Contrary to his view, Carsten Borchgrevink was not the first person on the Antarctic continent. But the first one to overwinter there.
“With mixed feelings, the ten men left on the barren coast looked at the ship, which was moving towards the northern horizon. Our isolated position
wasn’t clear to us until we saw the Southern Cross steaming away.” There was no going back now. Ten death-defying men stood on the coast of the Adare Peninsula in Robertson Bay on the edge of Antarctica, waving goodbye to the ship. Whether they would ever see the “Southern Cross” again was written in the stars. Because they would be the very first people to overwinter in Antarctica, and no one really knew if that was possible at all. Could one be prepared for such a project at all? It was also the first time dogs had been taken to Antarctica.
But, of course, “the Ten”, as which they were to go down in history, were wildly determined – above all their leader Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink, who wrote down the words quoted at the beginning in his later published book “First on the Antartic Continent”. Even if the experiment was only to last one year, the crew had brought provisions for three years, along with building materials for two wooden huts, 90 sled dogs, 20 ship tons of coal, 2 whaler boats and several scientific instruments. In addition, card and board games, books and a music box for the expected long days of Antarctic darkness. Plus weapons to defend against polar bears – it wasn’t known at the time that there were no polar bears in Antarctica.
For ten days, the men and the 31-strong team of the “Southern Cross” had buckled the boxes ashore. It was March 2, 1899. In the team: the boss, five scientists, a doctor, a cook, two dog handlers. The adventure could begin.
Carsten Borchgrevink had finally reached his ultimate goal. Because his journey to this point had been long and arduous, and if you take it carefully, it had began much earlier. Borchgrevink in his own words: “With the greatest passion, I read the entire Arctic and Antarctic literature in my school years.” At that time, the son of an Englishwoman and a Norwegian, born on December 1 1864 into a noble family, was still living in Christiania, as today’s Oslo had been called. He had studied geology, forestry and geodesy at the Forestry Academy in Tharandt, Germany, emigrated to Australia, where he worked for the University of Sydney as a surveyor and geologist, and as a teacher from 1888 on in Melbourne.
Thus, he helped to explore the fifth continent. His passion, however, was the conquest of the sixth continent, Antarctica. “There was a need for strength here, and a goal was to be achieved here.” Although Borchgrevink had no experience on the high seas, in 1894 he urged the captain of the whaler “Antarctic” to take him on a expedition. He only agreed because shortly before the ship’s departure a sailor had fallen into the water and drowned. Borchgrevink had to take over all the lower works of the deceased sailor.
The “Antarctic” mission to find out if the Bowhead whale also occurs in the southern polar waters failed – the Bowheads only live in the Northern polar waters. But on the way back, Borchgrevink discovered a small strip of beach amidst the endless glacial walls on January 23, 1895. He persuaded the captain to use a rowing boat and go ashore. The boat had not yet landed, Borchgrevink jumped into the water and staggered to the beach. According to tradition, he is said to have cheered that he was the first person to enter Antarctica, but Borchgrevink was wrong: two people entered Antarctica before him, even if these two events are still not confirmed.
Rebuffed, sponsor found
Nevertheless, it was clear to Borchgrevink at that moment that he wanted to return here: “The plan I was already working out on the way to Melbourne was to form a larger scientific expedition to land on the great unknown southern polar country and overwinter there. Then, the expedition should advance as far south as possible to study the land and sea,” Borchgrevink later wrote in his book.
But financing his project became more difficult than expected: the English Royal Geographical Society, then the leading authority in the field of polar expeditions, was busy with the organization of the planned Discovery expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. Worse still, Borchgrevink had neither officer’s dignity nor rank and name in society: the noble gentlemen of the Society simply did not take the teacher and simple sailor from Australia seriously.
Finally, the British publisher Sir George Newnes agreed to fully finance Borchgrevink’s project, on the condition that, first, the expedition was carried out under the British flag and, second, that it would be called the British Antarctic Expedition. No problem for Borchgrevink – but one for the Royal Geographical Society, as will be revealed later. Newnes, by the way, sponsored 40,000 Pounds, which equates to around 4.5 million euros on the current course.
