Now that was another tricky situation. Not that James Weddell was not used to tricky situations, on the contrary: as captain of a sealing ship in the still largely unexplored regions of Antarctica, it was part of his daily routine to correctly assess unknown situations and react accordingly. For example, navigating in a snowstorm between floating icebergs.
But now there was no iceberg in sight far and wide. No danger in the suit. Just the wide-open sea and a fresh breeze from the south. But that’s exactly what made the situation so tricky. For never before had a man penetrated this far south as James Weddell.
So what to do? Continue sailing or turn back? It was the morning of 20 February 1823, the brig “Jane” and the cutter “Beaufoy” were at 74° and 15´ south latitude, and the captain had a decision to make.
Early at sea
James Weddell probably never dreamed that he would one day find himself in a situation like this. He was born in Ostend, Belgium, on 24 August 1787, the second of two children, but his family soon moved to London. The father, an upholsterer, died young. The family became impoverished, so James’ brother Charles enlisted in the Royal Navy to improve the family income. Weddel joined him for half a year and gained his first seamanship experience on the “Swan”, when he was only nine and had not yet enjoyed any schooling.
Nevertheless, Weddel completed a merchant apprenticeship and signed on with a merchant ship that operated between London and the West Indies. However, he fell out with his captain, who arrested him for mutiny and handed him over as a prisoner to the English soldiers stationed in Jamaica in 1805. It is likely that these gave him a choice: jail or sail. Weddel joined the navy, was involved in one sea battle and another against Napoleon’s ships, but then switched back to civilian merchant shipping in 1814.
New business idea
Thanks to a chance acquaintance, the destination of his trading trips soon shifted to the deep south: in 1819, he met James Strachan, a ship’s carpenter from Leith, Scotland, James Mitchell, a London broker. Together they owned the two-masted sailing ship “Jane”. The three agreed that Weddell would go to Antarctica on the “Jane” for two good reasons: first, Weddell’s experience in Antarctic waters with the navy. And much more important: the news of new hunting grounds for the extremely lucrative seal hunt.
For since the legendary explorer James Cook had reported inexhaustible seal stocks on South Georgia after his second voyage 50 years earlier, seal hunting (or sealing) had become a veritable industry: The oil extracted from the seal fat kept the English economic engine humming as fuel and provided light at home when it got dark. In addition, the furs could be sold at a high price, and the Americans had even established a trade as far away as China. Price per coat then: $6 (today’s equivalent: about $100).
Finally, in 1819, the English navigator William Smith discovered a new island, named it South Shetland, and again reported huge seal colonies. This news fired the enthusiasm of hunters and traders: when Captain James Weddell set out on his first Antarctic voyage that same year and wintered in Falkland, 50 other sealing ships were already anchored there.
Still worth it
But at that time, the end of sealing was already in sight: Falkland was already devoid of seals, and the populations in South Georgia were severely depleted. The discovery of the South Shetlands now gave a new boost to the seal hunt.
Weddell noted in his voyage notes: “Now these animals are almost extinct; but credible persons have assured me that since the year they were in such great abundance, no less than 20,000 tons of elephant seal oil have been brought to the London market.” He gives us another figure for the island of South Georgia alone a few paragraphs later: “The quantity of skins which partly we and partly strangers brought from Georgia can be estimated at not less than 1,200,000.”
But the business with sealskin and seal fat is still a lucrative one: As expected, the “Jane” was also loaded with thousands of sealskins when it returned to its London home port in January 1820.
The cargo yielded so much profit that the other two James, Strachan and Mitchell, bought a second ship from it and sent Weddell with reinforcements to the Antarctic again. The loot this time: two shiploads of sealskins and again a hefty profit.
Weddell also notes some figures for this hunting season in his voyage report: “The quantity of seals taken by ships from various countries in 1821 and 1822 may be calculated at 320,000, and the quantity of elephant seal tran at 940 tons.” In South Shetland, he said, the seals are now “formally extirpated.” He estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 sailors were engaged in hunting on South Georgia alone that season.
