Caroline Mikkelsen – the first lady in Antarctica? | Polarjournal
Caroline Mikkelsen, around the time she accompanied her husband to Antarctica.

To celebrate, there were sandwiches and coffee. Captain Klarius Mikkelsen gave a short speech, his chest swelling with pride: He praised his home country of Norway and extolled the heroic deeds of real Norwegian men, especially their pioneering achievements in the Antarctic. Unfortunately, it is not known whether Klarius Mikkelsen also said something like “I take possession of this land for Norway”. The patriot would probably have been only too happy to say this, but he probably knew that it would get him into a lot of trouble.

What is proven, however, is that Caroline Mikkelsen, his wife, raised the Norwegian flag on a small mound of stones that the crew had previously piled up to anchor the flagpole. One of the crew captured this moment in a photograph. It was February 20, 1935, a reasonably sunny Wednesday with little wind from the east. The picture shows Klarius and Caroline Mikkelsen and some of the crew who were allowed to accompany the couple, including the ship’s dentist L. Sørsdal.

In fact, dozens of politicians, researchers and Antarctic fans will be cutting their teeth on this document in the coming decades, figuratively speaking. Because of two problems: One was political, and the other was the question of whether the group in this picture is on Antarctic mainland or just an offshore island. In the case of the mainland, Caroline Mikkelsen would be the very first woman in history ever to set foot on Antarctica. In the historiography of discoveries, it is of decisive importance whether a pioneer only saw new land or actually set foot on it. And whether the land was continental or an island. The most fame is gained for setting foot on the continent.

A man’s world

But only for men. Antarctic pioneering deeds by women are mentioned as footnotes at best. Because the men simply didn’t believe that women were the same tough guys as they were, defiantly resisting the cruel wilderness of the eternal ice. Women owned the child and the hearth, men owned the world. That’s it.

Needless to say, books on the history of the Antarctic conquest have been published over several hundred pages to date, in which women are simply not mentioned at all.

Women would have wanted to back then. When Robert Falcon Scott was preparing his Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), Marie Stopes, an internationally renowned paleobotanist with a doctorate, applied to join the research team. She wanted to search for fossilized plants and prove that Antarctica was once part of the ancient continent of Gondwana. But Scott flatly refused to let a woman on board.

The rejection of women became almost spectacular during the preparations for a British expedition that was advertised in 1937: 1300 women applied for a position on the ship. None were accepted. Incidentally, the expedition did not take place.

Whalers as pioneers

Caroline Mikkelsen had a much easier time of it. Because she was the wife of the captain of a whaling ship. And that was a completely different world to that of the discoverers and explorers. Among whalers, it was quite common for the captain to take his wife on a cruise from time to time. The wife traveled in the comfort of the captain’s cabin, was relieved of any work duties and was allowed to watch the men at their bloody craft.

The whalers, on the other hand, were not held in high esteem by the pioneers. From their point of view, the honor of discovery and the glory of exploration belonged to the scientists, the highly official heroes, but not to the workers at sea. For this reason, the pioneering achievements of the whalers were often downplayed by the “other side”. Although it is obvious that a whale or seal hunter who cruises for months and years in Antarctic waters is much more likely to get the opportunity to go ashore somewhere.

Caroline Mikkelsen raises the Norwegian flag in Antarctica, with her husband Klarius standing next to her: a ceremony with foreseeable political consequences

The first man to set foot on the Antarctic mainland? The American seal hunter John Davis on February 7, 1821. Not surprisingly, scientists doubt this. To be fair, however, it must be said that this could also have something to do with the fact that hunters set different priorities in their logbooks than explorers.

Little biographical data

Accordingly, the wife of a whaler was hardly worthy of official mention, so it is not surprising that today we know next to nothing about Caroline Mikkelsen. The research began at the Whaling Museum in Sandefjord, led to the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø and the editorial office of “Aftenbladet” in Oslo, on to the New Zealand Antarctic Society and the Australian author Jesse Blackadder, and finally to Cambridge University in England. The meagre result: Caroline Mikkelsen was born in Denmark in 1906, the 13th of 16 siblings. Her marriage to Klarius remained childless. After Klarius’ death in 1941, she married the gardener Johan Mandel in 1944 and took his name, effectively disappearing.

