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Belgian Antarctic Expedition

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 to 1899 was the first expedition to winter in the Antarctic region.

Preparation and surveying

In 1896, after a period of intensive lobbying, Adrien de Gerlache purchased the Norwegian-built whaling ship Patria, which, following an extensive refit, he renamed Belgica.[1] Gerlache had worked together with the Geographical Society of Brussels to organize a national subscription, but was only possible to outfit his expedition after the Belgian government voted in favor of two large subsidies, making it a state-supported undertaking.[2] With a multinational crew, which included Roald Amundsen, Emil Racoviță and Henryk Arctowski, they set sail from Antwerp on 16 August 1897.

After leaving Antwerp, the expedition visited Madeira, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo. The Belgica was especially received enthusiastically in Rio, where a large Belgian community lived. Frederick Cook joined the expedition here. The Brazilians were also very interested in the Belgian scientific undertaking. The Historical and Geographical Society of Rio held a special meeting where the scientists and officers of the expedition were offered membership.[3][4] A few weeks later, in Montevideo, Amundsen wrote in his diary that he had never seen so many beautiful women 'in one place at the same time'.[5]

During January 1898, the Belgica reached the coast of Graham Land. On 22 January, Carl Wiencke was washed overboard during a storm and drowned.[6] Wiencke Island was named in his honor. Sailing in between the Graham Land coast and a long string of islands to the west, Gerlache named the passage Belgica Strait. Later, it was renamed Gerlache Strait in his honor. After charting and naming several islands during some 20 separate landings, they crossed the Antarctic Circle on 15 February.[7]

Failing to find a way through into the Weddell Sea, on 28 February, Gerlache's expedition became trapped in the ice of the Bellinghausen Sea, near Peter I Island. It is likely that Gerlache intentionally sailed deep into the pack ice in order to freeze his vessel into the ice for the winter.[8] Despite efforts of the crew to free the ship, they quickly realised that they would be forced to spend the winter on Antarctica.


Belgica trapped in the ice
Belgica trapped in the ice

They were poorly equipped and did not have enough winter clothing for every man on board. There was a shortage of food, and what there was lacked in variety. Penguins and seals were killed and the meat stored before the onset of winter. Warm clothing was improvised out of the materials available. On 21 March 1898, the expedition's physician, Frederick Cook, wrote: "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."[This quote needs a citation] Several weeks later, on 17 May, total darkness set in, which lasted until 23 July.

Adrien de Gerlache disliked the fresh penguin and seal meat that had been killed and stored before the onset of winter and initially tried to ban their consumption, but eventually encouraged it.[9] Signs of scurvy began to show in a number of the men. Captain Georges Lecointe and Gerlache became so ill they wrote their wills. Two of the crew started to show signs of mental illness and morale in general was extremely poor. Lieutenant Danco fell ill from a heart condition and died on 5 June.[6] Danco Island was named in his honor. Several men lost their sanity, including one Belgian sailor who left the ship "announcing he was going back to Belgium."[This quote needs a citation]

Frederick Cook and the first mate, Roald Amundsen, then took command as Gerlache and Lecointe were unable to fulfil this role due to scurvy. Vitamin C was not discovered until the 1920s, but Cook was convinced that fresh meat was the cure for scurvy due to his experiences with Robert Peary in the Arctic. He retrieved the frozen penguin and seal meat and insisted that each man ate some each day. Even Gerlache began to eat the meat and slowly the men all recovered their health.[4]

Several months of hardship followed. Attempts to free the ship and its crew from the clutches of the ice failed. By January 1899, Belgica was still trapped in ice about seven feet (2.1 m) thick and the possibility of another winter in the ice was becoming real. Open water was about half a mile away and Cook suggested that trenches should be cut to the open water to allow the Belgica to escape the ice. The weakened crew used dynamite and various tools to create the channel. Finally, on 15 February, they managed to slowly start down the channel they had cleared during the weeks before. It took them nearly a month to cover seven miles (11 km), and on 14 March, they cleared the ice. The expedition returned to Antwerp on 5 November 1899. The conditions were hard but nevertheless the expedition still managed to collect a significant amount of scientific data including a full year of meteorological observations.


In Antwerp, the expedition was heartily welcomed. A special committee had been planning the festivities for months.[10] Typical for polar expeditions in this age, feelings of national (and regional) pride surrounded the homecoming celebrations. On the day they first set foot on Belgian soil again, La Brabançonne sounded and the national flag was seen waving from many houses. The Belgian state honored Gerlache and his men by making them members of the Royal Order of Leopold, and the municipal government of Antwerp honored the men by medals and writing their names in the Golden Book of the city.


