On February 18, 1898, de Gerlache spotted a large gap in the pack ice leading south. He decided to follow it. The scientists on board were less than keen, because the chances were high that they would become trapped by the pack ice. On March 5, this is precisely what happened, and some of the crew turned on de Gerlache, saying that he had wanted it to happen, as it meant that the Belgica’s crew would be the first men to winter in Antarctica. De Gerlache denied the charge, but insisted that they make the most of it. He mapped out a rota whereby everyone had eight hours of work, eight of leisure and eight of sleep. Nobody was allowed to step out of sight of the ship’s mast.
The winter took its toll, as polar night set in and the crew’s world was covered in darkness, fog and snow. On bad days, the temperature reached -37°C with strong winds. When they became bored of skiing or card games, they invented bizarre competitions, such as a beauty contest in which they picked out women from magazines, convincing themselves that when they got home, the winners of the competition would be so flattered that they would agree to commemorate the expedition (this didn’t happen).
Scurvy and stomach aches were the least of the problems: some men became hysterical and suffered from temporary dementia. On June 7 1898, Belgian physicist Emile Danco died of heart failure, plunging the crew into even deeper despair. For those suffering from heart palpitations, Cook introduced a strict diet:
'I prohibit all food except milk, cranberry sauce and fresh meat, either penguin or seal steaks fried in oleomargarine.'That any scientific work was done in these circumstances is impressive, but when it finally broke the pack ice and returned to Antwerp in November 1899, the Belgica returned in triumph. Two men had died, but the crew had secured a scientific bounty: as well as the first detailed maps of much of the continent, they had undertaken oceanographic measurements and brought back hundreds of samples of fish, birds, flora and fauna.
The Belgica made Belgium known across the world, and its crew became heroes. Frederick Cook’s career would later become mired in controversy when it was revealed that he had falsely claimed an ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska, while in 1911, Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole. As leader of the expedition, de Gerlache had the honour of naming islands and coastlines that had been discovered; some were given in honour of crew members (including the two dead men) and others to areas of Belgium. De Gerlache later led expeditions to the Persian Gulf, Greenland and the Barentz Sea, and died in 1934. The Belgian Navy’s current research vessel is called the Belgica in honour of de Gerlache’s ship.
Frederick A Cook, Through The First Antarctic Night (C Hurst, 1980)
Hugo Decleir (editor), Roald Amundsen's Belgica diary: the first scientific expedition to the Antarctic (Erskine Press)
TH Baughman, Before The Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)
This article was first published in The Bulletin magazine in January 2006.