Heroic History of the Exploration of Antarctica

Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and Eric Marshall (left to right) of the Nimrod Expedition plant the Union flag at their southernmost position.

The history of Antarctica emerges from early Western theories of a vast continent, known as Terra Australis, believed to exist in the far south of the globe. The term Antarctic, referring to the opposite of the Arctic Circle, was coined by Marinus of Tyre in the 2nd century AD.

The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. In 1773 James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time but although they discovered nearby islands, they did not catch sight of Antarctica itself. It is believed he was as close as 240 km (150 mi) from the mainland.

Early exploration

Aristotle speculated, “Now since there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole…”.

It was not until Prince Henry the Navigator began in 1418 to encourage the penetration of the torrid zone in the effort to reach India by circumnavigating Africa that European exploration of the southern hemisphere began. In 1473 Portuguese navigator Lopes Gonçalves proved that the equator could be crossed, and cartographers and sailors began to assume the existence of another, temperate continent to the south of the known world.

The doubling of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 by Bartolomeu Dias first brought explorers within touch of the Antarctic cold, and proved that there was an ocean separating Africa from any Antarctic land that might exist.

Ferdinand Magellan, who passed through the Straits of Magellan in 1520, assumed that the islands of Tierra del Fuego to the south were an extension of this unknown southern land, and it appeared as such on a map by Ortelius: Terra australis recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita (“Southern land recently discovered but not yet fully known”).

In 1570 a map by Ortelius showed the imagined link between the proposed continent of Antarctica and South America. Note also the proposed landmasses surrounding the North Pole.

European geographers connected the coast of Tierra del Fuego with the coast of New Guinea on their globes, and allowing their imaginations to run riot in the vast unknown spaces of the south Atlantic, south Indian and Pacific oceans they sketched the outlines of the Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”), a vast continent stretching in parts into the tropics. The search for this great south land or Third World was a leading motive of explorers in the 16th and the early part of the 17th centuries. In 1599, according to the account of Jacob le Maire, the Dutch Dirck Gerritsz Pomp observed mountainous land at latitude (64°). If so, these were the South Shetland Islands, and possibly the first European sighting of Antarctica (or offshore-lying islands belonging to it). Other accounts, however, do not note this observation, casting doubt on their accuracy. It has been argued that the Spaniard Gabriel de Castilla claimed to have sighted “snow-covered mountains” beyond the 64° S in 1603, but this claim is not generally recognized.

Quirós in 1606 took possession for the king of Spain all of the lands he had discovered in Australia del Espiritu Santo (the New Hebrides) and those he would discover “even to the Pole”

The Antarctic Circle

The obsession of the undiscovered continent culminated in the brain of Alexander Dalrymple, the brilliant and erratic hydrographer who was nominated by the Royal Society to command the Transit of Venus expedition to Tahiti in 1769. The command of the expedition was given by the admiralty to Captain James Cook. Sailing in 1772 with the Resolution, a vessel of 462 tons under his own command and the Adventure of 336 tons under Captain Tobias Furneaux, Cook first searched in vain for Bouvet Island, then sailed for 20 degrees of longitude to the westward in latitude 58° S, and then 30° eastward for the most part south of 60° S, a higher southern latitude than had ever been voluntarily entered before by any vessel. On 17 January 1773 the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time in history and the two ships reached 67° 15′ S by 39° 35′ E, where their course was stopped by ice.

Cook then turned northward to look for French Southern and Antarctic Lands, of the discovery of which he had received news at Cape Town, but from the rough determination of his longitude by Kerguelen, Cook reached the assigned latitude 10° too far east and did not see it. He turned south again and was stopped by ice in 61° 52′ S by 95° E and continued eastward nearly on the parallel of 60° S to 147° E. On 16 March, the approaching winter drove him northward for rest to New Zealand and the tropical islands of the Pacific. In November 1773, Cook left New Zealand, having parted company with the Adventure, and reached 60° S by 177° W, whence he sailed eastward keeping as far south as the floating ice allowed. The Antarctic Circle was crossed on 20 December and Cook remained south of it for three days, being compelled after reaching 67° 31′ S to stand north again in 135° W.

A long detour to 47° 50′ S served to show that there was no land connection between New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego. Turning south again, Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle for the third time at 109° 30′ W before his progress was once again blocked by ice four days later at 71° 10′ S by 106° 54′ W. This point, reached on 30 January 1774, was the farthest south attained in the 18th century. With a great detour to the east, almost to the coast of South America, the expedition regained Tahiti for refreshment. In November 1774, Cook started from New Zealand and crossed the South Pacific without sighting land between 53° and 57° S to Tierra del Fuego; then, passing Cape Horn on 29 December, he rediscovered Roché Island renaming it Isle of Georgia, and discovered the South Sandwich Islands (named Sandwich Land by him), the only ice-clad land he had seen, before crossing the South Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope between 55° and 60°. He thereby laid open the way for future Antarctic exploration by exploding the myth of a habitable southern continent. Cook’s most southerly discovery of land lay on the temperate side of the 60th parallel, and he convinced himself that if land lay farther south it was practically inaccessible and of no economic value.

Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration began at the end of the 19th century and closed with Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1917.