On August 22 1898, the Southern Cross finally set sail in London, headed to Tasmania and from there directly into Robertson Bay, where it anchored off Cape Adare on the evening of February 17, 1899. What Borchgrevink and his nine men were expecting was clear from wind and weather six days later, when a violent storm tore the anchor chain and nearly shattered the ship. A spectacular prelude to an overwintering that hadn’t even really begun yet.
What no one of the crew knew: The area around Robertson Bay is one of the windiest and most storm-stricken areas of Antarctica ever. A factor that was yet to give the men some almost deadly adventures and especially many boring days in the hut.
Quickly, two huts of 5 by 5 metres of floor space and 2.5 metres in height were built from the building material they brought with them. One hut was the living space for the whole crew, the other was to house the planned collections of stones, plants and animals. A permanent meteorological measuring station and a magnetic observatory were installed in a separate tent 200 meters away.
Although only a single window provided sparse light and the air in the room quickly became stuffy, “so all things considered we were quite comfortably furnished,” Borchgrevink reported. The sleeping berths mounted on top of each other on the walls, however, resembled “in terms of coziness and furnishings, like “in a modern coffin”. The doctor ordered that a curtain be drawn in front of each bunk so that at least a little bit of privacy was possible.
In the hut it was too drafty and cold. The small stove on wheels could only provide some heat: “If we fired properly, it would be warm in the hut up to the height of our shoulders, but it remained cold at the bottom of the floor.” In addition to the coal, the men also burned the bacon of the seals they had hunted outside.
After only two weeks, Borchgrevink went on a first exploration tour with two men – and was immediately caught in a storm so violent that the wind squeezed the snow through the tight meshes of the silk tent. Another expedition at the end of April almost ended fatal for Borchgrevink and the three men brought along this time: they had set up their night camp on a small beach, which they had reached via thin ice. However, a storm broke this ice, the men were trapped between ice walls and the sea with its men-height waves. It was only after days, on the brink of frostbite, that the men managed to escape over the ice walls by hacking step after step into the ice wall and making the slippery ascent. The sled dogs had to be left to their fate at the beach.
The southern winter came quickly: on May 15, the sun appeared on the horizon for the last time and the dark months dragged on sluggishly and gruelingly with temperatures of minus 35 to minus 50 degrees. Storm after storm swept over the meter-deep snow-covered hut where the men had to endure. “In such weather, life in our small space seemed almost unbearable,” Borchgrevink wrote. “We had no air, movement or light. It was as if we were there and saw ourselves grow old. … The darkness and monotony oppressed our minds. The silence thundered in our ears at times, every interruption in the horrible loneliness and desolation was a relief.” The only “interruptions” consisted of an occasional glass of Grog or two and a music box, with the men happily arguing about which song should be played next.
There were also unpleasant surprises: again and again the strong storm wind blew dogs into the open sea, where they drowned. On one occasion, the English zoologist Hugh Blackwell was swept away by the storm as he went outside to check the meteorological data in the instrument tent. For three hours, the other men in teams of two crawled through the storm on all fours until the almost frozen Evans was found again. Another time, Australian physicist and astronomer Louis Bernacchi returned from the same tour to the observatory with a frozen hand. The doctor Herluf Klövstad wanted to amputate Bernacchi’s hand, who resisted it, and finally the hand could still be saved.
On July 3, the English meteorologist and provisionsmaster William Colbeck fell asleep in his bunk without having extinguished the light of the oil lamp. His bed caught fire, only by chance the fire in the hut could be extinguished. On another time, three men narrowly escaped smoke intoxication.
After all, there also had been some good things happening in these months. The Lapland dog handler Per Savio built a sauna in the snow drifts at the hut when possible. On June 1st, a total of 16 puppies were born of several sled dogs. During this time, sled dog Chapras reappeared, well-fed and healthy: he had drifted on a ice floe into the open sea two months earlier and was considered lost. Apparently, the floe drifted back to shore, and Chapras fed up with seals and penguins for weeks before he found his way back to the camp.