From left to right: Gerlache, Nansen, Somers, Danco, Amundsen, Bryde, Van Rysselberghe, Andvord
From left to right: Gerlache, Nansen, Somers, Danco, Amundsen, Bryde, Van Rysselberghe, Andvord

The expedition team included some notable individuals:

  • Adrien de Gerlache – Belgian – commander
  • Georges Lecointe – Belgian – captain, executive officer, and hydrographer
  • Roald Amundsen – Norwegian – first mate
  • Frederick Cook – American – surgeon, anthropologist, and photographer
  • Henryk Arctowski – Polish – geologist, oceanographer, and meteorologist
  • Émile Danco – Belgian – geophysical observations
  • Emil Racoviță – Romanian – zoologist, botanist, and speleologist
  • Antoni Bolesław Dobrowolski – Polish – assistant-meteorologist
  • Jules Melaerts – Belgian – third lieutenant
  • Max Van Rysselberghe – Belgian – mechanic
  • Louis Michotte – Belgian – steward and cook
  • Adam Tollefsen – Norwegian – able seaman; suffered a mental breakdown during the expedition and had to be committed to a mental institution on his return, where he died shortly afterwards.[11]
  • Ludvig-Hjalmar Johansen – Norwegian – able seaman
  • Engelbret Knudsen – Norwegian – able seaman
  • Gustave-Gaston Dufour – Belgian – able seaman
  • Jan Van Mirlo – Belgian – able seaman
  • Carl August Wiencke – Norwegian – able seaman; washed overboard and drowned on the way to Antarctica. Wiencke Island was named in his honor.
  • Johan Koren – Norwegian – cabin boy and assistant zoologist

Personnel resigned or let go:[5]

  • Johansen – Norwegian – boatswain; resigned on 22 August 1897
  • Julliksen – Norwegian – carpenter; resigned on 22 August 1897
  • Josef Duvivier – Belgian – mechanic; fired on 26 October 1897 in Rio de Janeiro, rehired in Montevideo, fired again in Punta Arenas due to incompetence
  • Lemonier – French – cook; fired on 13 November 1897, due to insubordination
  • Jan Van Damme – Belgian – sailor; fired on 11 December 1897, due to insubordination
  • Maurice Warzee – Belgian – sailor; fired on 11 December 1897, due to insubordination
  • Frans Dom – Belgian – sailor; fired on 11 December 1897, due to insubordination

See also


  1. ^ Gerlache, Adrien (1902). Quinze Mois dans l'Antarctique (in French). Bruxelles: Ch. Bulens.
  2. ^ A. Cabay, 'The funding of the Belgian Antarctic expedition 1897–1899' in: Decleir, H. en C. De Broyer ed., The Belgica expedition centennial: perspectives on Antarctic science and history (Brussels 2001) 83–92.
  3. ^ A. de Gerlache de Gomery, Fifteen months in the Antarctic (Bluntisham 1998) 22.
  4. ^ a b Cook, Frederick A. (1900). Through The First Antarctic Night 1898–1899: A Narrative Of The Voyage Of The "Belgica" Among Newly Discovered Lands And Over An Unknown Sea About The South Pole. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co. ISBN 9780905838403.
  5. ^ a b Amundsen, Roald (1999). Decleir, Hugo (ed.). Roald Amundsen's Belgica Diary: The First Scientific Expedition to the Antarctic. Bluntisham Books. ISBN 9781852970581.
  6. ^ a b Kløver, Geir O., ed. (2010). Antarctic Pioneers. The Voyage of the Belgica 1897–99. Oslo, Norway: The Fram Museum. ISBN 9788282350075.
  7. ^ R. K. Headland (1989). Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events. Cambridge University Press. p. 221.
  8. ^ "Belgian Antarctic Expedition 1897–1899". Archived from the original on 9 October 2010. Retrieved 19 October 2009.
  9. ^ Anthony, Jason C. (2012). Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine. U of Nebraska Press. p. 47. ISBN 9780803244740. Moreover, Gerlache had sampled the animals, badly prepared by cook Louis Michotte, and found them so disgusting that he tried to ban them from the Belgica.
  10. ^ 'Expedition Antarctique Belge. Reception solonnelle des explorateurs a leurs arrivée a Anvers' in: Bulletin de la Société Royale de Géographie d'Anvers 24 (1900) 5–17.
  11. ^ Verlinden 1993.
  12. ^ Lewis, Val (2002). Ship's Cats in War and Peace. Shepperton: Nauticalia Ltd. pp. 59–60. ISBN 0-9530458-1-1.
  13. ^ "Adrien de Gerlache, Belgica Belgian Antarctic Expedition 1897–1899". Cool Antarctica. Archived from the original on 9 October 2010. Retrieved 5 October 2010.


This page was last edited on 24 November 2019, at 18:52
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