Belgica in the iceBelgian Antarctic Expedition 1897 - 1899
Adrien de Gerlache - Belgica

The Belgica under the command of Adrien de Gerlache set out from Antwerp, Belgium at the end of August 1897. It is one of the most fascinating of the early Antarctic expeditions and also probably the least comfortable one to have taken part in for all concerned.

Even though spring was underway, the Belgica was still held tightly by ice and snow. In fact the ice was even increasing in thickness as temperatures were still below freezing, soon efforts would be made to extricate the Belgica from the ice's grip.

The crew alphabetically

Amundsen, Roald - 1st mate
Arctowski, Henryk - Geologist, oceanographer and Meteorologist
Cook, Frederick A. - Surgeon, anthropologist and photographer
Danco, Emile - Magnetician
Dobrowolski, Antoine - Assistant meteorologist
Dufour, Gustav - sailor
de Gerlache, Adrien Victor Joseph - Commandant
Johansen, Hjalmar - sailor
Knudsen, Engebret - sailor

Koren, Johan - sailor
Lecointe, Georges - Captain, executive officer and hydrographer
Melaerts, Jules - sailor
Michotte, Louis - sailor
Mirlo, Jan Van - sailor
Racovitza, Emile - Naturalist
Rysselberghe, Max Van
Somers, Henri - Engineer
Tolfsen, Adam - sailor
Wiencke, Carl-August - sailor

Belgica The Belgica before she sailed for Antarctica - winch in foreground

Belgica The Belgica in the tropics, underway to Antarctica

The expedition is notable for being the first expedition to Antarctic of a purely scientific nature, and was the first time that anyone had over wintered in Antarctica proper. A group of sealers had wintered on King George Island in the South Shetlands in 1821 after their ship was blown off in a storm and rescue was not possible until the next summer, but this was the first time a winter had been spent at Antarctic continental latitudes. It was also an unplanned winter (perhaps not for the expedition leader de Gerlache however), for the rest of the men at least, there was no intention nor notice of overwintering.

The Belgica

The Belgica, cleaning the ship on the journey south

On board the Belgica heading south

Amongst the crew were Roald Amundsen, later to be the first man to sail the North West Passage and also to reach the South Pole and Frederick A. Cook a man who would contentiously later claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole.

Problems with the expedition began long before Antarctic waters were even reached, unlike other expedition leaders who spent the utmost care and efforts in selecting the members of the expedition, de Gerlache seemed to pay little or no heed once the officers and scientific staff were recruited. Of the original crew that left Antwerp on the Belgica, two abandoned the expedition shortly afterwards at Ostend, Belgium during a forced return to port for repairs and further two went ashore there without permission and returned drunk. Of the others, there were some who seemed to know and understand little about basic seamanship, and one who refused to leave his bunk when ordered to turn out to prevent the Belgica from accidentally ramming the Royal Yacht.

In Montevideo (Uruguay, South America), the cook was sacked after a fight and a Swedish seaman taken on. Between there and Punta Arenas, Chile the most Southern Port in South America, an engineer allowed the boiler to run dry (potentially fatal to the Belgica's steam-engine) despite an earlier warning - he was put off the ship at the next land-fall. At Punta Arenas there were further disciplinary problems with men being found drunk, refusing to work when required, making demands on pay and accusing de Gerlache of prejudice against the Norwegian crew members. At one point de Gerlache even made an agreement with the Chilean Navy to send a boarding party to try and restore order on board.

Eventually three Belgians and the Swedish cook were put ashore and the ship left for Antarctica undermanned and in what must have been an uncertain state of mind for many of those on board. Certainly those who knew something about pack ice and the wisdom of entering it so late in the season, such as Cook and Amundsen, were not comfortable with the decisions being made by de Gerlache, but they also had their own positions in the crew to think of as their jobs were partly to help keep discipline and ensure that the commanders orders were followed.

En route to Antarctica, a young sailor Carl Wiencke was washed overboard and lost, despite the heroic efforts of Captain Georges Lecointe to try and rescue him. Wiencke Island was named in his honour.

The Belgica at Iles Wauwermans
The Belgica at Iles Wauwermans.
Wauwermans Islands - named for Lieutenant General Wauwermans, president of the Societe Royale de Geographie, Antwerp, a supporter of the expedition.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William

In any event, after much late season surveying, the ship was iced into the pack on the 3rd of March 1898. The disparate crew with their several nationalities and languages started the winter well keeping themselves as busy and making themselves as cosy as they were able. This didn't last very long however, as unprepared for the winter as they were, they didn't have sufficient equipment or supplies to be comfortable, occupied or properly nourished. On March the 21st 1898 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".

All of these factors took their toll on the men and by the 19th of May when the sun disappeared below the horizon for the start of the long Antarctic night where it would not be seen again for another 63 days, their plight was starting to become desperate.

La Belgica in the ice on November 19th 1898. Even though spring was underway, the Belgica was still held tightly by ice and snow. In fact the ice was even increasing in thickness as temperatures were still below freezing, soon efforts would be made to extricate the Belgica from the ice's grip.