When James Weddell set out on his third Antarctic voyage in September 1822, Strachan and Mitchell gave him an additional assignment: Search for new land! Preferably with lots of seals on it! The ship was equipped with three of the latest chronometers and an azimuth for the most precise location determination possible at the time. Furthermore, compasses, barometers, two thermometers and the latest map material completed the equipment. This was little compared to an official research vessel, but a lot for a sealing vessel.
At that time, Antarctica was a large white spot on the map: Terra australis incognita. It would be 77 years before the first human would officially set foot on the continent.
In 1822, only a few islands off the Antarctic Peninsula were known, such as South Georgia, Sandwich Island, and more recently South Shetland Island. The existence of the legendary Aurora Island was not yet proven (today we know: it does not exist). But no one knew what lay further south. Was the South Pole a warm sea? Or a cold country? Did a continent exist there at all? Did people live there? And where did all that ice around South Georgia come from? No one had yet found answers to these questions. (It is true that the Russian captain Fabian von Bellingshausen, the British captain Edward Bransfield, Nathaniel Palmer (a U.S. sealer) and also the British sealer John Davis had already discovered and described an area of Antarctica in 1820 and 1821. But highly official these reports were not yet recognized in 1822).
Only James Cook, who had sailed to 71 degrees and 10 minutes south latitude on his second voyage (1772 to 1775) and thus still held the south record, provided a guess in his voyage report. He had written: “The risk that he takes who wants to explore a coast in this unknown and icy sea is so great that I could dare to say that no one will ever venture further than I have done, and that those lands which may lie to the south will never be explored.” No wonder, at least the scientific interest in further explorations in the deep south had been kept within very narrow limits from then on. Accordingly, nautical charts, if any existed, were inaccurate and navigational instruments relatively imprecise. Sailing in Antarctic waters was a kind of gamble. Between 1820 and 1822, six sailing ships wrecked on the coasts of southern Shetland alone.
James Weddell conscientiously explored the coasts of South Orkney, moved further east towards the South Sandwich Islands, but found no new land and finally ordered course south. He promised each sailor a whopping £10 reward if they discovered new land – which led to some false alarms. But how were the scouts in the crow’s nest supposed to distinguish a sand-covered iceberg from a real island when no one knew if there were any islands here at all and what they looked like? Once a presumed island even turned out to be a dead whale. Checking land reports was laborious, navigating through the dense ice belt dangerous at times.
But then something strange happened: On February 16, 1823, the two ships “Jane” and “Beaufoy” passed the 70th parallel south, and the crews were amazed: Icebergs and drift ice became fewer and fewer, the sea was open with a moderate westerly wind, and “the weather became very pleasant,” as Weddell later wrote. On February 18, Weddell saw “not a single bit” of ice and, after measuring several times, established a position of 72 degrees, 38 minutes south latitude – thus beating James Cook’s south record. Every nautical mile that he would now travel further south was new territory or new sea for mankind.
Finally, on February 20, the ships were at the position of 74 degrees and 15 minutes south latitude. The sea was still ice-free and calm, but an increasingly strong wind was coming from the south. Weddell had sailed 240 nautical miles or 444 kilometers further south than James Cook. He was located 2,200 kilometers from South Georgia.
But what now? Weddell had no idea what was coming further south. But he knew that the upcoming southerly wind would make it difficult for him to continue his journey towards the South Pole, but in the opposite direction it would make the return journey enormously easier. And he knew from experience that oncoming winds in Antarctica can quickly degenerate into violent storms. So should he put himself and his team in avoidable danger? And anyway: The days had already become noticeably shorter. The sailors were tired and showed little spirit of discovery; they were sealers, after all, and their pay depended on the amount of prey made. Already the first signs of scurvy had appeared in the team. And food was slowly but surely becoming scarce.
