How 19th Century Antarctic Explorers Barely Escaped The 'Madhouse At The End Of The Earth'

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View of a glacier at sunset at Chiriguano Bay in South Shetland Islands, Antarctica on Nov. 07, 2019. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)
View of a glacier at sunset at Chiriguano Bay in South Shetland Islands, Antarctica on Nov. 07, 2019. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on Jan. 7, 2022. Click here for that audio.

In 1897, daring Belgian commander Adrien de Gerlache set out to become the first explorer to visit the Earth’s south magnetic pole.

He didn’t make it.

De Gerlache and his crew got stuck in sea ice and instead set a different record: They became the first people ever to spend an entire winter at the bottom of the Earth.

But not everyone escaped that freezing season with their lives — or their sanity. Departures magazine senior features editor Julian Sancton details the harrowing tale in his new book, "Madhouse At The End Of The Earth."

More than 120 years ago, people knew very little of Antarctica. The continent’s fauna, flora, geology and coastlines were unknown at the time, Sanction says, which made the extensive voyage even more daunting.

A couple dozen mostly unprepared men boarded the Belgica ship and set sail to explore the great unknown for three years. This ragtag group didn’t speak the same language and had little to no experience with polar weather.

Divisions and resentment among the crew members were aplenty, Sancton says. Among the sailors — men hailing from France, the Netherlands, Norway and more — the Belgian sailors in particular were “a notch below pirates in terms of discipline,” he says.

After sailing south for many weeks, the crew, which contained a few scientists, was delighted when they came upon Antarctica. They made 20 landings on a continent they had only dreamt of.

The men discovered “a world out of fantasy,” Sancton says. The animals, unfamiliar with humans, would approach them. Scientists found more than 100 new species, leading to what likely were moments of “pure bliss,” he says.

“But later, that bliss gave way to terror when they drifted into the Bellingshausen Sea on their way to the South Magnetic Pole,” he says, “and by that time, the winter ice had started to set in.”

At that point, commander de Gerlache had a choice: turn back or sail deeper into the ice.

To the dismay of everyone else on the Belgica, the commander kept sailing, despite knowing the ship would get stuck. His hubris blinded him: He was terrified of what the press might say if he turned around after getting so close to reaching his goal, Sancton says.

“He knew that if he managed to survive the winter, he and his men would become the first to spend a winter in the Antarctic — and so that in itself would be something to boast about,” he says. “In expeditions of this kind, great stories are as valuable as resource gold.”

His decision fueled what would become a horrendous journey for the sailors.

In May of 1898, the sun set in Antarctica for 70 days, leaving the crew without sunlight for months. Their bodies and minds “began to break down” without daylight, he says. Scurvy, muscle atrophy, depression and a mysterious polar malaise plagued the sailors.

Some were “brought to the brink of insanity, and two men lost their minds,” he says. “One of them never recovered.”

Only one person on board was prepared for the lack of light — the ship’s surgeon Frederick Cook, an American. He had spent time in the Arctic among the Inuit of Greenland and observed how they survived. The Inuits had little access to vegetables or fruit, but did maintain a diet full of fresh meat — something that Cook reasoned must have warded off scurvy. His assumptions were right.

Sancton says it would take decades before humans knew the reason why: The meat of all animals, besides a few exceptions such as human and guinea pig, contains vitamin C.

Much to the sailors’ disgust, Cook introduced penguin meat into their diets. Those who ate penguin meat, which Cook recommended be consumed raw, fared better than the sailors who refused.

Under intense conditions, the men tried using bombs to blow up the ice surrounding the ship. Cook tried to dig in the ice to pry open a passage from the ship to a body of water in hopes the boat could escape.

His plan didn’t work, but it did unite the men who felt broken and tired, Sancton says. They collaborated to try an even more ambitious plan that involved sawing through the ice 20 feet thick to create a canal.

“It was one of the great battles between man and nature,” he says. “And eventually men went out.”

More than a century later, there are still scientific lessons to be gleaned from what these men endured while wintering in Antarctica. NASA has studied the Belgica journey as they navigate novel extraplanetary explorations, he says. The ship has been studied for how the men dealt with food problems, an issue Cook’s ingenuity helped solve.