The Belgica fast in the ice after a blizzard. The morale and health of the crew deteriorated considerably with the onset of the Antarctic winter, especially from the 19th of May when the sun disappeared below the horizon not to reappear for another 63 days.

There was a shortage of food, and what there was lacked in variety and in particular in vitamin C - signs of scurvy began to show in a number of the men. This was exacerbated by de Gerlache's dislike of the only local source of this vital nutrient - fresh penguin and seal meat that had been killed and stored before the onset of winter. Such was the expedition leaders hatred of these meats, that he forbad his men even from eating it.

On June the 5th Lieutenant Danco died of heart failure, it seems from an previously undiagnosed long-existing condition that had been considerably worsened by the cold, lack of proper food and harsh conditions. In the words of Henryk Arctowski the Polish geologist:

    "In the obscurity of the midday twilight we carried Lieutenant Danco's body to a hole which had been cut in the ice, and committed it to the deep. A bitter wind was blowing as, with bared heads, each of us silent, we left him there...And the floe drifted on..."

Lieutenant Danco's burial, 5th June 1898

The return of the sun on the 22nd of July lifted the men's spirits, but illness still prevailed, de Gerlache and Lecointe wrote their wills and took to their beds able to do little else. Two of the crew, Tollefsen and Knudsen started to show signs of mental illness and moral in general was at rock bottom, Cook (the ships surgeon) also noted heart irregularities in several of the men, scurvy was rife by now. A particularly bitter blow was the death of the ship's cat "Nansen", once bright and friendly, the cat too became withdrawn, would growl at people and eventually faded away to excessive sleep and then death.

Cook and Amundsen then took command as de Gerlache and Lecointe were unable to fulfil this role due their illness. Cook in particular reversed their fortunes by retrieving the frozen penguin and seal meat and making sure that each man ate some each day and spent some time in front of the fire. He  improved morale by not allowing them to become totally introspective and organising complicated games - huge sums of imaginary money were gambled in card games. Even de Gerlache began to eat the meat that he had previously hated so much, slowly the men all recovered their health and to some extent, their spirits. By July the 31st, Lecointe was sufficiently recovered to be able to join Amundsen and Cook on a sledging trip away from the confines of the ship.

Belgica in the ice
Cutting trenches to open water to free the Belgica


La Belgica frozen in the ice on February 16, 1899. On February 14th 1899, the Belgica was freed from the ice after trenches were dug to help speed the melting of the ice around the ship, she is seen here two days later. It would still be another month however before the ice split to reveal a gap to the open ocean so allowing the Belgica to escape properly.

As spring came, the health of all returned due to the fresh meat, but the Belgica was still trapped in the ice that was now about 7 feet (2.1m) thick around the ship. By January, the possibility of another winter in the ice was becoming real. Explosives were used to try and blast a passage out or split the flow they were stuck in - open water was about half a mile away. Cook suggested that two trenches should be cut to open water from the bow and from the stern to try and speed the melting that was taking place. The trenches were duly dug and cut with saws and axes in what was a huge effort, on St. Valentines day, Feb 14th 1899, , the Belgica emerged from it's frozen-in position. Loose (not frozen in) pack ice was still tight around the ship however and it was a month before it was free and able to head out into open sea, she had been stuck for 13 months.

The Belgica reached Punta Arenas on March 28th 1899. de Gerlache was feted as a hero in Belgium and France. Despite the difficulties, the Belgica returned with an important collection of scientific data and the first annual cycle of observations from Antarctica. The stage was now set for later expeditions to winter in Antarctica having learnt invaluable lessons.

Over the next 40 years, 92 publications in 9 volumes presented a huge array of scientific data as the "Resultats du voyage de la Belgica en 1897-99 sous le commandement de A. de Gerlache de Gomery - rapports scientifiques.", funded by the Belgica Commission.

The Crew

Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache - Commandant

    Belgian. A complex character, the preparations for the expedition were not always transparent and there are unanswered questions about how planned the winter in Antarctica was. de Gerlache was certainly not a great planner nor a leader, but he did achieve his aim and was feted by the establishment on his return to Europe after a truly remarkable voyage.

    Born Hasselt, Belgium 2nd August 1866 - Died Brussels, Belgium 4th December 1934

Georges Lecointe - Captain, executive officer and hydrographer

    Belgian. Georges Lecointe had been approached by de Gerlache as early as 1895 to be his second in command, the appointment was made until June 1897 however partly as funding had not been raised for the expedition.

    On his return from Antarctica, Lecointe became Scientific Director at the Royal Astronomical Observatory at Uccle (Belgium), being joined there for a time until 1907 by Antoine Dobrowolski, also a veteran of the Belgica expedition. Lecointe was interned during the 1st World War in Holland from 1914-18.

    Born Antwerp, Belgium 29 April 1869 - Died in Uccle, Belgium in 1929.

