The voyage of the Belgica, 1897-1899, was an exceptionally challenging yet ultimately rewarding scientific expedition. New lands and oceans were charted, and in-depth data was collected on the continent’s biodiversity. It was also the first expedition to successfully over-winter in the Antarctic. This very nearly led to its downfall. Amongst the crew were two notable explorers. Roald Amundsen later became the first man to reach the South Pole. Frederick A. Cook would later contentiously claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole.
What was the Belgica?
Before being christened the SY Belgica (SY = Steam Yacht), it was a Norwegian vessel called the Patria. It was purchased by the leader of the expedition, 31-year-old Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, who organized its refurbishment. It was fitted with a 150 horsepower engine, and kitted out with well-designed scientific laboratories. It was insulated with felt to protect against the cold, and its hull reinforced to allow safe sailing into the pack ice. Its dimensions were 34.6 m × 7.54 m × 4.09 m, and when loaded it displaced 590 cubic meters and weighed 172 tonnes. The Belgica carried the flag of the Yacht Club of Antwerp.
Who sponsored the expedition?
The Royal Belgian Geographical Society, the Belgian government, and a number of mainly Belgian benefactors were behind the voyage of the Belgica.
Who were the crew?
Although it was described as essentially Belgian – a key ploy to get as many Belgian financial supporters as possible – as the crew began to be put together it became a truly international expedition. On board were 9 Belgians, 6 Norwegians, 2 Poles, 1 Romanian and 1 American. The eldest member was 34 years old and the youngest 17.
What was the aim?
The general purpose of the voyage of the Belgica was exploratory and to gather new scientific information. Specifically, four members of the expedition were to over-winter on land at Cape Adare on the Antarctic Shelf. The Belgica would then sail to Melbourne and then explore the Pacific Ocean before returning to Cape Adare to retrieve the overwintering party. Events conspired to make these objectives impossible.
16 August 1897: Leaving Antwerp
After three years of careful preparation, the SY Belgica sets sail from Antwerp. 20,000 people are on the city’s waterfront to salute its departure. Cannons fire from both banks of the River Scheldt. Just downriver, the Belgica stops at the Liefkenshoek quay to load half a ton of tonite, an explosive believed to be more powerful than dynamite. De Gerlache thought it might come in useful if the ship was caught in ice.
17-23 August 1897: In Ostend for repairs
After anchoring for the night off the Dutch town of Vlissingen, they enter the open sea and fire up the steam engine. The condenser overheats and breaks down, forcing the Belgica to dock in Ostend for repairs. Problems with the crew immediately arise. Although he had taken great care to assemble excellent officers and scientists, de Gerlache took less care with the recruitment of the crew. Three men quit the expedition in Ostend. They are replaced, but with less experienced sailors.
6 October 1897: Crossing the equator
Those of the crew who have not previously crossed the equator have to undergo a strange ritual involving being baptized by King Neptune to be considered fully-fledged seafarers. One by one, they are led to a chair on deck to be shaved by Neptune’s court barber. The razor blades are made of wood; the shaving brushes are paint brushes; and the soap a mixture of fat, flour, soot and water. The man is then rinsed off with three buckets of water. Only then is he worthy enough to attend the banquet in the evening.
11-14 November 1897: Trouble in Montevideo
The cook is sacked after a fight. The lack of a proper cook on board will later have a significant effect on the diet and morale of the crew.
1-11 December 1897: Near mutiny in Punta Arenas
Further disciplinary problems surface. Some of the crew get drunk and refuse to work unless they get an advance of their wages. They accuse de Gerlache of favoring the Belgian crew members over the Norwegians. At one point de Gerlache calls in the Chilean Navy to send a boarding party to try and restore order on board. Four seamen are kicked off the boat.
14 December 1897: Tierra del Fuego
The true scientific expedition finally begins. Detailed biological, geological and oceanographical observations are made. Frederick Cook reveals himself to be an excellent photographer. Some of the scientists take an interest in the local aboriginals and collate a small dictionary of words and phrases.
1 January 1898: Running aground
Following an outdated map and sailing in the dark, the Belgica runs aground on a rock four meters below the surface. High tide comes and goes and the ship is still stuck. They offload 30 tons of coal with the help of 20 Fuegians. It still does not budge. The ship’s precious freshwater reserves are emptied. Another high tide comes and goes. The Belgica is now listing dangerously. De Gerlache considers the ship is lost but makes one final effort. The engine is brought to maximum pressure, the sails are raised … and the ship finally breaks free. The ordeal had lasted 22 hours.
14 January 1898: Drake Passage
Extensive soundings and oceanographic work take place. The scientists discover that the ocean in that region is much deeper than previously thought, with the cable having to be lowered more than 4000 meters. The first iceberg is seen – and hit, although without damage.