Researchers look at the role Cook played on the ship, suggesting that having a physician is the most important player during expeditions in order to maintain the physical and mental health of explorers.

“When I spoke to Jack Stuster, who was a consultant for NASA, who has closely studied polar expeditions,” Sancton says, “he told me that when he's designing the physician role, he thinks of Frederick Cook.”

Book Excerpt: 'Madhouse At The End Of The Earth'

By Julian Sancton 

Chapter 1

Why Not Belgium?

August 16, 1897


The river Scheldt wound languidly from northern France through Belgium, taking a sharp westward turn at the port of Antwerp, where it became deep and wide enough to accommodate oceangoing ships. On this cloudless summer morning, more than twenty thousand people flocked along the city’s riverfront to salute the departure of the Belgica and exult in its glory. Freshly painted steel gray, the 113-foot-long, three-masted steam whaler, fitted with a coal-powered engine, was headed to Antarctica to chart its unknown coasts and collect data on its flora, fauna, and geology. But what drew the crowds today was not the promise of scientific discovery so much as national pride: Belgium, little Belgium, a country that had declared its independence from Holland sixty-seven years earlier and was thus younger than many of its citizens, was staking a claim to the next frontier of human exploration.

At ten o’clock, the vessel weighed anchor and sailed at a regal pace in the direction of the North Sea, so freighted with coal, provisions, and equipment that her deck floated just a foot and a half above the water. Escorted by a flotilla of yachts that carried government officials, well-wishers, and press, the Belgica paraded before the city. She glided past the flag-bedecked townhouses lining the waterfront, past the flamboyant Gothic cathedral that dominated the skyline, past Het Steen, the fortress that had loomed over the river since the Middle Ages. From a pontoon, a military band played “La Brabançonne,” Belgium’s national anthem, a theme as grand as the country was small. Cannons fired in tribute, from both banks of the river. Vessels from around the world blew their foghorns and hoisted Belgium’s black, yellow, and red flag. Cheers rippled across the crowd as the Belgica sailed by. The entire town seemed to vibrate.

Gazing back at this roiling sea of banners and hats and handkerchiefs from the bridge of the ship was the expedition’s commandant, thirty-one-year-old Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery. His face betrayed little emotion, but behind his heavy-lidded eyes he burned with excitement. Every detail of his appearance had been meticulously attended to in preparation for this moment, down to the twist of his mustache, the crop of his beard, and the knot of his cravat. De Gerlache’s dark, double-breasted greatcoat was too warm for this August morning, and not nearly warm enough for the frigid ends of the earth, but it lent him a dashing air befitting a man in the process of making history. Now and again, basking in the acclamation, he pulled off his Belgica-emblazoned cap by its patent-leather brim and waved it at the jubilant multitude. He had long hungered for these cheers. The starting point felt to him like the finish line. “My state of mind,” he wrote, “was that of a man who has just reached his goal.”

In a way, he had. That the ship was leaving at all was a personal triumph. Despite the heartfelt patriotism on display this morning, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition was less a national endeavor than the manifestation of Adrien de Gerlache’s steadfast will. He had spent more than three years planning, staffing, and raising funds for the journey. His determination alone had won over skeptics, loosened purse strings, and rallied a nation behind him. Now, though he remained ten thousand miles from his destination, he was already enjoying a taste of glory. But on this euphoric day, with his countrymen hip-hip-hooraying him, it was easy for de Gerlache to forget that this glory was on credit. To earn it, he would have to survive one of the most hostile environments on earth, a continent so inimical to human life that no man had yet spent more than a few hours on its shores.