Spring at last
The team couldn’t wait for spring to finally arrive. As early as the end of July, the team made several sleigh trips to the nearby and further area, collected rock and plant samples, measured the environment, collected data and closely observed the wildlife. It was with great astonishment that the men discovered that there was a variety of life in the water and on the sea floor. Until then, the doctrine was that no lasting life was possible in such cold temperatures in the sea. But Borchgrevink and his men found polyps, jellyfish, starfish – and fish that could even be eaten. What an unexpected and pleasing change, “a circumstance that delighted us to a great extent after the constant enjoyment of canned food”.
Penguins also tasted delicious when the men had put their meat in vinegar and boiled the fat before eating it. Penguin eggs were “excellent”, they were, “like the birds themselves, very “greasy” and tasted like bacon”.
Only the Norwegian taxidermiser Nicolai Hanson didn’t get it right. “He had been ailing all year,” Borchgrevink said. Hanson died of an intestinal obstruction on October 15. It is now thought that he suffered from malnutrition, perhaps scurvy, perhaps the vitamin B1 deficiency disease Beriberi. He was buried at his own request at a hiking stone 1000 feet above sea level.
Homecoming with detour
On January 28, 1900, the “Southern Cross” appeared on the horizon as planned. It was night, the men slept in their hut. The ship’s captain, Bernhard Jensen, put a prank on the overwinterers and was rowing silently ashore, sneaking into the hut, hitting the table violently and shouting “Mail!”. The first Antarctic terrestrial overwintering in the history of mankind was over.
But the adventure itself was far from over. The men left behind a large pile of rubbish at Cape Adare and only four days later set off by boat as planned heading south. Along the large ice barrier, they collected further samples, discovered islands and explored the Ross Sea. Borchgrevink sailed to a southern latitude of 78 degrees 50 minutes, surpassing James Clark Ross’s 59-year-old record by 72.5 kilometers.
On February 18, 1900, the crew began their journey home with the “Southern Cross”, and on April 1, the ship landed in New Zealand. Conclusion and findings of the British Antarctic Expedition: Overwintering in Antarctica is possible – also for Greenland dogs – there is organic life on the cold seabed – on the mainland there are even insects – new southern record – the variety of plant life is greater than assumed – the magnetic south pole is localized, although not completely defined – several islands discovered and entered for the first time – the Antarctic is very cold and windy – the next time more tobacco must be taken. Ten years later, Roald Amundsen would use the shallow spot that Carsten Borchgrevink discovered in the ice barrier to land and set up a base camp nearby to conquer the South Pole.
Carsten Borchgrevink’s glorious experiment, however, did not receive due attention in Europe. The Royal Geographical Society was still deeply offended that a simple sailor had outperformed them, defamed him as arrogant and his account as tearful. Borchgrevink’s lecture tour through Scotland and England was therefore hardly noticed. His book “First on the Antartic Continent”, published by George Newnes, did not become a bestseller either – although polar reports always had been 100% bestsellers. Louis Bernacchi, the man who almost had to have his hand amputated, accused Borchgrevink in his memoirs of a lack of leadership and scientific know-how. He literally referred to Borchgrevink as a “selfish guy with a colossal ego”, “deaf nut” and “coward”.
Only Roald Amundsen praised his compatriot in the highest tones. It was not until 1930 that the Royal Geographical Society presented the pioneer with the Golden Medal of Patronage, its highest award, and found flowery words for an apology. Four years later, Carsten Borchgrevink died in Oslo. He never returned to Antarctica, although he had announced several more expeditions.
The hibernation team went down in history as “The Ten”. Louis Bernacchi and William Colbeck joined the 1901 expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. The two dog handlers Ole Must and Per Savio died independently of each other in an accident at home in Finland while fishing. Hugh Blackwell Evans, who had saved some long days in the hut with his talent for storytelling, died in the USA on February 8, 1975. He was 101 years old. Nicolai Hanson deserves the honour of being the first person to be buried in Antarctica.
Text: Christian Hug
Images: University of Cambridge Geography