Are you in the mood for an adventure? How about joining an expedition in search of the south pole in Antarctica? Make it even more intriguing by attempting the trip in the year 1897. That’s the beauty of books. Thanks to author Julian Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth , we can join the crew of Norwegian, Belgian, Danish, French and other nationalities on a Belgian ship that set off in the summer of 1897 from Antwerp in search of the south pole. Extensively researched from historical records, scientific reports and detailed personal diaries, Sancton has created a story of ambition, hope, naivety, bravery, and incredible suspense.
When Belgian national Adrian de Gerlache decided he wanted to command an exploration to find the magnetic or geographic south pole in Antarctica it took him three years of intense lobbying to convince investors to provide the necessary funds. The investors insisted, however, that the expedition be classified as Belgian and contain a majority of Belgian citizens as crew in order to claim the glory and rewards for their homeland. This presented a problem since Belgium possessed no navy to speak of and few experienced sailors capable of navigating through such treacherous, unexplored waters.
The resulting mix of crew members ranged in age from late teens to early thirties and came from different countries. The commander was constantly trying to balance ethnicity with ability among crew members to satisfy his investors. This mix of nationalities with their respective loyalties, prejudices, and language conflicts turned out to make the demands of the journey even more difficult. It was a motley crew of sailors, scientists, cooks, and explorers.
The Commandant, de Gerlache was Belgian and Captain Georges Lecointe was French. Interestingly, the First Mate was Norweigian Roald Amundsen who later gained fame for his own exploits in the Arctic and Antarctica. The ship’s doctor, Dr. Frank Cook was a last-minute addition from New York. He was the only member of the crew who spoke English and he had no knowledge of French, Belgian, Norweigan or any of the other languages spoken on the ship, appropriately named “Belgica” after the homeland.
By the time the Belgica reached the freezing waters of the Antarctic, some of the original members of the crew had been discharged and replaced for varying reasons including incompetence, personality conflicts, and drunkenness. It was a risky venture from the get-go. When they arrived in time for the subarctic “summer” they wasted precious time on scientific experiments that jeopardized their schedule. Consequently, they were forced to spend the winter locked in by pack ice in a frozen sea that showed no signs of releasing them the following spring.
The ship and its crew spent a long winter in complete darkness for several months waiting for the Arctic sea ice to break up in the summer so they could escape. They were suffering from serious cases of scurvy, mental health issues and even some loss of life. Had they not resorted to eating raw penguin and seal meat, many more would have died. They finally realized their release from the ice depended entirely on their own ingenuity with no help from mother nature. Eventually, several attempts at creating man-made channels were undertaken before the sea ice pack finally released them from their frozen prison.
Three years had elapsed from the time of their departure from Antwerp to their final return. During that time, the surviving members of the crew had suffered terribly and aged far beyond their years. But certain individuals like Roald Amundsen and Dr. Frank Cook were still looking for adventure and pursued their own subsequent explorations to uncharted territories. Much of that early research they conducted is still being referenced today. There are fascinating historical photos of the expedition and the author’s notes at the end of the book add even more to the story. Madhouse at the End of The Earth is a truly fascinating read and I could not put it down. Maybe reading about icy Antarctic winters will cool you down in our muggy Canadian summer.