Before the Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s

Before the Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s

Before the Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s

Before the Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s

Synopsis

Although the Antarctic ice pack and some off-shore islands had been sighted and even landed upon briefly as early as the 1820s, it was not until an eccentric Anglo-Norwegian explorer, Carsten E. Borchgrevink, went ashore in 1895 that a human set foot on the Antarctic continent. Borchgrevink, snubbed by the British establishment, had stolen a march on several planned competing expeditions from Germany and Scandinavia. Borchgrevink returned to Antarctica in 1899 with a party that was the first to winter over on the continent. Regrettably, bad weather and unscalable mountains limited their forays inland. Borchgrevink's survival was proof that with adequate supplies, the Antarctic winter was survivable, and that with a better geographic position, the enormous unknown of the continent could be investigated. Borchgrevink galvanized the British geographical authorities, who had come to consider polar exploration their exclusive province. Led by Sir Clements Markham of the Royal Geographic Society, the British keenly felt this blow to their national pride delivered by an explorer they regarded as an arrogant upstart. The RGS pushed forward with its plans, and a tragic competition to be the first to reach the South Pole was set in motion between the British and the Scandinavians. This work is an account of the first tentative human gropings in Antarctica, and concentrates on the coalescing of official and popular attitudes that later resulted in the polar races of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, which dominate the story of the "Heroic Era" of Antarctic exploration, from 1901 to 1922.

Excerpt

South of the sixtieth parallel lies the Antarctic continent. Comprising ten percent of the earth's surface and more than forty percent of the world's supply of fresh water, it remained in cold isolation for centuries. Ice abounds: were ten percent of the mass to break off in a single day, the level of the world's oceans would rise and flood many coastal cities worldwide. The Ross Ice Shelf is situated in a bay larger than France, and icebergs bigger than Rhode Island have calved and floated northward. Yet only as humans interact with Antarctica does the area become of interest to the historian. Since the International Geophysical Year (1956-58) the world has paid the southern regions increasing attention as awareness of natural resources and of the possibilities for economic exploitation has grown. As the largest landmass governed by international agreement, Antarctica is an experiment in the peaceful cooperation of nations. Thus the lack of attention paid to it by social scientists is curious.

Historians have concentrated on the Heroic Era, 1901-22, from the launch of the Discovery expedition to the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The voyages of these two decades were filled with fascinating adventures. The story of Robert Falcon Scott's last expedition and the saga of Shackleton's Endurance have thrilled readers for three-quarters of a century. In concentrating on these activities, however, writers have slighted the men of the 1890s, the forerunners of the later adventurers. Decisions made in . . .

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