the Liefkenshoek quay to take care of a final agenda. Even as the gaiety continued on the deck and aboard the yachts that swarmed around the ship, the crew shuttled between the quay and the hold of the Belgica in order to load half a ton of tonite, an explosive that we believed more powerful than dynamite. Tonite sticks, which occupied several bass drums in the ship’s hold, were de Gerlache’s insurance policy. He didn’t know what to expect from the Antarctic ice, only that a continent that had managed to keep humanity at bay until the 19th century demanded respect. He could imagine several ways to destroy the ship: it could crash into an iceberg or an unexplored reef. But perhaps the most dreaded possibility was that the Belgica would be stuck in ice and crushed by the pressure, or held captive indefinitely, leaving its men to starve to death. Several notorious expeditions to the northern polar regions had known such fates. De Gerlache assumed that half a ton of tonite would be more than enough to break the hold of the pack ice. It was the first time he had underestimated the power of Antarctica, but it wouldn’t be the last.
As the crew crowded into the hold, a group of dignitaries left one of the accompanying yachts and boarded the Belgica to wish Gerlache and his men good luck. A sailor at heart, the captain was much more at ease at sea than in crowds, and for three years he had grown weary of rejoicing. He had spent more time fundraising than he expected to spend in Antarctica. As he exchanged pleasantries with government ministers, wealthy patrons and elders of the Royal Belgian Geographical Society, which had sponsored the expedition, he felt the weight of his obligations to them. If it can be said that he did not fear the frozen continent enough, then he feared too much the judgment of these men.
If he failed in his mission, he would endure the disappointment of an entire country. Much worse, in his mind, was the dishonor it would bring to his illustrious family. The de Gerlaches were one of the oldest aristocratic dynasties in Belgium, whose origins date back to the 14th century. A relative, Baron Etienne-Constantin de Gerlache, had been among the founders of the Belgian nation, one of the main authors of its constitution and its first prime minister (although his tenure lasted only eleven days). Adrien’s grandfather and father had both been decorated with military officers. The public expected greatness from one of Gerlache. In the press and in high society in Brussels, Adrien’s family had shown their support for their Antarctic project, betting their reputation on its success. This only added to the pressure felt by the commander.
The parents, sister and brother of Adrien, a promising army lieutenant, had also boarded the Belgica and remained there after the dignitaries returned to their yacht. The only patron saint allowed to stay was the socialite Léonie Osterrieth, the most dedicated and passionate of the expedition’s sponsors. The fifty-four-year-old widow of an eminent Antwerp merchant, she treated Gerlache like her own son. He in turn called her “Mama O”. and considered her to be his most trusted confidante. (For her generous contributions to the expedition, men nicknamed her “Mother Antarctica,” meaning “Mother Antarctica,” but is also a homophone of “Antarctic Sea” or “Antarctic Sea.”) farewell, Adrian’s patrician father, Auguste, embraced all members of the expedition, from the humblest deckhand to scientists, and with a tremor in his voice called them all his “dear children”. The Commandant’s mother, Emma, sobbed inconsolably, as if she had a hunch that she would never see her eldest son again. The twenty-eight-year-old captain of the Belgica, the small and rambling Georges Lecointe, swore that he and the rest of the men would devote themselves entirely to his son. He wasn’t the type to break a promise. Lecointe then led the crew in three catchy cheers of “Vive Madame de Gerlache!” While the last cry still echoed over the Scheldt, the captain shouted orders to the crew.
“Now everyone is back to their post! “
Gerlache’s family leave the ship and board a yacht called the Brabo, which turns around towards Antwerp. Waving his cap from the deck of the Belgica, the captain managed to hold back tears, but in the words of one observer, “A violent emotion took hold of his face.
“Long live Belgium! he shouted across the water as the Brabo pulled away. He rushed onto the rig with the agility of an acrobat. It took him less than fifteen seconds to climb up to the crow’s nest – a reused barrel – where he continued to wave his cap until the ship carrying nearly everyone he loved vanished past the elbow. from the river.
De Gerlache had never lived anywhere other than Belgium, but in many ways he felt more comfortable in the cabins of ships, wherever they took him. He was born in Hasselt, Belgium on August 2, 1866. Unlike his brother, father, grandfather, and a long line of Gerlache men stretching back several centuries, he had no interest in a military career. . A pacifist at heart, he dreamed of a life at sea, an unusual fascination for a boy growing up in Belgium, who, after his secession from Holland during the revolution of 1830, found himself with a virtually non-existent navy, a rudimentary merchant marine. , and only forty miles of coastline.
Extracted from Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton. Copyright © 2021 by Julian Sancton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.