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In Search of a Southern Continent:
Efforts Prior to 1819
Humankind's story in the Antarctic Peninsula Region opens well to the north, near the southern tip of South America. It was here that men first claimed to have seen a coast of the Southern Continent, and here where they found sea routes that would eventually lead to the discovery of land south of the Convergence.
It is possible that a Chinese fleet visited the area around 1421 or 1422, finding and sailing through what we now call the Strait of Magellan. The fleet may also have visited the Falkland Islands, sailed south to the Antarctic Peninsula, continued northeast to South Georgia, and then sailed across the South Atlantic in high latitudes. The chief evidence for all this is speculative inference from the Piri Reis map, which shows land in the far south near the actual location of the Antarctic Peninsula. 1 Published in 1513, this work includes portions copied from a now-lost early-fifteenth-century world map.
The first documented southerly voyage, however, took place in 1502. A letter attributed to Amerigo Vespucci, the pilot, claimed that his Portuguese ship had reached 50° S along the east coast of South Americawell toward its southern extremityand had sighted land stretching farther south. Although even contemporary evidence cast doubts on the high latitude reached, there was now no question that there was a large landmass on the west side of the South Atlantic Ocean, an addition to the land that Columbus and others had already found much farther north. Was this part of the great Southern Continent? Or perhaps evidence that it might exist yet farther south?
Only a year or two later, another Portuguese voyage gave the world its first actual claim of sighting the speculative southern land. The ship's captain said he had seen it across a channel of water beyond the Americas, at about 40° S. 2 The claim that water separated the Americas and the Southern Continent was equally important. If valid, it suggested a westward sea route to the East Indies, an alternative to the Cape of Good Hope passage around Africa that the Portuguese had established a decade earlier.
Ferdinand Magellan Discovers a Strait
In 1517, Ferdinand Magellan ( Fernão de Magalhães), a 37-year-old Portuguese mariner, traveled to Spain after his own king had refused to finance an attempt to reach the East Indies by sailing west, around the Americas, rather than by the Cape of Good Hope route that Magellan himself had already used. The Spanish crown agreed to fund the voyage, and so, in September 1519, Magellan set off from Spain with a small fleet. His five ships, the smallest of about 135 tons and perhaps 75 feet long, the largest of approximately 200 tons, carried about 250 men. Magellan reached South America off today's Brazil at the end of November. He then sailed south, carefully examining every promising river, estuary, or any other apparent westward opening. In late March 1520, having found nothing but dead ends, a discouraged Magellan camped for the winter on the desolate coast of what would come to be called Patagonia, after the name Magellan's men gave the local natives.
Magellan resumed his voyage in October 1520 with only four ships, having lost one during winter on a reconnaissance trip. Only three days after sailing, he reached 52° S and spotted a headland (today called Cape Virgins) at the north of another possible westward opening. A storm soon swallowed the two ships sent to examine this new possibility. Days passed. Then, just as Magellan was beginning to think his ships lost, they returned. Their excited captains reported that they had sailed west for three days, and open water still lay ahead.
Full of hope, Magellan sailed his four ships into the opening, past two narrows into a wide basin where more openings beckoned him on. He split his fleet to try both. He, himself, took two ships southwest to examine what appeared to be the main passage. He ordered the other two, including the vessel with most of his supplies, to explore two other options to the south. During the first night, Estavo Gomez, the pilot of the ship with the provisions, led a mutinya renewal of unrest that had plagued the expedition throughout the winter. Without Magellan there to quell the mutiny, Gomez took command of the ship and sailed for home.
Magellan, in the meantime, pressed on, for over 100 miles. The way ahead looked difficult after he rounded Cape Froward, now known to be the southernmost point of the South American landmass, and Magellan sent a longboat to scout ahead. Her men returned jubilantly three days later. They had, they said, reached the end of the channel. Only open sea lay beyond. An excited Magellan retraced his route to deliver the triumphant news to the other two ships. But to his dismay, he found only one. After days spent vainly searching for the missing vessel, he gave up and returned west to continue with his depleted fleet.
Magellan reached the western opening to the strait at the end of November. The way to the Indies lay before him, somewhere across what he now named the Pacific, or peaceful, Oceana name that those who followed Magellan here would often have cause to question. 3 It had taken him 38 days and 310 miles to sail through the strait, both time and distance extended by the delays, false turns, and exploration necessitated by being the first European to navigate this passage. Magellan called his strait Todos los Santos (All Saints' Strait), a title soon forgotten when others renamed it the Strait of Magellan. A form of the name he gave the land south of the strait did persistTierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), a name suggested by the native-set fires he saw glowing in the night.