James Weddell decided to turn back, had the cannon fired, his crew shouted “hooray” three times, handed out an extra helping of grog, and ordered course north. But he regretted his decision a few days later, when the ships were back in safe waters: The southerly wind had not developed into a storm. He gave the newly discovered sea the name King George IV Sea.
Today we know: If Weddell had sailed just 170 nautical miles or 315 kilometers further, he would have been the first person to see the real Antarctic mainland. That would have been a sea voyage of two days. But it is written in the stars whether the team would have come home in one piece.
Time for speculation
Weddell returned to the Falkland Islands and settled in for the winter. Now he had enough time to reconsider his observations made on the way and to draw some conclusions. He came to the following conclusions:
Assumption 1: The cold of Antarctica, especially in the ice belt between the 60. and 61. southern latitude, originates “indisputably” from the South Shetland Islands.
Assumption 2: The ice floating on the sea is formed in shallow bays of islands and then drifts to the open sea. Weddell thus contradicts the great role model James Cook, who also held this opinion, but later recanted it.
Assumption 3: The ice floating on the sea does not come from the South Pole. Because the sea he had sailed was ice-free.
Assumption 4: From this we can conclude: The access to the south pole, whatever it may look like, is ice-free.
Assumption 5: Because there is no ice drifting on the sea he is sailing on, there are no southern lights (aurora australis) in the sky.
No glory, no honor
In the following spring, the “Jane” set out once again south to hunt seals and returned to London on July 9, 1824, with a rich haul. Weddell’s partners Strachan and Mitchell, the other two James, encouraged him to publicize his pioneering achievement, as unexpected as it was magnificent, in a travelogue.
Strangely enough, Weddell’s booklet “Journey to the South Pole in the Years 1822 to 1824” met with almost no public interest. For if the great James Cook had said that no one would ever sail farther south than he, how had Weddell managed it? And was his story of the ice-free sea at all credible? Moreover, the scientists of England were just very busy with expeditions to the north and had little interest in the hunting grounds of the simple sealers.
Even the matter-of-factness bordering on boredom with which Weddell had written his travel report failed to convince the noble gentlemen. Free of the usual pathos of explorers’ reports, Weddell repeatedly mentions wind and weather, swell and ship’s position in detail and refrains from any kind of heroism; on the contrary, in his book he describes quite matter-of-factly his reasons for turning back. And instead of bursting into jubilation at his feat at this point, he praises the “striking accuracy” of his three chronometers, which together cost 240 pounds. “Such perfection in this most useful machine cannot be appreciated enough by commanders of ships.”
Weddell and many sailors in his crew testified under oath that not a word of the book was a lie – in vain. Finally, Weddell made an offer to the British Admiralty to repeat his voyage, as it were as evidence, if they would finance the venture. It was rejected.
James Weddell turned back to merchant shipping in the Atlantic and to Tasmania, because the seal stocks in the Antarctic had been so decimated in the meantime that a hunting voyage was hardly worthwhile anymore. In 1829, the “Jane” had to be decommissioned due to a leak in the Azores.
On the onward journey towards London, the replacement ship wrecked on Pico Island, Weddell surviving only because he was able to cling to a rock.
The loss of the “Jane” meant financial ruin for Weddell. He let himself be hired as a captain in pay until 1834 and died in London on September 9, 1834 at the age of 47, cause of death unknown. He was considered a very good captain and enthusiastic leader throughout his life. There is no record of a wife and children.
James Weddell’s southern record was not broken until 1841, 18 years later, by James Clark Ross, but on the other side of Antarctica, in what is now the Ross Sea. In 1900, the King George IV Sea was renamed the Weddell Sea in honor of our hero. The Weddell seal, which only lives in Antarctica, is also named after him.
It was not until 88 years later, in 1911, that the German Wilhelm Filchner penetrated further south in the Weddell Sea than James Weddell. The route that James Weddell had traveled has been impassable even for icebreakers since the records to this day: There is a lot of very slow-moving drift and pack ice in this area.
Weddell had been extraordinarily lucky in 1823 to catch an ice-free year.
Author: Christian Hug