It was only when Diana Patterson (a woman, by the way, she was the first female head of an Antarctic station in 1969) launched a large-scale advertising campaign in the Norwegian media in 1995 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Mikkelsens’ memorable expedition that her son came forward. Mrs. Mandel then gave an interview to “Aftenbladet”, and the journalist described the multiple grandmother as modest, soft-spoken and in her right mind. In this interview, Caroline said that she always dressed well at sea because she loved tailoring. That she had been spoiled by the crew. And that there were “penguins, penguins, penguins” everywhere when she landed. She had remained silent about her adventure for the last few decades out of consideration for her second husband.

Caroline Mandel died in the second half of the 1990s in Tønsberg near Sandefjord, Norway. It is not known exactly when.

Caroline Mikkelsen and her husband Klarius on shore leave in Antarctica.

The shore leave

Back to 1935: Captain Klarius Mikkelsen’s voyage with his ship “Thorshavn”, a tanker weighing 11,000 tons, is well documented. Klarius was an experienced Antarctic sailor and was in the service of the Norwegian Lars Christensen, the owner of the largest whaling company in the world. The “Thorshavn” transported food and equipment from Cape Town to the four Norwegian whale processing ships sailing in the cold waters. After supplying the ships and loading the “Thorshavn” with their whale oil, Mikkelsen set sail on February 18 in search of a hunting vessel that had been ordered to scout the pack ice conditions to the southwest.

On February 19, the “Thorshavn” crew heard noises that suggested land was nearby. A day later, they saw snow and ice-free coastline in the Vestfold Mountains area and navigated through the ice floes to within 5 nautical miles, or about 9 kilometers, of this section. The weather was ideal for a landing, so Klarius had a lifeboat made ready and rowed ashore with his wife and seven crew members.

Klarius later noted the coordinates in his logbook and described the beach as rocky and free of vegetation with peaks up to 100 meters high, a small stream flowing down from a freshwater lake, and meters of golden yellow penguin poop lying everywhere because penguins were breeding “as far as the eye could see”.

There was the aforementioned speech with a flag ceremony, Caroline’s appearance and a photo. A box with emergency equipment was buried under a second pile of stones in case men in distress should come by one day. Klarius noted its coordinates as 68 degrees 29 minutes south and 78 degrees 36 minutes west. He christened the area Ingrid Christensen Land after the name of his employer’s wife. After a few hours, the magic was over and Klarius took a few more stones on board. The next day, Klarius christened a 235-metre-high mountain Mount Caroline Mikkelsen in honor of his wife.

The return journey went without incident. Incidentally, a supply and transportation trip from Cape Town to the ice and back usually took six weeks.

The Norwegian captain Klarius Mikkelsen discovered the 235-metre-high mountain on February 20, 1935 during his voyage on the whaling ship “Thorshavn”. Mikkelsen named it after his wife Caroline, who accompanied him on the voyage.

Dispute over the Antarctic

At home in Norway, Lars Christensen, the whaling king, was delighted with the picture with Klarius and Caroline. Norwegian Antarctic friends loudly announced to the whole world that the first woman had ever set foot on Antarctica. And that, more importantly, she was Norwegian. Which in turn confirmed Norway’s claim to large parts of Antarctica and the whaling areas.

However, it was precisely this claim and the accompanying “proof photo” that sparked international political unrest among the Nordic patriots. To understand this unrest, it is necessary to go back a little further: the “golden age of Antarctic research” had ended at the latest with the failure of Ernest Shackleton’s Quest expedition and his death on Grytviken in 1922 – the intensive period of whaling had begun, and the southern continent had not yet been divided into the sectors assigned to today’s countries.

Patriotic whaling magnates such as Lars Christensen jumped into the explorer breach and commissioned ship captains such as Klarius Mikkelsen to explore new land en route and thus provisionally mark their nation’s claim to the Antarctic region in question.