Then came the sail across the Pacific, a long and desperately hungry voyage because not only had Gomez taken the bulk of the expedition's provisions, but the distance was also far greater than anyone had imagined. Many of Magellan's men died from starvation before the ships finally reached the Philippines in March 1521. There the survivors spent a month recovering before beginning the voyage to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. Magellan, himself, never reached home. He died in the Philippines, killed by natives there along with several others in his party. Only one ship from the fleet, the 85-ton Victoria with a bare eighteen men, completed history's first world circumnavigation. She reached Spain in September 1522.
Magellan's voyage set the stage for accurate, not speculative, knowledge of the Antarctic, because it proved conclusively that the southernmost part of the globe could only be reached by sea. Whether men would find land there or simply more ocean remained an open question. The voyage, however, reinforced the belief in an extensive southern land, because Magellan's surviving men declared the northern coast of Tierra del Fuego to be part of the theoretical continent.
The discovery of a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans excited the courts and counting houses of Europe, but it rapidly became clear that Magellan had been lucky in his relatively problem-free passage. Every one of the next six attempts to follow Magellan encountered great difficulties, and after the Spanish established a regular land route across the Isthmus of Panama, mariners abandoned Magellan's great discovery for decades.
This changed in 1577, when England entered the picture. Up to this point, the English had been largely absent from Southern Hemisphere exploration. Now, Queen Elizabeth decided to join the countries exploring the Pacific. Because Spain controlled the overland route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, Francis Drake, the first Englishman to embark for the South Pacific, had to use the only alternative the English knewthe Strait of Magellan.
Francis Drake Finds an Open Sea to the South
Drake left England in December 1577. After spending the winter of 1578 camped on the Patagonian coast just where Magellan had, he resumed his voyage in mid-August. He sailed his three-ship fleet into the Strait of Magellan a few days later. Four days after entering the strait, Drake's men landed on an island. There they found huge numbers of
strange birds, which could not fly at all . . . : in body they are less than a goose, and bigger than a mallard, short and thick set together, having no feathers, but instead . . . a certain hard and matted down; . . . their feeding and provision to live on, is in the sea, where they swim in such sort, as nature may seem to have granted them no small prerogative in swiftness. . . . 4
This was the first English-language description of penguins.
It took Drake only sixteen days to reach the Pacific, the shortest passage anyone had made through Magellan's strait. Then his luck ran out. A storm that hit the night he exited the strait continued virtually unabated for a month. At the end of September, massive waves swamped one of the ships. Those aboard the other two vessels, including Drake on his flagship, the Golden Hind, were helpless in the wild winds to offer aid. Impotent, they could only watch and listen in horror as their companions drowned.
When the winds at last eased off in early October, Drake's two surviving vessels approached land just north of the western end of the strait. Then a new squall hit, forcing both ships out to sea and separating them. The next morning, with his consort nowhere in sight, Drake concluded that she was lost. In fact, she was perfectly safe. Her captain, John Winter, had taken her a few miles into the Strait of Magellan to ride out the storm. There he burned fires on shore as a signal, in hopes that Drake was safe and would find him. Winter waited for weeks, then gave up and sailed for home, back eastward through the strait, thus becoming the first to travel Magellan's passage in both directions.
In the meantime, Drake sailed on alone in the Golden Hind. Again, storms took control. This time they blew him southeastward. On October 18, a lull in the weather allowed Drake to anchor his battered ship in the south of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Here he took on wood and water and encountered a group of native peoples with whom he traded, human beings who were the most southerly that Europeans had ever met. The natives were friendly, but the weather was not, and the results were fatal for several of Drake's men. Renewed gales drove the Golden Hind out to sea, leaving eight sailors marooned on shore. These men eventually made their way to southern Patagonia, on the east coast of South America, but within two months, all but one were dead, victims of encounters with hostile natives. The single survivor, Peter Carder, at last reached England more than nine years after parting from Drake. Once home, his fortunes changed entirely: Queen Elizabeth received him at court to hear his story and awarded him a handsome sum of money. 5
As for Drake, he continued battling the violent winds. On October 24, 1578, he at last located a small island with a safe anchorage. The voyage account related, ". . . at length we fell with the uttermost part of land towards the South Pole. . . . The uttermost cape or headland of all these lands, stands near in 56 deg. without which there is no main, nor island to be seen to the Southwards: but that the Atlantic Ocean, and the [Pacific], meet in a most large and free scope." 6 The winds had driven Drake to a revolutionary discoverythe open sea below Tierra del Fuego, that infamously difficult stretch of ocean now known as the Drake Passage. Historians have long debated just where Drake had been. Perhaps it was Cape Horn he saw, perhaps some other island in southern Tierra del Fuego. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know, given the uncertainty of his longitudes.
