voyage of the Belgica from Antwerp to Antarctic made history
for being the first expedition to survive an Antarctic winter.
Belgica: Built in 1884 in Svelvig, Norway, the screw steamer Patria
measured 36m(L) x 7.6m(W) x 4.1(H). With its wooden hull, the ship
weighed in at 336 tons. Originally built for whaling, the ship was
purchased by Adrien de Gerlache for the Belgian Antarctic Expedition
in 1896. He renamed the ship Belgica and left for Antarctica on 16
August 1897 from Antwerp, Belgium. The ship and its crew became the
first to spend winter on the Antarctic when it became stuck in the
ice on 28 February 1897. Only 13 months later, after clearing a
canal, did the crew manage to free the ship and return to Antwerp,
Belgium on 5 November 1898. The ship was later bought by the Duc
d'Orléans who sailed with Adrien de Gerlache on several other
expeditions. The Belgica remained in service until 1913.
Here's the story:
The Sixth International Geographic Congress held in London in
July 1895 encouraged participating countries to send scientists to
the mysterious ice-covered continent at the South Pole. Twenty-nine
year old Adrien Victor Joseph Baron de Gerlache, a lieutenant in the
Belgian navy, answered the call.
Inspired to organize and conduct his own expedition, he immediately
set about trying to secure funding for the adventure. After a
two-year effort to attract investors, Gerlache secured funds through
the Geographic Society of Brussels and purchased an old Norwegian
three-mast, screw-steamer whaling ship, named the Patria. In
Antwerp, Belgium on 4 July 1896, under a 21 gun salute, the Patria
was renamed Belgica.
After renovation of the old ship, de Gerlache set out on what was to
become a legendary voyage. Renovations included fitting with
scientific instruments, retrofitting with metal strips on all parts
of the wooden vessel that would be exposed to ice, and provisioning
with 40 tons of food packed in 10,000 tin-plate boxes. Thus, under
the Belgium flag, the Belgica left the port of Antwerp on the
morning of 16 August 1897 under the command of de Gerlache and a
multi-national scientific team. This proved to be a false start. The
overloaded ship -- it was reported that the deck barely exceed 50 cm
above water -- soon experienced a breakdown in the North Sea and de
Gerlache was forced to turn the ship back to Antwerp. The repairs
were quickly made and the Belgica set out again on 23 August 1897,
this time making an Atlantic crossing on the first leg of the
Even by the standards of the day, the Belgica was a small boat:
net tonnage of 244 tonnes and measuring 34.6 meters long and 7.50
meters wide, with a 34 horse-power (25 KW) steam engine to aid the
three-masts (it usually ran faster under sail than under steam).
The numbers on the plan (above) correspond to the following: 1 clear
way of the crew - 2 mast of missaine - 3 bome of fishing - 4 reel of
rolling up of the cable of fishings - 5 laboratory of oceanography -
6 laboratory of zoology - 7 footbridge - 8 machine to be probed - 9
large panel - 10 winch of fishing - mainmast - 12 show of the
commander - 13-16 cabins -17 darkroom - 18 boiler - 19 machine - 20
cloakroom - 21 Square - 22 well of the propeller.
It took took two months to cross the Atlantic Ocean and reach
Rio de Janeiro, where Dr. Frederick Cook joined the expedition on 6
October 1897. Cook, a 32-year-old native of New York state, had
already achieved fame as part of Peary's first expedition to the
North Pole. Cook took on the role of ship's doctor, photographer,
and reporter. He soon began sending back articles on the expedition
to United States newspapers, stating in one article:
"The crew of the Belgica consists in addition to Captain de Gerlach
of two lieutenants, two machinists, one sailing master, one
carpenter, two harpooners, twelve sailors, two stokers, a cook and a
steward. The crew is composed largely of hardy Norwegians accustomed
to the rigors of arctic latitudes and the dangers and trials of the
tempestuous and icy northern seas. The scientific staff consists of
a geologist, a lieutenant of artillery, who will have charge of the
magnetic meteorological observations, an expert dredger and a
When the Belgica stopped in Rio, the ship's cook was put off for
disciplinary problems, and when she reached Punta Arenas on 1
December 1897, four more men were unloaded because of disciplinary
problems, leaving only 19 men. The men setting sail for the
Antarctica included: Adrien Baron de Gerlache de Gomery (Belgium),
George Lecointe (Belgium), Henrysk Arctowski (Poland), Frederick
Cook (the United States), Emile Danco (Belgium), Emile-G Racovitza
(Romania), Roald Amundsen (Norway), Jules Melaerts (Belgium),
Antoine Dobrowolski (Poland), Henri Somers (France), Max Van
Rysselberghe (Belgium), Louis Michotte (Belgium), Adam Tollefsen
(Norway), Ludwid-Hjalmar Johansen (Norway), Engelret Knudsen
(Norway), Gustave-Gaston Dufour (Belgium), Jean Van Mirlo (Belgium),
Auguste Wiencke (Norway), and Johan Koren (Norway).
