The exploration of the polar regions produced some dazzling figures. Heroes who froze their toes off; heroes who set out into the unknown to discover new territory for their nations or kings and plant flags in white spots on the map; leaders whose names and deeds are still remembered with awe today.
One of the almost forgotten pioneers of polar exploration was the German August Heinrich Petermann (1822-1878). Today, three mountain ranges in the Wohltat Massif of Antarctica are reminders of the busy Prussian cartographer. So too are the Petermann Peak, in eastern Greenland; Cape Petermann, on the island Novaya Zemlya; Cape Petermann and the Petermann Fjellet, on Spitsbergen; and the Petermann Glacier, in north-western Greenland.
Petermann was one of the most controversial men who succumbed to every fascination of the (then-still undiscovered) North Pole and did everything he could to reach it. Everything but it explore himself. For Petermann was what one in Victorian England would have called an “armchair explorer”.
Petermann himself never got further north than Edinburgh. He wanted to conquer the pole his way — on paper. The cartographer, who was educated in Potsdam, was attached to the idea that there was a free, navigable and warm (!) sea around the pole. He recorded his thesis of the ice-free Arctic Ocean in numerous maps.
“It is a well known fact,” Petermann wrote brashly in a letter to the Admiralty, “that in the north of the Siberian coast there is a sea which is open in all seasons, there is no doubt that an equal open sea exists also on the American side, it is very probable that these two open seas form a great navigable Arctic Ocean.”
This wild idea was not born in Petermann’s head. Long before him, the ancient Greeks cultivated the idea of a mild land behind the cold northern winds, calling it Hyperborea. Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel, Frankenstein, also described the North Pole as “a calm sea and a land surpassing in wonder and beauty any inhabited part of the earth”.
Petermann was too much of a scientist to believe in myths or fairy tales. Instead, he preferred to base his thesis on the ideas of Baltic naturalist Ferdinand Baron von Wrangel, who explored the Siberian coasts on behalf of the tsar around 1820 and claimed to have sighted a large open water area beyond the mainland that he called Polynia.
Tactically astute, Petermann moved his residence to London, the navel of the world of maps, in 1847. In the elegant, elite circle of the National Geographic Society, he swirled with his idea for years and, from 1852, was even allowed to hope that a stroke of bad luck might lead to his fortune: for seven years, all of England had been anxious about the missing North Pole explorer Sir John Franklin.
Petermann cherished the hope that in the search for Franklin, his open and warm polar sea would also be found at once. After all, at the height of Franklin fever, there were 15 rescue teams in the Arctic ice.
Neither Franklin nor Petermann’s warm northern sea were found. Completely frustrated, Petermann, who had once been chosen as Queen Victoria’s geographer, left England and moved to Gotha, in Thuringia.
Still inspired by his theory, he founded a journal here and continued to campaign for his earthly paradise, the pole. Petermann must have had a lot of charisma and power of words, because, based on his explanations, two North Pole expeditions were equipped in Frankfurt starting in 1868.
Captain Carl Koldewey set sail with Petermann’s instructions on the Grönland for Norway with the North Pole as his destination. And failed. It was to be another 39 years before the icy top of the world, the North Pole, was reached for the first time, on April 6, 1909, by Robert E Peary. This is how it is written in today’s historiography, but neither the date nor the discoverer are verified. What is certain, however, is that Petermann shot himself in his garden in 1878.