Drake left the high southern latitudes behind when the stormy weather finally relented. As he sailed north along South America's west coast, he plundered Spanish settlements and cargo ships, and then continued on to North America and the coast of today's California. Drake sailed home across the Pacific and reached England in September 1580, completing the first English world circumnavigation.
Another Englishman, John Davis, made a different discovery a few years after Drake's voyage. Davis was attempting to enter the Strait of Magellan in August 1592 when storms drove him far to the east, to an uncharted island group in the South Atlantic at about 51-52° S, several hundred miles to the east of today's Argentina. It was the small archipelago now known as the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas if one is from a country, such as Argentina, linked historically with Spain). Others may have seen them earlier, but Davis's sighting is the first reasonably well documented one. Although the Falklands lie north of the Antarctic Convergence, they are significant for the Peninsula Region story in several ways. Southern fur sealing began in these islands in the late eighteenth century. A few years later, the Falklands would become an important staging area for ships sailing much farther south. And it was from the Falklands that the British would administer their claim to nearly the entire Antarctic Peninsula Region.
Seven years after Davis chanced on the Falklands, another voyage led contemporary writers to report that land had been discovered much farther south. In June 1598, a large Dutch fleet left Europe to sail into the Pacific via the Strait of Magellan. The fleet reached the Pacific in early September 1599, but shortly after, a storm scattered the ships. The gales reportedly drove one, the Blijde Boodschap (Good News), to 64° S. There her captain, Dirk Gherritz, was said to have seen mountainous snow-covered land. Historical accounts that take this report seriously credit it as a sighting of the South Shetlands or, less frequently, the islands of the Palmer Archipelago to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula. But had Gherritz in fact seen anything, or even reached so far south? Even some contemporary evidence raises doubts. True or not, the account of this voyage was the first to claim that a ship had sailed south of 60° and seen land.
In the meantime, people in Europe were beginning to think about Drake's report of open water beyond Tierra del Fuego. Perhaps that meant there was an alternative sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific that could replace Magellan's ferociously dangerous strait.
Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire Round Cape Horn
At the outset of the seventeenth century, Dutch politics introduced another motivation to seek a new way past South America. It was then that the States General of the Netherlands granted the Dutch East India Company (VOC) a monopoly on trade with the East Indies, via either the Cape of Good Hope or the Strait of Magellan. Isaac Le Maire, a VOC director, urged the company to look for additional routes. When his fellow directors showed no interest, Le Maire formed his own company and mounted an expedition to make such a search.
Le Maire chose Willem Schouten, a man who knew the East Indies well, for his captain. Le Maire himself remained in Holland, but he sent his son Jacob along to look out for his interests. The expedition's two vessels left the town of Hoorn in June 1615 with 80 men and wintered on the coast of Patagonia before beginning their search. While they were cleaning the ships during winter, a fire destroyed the smaller of the two vessels, the Hoorn.
Schouten and Jacob Le Maire resumed the voyage in mid-January with the surviving ship, the Eendracht. A few days later, they intentionally bypassed the Strait of Magellan and continued south along the coast of Tierra del Fuego. On January 25, they scored their first discovery, a landmass to the east that the two Dutchmen named Staten Land to honor the States General. (Today, we know it as Staten Island, or Isla de los Estados in Argentina.) By evening, the Eendracht reached the southern end of the land. Schouten and Le Maire had found a way from the Atlantic to the open ocean below the Americas. They christened the passage between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Island that they had sailed through the Strait of Le Maire.
Now the Dutch headed into virgin waters. Everything behind them to the north was known, and soon they would be in the Pacific, already crossed by several other expeditions. For where they were, however, there were no charts or records, not even rumors. Not only that, they were sailing west out of sight of land through freezing sleet and snow. Schouten kept a fire blazing below deck to warm the men and served hot drinks whenever possible. And he furnished the crew with special clothingwoolen vests, leather boots, jackets, and oiled capsto fight the cold. The captain's efforts helped, but nothing could fully compensate for the men's frigid watches and their struggles with icy riggings and frozen sails.
