Fourteen years before the South Pole was conquered, a Belgian ship sailed to the end of the earth

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BOOK OF THE WEEK

MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH

by Julian Sancton (WH Allen £20,368 pp)

On a cold January afternoon in 1926, inmate 23118 was visited at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

Since he was imprisoned last year, the doctor had refused to see anyone, friends or family. But waiting to see him was perhaps the only living person for whom he would make an exception: the world-famous Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

He had raced with Captain Scott to be the first to the South Pole and was one of the greatest explorers the world had ever known. Now on a lecture tour of the US, he couldn’t miss the opportunity to pay his respects to his former mentor, Dr. Frederick Cook, the man who nearly three decades earlier saved his life on a harrowing expedition to Antarctica.

Julian Sancton has written an epic book about Adrien de Gerlache's scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1897. Pictured: Adrien de Gerlache with an Emperor Penguin

Julian Sancton has written an epic book about Adrien de Gerlache’s scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1897. Pictured: Adrien de Gerlache with an Emperor Penguin

Cook was not only a ship’s doctor, but also an enterprising peddler whose last fundraiser — a Ponzi oil investment scheme — had ended in 14 years.

For hours he and Amundsen held hands, reminiscing about their voyage on the Belgica to the deadly wasteland of Antarctica, where they had both been trapped for months. . . by ice.

The story of the expedition is curiously little known, although NASA uses the Belgica’s journey to train astronauts in survival, believing these to be the closest men ever to the extreme isolation they will face on Mars. .

Taking advantage of exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, as well as the crew’s diaries and diaries, American travel writer Julian Sancton has created an epic of discovery that should soon become a classic.

More than 20,000 people lined the docks of Antwerp when the Belgica, a converted three-masted whaler with a powerful steam engine, set out in August 1897. Belgium’s first Antarctic expedition was the brainchild of Adrien de Gerlache, 31, scion of one of his country’s most distinguished families and a passionate sailor.

He had worked tirelessly to raise money for the international scientific journey, staffed by chemists and geologists, naturalists and meteorologists. It was also a road to glory for the Gerlache: no one had yet found the South Pole and no one had wintered in Antarctica.

He knew the dangers of polar exploration and was well aware of the voyages of Sir John Franklin, who in the 1840s attempted to sail the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus through the Northwest Passage. Both were large frigates of the British Navy and both were crushed by the Arctic ice, with the loss of about 130 men. That tragic journey was the subject of the compelling recent TV drama The Terror.

At the time of the trip, no one had found the South Pole and no one had wintered in Antarctica.  Pictured: Adrien de Gerlache

At the time of the trip, no one had found the South Pole and no one had wintered in Antarctica. Pictured: Adrien de Gerlache

With an agile boat and a meager crew of just 24, the Gerlache wouldn’t make the same mistakes. Yet this epic is even more gripping than The Terror.

In addition to the Gerlache, Sancton’s compelling story is built around the two other main characters: Cook, the doctor, and Amundsen, the chief mate, who signed up to join the expedition at age 24.

To de Gerlache, the gigantic Norwegian seemed to have been ripped from the pages of an adventure novel: Over six feet tall and a muscular 200 pounds, he looked like a modern-day Viking. More importantly, he was a cross-country skier and he didn’t want to pay. He just wanted the experience.

For Sancton, Cook is one of the heroes of this epic tale. He represents a ‘quintessentially American spirit that lies at the intersection between optimism and delusion, between daring and deceit.

It is the spirit that inspired him to prescribe groundbreaking treatments to his Belgica shipmates and to devise an escape from the pack ice. It is also the spirit that later convinced him that he could reach the North Pole and the peak of Denali in Alaska and become rich in Texas, perhaps leading him to twist the truth when he failed to achieve those goals. reached.’

The journey didn’t start too well. During a layover in December, several sailors became, in the old-fashioned way, too familiar with the brothels and bars of Punta Arenas, a lawless border town on the southern tip of Chile.

Armed, disobedient and drunk, they challenged the skipper’s authority until de Gerlache kicked them off the boat.

The crew was shrouded in darkness and had the ever-present fear that ice could crush the ship.  Pictured: The Belgica

The crew was shrouded in darkness and had the ever-present fear that ice could crush the ship. Pictured: The Belgica

On January 19, the crew saw their first icebergs, while navigating the perilous icy seas on the Gerlache’s mission to reach a record-breaking southern latitude.

The ice continued to thicken and at the beginning of March the Belgica became frozen, stranded on a white wilderness. A few weeks later, the sun set and would not reappear for months, condemning the crew to eternal darkness.

It is this period that is at the center of Sancton’s magnificent story, a claustrophobic drama of trapped men. You can smell the smoke of pipe smoke and taste the canned mush they ate, while outside the ever-changing pack ice cracked and roared and the ship squeezed like a vise.

And always downstairs, the screaming and running of rats in the hold.

Engulfed in darkness and with the ever-present fear that ice could crush the ship, even the most optimistic crew member felt like giving up. “We’re in a madhouse,” one wrote.

Cook noted, “The darkness that has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has also descended upon the inner world of our souls. We are as tired of each other as the cold monotony of the black night.’

Only Amundsen appeared unharmed. His dream was to become a world-renowned polar explorer and he approached the expedition as a training exercise.

MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH by Julian Sancton (WH Allen £20,368 pp)

MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH by Julian Sancton (WH Allen £20,368 pp)

Meanwhile, scurvy, a breakdown of the body from lack of vitamin C, haunted the ship. The symptoms were horrific – exhaustion, rotten gums, stomach pain, lesions and gangrenous limbs – before death brought merciful release.

Cook saw that the crew needed light and good food as body and mind degenerated. He ordered the worst afflicted to stand by a blazing fire. It was not so much the heat as the light that improved them.

The doctor had spent time with the Inuit in the Arctic and concluded that their diet of raw fresh meat and blubber must be the reason why they showed no signs of scurvy. He started feeding the men fresh penguin steaks. A crew member discovered that the penguins loved music and liked to waddle to the boat to serve themselves, playing his cornet.

Amundsen, of course, loved penguin steak, but many found it repulsive. However, it was life-saving and the crew accepted that they had to eat it.

After being ravaged by the relentless pack ice around the Bellingshausen Sea for nearly a year, the Belgica was liberated by storms, though not before the exhausted crew made several heroic attempts to cut through ice to create a channel to freedom.

De Gerlache would be immensely praised in his country; Cook to fame, fame and eventually jail in America; and Amundsen to ever greater triumph and fame before his flying boat disappeared off the Norwegian coast in 1928. He was 55.

This is a brilliant, vibrant piece of writing that should be read by anyone who cares about heroism, courage, ingenuity and endurance. I just hope it was filmed. It is adventure to the extreme, and populated by wonderful characters. Once you’re done, you’ll want to read it again.

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