The Belgica expedition 1897–99
At the end of the 19th century, much is still unknown about Antarctica. No one has yet wintered there, either in the sea ice or on land. The Belgian naval officer, Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery, plans to change that. The closest he has been to a polar expedition is his rejected application to participate in a Swedish one. Now he wants to lead his own.
Preparations in Antwerp
It is summer 1896 and Roald Amundsen is 24 years old. He has recently hunted seals in the Nordic Seas, earned a mate’s ticket, and completed dramatic winter trips in the Norwegian mountains. Several times he has tried to join expeditions further north and south.In August 1896, he can finally share good news with his brother, Leon:
“From the 1st of June 1897 I have been hired by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition as a sailor and skier. The trip will last for 2 years and will be very interesting as it is the first of its kind.”📜
In Norway, de Gerlache recruits several crew members and buys a suitable expedition ship, the whaler Patria originally built in 1884. He renames it Belgica and has it equipped in Sandefjord. For Amundsen, there is also much to prepare. Before the expedition leaves, he is promoted to first mate, and in early 1897 he goes to Antwerp to take navigation courses and to learn French and Flemish to make himself understood on board. In Antwerp, he rents a room from a small host family. The man of the house is often away travelling, and Amundsen and the hostess get to know each other well.
No one knows for sure how the friendship develops, but on the night of March 24, 1897, something dramatic happens.
“A story has passed here so sadly in the night that I will never forget it. The lady of the house has taken herself away by carbon monoxide poisoning,” writes Roald in a letter home to Leon (Amundsen had found her early in the morning). “2 zinc buckets with coal were on the floor and one was still burning,” he continues 📜 .
Amundsen goes home to Norway at the first opportunity, but he will encounter death again before the Belgica expedition is over.
In Sandefjord, Belgica receives a venerable visitor, the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Having returned in the summer of 1896 from a spectacular voyage across the Arctic Ocean, Nansen has come to wish the expedition good luck. A photograph is taken as several of the crew stand together on deck and Nansen and Roald Amundsen meet for the first time.
The expedition’s departure is postponed several times, and long before they reach the ice personnel problems arise. Even before they leave the Antwerp quay in August 1897, two of the crew leave the expedition. The chef is then replaced, and in Punta Arenas in Chile three others are struck from the crew list. When they finally set course for the Southern Ocean, there are nineteen men on board who speak a total of five different languages. Also on board is the ship’s cat “Nansen”.
On October 6, Belgica reaches the equator, and those of the crew who have not “crossed the line” before must be baptized by King Neptune to be considered fully-fledged seafarers. Amundsen is one of the unbaptized. One by one, they are led to a chair on deck, as Amundsen describes, “to first be shaved by Neptune’s court barber.”📜 The razor blades are made of wood for the occasion, the shaving brushes are paint brushes and the soap a mixture of fat, flour, soot and water. If the unbaptized person unthinkingly tries to answer the captain when asked for his name, he gets a loaded ‘shaving brush’ in his open mouth. He is then ‘soaped’ up before finally getting three buckets of water washed over him. Only then is he worthy enough to attend the banquet in the evening.
As they set course for the notoriously stormy Drake Passage, they are overloaded and understaffed. They are also out late, with the Antarctic summer already in full swing.
There is drama to come.
The sailor who disappeared
On January 22, a strong gale blows up. The waves come foaming over the deck and the snow whips against the crew’s faces. Around them drift icebergs, visibility is poor, and clouds are low. On board they change shifts; it is 12 noon when Amundsen takes command on deck. Together with the Norwegians, Johansen and Wiencke, and the Belgian Dufour, he is responsible for holding a course through the storm.
The wind increases, the waves get higher, and gradually more and more water accumulates on deck. Several of the scuppers (where the water should drain from the deck) are clogged and Amundsen puts Johansen and Wiencke to work cleaning them. He himself is at the helm and does what he can to keep the ship on an even keel. Suddenly he hears Johansen’s voice, in a way he has never heard before: “Wiencke overboard! Wiencke overboard!”
A wave has broken over the deck, and the unsecured sailor has no chance. People come running to help. In the waves they can see Wiencke fighting for his life. Lecointe pulls himself into the water with a rope around his body, but fails to get Wiencke with him. The water is ice cold. But hope rises when Wiencke grabs the log line that hangs behind the ship. Johan Koren describes the drama in the diary: “But his hands are all powerless after the strenuous swimming in the icy water, heavily dressed as he was in oilskins and sea boots. His grip is constantly slipping while we are hauling in on the line.” 📜
Wiencke pulls himself to the side of the ship. Johansen lies down and grabs his arm and Amundsen grabs Johansen’s collar. In the heavy sea they make an attempt to pull him on board, but suddenly the ship rolls and Johansen misses. Wiencke disappears into the waves again.
