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Belgica - Ships of the Polar Explorers

Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, Belgian Antarctic Expedition 1897-99

Antarctic Ships: Overview Historical: L'Astrolabe & Zelee | Aurora | Belgica | Discovery | Endurance
Erebus and Terror: Ross - Antarctica  Franklin - Arctic | Fram Fram page2 | Nimrod | Terra Nova
Modern: Ice-strengthened and icebreakers | James Clark Ross | Kapitan Khlebnikov | Yamal
Ships then and now - a comparison
 

The Ship

Originally built as a sealer and named "Patria"   

Screw steamer / 1 funnel, 3 masts / L,B,D 188' x 25' x 13.4' - 36m x 7.6m x 4.1m / 336 tons / Hull: wooden / Compliment: 20 / Engine: 30 nhp / Built K. Jacobsen, Selvig, Norway 1884.

Belgica and Mount William, picture courtesy NOAA
The Belgica anchored at Mount William.
In: "Resultats du Voyage du S. Y. BELGICA en 1897-1898-1899 .... Rapports Scientifiques ... Travaux Hydrographiques et Instructions Nautiques" by G. Lecointe, 1903. P. 110. Plate XI.

Fate after the expedition

Acquired by N.C. Halvorsen in 1902 and then by the Duc d'Orleans. Used for research in the Kara and Greenland Seas in 1905, remained in service until 1913

The Expedition

The crew of the Belgica

A ship called the Patria was obtained and re-named Belgica for the Belgian Antarctic Expedition led by Commandant Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery of the Belgian Navy. The main aim of the expedition was to find the position of the South Magnetic Pole. The expedition was intended to be summer only, returning before the Antarctic winter began.

The Belgica left Antwerp on August 16th 1897. She was so overloaded that she could make no more than 6 knots under steam and her decks were barely 2 feet clear of water

She crossed the Antarctic Circle on the 15th of Feb 1898 off Palmer Land on the Antarctic Peninsula. The men of the Belgica made the first ever land excursions into Antarctica, spending a week ashore in an attempt to travel inland.

De Gerlache later ventured further south in an attempt to beat the furthest south record held by James Ross 57 years earlier in 1841 at 78° 11' S, but it was too late in the season to be so southerly and by the 3rd of March 1898 the Belgica was trapped in the sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea by Alexander Island,  71o 30' S 85o15' W.

Thus albeit involuntarily, the crew were the first ships party to over winter in Antarctica. The unprepared crew had a very difficult time of things, de Gerlache and his captain both succumbed to scurvy with many other of the crew.

The Norwegian first mate Roald Amundsen (later to be the leader of the first team to reach the South Pole) and American surgeon Frederick Cook (later to be the first man to reach the North Pole) rallied the crew and enforced a diet of fresh seal meat.

After more than a year trapped in the ice, the crew again supervised by Amundsen and Cook, sawed a channel through the ice over a period of weeks to free the ship which could then return to Belgium.

La Belgica trapped in Antarctic sea-ice in an enforced winter, picture courtesy NOAA
La Belgica in the ice on November 19, 1898.
In: "Resultats du Voyage du S. Y. BELGICA en 1897-1898-1899 .... Oceanographie Les Glaces Glace de Mer et Banquises" par Henryk Arctowski. 1908. P. 55. Plate I.

Through the First Antarctic Night by Frederick A. Cook

Narrative of the first expedition to spent the long Antarctic night below the Antarctic Circle. The "Belgica" was icebound in the Bellingshausen Sea for over a year, becoming a virtual laboratory of human endurance for its 19-member multinational crew. The careers of both of the future discoverers of the Poles--Roald Amundsen (South Pole 1911) and Frederick A. Cook (North Pole 1908) were joined in this expedition. This account by Cook, the ship's surgeon, was first published in 1900.
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