Schouten saw land on January 29, 1616. It was, he wrote, " covered over with snow, ending with a sharp point, which we called Cape Hoorn." 7 This name, for what is in fact a small island, presumably honored the Dutch town from which the expedition had sailed, or perhaps it was for the lost ship of the same name, or maybe for both. Schouten did not say.
When the Dutch reached the west coast of Tierra del Fuego nearly two weeks later, they had completed the first rounding of Cape Horn. Like Magellan, they had had a much easier time in their pioneer voyage than many who would follow them. It had taken only two and a half weeks, and despite miserable weather, they had been in control of their ship the entire time. The Cape Horn route, a passage that would become legendary for its dangersespecially when sailed east to west against the prevailing winds and currents as its discoverers hadwould seldom be so kind. For some who followed the Dutch, it would take months to complete the passage as crews battled storms that could drive a ship hundreds of miles off course, or worse, to the bottom of the ocean.
Once in the Pacific, Schouten headed west and eventually reached Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in the East Indies. The voyage effectively ended there, because the local VOC authorities, refusing to believe that the expedition had found an alternative to the proscribed Strait of Magellan, seized the Eendracht. They then sent Schouten and Le Maire home as prisoners aboard a VOC ship. Schouten reached Holland early in July 1617, but young Le Maire had died en route. His distraught father was not even left with the compensation of enjoying a monopoly on his voyage's discovery. Despite his efforts to keep the route secret, the news of a new passage spread quickly in Dutch ports, and then, of course, beyond.
Schouten and Le Maire's voyage proved that Tierra del Fuego was only a group of islands, opened a new way into the Pacific, and reduced the importance of the Strait of Magellan. Most important for Antarctic discovery, the Cape Horn route meant that ships would be sailing much farther south than before. But as for the Great South Land of legend, people continued to believe. Favorite theories die hard, and Staten Land gave the mapmakers something new to cling to. They quickly drew it in as another coast of the Southern Continent, somehow supposed to curve around so far south of Cape Horn that its true character had been too distant for Schouten and Le Maire to see. It would be 27 years before someone would pass to the east and south of Staten Island and thus cut it off from supposed land farther south. At that point, the Strait of Le Maire lost its importance, because navigators realized they could sail east of Staten Island to reach the Cape Horn route.
The Antarctic Convergence Is Crossed
Cape Horn and the passage around it were great discoveries, but with the possible exception of Gherritz, who may or may not have seen something, no one had yet reported land south of the Antarctic Convergence. In 1675, someone at last made an unquestionable landfall there. Anthony de la Roché, a British merchant captain, was rounding Cape Horn eastward in April when adverse winds and currents swept him far off course to the east, to uncharted land between 54° and 55° S. Historians generally credit this as a sighting of South Georgia, which lies at 54° S, 36° W. De la Roché, who did no exploring there despite remaining anchored for fourteen days, identified his unnamed discovery as yet another tip of the Southern Continent.
South Georgia's discovery, the first definite landfall below the Convergence, was a major event in Antarctic history. No one else would see South Georgia, however, for over 80 years. Then, in June 1756, nature repeated itself as winds drove the León, a Spanish ship captained by Gregorio Jerez, there after rounding Cape Horn. It was a passenger on Jerez's ship who gave the world its first description of this land, desolate and ice-covered, "filled with steep mountains of a frightful aspect, and of so extraordinary a height, that we could hardly see the summits, although at a distance of more than six leagues." 8
In fact, ice permanently blankets more than half of this 110-mile-long, banana-shaped island, and dozens of glaciers pour down from the mountains that form its central spine.
Land was not the only Antarctic feature that those sailing around Cape Horn were finding in the 1600s. At the close of 1687, a few years after de la Roché's discovery of South Georgia, a storm drove the English pirate Edward Davis to nearly 63° S in the Drake Passage. There, the ship's surgeon, Lionel Wafer, wrote, "We met several islands of ice; which at first seemed to be real land." 9 These were almost certainly tabular icebergs, and this is one of the earliest reports of them.
