The Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897–1899 was the first expedition to winter in the Antarctic region. Led by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery aboard the RV Belgica, it was the first Belgian Antarctic expedition and is considered the first expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Among its members were Frederick Cook and Roald Amundsen, explorers who would later attempt the respective conquests of the North and South Poles.
In 1896, after a period of intensive lobbying, Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery purchased the Norwegian-built whaling ship Patria, which, following an extensive refit, he renamed Belgica. Gerlache had worked together with the Geographical Society of Brussels to organize a national subscription, but was able to outfit his expedition only after the Belgian government voted in favor of two large subsidies, making it a state-supported undertaking. With a multinational crew that included Roald Amundsen from Norway, Emil Racoviță from Romania, and Henryk Arctowski from Poland, Belgica set sail from Antwerp on 16 August 1897.
En route to the Antarctic, the expedition visited Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, and Montevideo. Belgica was received particularly enthusiastically in Rio, where a large Belgian community lived. Frederick Cook, an American, joined the expedition there. The Brazilians were also very interested in the Belgian scientific undertaking. The Historical and Geographical Society of Rio held a special meeting where the scientists and officers of the expedition were offered membership. A few weeks later, in Montevideo, Amundsen wrote in his diary that he had never seen so many beautiful women "in one place at the same time".
During January 1898, Belgica reached the coast of Graham Land. On 22 January, Carl Wiencke was washed overboard during a storm and drowned. Wiencke Island was named in his honor. Sailing in between the Graham Land coast and a long string of islands to the west, Gerlache named the passage "Belgica Strait"; it was later renamed Gerlache Strait in his honor. After charting and naming several islands from some twenty separate landings, the expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle on 15 February.
Failing to find a way into the Weddell Sea on 28 February, Gerlache's expedition became trapped in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea, near Peter I Island. It is likely that Gerlache intentionally sailed deep into the pack ice in order to freeze his vessel into the ice for the winter. Despite the crew's efforts to free Belgica, they quickly realised that they would be trapped for the duration of the Antarctic winter.
The Belgica expedition was poorly equipped and did not have enough winter clothing for every man on board. There was a shortage of food, and what there was lacked in variety. Penguins and seals were hunted and their meat stored before the onset of winter left the region devoid of wildlife. Warm clothing was improvised from the materials available. On 21 March 1898, Cook wrote: "We are imprisoned in an endless sea of ice ... We have told all the tales, real and imaginative, to which we are equal. Time weighs heavily upon us as the darkness slowly advances." Several weeks later, on 17 May, the perpetual darkness of polar night set in, and lasted until 23 July.
Gerlache disliked the penguin and seal meat that had been stored and initially tried to ban its consumption, but eventually encouraged it. Signs of scurvy began to show in some of the men. Gerlache and Captain Georges Lecointe became so ill they wrote their wills. Two of the crew started to show signs of mental illness and morale in general was extremely poor. Lieutenant Danco fell ill from a heart condition and died on 5 June. Danco Island was named in his honor. Several men reportedly lost their sanity at this point, including one Belgian sailor who left the ship "announcing he was going back to Belgium."[This quote needs a citation]
Cook and Amundsen took command as Gerlache and Lecointe were unable to fulfill their roles due to scurvy. The true cause of scurvy as a deficiency of Vitamin C was not discovered until the 1920s, but Cook was convinced that raw meat was a possible cure for scurvy due to his experiences with Robert Peary in the Arctic. He retrieved the frozen penguin and seal meat and insisted that each man eat some each day. Even Gerlache began to eat the meat and slowly the men recovered their health. It is now known that raw meat and organs contain a small amount of Vitamin C.
Several months of hardship followed. Even as spring and summer arrived, attempts to free the ship and its crew from the grip of the ice failed. By January 1899, Belgica was still trapped in ice about seven feet (2.1 m) thick and the possibility of another winter in the ice seemed real. Open water was visible about half a mile away and Cook suggested that trenches be cut to the open water to allow Belgica to escape the ice. The weakened crew used the explosive tonite and various tools to create the channel. Finally, on 15 February, they managed to start slowly down the channel they had cleared during the weeks before. It took them nearly a month to cover seven miles (11 km), and on 14 March, they cleared the ice. The expedition returned to Antwerp on 5 November 1899. Though the circumstances were severe, the expedition had nevertheless managed to collect scientific data, including a full year of meteorological observations.
In Antwerp, the return of the expedition was heartily welcomed. A special committee had been planning the festivities for months. Typical for polar expeditions in this age, feelings of national and regional pride surrounded the homecoming celebrations. On the day they first set foot on Belgian soil again, La Brabançonne sounded and the national flag was seen waving from many houses. The Belgian state honored Gerlache and his men by making them members of the Royal Order of Leopold, and the municipal government of Antwerp honored the men with medals and by writing their names in the Golden Book of the city.
The expedition team included many notable individuals:
Personnel resigned or let go:
We are imprisoned in an endless sea of ice, and find our horizon monotonous. We have told all the tales, real and imaginative, to which we are equal. Time weighs heavily upon us as the darkness slowly advances.
Moreover, Gerlache had sampled the animals, badly prepared by cook Louis Michotte, and found them so disgusting that he tried to ban them from the Belgica.