22 January 1898: The loss of seaman Wiencke
A strong gale blows up; the sailors have never seen such high waves. Thick snow makes it difficult to see the drifting icebergs. The deck takes on a lot of water, but several of the scuppers (where the water drains from the deck) are clogged. 20-year-old Norwegian sailor Carl Wiencke is ordered to clear them out. Unfortunately he is not secured to the ship with a rope, and an exceptionally strong wave knocks him overboard. Second-in-command Georges Lecointe lowers himself into the water with a rope around his body, but fails to hold on to Wiencke. The water is icy cold, and Lecointe himself nearly perishes. Wiencke disappears under the waves.
23 January 1898: In the Gerlache Strait
A new passageway is discovered and explored. It’s initially named the Belgica Strait, but it’s later renamed the Gerlache Strait. Mapping continues with great success, using a variety of techniques, many of which relied on positioning with planets done by Lecointe, who was a master of marine navigation.
Lecointe identifies the height of all the islands and peaks. His excellent maps are still the common reference today. Up to 70 new names are given to discovered islands and other geographical features, many of which bear the names of benefactors, friends, relatives and Belgian localities, such as Brabant and Liège islands. One of the largest islands is named after the man who disappeared in the waves – Wiencke Island.
During 20 days in the Gerlache Strait, biologist Emil Racovita makes several discoveries, including a flightless midge fly (Belgica antarctica) and the first flowering plant (Deschampsia antarctica) to be collected on the Antarctic Peninsula. He also makes detailed observations of the behavior of penguins, whales and seals.
15 February 1898: Crossing the Antarctic Circle
After charting and naming several islands from some twenty separate landings, the expedition crosses the Antarctic Circle. The ice around the ship thickens, but they press on further into the Bellingshausen Sea.
5 March 1898: Trapped in the ice
The Belgica can go no further. It is stuck in the pack ice. This totally destroys the original plan that only a select few men would be put ashore and overwinter, while the ship would return to South America. Now everyone must spend the winter in the ice, even though they lack equipment, knowledge and provisions. It seems that this was de Gerlache’s plan all along:
“As a Belgian, I could not – with a steamship such as we have – help but penetrate south in these areas. I am very sorry that I am thus the cause of our getting stuck in the ice.”
16 March 1898: Preparing for winter
The sails are unfurled and stored away; the propeller lifted out of the water; the fires of the engine are allowed to die down. A massive snowbank is built around the ship to insulate her against the cold.
“We are no longer navigators, but a small colony of prisoners serving their sentence.” Adrien de Gerlache
21 March 1898: Drifting with the ice
The Belgica was no longer sailing, but she was still roaming the ocean on a course beyond her control, drifting with the pack ice. Altogether it will drift some 2000 km. The morale and health of the crew visibly and significantly decreases. The wind would sometimes blow so hard that the expeditioners were confined to the ship for days on end.
“We are imprisoned in an endless sea of ice… We have told all the tales, real and imaginative, to which we are equal. Time weighs heavily upon us as the darkness slowly advances”. Frederick A. Cook
16 May 1898: Goodbye to the sun
The sun disappears below the horizon, It will not be seen for another 63 days. The men realize that the next two months are going to be extremely tough. There is not enough winter clothing for every man on board, and food supplies are running short. The lack of expertise of the ship’s cook does not help matters as he frequently ruins what food there is.
5 June 1898: Emile Danco dies
One of the scientists, Emile Danco, dies of heart failure. He had been ill for weeks and was bedridden. His body is covered with a Belgian flag and dropped into a hole the crew dug in the ice. His death seriously affects the whole crew, particularly de Gerlache as Danco was the commander’s long-time friend. Morale is low; no-one knows whose death will be next.
26 June 1898: The ship’s cat dies
The crew is horrified to see that even the ship’s cat Nansen is sick. He becomes listless, shunning company and food. A couple of the men catch a live penguin for him as a playmate, but to no avail. He eventually dies. The loss of the expedition’s mascot makes some of the crew even more anxious for the future.
10 July 1898: Serious outbreak of scurvy
With winter at its coldest and darkest, many of the men are suffering from scurvy. Key to their survival are the efforts of the American doctor Frederick A. Cook, who had spent time observing Inuits in the Arctic. In the absence of fresh fruit, he recommends the consumption of raw penguin and seal meat, which contain small amounts of vitamin C. Some of the crew resist this foul-tasting meat, but change their minds when they see their shipmates who do eat it begin to improve. In the total darkness of the Antarctic winter, Cook also recommends that the men stand naked in front of a wood fire to expose them to ultraviolet light. It’s the first known use of light therapy.