Belgium’s border with Holland stretched across the Scheldt a dozen miles northwest of Antwerp. Before crossing it, the Belgica docked at Liefkenshoek quay to attend to one last order of business. Even as the merriment continued on deck and aboard the yachts that swarmed around the vessel, the crew shuttled between the quay and the Belgica’s hold in order to load a half ton of tonite, an explosive believed to be more powerful than dynamite. The tonite sticks, which took up several large crates 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 succeeded in staving off humanity until the nineteenth century demanded respect. He could imagine several ways the ship could be destroyed: she could slam into an iceberg or an uncharted reef. But perhaps the most dreaded possibility was that the Belgica would be caught in the ice and either crushed by the pressure or kept captive indefinitely, leaving her men to starve to death. Several notorious expeditions to the northern polar regions had met such fates. De Gerlache presumed that a half ton of tonite would more than suffice to break the grip of the sea ice. It was the first time he underestimated the power of Antarctica, but it would not be the last.

As the crew packed tonite into the hold, a gaggle of dignitaries left one of the accompanying yachts and boarded the Belgica to wish de Gerlache and his men good luck. A sailor to his core, the commandant was far more comfortable at sea than in a crowd, and over the last three years he had grown weary of glad-handing. He had spent more time scrounging for funds than he expected to spend in Antarctica. As he exchanged pleasantries with government ministers, wealthy patrons, and the wise old men 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 didn’t fear the frozen continent enough, then he feared the judgment of these men too much.

If he failed in his mission, he would shoulder the disappointment of an entire country. Far worse, in his mind, was the dishonor it would bring to his illustrious family. The de Gerlaches were one of Belgium’s oldest aristocratic dynasties, able to trace their origins to the fourteenth century. A relative, Baron Etienne-Constantin de Gerlache, had been among the founders of the Belgian nation, a principal author of its constitution, and its first prime minister (though his tenure lasted just eleven days). Both Adrien’s grandfather and father had been decorated military officers. The public expected greatness from a de Gerlache. In the press and in Brussels high society, Adrien’s family had made a show of support for his Antarctic project, wagering their good name on his success. This only added to the pressure the commandant felt.

Adrien’s parents, sister, and brother—a promising army lieutenant—had also come aboard the Belgica, and remained there after the dignitaries returned to their yacht. The only patron allowed to stay was the socialite Léonie Osterrieth, the expedition’s most dedicated and passionate backer. The plump, fifty-four-year-old widow of a prominent Antwerp trader, she treated de Gerlache like her own son. He, in turn, called her “Maman O.” and considered her his most trusted confidante. (For her generous contributions to the expedition, the men would nickname her “Mère Antarctique,” which means “Mother Antarctica,” but is also a homophone of “Mer Antarctique,” or “Antarctic Sea.”) When it came time for goodbyes, Adrien’s patrician father, Auguste, embraced every member of the expedition, from the lowliest deckhand to the scientists, and with a tremor in his voice called them all his “dear children.” The commandant’s mother, Emma, sobbed inconsolably, as if she’d had a premonition that she would never see her eldest boy again. The Belgica’s twenty-eight-year-old captain, the short and scrappy Georges Lecointe, vowed that he and the rest of the men would devote themselves entirely to her son. He was not the type of man to break a promise. Lecointe then led the crew in three rousing cheers of “Long live Madame de Gerlache!” While the last cry was still echoing down the Scheldt, the captain shouted out orders to the crew.

“Now, everyone back to his post!”

The de Gerlache family left the ship and boarded a yacht named the Brabo, which turned back in the direction of Antwerp. Waving his cap from the deck of the Belgica, the commandant managed to hold back tears, but in the words of one observer, “A violent emotion seized his face.”

“Vive la Belgique!” he yelled across the water as the Brabo pulled away. He scurried up the rigging with the agility of an acrobat. It took him fewer than fifteen seconds to climb to the crow’s nest—a repurposed barrel—where he continued to wave his cap until the vessel carrying nearly everyone he loved disappeared beyond the river bend.

De Gerlache had never lived anywhere other than Belgium, yet in many ways he felt more at home in the cabins of ships, wherever they happened to bring him. He was born in Hasselt, Belgium, on August 2, 1866. Unlike his brother, father, grandfather, and a long line of de Gerlache men going back 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, which, after its secession from Holland in the 1830 revolution, was left with a virtually nonexistent navy, a bare-bones merchant marine, and only forty miles of coastline.

Excerpted 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 permission in writing from the publisher.

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on June 4, 2021.


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