Another visitor soon provided a more complete description. He was Edmond Halley, the English astronomer best remembered today for his identification of the comet named after him. In 1699-1700, he led the first true research voyage to the Southern Ocean, or at least its fringes. In addition to directing him to pursue scientific work, Halley's orders called for him to sail south until he reached the coast of the supposed Southern Continent.
Halley departed England in September 1699 in command of the naval vessel Paramore and first headed south across the Atlantic to South America. Near the end of the year, he set out for the Southern Ocean. On January 28, 1700, the air and water temperatures dropped sharply, indications that the Paramore had probably crossed the Antarctic Convergence. Halley spent the next few days creeping along in thick fog. On February 1, he reached 52° 24' S a number of miles to the east of South Georgia and sighted "three islands as they then appeared; being all flat on top, and covered with snow. Milk white, with perpendicular cliffs all round them. . . . The great height of them made us conclude them land. . . ." Clearer weather the next day allowed Halley to approach this supposed land. Now, he realized, it was "nothing but . . . ice of an incredible height" with a cliff at least 200 feet high. 10 The largest ice island, he wrote, was 5 miles long. Halley turned north after ten days because the Paramore was not designed for contact with ice. He reached England in September 1700, never having found any sign of the Southern Continentindeed, never having searched for it.
Even though ships were rounding Cape Horn regularly by the late 1760s, many of them reaching well south of 60° S, men had made only two landfalls below the Antarctic ConvergenceSouth Georgia in the Peninsula Region and Bouvet Island, discovered by Frenchman Jean- Baptiste-Charles Bouvet in 1739, well to the east, in the South Atlantic at 54° 25' S, 3° 31' E. What really existed in the far south remained an open question. More than half of the Pacific remained unexplored. Was there a large continent somewhere in its high southern latitudes? Or did the waters farther south just repeat the island clusters already found farther north? And what about the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans? So much was still unknown.
Advances in maritime techniques after the middle of the eighteenth century made possible the long exploratory voyages necessary to answer these questions. Two developments were crucial: the introduction of foods that helped crews ward off scurvy, and improved navigation methods and equipment.
Scurvy, a vitamin-deficiency disease, had begun to haunt sailors in the fifteenth century, when exploratory and other voyages began to spend many weeks at sea, dependent on salted meat and other dried and preserved foods. This horrific disease, which results in agonizingly swollen limbs and joints, bleeding gums, and sometimes severe mental illness, results when people fail to ingest vitamin C for more than a few weeks. Unlike most mammals, humans cannot metabolize this vitamin. Thus, it must come from a diet containing it, usually fresh fruit or vegetables, but also raw or very lightly cooked meat, in particular livers and kidneys. 11 Although scurvy is always fatal unless the sufferer receives sufficient vitamin C in time, it is easily cured with no lasting effect by gaining the vitamin. It was only in the early twentieth century that all this was finally understood. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, Britain's James Lind, a naval surgeon, published A Treatise of the Scurvy, a work reporting that he had found that the disease could be effectively treated with citrus fruit, onions, and vegetablesprecisely what was in fact needed to prevent scurvy.
Better navigation technique was equally critical. For centuries, those who had dared to sail far from land had real problems knowing just where they were. The compass told mariners their direction, but determining their location in a featureless ocean was much more difficult. Men had long known how to find their north-south position, or latitude, by combining the date with the height of the sun at midday. Development of the sextant in the mid-eighteenth century greatly improved sun sight accuracy. That left the question of east-west position, or longitude. Early sailors who passed beyond sight of land relied on estimates of their speed and direction to determine longitude, but were often wildly off. Although the 1767 publication of the Nautical Almanac by the British Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, made it possible to determine longitude using astronomical sights, the necessary calculations were cumbersome and difficult. A more practical method became available at almost the same time when another Englishman, John Harrison, invented the marine chronometer, a precise timepiece that could withstand the rigors of a sea voyage. Harrison's chronometer made it possible for sailors to determine the difference between their own local noon and the time at a known reference locationGreenwich, England, in the case of late-eighteenth-century British sailors and virtually everyone today. The navigator then translated the time difference into miles.
A British naval captain, James Cook, was a pioneer in using these advances in provisioning and navigation. In 1772, he set out to make the first serious attempt to learn the truth about the Great South Land.