15 July 1898: Madhouse promenade
Many of the crew are now extremely depressed. Two show signs of insanity. The commander orders regular exercise on the pack ice, games and celebrations whenever possible, and insists that scientific investigations continue. Walking around the ship for an hour a day is nicknamed the “Madhouse promenade.”
22 July 1898: Return of the sun
The men gather at noon to witness the return of the sun for about 20 minutes after 63 days of total darkness. Along with the sun, the temperature rises, bringing hope that a channel will open in the ice.
“We could not have found words with which to express the buoyant feeling of relief, and emotion of new life which was sent coursing through our arteries.” Frederick A. Cook
31 July 1898: First sledging trip
Lecointe, Cook and Amundsen embark on what they describe as the first sledge expedition on the Antarctic sea ice. They aim to find penguins and look for an exit channel. They are gone for six days. On their return journey they very nearly get cut off from the ship.
8 September 1898: Failure of the explosive
Despite Spring, the Belgica is still held tightly in the ice. Worse still, temperatures drop to the lowest the men had experienced: -43°C, and the thickness of the ice is increasing. 160 sticks of tonite are detonated to blow a hole in the ice with the aim of making a channel. The explosion barely melts the snow on top of the hard layer of ice. It’s a devastating blow to the expedition’s hopes of salvation.
Early October 1898: Hope is kindled
Temperatures rise, the pack ice begins to crack up.
Late October 1898: Hope is lost
Temperatures drop again, newly formed leads freeze over, and it begins snowing again, and will continue for 25 consecutive days.
16 November 1898: Endless days
The setting sun does not sink. From endless night, the Belgica now enters two months of endless days. The men suffer from snow blindness and can’t sleep at night. One man – Adam Tollefsen – is now showing advanced signs of insanity.
Christmas Day 1898: No festivities
Illness and fear at being marooned for a second winter ruin any attempts at merriment.
7 January 1899: A crazy plan is hatched
The possibility of having to spend another winter in the ice spurs the crew into action. Cook suggests that two trenches should be cut to make a channel in front of the ship to (slightly) open water which is about a kilometer away. Through exhausting efforts with saws and axes, a channel begins to be opened.
20 January 1899: The plan looks to succeed
The canal is halfway complete and the sun has started setting. Temperatures are dropping once again. The men are making progress, but have they left it too late?
30 January 1899: A huge disappointment
With the canal only meters away from completion, the pack ice moves. In front of their eyes, the two banks of their man-made canal clamp shut. Weeks of work disappear in minutes.
“It no longer seems that we can avoid a second wintering.” Adrien de Gerlache
12 February 1899: The great escape
Under the influence of the ocean and the wind, the banks of the canal suddenly begin to part. A passageway appears. For the first time since March 1898, the Belgica can set sail. The steam engine is immediately powered up. The ship manages to break out of its position into the area of less closely packed sea ice a kilometer away.
14 March 1899: Finally out of the ice
After a month of slowly pushing through the sea ice while avoiding icebergs, the Belgica finally breaks free of the sea ice and is finally in open water. De Gerlache sets course for Punta Arenas.
28 March 1899: Arrival at Punta Arenas
The men set foot on land for the first time since February of the previous year. They visit tailors and barbers, and enjoy eating fresh food again. Several of the scientists remain in South America to pursue scientific studies. De Gerlache heads for Belgium on the Belgica. As they had used all their coal and had no money to buy more, they have to rely on wind alone. The voyage therefore takes a long time.
5 November 1899: Return to Antwerp
The voyage of the Belgica comes to an end when it arrives in Antwerp. It’s greeted by a convoy of yachts, cannon fire, and bands playing La Brabançonne. The expedition had charted new lands, completed vast scientific observations, and survived an Antarctic winter – all historic firsts, and all in the name of Belgium. The Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp awards de Gerlache and Lecointe its gold medal. The King names the officers and scientists Knights of the Order of Leopold, the country’s highest distinction
Publication of the results
Collating and publishing the extensive scientific data collected by the expedition took more than 40 years. They were eventually published as 92 publications in nine volumes called Résultats du voyage de la Belgica en 1897–99 sous le commandement de A. de Gerlache de Gomery – rapports scientifiques.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth
This is an excellent, highly readable and gripping book by Julian Sancton that gives a full account of the voyage of the Belgica. It also describes what happened to each of the men on the ship. Particularly interesting is where de Gerlache ended up, and the later adventures of Roald Amundsen and Frederick A. Cook. Highly recommended. You can purchase it from your local bookshop, Amazon or elsewhere.
Thanks to Anders Bache from Roald Amundsen’s Home and Follo museum who gave me permission to use their photographs of the Belgica expedition. It’s well worth checking out as it has a lot of information on the Belgica’s crew and of course on Roald Amundsen.
If you are interested in the life of another Belgian polar explorer, check out my post on Dixie Dansercoer.