After conducting scientific studies in Tierra del Fuego, the Belgica
departed south on 14 December 1897. While measuring water
temperature and taking sounding surveys, they discovered a band of
raised, flat-bottom basins off the South American continent, the
most significant raised basin being at 4040 meters. Through these
soundings, they learned that an oceanic ditch separates the Andes
Chain from the trench that dives the South American and Antarctic
The Belgica arrived in Antarctic waters on 20 January 1898 and
reached the Bay of Hughes on 22 January 1898. There, a violent storm
struck without warning and crewmen Auguste-Karl Wiencke fell
overboard and was lost at sea. The next day, the storm subsided and
they arrived off the coast of Graham Land, which had not been
visited for 60 years. Bay after bay, the Belgica explored the strait
between the Graham Land coast to the east and a string of islands to
the west (the largest now called Antwerp Island). Gerlache named
this water body the Belgica Strait; it was later renamed Gerlache
Strait in his honor.
On 30 January 1898, the first crew unloading took place on Graham
Land. Gerlache, Cook, Racovitza and Arctowski, equipped with two
sledges and food for 15 days, landed on an island where they made
meteorological observations before returning to ship. The Belgica
then sailed westward to Andword Bay where observations and sampling
were conducted on the fauna ("colonies of penguins, snow petrels,
while terns, brown cormorants, seagulls, cape pigeons, storm birds,
and Cetacea which surrounds the ship almost constantly"), the flora
("lichens, algae on the beaches, and graminaceous algae, the only
flowering plant"), and the geology ("schists and sedimentary rock").
The scientific team also studied the icebergs and established
several magnetic reading stations.
On 8 February 1898, Gerlache turned the ship east and found the Bay
of Flandres and Moureau island. Between 23 January and 12 February
1898, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition made twenty separate landings
on the islands along the strait, charting and naming the islands of
Brabant, Liège, Anvers (Antwerp) and Wiencke Island (in memory of
the sailor lost at sea). The explorers also recognized the islands
of Corroded, the Cavalier island of Cuverville, the Charlotte Bay,
the course Reclus and the channel of Plata. Gerlache wrote of this
"When we land, 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,
A team consisting of Gerlache, Amundsen, Arctowski, Danco, and Cook
explored 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."
Racovitz, the biologist, gathered information on the various species
of penguins and drew the terrestrial fauna, "removing from any
corner of land not covered with ice the smallest pieces of lichen
and moss." The specimens brought back by the Belgica were to double
the number of species of Antarctic flora know at that time.
Although the safe-sailing season was already advanced and the
Belgica was then near the ice-barrier found by Bellingshausen,
Gerlache decided to continue South hoping to traverse still
unexplored water. Circumventing the Southern point of the Antwerp
Island, the Belgica crossed the polar circle on 13 February 1898.
Then on 18 February, the expedition discovered a large gap in the
sea ice in a southerly direction and Gerlache decided to explore. On
23 February, the Belgica arrived at Alexandre Island, the last
island before the ice-barrier.
Finding narrow passage on an ice-barrier made up of dislocated ice,
the Belgica continued on. First mate George Lecointe wrote:
"It was a unique opportunity and we had to take advantage of this
dislocation of ice to head towards the South. 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?"