“We all stand still for a long time and look for him. His yellow oilskin shines so mercilessly up from the depths for so long,” Koren writes in his diary. 📜
Ludvig-Hjalmar Johansen, the sailor who held Wiencke as he disappeared, later wrote a five-page report on the incident. 📜
The ice closes up, the mood drops
When the storm subsides and the fog thins, land appears. Unknown land.
Through waters no one has seen before, they drift further south, past islands, mountains and ice. They meet penguins, whales, seals and birds. They hunt, research and discover. Maps are drawn and names immortalized. One of the largest islands is named after the man who disappeared in the waves – Wienckeøya.
In several places they go ashore, but all the while moving further into the ice. Through February, the ice becomes denser and denser. Sometimes they are stuck for several days before getting free, but still they continue.
February 23, Amundsen writes in his diary: “Unfortunately, the scientists are showing great signs of fear. They are reluctant to go further into the ice. Why then have we come here? Is it not to explore the unknown realms? This cannot be done by lying still outside the ice and dozing off.”📜
March 6, 1898, it stops. “We are stuck. The freshly frozen ice is already walkable everywhere, and I doubt that Belgica would handle it even under favourable circumstances. We must no doubt spend the winter here, and that is fine with me,” writes Amundsen in his diary. 📜
But there is also a great deal of uncertainty on board. The official plan has always been that only a select few men would be put ashore and overwinter, while the ship would return to South America. Now there is no going back. Now everyone must spend the winter in the ice, even though they lack equipment, knowledge and provisions.
For many, it will be a battle for survival.
On March 11, Amundsen writes in his diary, “One starts to get familiar with the idea of wintering. The cold has begun sharply. The ice is firm around us and without ridges. This is starting to get interesting.” 📜
Only later does Amundsen hear expedition leader de Gerlache’s actual plan.
“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,” he tells Amundsen in confidence. 📜
The time in the ice gives Amundsen the opportunity to make his own plans. On April 1, he notes a spectacular idea in his diary: “Here is my plan. As soon as the sun comes back, two of us push south with a light two-man kayak on a sledge with provisions for 6 months. After a 6-week march south, we turn around and search for the vessel. A certain time and place must be agreed. This is not impossible, but unlikely. Most reasonably, one would not find the vessel again. Well. We then move SW as far as the year allows. Towards winter, we arrange ourselves in the most appropriate way on an iceberg suitable for this purpose. We have nothing to fear here in the winter. Once the site is found, we provide ourselves with supplies for the winter – penguins and seals. Next spring go southwest again until land is hit. If there is no protruding land before Syd-Victoria, when this has been reached we will continue north in the kayak. We seek to reach Australia from the northernmost islands. This would of course take several years, but there is no doubt that it should be possible.” 📜
In addition, Amundsen uses the time to learn. He enjoys being in the ice, in the cold and the wind. He absorbs everything he can benefit from, noting, thinking and drawing. Scientist Emil Racoviță does the same, filling an entire book with caricatures of the crew, which he later gives to Amundsen. 📜
For many of the others it is the opposite – for them the situation is intimidating and life threatening. For the Belgian scientist Émile Danco, it does end in death. During the Antarctic winter, he becomes ill and bedridden. “There is something with the heart,” notes Amundsen in his diary. Frederick Cook, the ship’s doctor, can do little for him, and on June 6, Danco fails to wake. They cover him with the Belgian flag and two days later the icy sea becomes his grave. Danco’s death affects the mood on board. Amidst low morale, doubt, and symptoms of the vitamin deficiency disease scurvy, fear spreads. No one knows whose death will be next.
Amundsen, for his part, is confident in his choice. On June 20, 1898, he notes in his diary, “It is this life that I have craved for so long now. It was not a childish whim that made me come along. It was a mature thought. I do not regret, and hope to have the strength and health to continue my work that has just begun.” 📜
In July, when winter is at its coldest and darkest, many people suffer from scurvy. Some start to write their wills, others lose control of mind and mood. The fact that different languages are spoken does not make the situation better. The French word “quelque” (“some, a few”) is misheard as the Norwegian word for choke, which creates several misunderstandings. The atmosphere is so fraught, it is alleged that death threats are made .
In the autumn, Dr Cook is already writing that “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls.” Even the ship’s cat Nansen is struggling. During the winter, he lies either in one of the crew’s beds or by the stove. Eventually, he becomes both shy and angry and shuns both cosiness and food. The crew tries everything, even catching a live penguin for him as a playmate, but to no avail. Neither Nansen nor the penguin will play. They just stand in their own corners of the room. Nansen simply does not thrive in Antarctica, and in June, in the middle of the dark season, he dies. The loss of the expedition’s mascot makes some of the crew even more anxious for the future.
