Sunday, July 11, 2021

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

 Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton is a solid work of nonfiction about the expedition of the Belgica, which sailed in August 1897 from Belgium for Antarctica, attempting to reach the magnetic south pole. 

The ship was under the command of Adrien de Gerlache, from a distinguished Belgian family and in his early 30s when the expedition began. It was funded in part by a national subscription campaign, with some 2,500 Belgians contributing donations, and de Gerlache would have liked to have the ship have an entirely Belgian crew, but to fill the roughly twenty spots had to enlist many non-Belgians, including American Dr. Frederick Cook and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. de Gerlache was neither a good manager of the crew nor particularly good decision-maker, with many of his choices driven less by prudence and more by concern about how his Belgian benefactors and the press would look upon him in the future.

 A man was lost overboard on the way from South America to Antarctica and de Gerlache had assured those who signed up for the expedition that they would not winter in Antarctica. However, once they at the continent in early 1898, he made the choice to sail into the ice rather than abandon the quest to be the first to the magnetic south pole. de Gerlache knew that they would get stuck in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea for the winter but concealed his intent from the crew. The sun went down in mid-May for close to seventy days of 24-hour darkness. de Gerlache during the Antarctic winter spent much of his time sequestered in his cabin with horrible headaches and one of the men had a weak heart and died during the arctic winter. The men started to suffer from scurvy, with their conditions then improving for those who would eat seal or penguin meat, but de Gerlache largely refused, sticking with the canned goods that he planned for and his backers paid for.

Crew members Cook and Amundsen became close during the expedition and were the two most hearty polar explorers, with each of them leading future expeditions and especially Amundsen becoming well-known for his accomplishments. As the crew moved into the Antarctic summer of October and November, one of the sailors began have his mental state deteriorate rapidly and it noted in the book that the second Christmas aboard the ship was a grim affair, with it becoming apparent that many of the men would not survive a second Antarctic winter and the food stores were being rapidly depleted. A plan was hatched to cut trenches in front of the ship, trying to create a waterway for the Belgica. Initial progress that was made was lost at the end of January when the ice pack shifted, but then on March 14, 1899 they broke out of the ice.

Upon their return to civilization, one man had lost his sanity while stuck in the ice and was committed to an asylum and another died after growing sick during the expedition. It would take de Gerlache a year to regain his health after the trip and Amundsen and Cook both embarked on other expeditions not long after the Begica’s return. Amundsen became an acclaimed polar explorer and Cook was as well for a time, until his exploits, specifically a claimed journey to the geographic north pole was called into question. Cook’s membership to the New York Explorer’s Club, of which he was president, was revoked and then then became an oil speculator and was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. Overall, it’s an interesting book with tales of danger, bravery, and horrific decisions.