During this period the Antarctic continent became the focus of an international effort that resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration and in which 17 major Antarctic expeditions were launched from ten countries.


Dr. John Murray was the driving force behind the renewal of interest in Antarctic exploration at the beginning of the 20th century.
The initial impetus for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was a lecture given by Dr. John Murray entitled “The Renewal of Antarctic Exploration”, given to the Royal Geographical Society in London, 27 November 1893. Murray advocated that research into the Antarctic should be organised to “resolve the outstanding geographical questions still posed in the south”. Furthermore, the Royal Geographical Society instated an Antarctic Committee shortly prior to this, in 1887, which successfully encouraged many whalers to explore the Southern regions of the world and laid the groundwork for the lecture given by Murray.

The Norwegian ship Antarctic was put ashore at Cape Adare, on 24 January 1895.

In August 1895 the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London passed a general resolution calling on scientific societies throughout the world to promote the cause of Antarctic exploration “in whatever ways seem to them most effective”. Such work would “bring additions to almost every branch of science”. The Congress had been addressed by the Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink, who had just returned from a whaling expedition during which he had become one of the first to set foot on the Antarctic mainland. During his address, Borchgrevink outlined plans for a full-scale pioneering Antarctic expedition, to be based at Cape Adare.

The Heroic Age was inaugurated by an expedition launched by the Belgian Geographical Society in 1897; Borchgrevink followed a year later with a privately sponsored British expedition.

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition was led by Belgian Adrian de Gerlache. In 1898, they became the first men to spend winter on Antarctica, when their ship Belgica became trapped in the ice. They became stuck on 28 February 1898, and only managed to get out of the ice on 14 March 1899.

During their forced stay, several men lost their sanity, not only because of the Antarctic winter night and the endured hardship, but also because of the language problems between the different nationalities. This was the first expedition to overwinter within the Antarctic Circle, and they visited the South Shetland Islands.

Early British expeditions

The Southern Cross Expedition began in 1898 and lasted for two years. This was the first expedition to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland (Cape Adare) and was the first to make use of dogs and sledges. It made the first ascent of The Great Ice Barrier, (The Great Ice Barrier later became formally known as the Ross Ice Shelf). The expedition set a Farthest South record at 78°30’S. It also calculated the location of the South Magnetic Pole.

The Discovery Expedition was then launched, from 1901–04 and was led by Robert Falcon Scott. It made the first ascent of the Western Mountains in Victoria Land, and discovered the polar plateau. Its southern journey set a new Farthest South record, 82°17’S. Many other geographical features were discovered, mapped and named. This was the first of several expeditions based in McMurdo Sound.

Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and Eric Marshall (left to right) of the Nimrod Expedition plant the Union flag at their southernmost position.
A year later, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was launched, headed by William Speirs Bruce. ‘Ormond House’ was established as a meteorological observatory on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys and was the first permanent base in Antarctica. The Weddell Sea was penetrated to 74°01’S, and the coastline of Coats Land was discovered, defining the sea’s eastern limits.

Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of Scott’s expedition, organized and led the Nimrod Expedition from 1907 to 1909. The expedition’s primary objective was of reaching the South Pole. Based in McMurdo Sound, the expedition pioneered the Beardmore Glacier route to the South Pole, and the (limited) use of motorised transport. Its southern march reached 88°23’S, a new Farthest South record 97 geographical miles from the Pole before having to turn back. During the expedition, Shackleton was the first to reach the polar plateau. Parties led by T. W. Edgeworth David also became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

Expeditions from other countries

The First German Antarctic Expedition was sent to investigate eastern Antarctica in 1901. It discovered the coast of Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, and Mount Gauss. The expedition’s ship became trapped in ice, however, which prevented more extensive exploration.

The Swedish Antarctic Expedition, operating at the same time worked in the east coastal area of Graham Land, and was marooned on Snow Hill Island and Paulet Island in the Weddell Sea, after the sinking of its expedition ship. It was rescued by the Argentinian naval vessel Uruguay.

The French organized their first expedition in 1903 under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Originally intended as a relief expedition for the stranded Nordenskiöld party, the main work of this expedition was the mapping and charting of islands and the western coasts of Graham Land, on the Antarctic peninsula. A section of the coast was explored, and named Loubet Land after the President of France.

A follow up trip was organized from 1908–1910 which continued the earlier work of the French expedition with a general exploration of the Bellingshausen Sea, and the discovery of islands and other features, including Marguerite Bay, Charcot Island, Renaud Island, Mikkelsen Bay, Rothschild Island.

Race to the Pole

The prize of the Heroic age was to reach the South Pole. Two expeditions set off in 1910 to attain this goal; a party led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from the ship Fram and Robert Falcon Scott’s British group from the Terra Nova.

Amundsen succeeded in reaching the Pole on 14 December 1911 using a route from the Bay of Whales to the polar plateau via the Axel Heiberg Glacier.

Scott and his four companions reached the South Pole via the Beardmore route on 17 January 1912, 33 days after Amundsen. All five died on the return journey from the Pole, through a combination of starvation and cold. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station was later named after these two men.

Source: British Scholar (Google U.K.), Wikipedia, Antarctica History Archives (University of Michigan)

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