To get people out of bed, Cook suggests changing their diet. Away with canned food without proper nutrition and forward with fresh meat. Seal and penguin meat are served several times a day, but some refuse to eat from the new menu. At first, there are several who think that they would rather die than eat what is suggested. They cling to the canned food they brought with them. But Cook is just as stubborn, and as the fresh meat is digested most people notice an improvement. For Amundsen, it is all a new experience. He thinks penguin meat is “excellent as beef, and not unlike ox meat”.
One of the penguins they catch is later stuffed and given a home in Amundsen’s study at Uranienborg.
In the diary on April 1, 1898, Amundsen writes, “Penguin beef is absolutely excellent. However, care must be taken to separate all the fat from the meat. Extensive preparation in vinegar is unnecessary. Take the meat as it is and put it in the pan with a little butter, and you have the most delicious steak you could wish for.”📜
Amundsen’s friendship and interaction with Frederick Cook becomes invaluable for him through this period. The American has previously been on several expeditions to Greenland and willingly shares his knowledge.
In his diary for July 22, 1898, Amundsen notes:
“So I asked the doctor today, what he considered the most important foodstuffs for a polar expedition. First milk, he replied, then eggs if they can be kept fresh. So salt meat (pork), ham, etc. Not prepared and chopped food, one gets bored of it so quickly. I value this man’s opinion, based on the knowledge I now have of him.” 📜
Cook will become best known for his claim to be the first man to the North Pole, which is debated even today. For Amundsen he will be a close and lifelong friend.
The first sledge expedition
Gradually, the condition of more people on board improves, until they are ready for sledge travel.
On July 30, 1898, Amundsen can embark on what he describes as “The first sledge expedition on the Antarctic sea ice.” With him are Lecointe and Cook. The goal is to find penguins and, not least, experience something other than life on board. With skis that are over three metres long and with snowshoes, they must pull the sledge of roughly 100 kilos around on the ice.
“At the moment of departure, I was solemnly appointed to the highest rank of the ‘Penguin Order’ and handed this. The other participants were appointed knights general of the same order,” Amundsen writes in the diary that day. 📜
Although the trip lasts only six days, it makes a great impression on Amundsen. In August, during a night shift in full moonlight, he writes in his diary:
“A more glorious spectacle can hardly exist than these moonlit nights on the ice. It is crystal clear. Even the icebergs on the horizon can be seen from their outlines. The summer night & the winter night at home are beautiful, but they do not seem as captivating as this silent cold of the moonlit polar night. It is a marvellous feeling that grabs one. Did God create this whole great area for it to be abandoned & forgotten by humans? No, & again no, certainly not. It is our duty to do what we can to one day recount all the glory & wisdom God has given us.” 📜
But on board it remains turbulent. In November, Amundsen experiences a new side to the expedition’s organization when he learns in a meeting with de Gerlache that it has been agreed in advance that, no matter what happens, the expedition will be under Belgian command. In other words, nationality is above rank. For Amundsen, this means that in practice he has lost his status as first officer, something he cannot accept, nor will be a part of. To de Gerlache he replies that he considers himself “relieved of his position on the expedition.” 📜
“There is no longer any Belgian Antarctic Expedition for me.”
Although he no longer sees himself as part of the expedition, Amundsen has little alternative: “I see in Belgica only an ordinary vessel, trapped in the ice. I have a duty to help the handful of men who are assembled here on board.” 📜
The ice releases its grip
The sun returns on July 21, 1898, and as winter’s hold weakens and positive temperatures return, the crew begin to move more outside the ship. A long-awaited activity can be taken up – penguin hunting.
The catch premium is 50 francs for each dead penguin, and double if you catch a live one. Amundsen specializes in his own unique technique. With a hoarse, light voice, he tries to imitate the penguins’ call so that he can sneak up on them. In January 1899, Amundsen and Cook attempt a new experiment, tying a rope around the legs of one of the captured king penguins and placing it in front of a sledge. The hope is that it will act as a draft animal. It manages a few meters, but no further. Draft penguins will never be a success.
What occupies the crew’s everyday life during the first days of summer is getting out of the ice. A second overwintering would be catastrophic. Again, it is Cook who takes the initiative. He proposes to make a channel in the ice, through which Belgica can push itself forward and out into the open sea. The crew brings out picks, shovels and explosives, and after several weeks of work, the ice opens up. The engine is started, the sails are hoisted, and the ship pushes forward.
Eventually, they are rewarded for their struggle. On March 14, they reach the open sea and set course for Punta Arenas. They arrive on March 28, 1899 and Amundsen’s expedition ends. He keeps his word about withdrawing and takes a passenger boat home to Norway. With him he carries experiences, knowledge and ideas that will lay the foundation for a further life in the ice.
National Library of Norway: Letters and diaries of Roald Amundsen
The National Archives of Norway: The diary of Johan Koren