Roald Amundsen Roald AmundsenRoald Amundsen - 1st mate

Expedition leader Gjoa / northwest passage 1903-06
Leader of the south pole party on the first successful expedition to reach the South Pole - 1910-11 Fram

    Norwegian. Roald Amundsen had a specific reason for wanting to go on the Belgica expedition, he went in order to obtain experience to enable him to get his skipper's licence. As one day he intended to mount his own polar expedition and if he could qualify as ship's captain, there would be no conflict in having to share the command of an expedition with a ship's captain.

Emile Danco - Magnetician

    Belgian. Emile Danco had been a close friend of de Gerlache for some years prior to the expedition, he had accompanied de Gerlache on the Castor in search of a suitable vessel for the expedition. Danco had foreseen the possible problems posed by having an international and disparate crew, in particular if both the principle officers were Norwegian (like Amundsen). Danco tragically died during the expedition of what the surgeon, Cook, described as the exacerbation of an underlying chronic valvular heart disease by the stresses and difficult conditions of the winter on board the Belgica. He weakened after they were beset in the pack ice and died in early June 1898.

    Born Malines, Belgium 29 November 1869 - Died on Belgica amongst pack-ice 5th June 1898

Emile Racovitza - Naturalist (zoologist)


Henryk Arctowski - Geologist, Oceanographer and Meteorologist

    Polish. Arctowski had been a student at the University of Liege and had already studied Antarctica from a distance. He was a very cosmopolitan character and after the voyage emigrated to the USA, where he held a scientific post at the New York Public Library from 1910-1920 (having turned down the offer of a position of education minister from the prime minister). After this, he returned to Poland to become director of the Geophysical Institute of Lwow University where he remained to 1939 when he returned once again to the USA. While he was there war broke out, unable to return to Poland, joined the Smithsonian Institution. In 1977, the Poles named their permanent Antarctic base after him - Henryk Arctowski station at Admiralty Bay, King George Island on the Antarctic Peninsula.

    Born Warsaw, Poland, July 15, 1871 - Died  Washington, USA, Feb 21 1958.

Antoine Dobrowolski - Assistant meteorologist

    Polish. On his return from Antarctica, Dobrowolski spent some time at the Royal Astronomical Observatory at Uccle (Belgium) with Lecointe the Belgica's captain who had become Scientific Director.

    Dobrowolski spent the 1st World War in Sweden. He eventually became director of the Polish Meteorological Institute and Professor in Warsaw.

    Born Dworszowice, Poland June 6, 1872 - Died April 27 1954.

File:Frederick Cook.jpgFile:Frederik.Cook en Antarctique.jpgFrederick A. Cook - Surgeon, anthropologist and photographer


Johan Koren - sailor

    Johan Koren was born in Fredrickstad, Norway on the 4th of October 1879, he died in the American Red Cross Hospital in Vladivostok, Russia on the 3rd of March 1919 aged 39.

    He joined the Belgica at the age of only 17 as an ordinary seaman, as well as his role as a sailor, he also assisted Emile Racovitza the ships naturalist.

Carl-August Wiencke - sailor

    Norwegian. Lost his life en route to Antarctica around the South Shetland Islands. Wiencke was clearing coal out of the scuppers where it had been washed by waves during a gale when he fell overboard. Amundsen and Cook on watch in the bridge heard his cries and went aft to see him floundering in huge seas. He was thrown a log attached to a line which he was able to grab hold of and was drawn closer to the ship. The captain, Lecointe volunteered to be lowered down to haul Wiencke in, and was almost inundated by waves and drowned himself. In the cold and violent seas, Wiencke let go of his life-line and was lost. His loss was taken hard on a ship already ill at ease.

Henri Somers - Engineer


Born 1863

Max Van Rysselberghe

Belgian. After the expedition, settled in Chile where he worked as an engineer on the railways for some time.


Jules Melaerts - officer

Belgian. Stayed in the Navy, his previous occupation on return from Antarctica. He made another polar journey, though this time to the Arctic. Became second in command of a training ship and ended his career in Zeebrugge (Belgium).

Jan Van Mirlo - sailor


Gustav Dufour - sailor


Louis Michotte - sailor


Adam Tollefsen - sailor

    Norwegian. Tollefsen had a harder time than many during the long Antarctic night losing his sanity and needing to be treated for this by Dr. Cook. Fortunately he eventually recovered.

Hjalmar Johansen - sailor


Engebret Knudsen - sailor

Norwegian. Knudsen was one of those who suffered from signs of mental illness during the Antarctic night, while he recovered to some degree, he died shortly after the voyage ended.

Roald Amundsen's Belgica Diary: The First Scientific Expedition to the Antarctic
Roald Amundsen's Belgica Diary

The First Scientific Expedition to the Antarctic Roald Amundsen, Hugo Decleir

Let Heroes Speak: Antarctic Explorers, 1772-1922

A brief synopsis of all major expeditions to Antarctica from Captain Cook to Shackleton.

Voyage of the Belgica: Fifteen Months in the Antarctic

Adrien De Gerlache De Gomery, Maurice Raraty (Translator)