Antarctica — discovery and exploration to 1918

James Wordie
James Wordie

Through its legal deposit privilege and because of a number of gifts and an endowment, the National Library of Scotland has amassed an extensive collection of printed materials on Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic regions, especially with regard to their discovery and exploration. The foundation of this collection is the personal library of Sir James Mann Wordie which was bequeathed to the Library in 1958. ( Wordie Collection) The endowment fund granted to the Library by Professor Thomas Graham Brown in 1965 has enabled the Library to continue purchasing in both the mountaineering and polar fields ( Graham Brown Collection).

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and, because of the thickness of its icecap, the highest continent. It is the fifth largest of the continents and the only one lacking indigenous inhabitants. Antarctica has been the arena for many heroic exploits of discovery, exploration and survival, but it has also become an important laboratory for peaceful scientific research, governed by a unique legal system grounded on the Antarctic Treaty, which ensures that the continent's sovereignty is not subject to that of any single state.

Voyage round an unknown land

Although the 18th-century French explorers Bouvet and Kerguelen had discovered the sub-Antarctic islands, which were to be named after them, it was Captain James Cook who initiated the systematic exploration of the Antarctic region during the second of his round-the-world voyages in 1772-1775. He made the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, completed the first circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent and attained a furthest south (71º 10'). A receptive public was eager for narratives of exotic travel, and the first edition of Cook's account of his voyage 'A voyage towards the South Pole ...' (Library shelfmark: RB.m.179; Wordie.1722) sold out on the day it appeared.

Its publication had, however, been preceded by crewman John Marra's unauthorised 'Journal of the Resolution's Voyage ...' [GB/A.2686], which was the first published book to contain a factual account of the Antarctic regions.

Closer to the continent

Although Cook had sailed round Antarctica he never actually sighted the continent itself. This honour probably fell to the Russian admiral Thaddeus Bellingshausen on his round-the-world voyage of 1819-1821, when he circumnavigated the continent closer to the coast than had Cook. His expedition remained, however, little-known outside Russia, as translations of his narrative were not published until much later. ('Forschungsfahrten im sudlichen Eismeer'(Wordie.385(64)) and 'The voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819-1821' (Ser.38/39))

Many early discoveries in the Antarctic region came about as a result of commercial sealing enterprises, and it was on a sealing voyage that James Weddell took advantage of an exceptional ice-free year to make a furthest south (74º 15') in 1823. ('A voyage towards the South Pole ...' (K.188.e; Wordie.188))

Three great expeditions

In the following decades three national expeditions organised to undertake geographical and exploratory works made a vast contribution to knowledge of Antarctica. On his 1837-1840 voyage the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville surveyed a substantial portion of the Antarctic coast which he named Adélie Land after his wife. The collections includes his 10-volume account 'Voyage au pole sud' (Wordie.299-308) and the first volume of the 'Atlas pittoresque' (Wordie.1661).

From 1838 to 1842 Lieutenant Charles Wilkes led the five ships of the United States Exploring Expedition into the southern oceans. It was not one of the better-prepared expeditions, nor, indeed, was it particularly well led, but it did succeed in charting some 1200 miles of the Antarctic coast, and it was Wilkes who was the first to proclaim the landmass a continent in his 'Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition ...' (E.134/2.a).

The culmination of these national exploring voyages was the British expedition of 1839-1842 led by the experienced Arctic sailor, the Scot James Clark Ross. He penetrated into the Ross Sea, discovered the Ross Ice Shelf and the Transantarctic Mountains, and made a furthest south (78º) which was not exceeded until 1900. Ross's narrative of the expedition 'A voyage of discovery and research in the Southern and Antarctic regions ...' is held (K.187.c; Wordie.237-38), as is 'Flora Antarctica' (Am.2) prepared by Joseph Hooker, the expedition's assistant surgeon.

Interest renewed

After the revelations of the national expeditions, exploratory interest in Antarctica waned, and it did not significantly revive until the last decade of the century. Commercial whaling interests were behind the Dundee Expedition of 1892-1893 — 'From Edinburgh to the Antarctic ...' (K.151.d; Wordie.256) and that led by Henrik Bull in 1894-5 - 'The cruise of the Antarctic to the south polar regions' (K.151.d ; Wordie.253). These voyages were not economically successful, but they helped to stimulate a renewed interest in the region which was further strengthened by the decision of the International Geographical Congress of 1895 to make Antarctica a target for renewed exploration.

Engraving of 'The Erebus'
Ross's ship
'The Erebus'

The first footsteps

The first of what was to become a whole series of different national expeditions was that led by the Belgian naval officer Adrien de Gerlache from 1896 to 1899. It did much valuable scientific research, and was the first expedition to brave an Antarctic winter when the expedition's ship became trapped in pack ice. Accounts of the expedition are contained in Gerlache's 'Voyage de la Belgica' (Wordie.383 (20)) and in the ship's doctor Frederick Cook's 'Through the first Antarctic night' (Wordie.273).

The British Antarctic Expedition of 1898-1900, under the leadership of Carsten Borchgrevink, made the first overwintering on the continent when a party of 10 camped on the Ross Sea Coast. Accounts of this expedition are contained in Borchgrevink's 'First on the Antarctic continent' (S.52.e; Wordie.182) and 'To the South Polar Regions' (S.52.e; Wordie.216) by the expedition's physicist, Louis Bernacchi.

 Antarctica — page 2


Mountaineering and Polar Collections main page


Speak me