On 28 February 1898 the Belgica entered the ice pack at 70°20´S and
85°W. Another degree south, at 71°30´S, 85°16´W, the vessel became
wedged in ice. Although efforts were made to free the Belgica, the
vessel remained trapped. By 5 March 1898, the crew realized they
were trapped for the winter.
The Belgica was not built to provide shelter for an Antarctic
winter, so the men set about transforming it into suitable shelter.
Snow was piled high in a slope up to the the bridge. A roof was
built to cover part of the bridge, which was transformed into hangar
where a water forging mill and distiller were installed. The roof
also served as cloakroom to store the skis and rackets, The tins of
food were moved to starboard. Holes were dug to probe and to fish
and to ease the tension of the ice which constantly sought to crush
the vessel. Then on 26 March, with fuel to run the engines dangerous
low, the ship's boiler was stopped.
Although the men had food, it was not enough to last. Penguins and
seals provided fresh meat, while game hunting provided a diversion.
Gerlache kept his crew occupied eight hours a day with personal and
ship cleanliness, keeping the ship in good state, managing the water
pumps and distillation, which infiltrated through wooden barrels,
making surveys and measurements, hunting and butchering animals, and
continuing with their scientific surveys and observations of winds,
currents, depths, analyses of sea water and the temperature of
water, fishing to fix the characters of the marine animal-life,
meteorology, magnetism, study of the ice-barrier. All the men
practiced snow skiing regularly.
The trapped ship moved with the ice. Towards mid-May, the ship had
reached 71° 36' S. On 17 May 1898 the polar night began. Deprived of
daylight, the men quickly become irritable and depressive. "Talk"
among the crew -- many could not speak each other's language -- was
that Gerlache had intentionally trapped them in the ice and doomed
them in the process. Even huddled together for warmth, they were
constantly cold and damp and, by May, food was in short supply. The
crew was suffering from muscular spasms, scurvy, anemia, and other
conditions, both physical and mental. On 5 June 1898, Lieutenant
Danco died from the cold and a weak heart. Henryk Arctowski wrote:
"In the obscurity of the midday twilight we carried Lieutenant
Danco's body to a hole which had been cut in the ice, and committed
it to the deep. A bitter wind was blowing as, with bared heads, each
of us silent, we left him there...And the floe drifted on..."
As the supply of canned food on board dwindled, the men were forced
to eat Antarctic game. Dr. Cook described penguin meat as:
"If it's possible to imagine a piece of beef, odiferous cod fish and
a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and
cod-liver oil for sauce, the illustration would be complete."
The first glow of light returned on 21 July 1898, but the
temperature was -37° and the ice-barrier was still two meters thick.
Cook, Amundsen and Lecointe venture out and confirmed the
impossibility of Belgica emerging from it's ice cocoon to open
water. However, with the return of light, observations and research
tasks begin again. Soundings were taken through the ice.
Astronomical observations were made. The expedition began to run
short of coal for heat and oil for the lamps and the crew began to
fear the possibility of a second winter in the ice.
Throughout August and September 1898, the Belgica, still encased in
ice, drifted to the west. In October they saw lakes of water in the
distance but were unable to free the Belgica from the ice to reach
them. By November, the ice had frozen them in again. The crew were
now despondent. A number of them had to be treated by Dr. Cook for
the onset of insanity. In everyone's mind, death was a certainty.
Christmas 1898 was "celebrated" aboard ship. On New Year's Eve 1898,
a stretch of open water appeared. The second week of January 1899, a
party sledged to the edge of the lake where they measured the depth
of the ice. Working day and night, the explorers chopped and sawed
their way through the ice towards the ship and by the end of January
they had cut a channel to within 100 feet of the ship. Then the wind
changed, the ice shifted and the channel closed in behind them.
Needless to say, the men were despondent. February would be the last
month of the Antarctic summer, their last chance for escape.
