The Belgica was originally named Patria and built in 1884 by master shipbuilder Johan Christian Jacobsen in Svelvik. Its primary use was for hunting northern bottlenose whales in the Arctic, sometimes in combination with seal hunting.
The ship was a three-masted barque, built of pine, oak and greenheart, with a hull protected by a double wooden skin wherever it could be exposed to ice screwing.
- Built: 1884
- Ship type: three-masted barque
- Length: 36 metres
- Breadth: 7.80 metres
- Draught: 4.2 metres
- Main engine: 35 hp from Nyland’s workshop
- Tonnage: 263 gt
In 1896, Patria was bought for 70,000 francs (around 50,000 kroner) by Adrien de Gerlache, who needed a ship for his forthcoming expedition to Antarctica. A refit at Framnæs shipyard in Sandefjord saw the installation of several cabins and a laboratory, and the replacement of the ice-protective skin. The ship was repainted, and Patria was renamed Belgica.
De Gerlache’s expedition left Belgium in summer 1897 and became the first to overwinter with a ship in Antarctica. Amundsen described Belgica in his diary as a “magnificent sea vessel,” adding, “It is with joy and grandeur that we look at it. We all love it. And it is beautiful, too, with its steel grey color and white trim.” 📜
After the expedition’s return in 1899, Belgica was periodically employed for whaling and seal hunting in the Arctic, before being leased in 1901 to the American Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition, which used it to establish a depot in north-east Greenland. Belgica was then used for various voyages to Svalbard and Greenland, including the summer expedition of Louis-Philippe-Robert, Duc d ’Orléans in 1905. In 1907, Orléans bought Belgica for 130,000 francs and used it for a voyage to the Kara Sea. Two years later, he took the ship to Greenland, Jan Mayen, Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. On all three of Orléans’s Arctic voyages in Belgica, Adrien de Gerlache was employed as master.
In 1916, Belgica was sold to coal concern Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S (SNSK) in Svalbard. The ship was refitted and renamed Isfjord. The plan was to use Isfjord for transporting coal and materials between Longyearbyen and northern Norway, but after only five trips it was clear that extensive repairs and upgrades were needed, and in 1918 Isfjord was put up for sale.
The ship’s new owner, Kristian Holst, restored its name to Belgica and stripped it down for use as a fish processing plant during the Lofoten fishing season and as an unpowered freighter between Harstad and Bergen.
In 1940, Belgica was taken over by British troops and anchored outside Harstad in the Brurvika cove, where it was used as an ammunition depot for Allied forces. On May 19, 1940, Belgica sank as a result of hull damage during a German bombing raid on Harstad.
During Easter 1990, divers found the wreck of Belgica lying on the sandbank in the mouth of Brurvika.
Source: Vidar Skålevik, www.wedive.no
The Belgica Society took ownership of the wreck in 2007 and investigated the possibility of raising it, but with advice from The Arctic University Museum of Norway and for reasons that include the presence on board of so much ammunition, their ambitions have since become limited to a partial recovery. In 2006, the VZW New Belgica foundation was established at a shipyard in Antwerp to create a replica of Belgica.
Kjell-G. Kjær 2005: Belgica in the Arctic, Polar Record 41: 205-214 (2005) 📜
National Maritime Museum, Antwerp: Belgica – den første overvintringen i Antarktis 1897-1899 📜
Store norske leksikon: Belgica