Seafaring and exploring nations thus fought over the division of Antarctica into national territories. Since the London Conference of 1926, England even claimed the entire Antarctic for itself alone, which was of course out of the question for seafaring nations such as Norway, Belgium, France and Denmark. It was agreed that the coast between 60 and 86 degrees longitude belonged to no one for the time being. Norway and England had also agreed not to get in each other’s way. The tricky thing about Klarius Mikkelsen’s landing was that it took place in this “neutral” sector. The Norwegian government now had to officially confirm the agreement with England in order to calm the quarrels triggered by the photo.

Klarius Mikkelsen, pictured in front, was the captain of the “Thorshavn”.

The island question

This could be the end of the story. Klarius dies, Caroline remarries and remains untraceable for research until 1995. The Vestfold area is now part of the English sector. The English left the Ingrid Christensen Land and the Caroline Mikkelsen Mountain with these names in Klarius’ honor; the mountain today bears the identification number 117379.

But then the Australian scientists F. I. Norman, J. A. E. Gibson and J. S. Burgess published a twelve-page paper in the British magazine “Polar Record” in 1998, in which they claimed that Klarius Mikkelsen had not landed on the mainland, but on an offshore island. Which means that Caroline was not the first woman on the continent of Antarctica – we remember the division of fame and explorer’s honor. Norman, Gibson and Burgess rely on inaccurate coordinates (the seconds are missing), different entries in Klarius’ diary and the official logbook, including inaccurate descriptions. They also indirectly insinuate that the whaling magnate Lars Christensen did not exactly manipulate Mikkelsen’s data in his favor, but at least did not use it correctly for his patriotic purposes.

The question of whether the group was actually on the mainland in 1935 or just on an island had, of course, already preoccupied researchers. When the Australian Davis Station was established in 1957 about 30 kilometers from Mikkelsen’s landing point, Australians set out to find the cairn on which the Norwegian flag had been hoisted. An expedition in 1958 was unsuccessful. In 1960, two researchers actually found a Norwegian flag, but neither of them recorded the coordinates of the site. In 1995, Australian archaeologist Martin Davies found the supposed cairn, but fell two days later while walking in the rocks and was fatally injured.

Until the article by Norman, Gibson and Burgess in 1998, there was still no hard and fast evidence on the island question, and even the evidence of the three was questioned by other scientists.

The tanker “Thorshavn” was transporting supplies and whale oil.

Was the second the first?

In the end, it was the Australian author Jesse Blackadder (yet another woman) who wanted to know for sure, traveled to Antarctica in 2011 and rummaged through the archives. Her findings: there is no absolutely clear evidence for or against the island theory. But, as Jesse Blackadder concluded in her book “Chasing the Light”, if Caroline Mikkelsen had not been the first, then it would have been Ingrid Christensen, the wife of whaling magnate Lars Christensen. Ingrid and her husband traveled to Antarctica two years after Caroline, incidentally it was their fourth trip there. On January 30, 1937, she stepped onto the Antarctic mainland at the foot of the Scullin Monolith – and proven beyond doubt.

There were three other women on board on this voyage: Sofie, the Christensens’ daughter, Lillemor Rachlew and Solveig Widerø. For many years it was not clear which of the four women got off the boat first. However, a new translation of Lars Christensen’s diary in 2012 revealed that Ingrid was the first to step ashore. And so this story definitely ends, this time with, shall we say, an open ending in Caroline Mikkelsen’s favor.


As for the first woman to see the Antarctic mainland with her own eyes, she also comes away empty-handed: in 1835, a ship was shipwrecked off Campbell Island. Four years later, three men and one woman were rescued by the two English whaling ships “Eliza Scott” and “Sabrina” under the command of John Balleny; two shipwrecked men were distributed between the “Eliza Scott” and the “Sabrina”. On the onward journey, the two ships came within sight of the mainland.

On the way home, the “Sabrina” sank in a storm with all hands and logbook. In the logbook of the “Eliza Scott”, the rescued woman was not mentioned by name. So she remains forever unknown. Irony of history: Balleny Island, which was discovered on this voyage, is named after Captain Balleny.

Text: Christian Hug / Pictures: Norwegian Polar Institute

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