On 15 February 1899, at 2 o'clock in the morning, Gerlache was
awakened by the sailor on watch. The channel they had created was
once again open! The engine was started. For the first time since
March 2, 1898, the Belgica moved under her own power, more or less.
the Belgica advanced meter per meter, drawn by the men on the ice
and ground. There still remained 10 km of ice-barrier before the
free sea. A channel through the ice was dug by the men. It took one
month of desperate struggle, but by 14 March 1898, after 13 months
of imprisonment and a drift of 1,700 miles (17 degrees of
longitude), the crew of the Belgica had inched their way through
miles of ice and set out for home. Amazingly, the small wooden ship
made the voyage across Antarctic ice fields and through open water.
On 28 March 1899, after serious difficulties in the channel of
Cockburn, the Belgica dropped anchor in Punta Arenas. Once there,
Roald Amundsen and two of his fellow countrymen left the Belgica and
sailed home on a Norwegian mailboat.
The damages to the Belgica were repaired so the ship could cross the
Atlantic. On 14 August 1899, three years after leaving Antwerp, the
Belgica left Buenos Aries and set sail for home. On 30 October 1899,
the Belgica reached Boulogne on Mer and then sailed into Antwerp on
5 November 1899, causing great celebration throughout Belgium.
Adrien de Gerlache and the other members of the voyage were
presented medals by King Léopold II, and they were soon telling
their tale of adventure to scientific societies and at public
gatherings. In addition to the many "first" observations that were
made on this voyage, the Belgica made two records. It was the first
exclusively scientific expedition, and it was the first expedition
to be wintered in the Antarctic. Actually, it was the first
expedition to spend over a year wintered in the Antarctic.
But all was not glory. Two lives were lost. Two other men went mad
during the ordeal. The men of the Belgica, with a youthful sense of
adventure had traveled where man had not gone before. Perhaps it was
that youthful sense of adventure that locked them in the Antarctic
ice, but it was their common sense and ingenuity that saved them
Are there lessons to be learned? Perhaps. The persistence and
steadfastness to mission of the young men aboard the Belgica, even
when they believed they and their mission were lost, saved them in
the end. Although they carried the latest scientific instruments of
their era to navigate and chart uncharted waters and lands, their
primary tools were keen human observation and calculation. The
Belgica crew were the first men to spend a winter -- that lasted
over a year-- in the Antarctic and to bring back essential knowledge
of the region, yet none of them carried a laptop commuter to crunch
the numbers for the maps they drew (without graphic software) and
none of them carried any of the high-tech equipment scientists
consider essential today. None of them carried a cell phone to call
home if something went wrong along the way. And most of them had
doubts they would survive the voyage to the unknown when they
stepped onboard. Even Gerlache wrote that the Belgica was so small a
vessel he doubted it would survive the journey. The primary lesson
to be learned? Sometimes you just have to take a chance to have the
adventure of a lifetime!
to the Belgica after the expedition? It seems that once a Norwegian,
always a Norwegian. The Belgica was repurchased by a Norwegian firm
in 1900 and survived to a ripe old age. It was sunk during World War
II at Harstad. Its anchor is on exhibit today in the Polar Museum of
And the Norwegian crew? Among the 19 members of the Belgica crew to
enter the Antarctic Circle, six were Norwegian, and included Roald
Amundsen, who as a 25-year-old had written de Gerlache begging for
the opportunity to be a part of the expedition, offering to pay his
own way. Amundsen learned from his mistakes but never overcame his
sense of adventure. He went on to become the first to travel the
Northwest Passage in his ship Gjoa in 1903-06. He had planned to
return to the Artic and conquer the North Pole but Perry beat him to
it. Instead, he did what had not been done on the voyage of the
Belgica. On 9 August 1910, eight weeks after Roger Scott's well
announced Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole had left England,
Amundsen and a Norwegian crew set out on a secret mission on the
ship Fram. The Fram had enough provisions for a two-year stay in the
Antarctic and Greenland sled dogs. The dogs proved to be the key to
success. On 14 December 1911, Amundsen and four others Norwegians --
Olav Olavson Bjaaland, Hilmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar
Wisting -- stood at the South Pole, a month before the ill-fated
English expedition led by Robert Scott arrived.
Yes, international exploration of the Antarctic continues to
this date. Modern-day Antarctic explorers still seek to learn all
they can from the mysterious ice continent at the South Pole.
Read full history from the