August Heinrich Petermann and his error | Polarjournal
August Heinrich Petermann was born on April 18, 1822 in Bleicherode. He was one of the most authoritative geographers and cartographers of the 19th century. Petermann became interested in geography and drawing maps at an early age. He advocated the theory of the ice-free Arctic Ocean. In his opinion, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the sea there would not freeze over completely, even in winter, so that once the drift ice had penetrated, one would find a free navigable sea all the way to the North Pole. Petermann’s view marked the beginning of German research about the North Pole. Petermann died by suicide in Gotha on September 25, 1878, aged of 56.

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.

Even a lunar crater (top left) bears Petermann’s name. And many of his contemporaries would have liked to shoot him to the moon.

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.

On June 15, 1869, the Germania left Bremerhaven together with the Hansa for the expedition to the North Pole. The ships reached the ice edge already in July and were in Greenland in autumn / winter. In the process, the Germania, temporarily trapped by ice, reached 77° North latitude, while the Hansa became a wreck due to ice breakup and sank. One of the most important research results of the voyage was that it was now proven that the North Pole could not be reached by sea.

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.

Original maps of the First German North Pole Expedition in 1868

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.

Greta Paulsdottir

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