James Cook's High-Latitude Circumnavigation of the Antarctic
Cook was a remarkably able man, a determined officer who had risen from the ranks to captain His Majesty's ships. From 1768 to 1771, the Royal Navy had sent him to the South Pacific to observe a transit of Venus. He had also carried secret orders to search for the Southern Continent. His search, in fact, was quite limited , concentrated in the South Pacific and about New Zealand, but Cook did correctly surmise that no Southern Continent extended into the temperate regions. When he reached home in 1771, he persuaded the British government to send him on a new expedition to investigate just what did exist in the south.
Cook prepared for his second voyage with great care. He selected his officers from the many eager to sail with him. He also took an artist, who would produce a marvelous visual record of the voyage, trained naturalists, and two astronomers who could use the heavens to determine latitude and longitude. And, the first exploring captain to do so, he carried several of the newly introduced marine chronometers. Cook took equal care with his provisioning, choosing his stores with an eye to combating scurvy and making a point of picking up fresh food along the way whenever possible. Finally, at his recommendation, the Admiralty outfitted the expedition with ships from the merchant fleet, vessels that could safely sail close to strange coasts, that were strong enough to handle violent weather and drifting ice, and offered ample cargo capacity for a long voyage.
The expedition left England in July 1772 with about 200 men aboard two shipsthe Resolution under Cook's personal command and the Adventure under Capt. Tobias Furneauxand sailed first to the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. There, Cook began his southern exploration. During the Southern Hemisphere summers of 1772-73 and 1773-74, he sailed clockwise around roughly two-thirds of the Antarctic regions, all of this route entirely outside the Peninsula Region. Cook pushed his ships to higher latitudes than anyone else had reached, turning back or retreating only when ice stopped him, and on January 17, 1773, he became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. Cook spent both winters exploring the South Pacific and refitting in New Zealand, but his ships became separated after the first winter. Before they could be reunited, the Adventure lost ten men to Maori cannibals, and Furneaux immediately took his ship home to England. Meanwhile, Cook, unaware of his consort's fate, completed the voyage alone in the Resolution. During the second summer, he reached a new farthest south of 71° 10' S, at 106° 54' W, a southern record that would stand for nearly 50 years.
Cook spent the most important parts of his voyage's third high-latitude season in the far north of the Peninsula Region. He departed New Zealand in November 1774, sailing east across the Pacific directly toward Cape Horn along latitudes 54 to 55° S. After two weeks spent surveying and re-provisioning his ship at Tierra del Fuego, he sailed from Staten Island on January 3, 1775, in search of the speculative southern land shown on his charts. He was also looking for the land reported by de la Roché in 1675 and the León in 1756. Three days later, Cook reached 58° 9' S, 52-53° W, a place where his chart showed land. With nothing in sight, he turned northeast in search of de la Roché's and Jerez's landfall. It was an ironic decision. During the two previous summers, Cook had pushed south to the ice edge in places where the continent lay far to the south. Now he was turning back when he was, in fact, due north of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, at the very point where the Antarctic Continent is most easily reached. Perhaps if his exploration had begun from Cape Horn rather than from Africa, Cook might have probed farther south here, as he had in his first two summers of exploration when he was still fresh and eager. Instead, he missed his best chance to discover what he was looking for. Cook's third summer, however, did yield more in the way of discovery than either of his first two had.
On January 14, midshipman Thomas Willis spotted something that was either a very large iceberg or land. Cook's men started laying bets, ten-to-one for ice, five-to-one for land. By afternoon, Cook wrote, "It was now no longer doubted but that it was land and not ice which we had in sight: it was however in a manner wholly covered with snow." 12 It was his first sight of an Antarctic landscape in nearly three years of searching. Cook named this landfall, at the northern extremity of the South Georgia island group, Willis Island, after the first man on board to have seen it. (There are actually several islands there, now called the Willis Islands.)
Cook reached South Georgia itself two days later, and began sailing down the northeast coast. On January 17, precisely three years after achieving history's first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, Cook made the first landing on South Georgia. It was on a beach in the place he named Possession Bay, because it was here that he claimed the land for Great Britain.
After landing, Cook continued down South Georgia's northeast coast, charting and naming geographic features. He reached land's end three days later at a place he christened Cape Disappointment. This land, he now knew, was just another island. He named it the Isle of Georgia in honor of King George III. Despite the name he gave the southernmost cape, Cook wrote, "I must confess the disappointment . . . did not affect me much, for to judge of the bulk of the sample it would not be worth the discovery." 13 Rather than the rich and fertile Southern Continent of legend, it was a place where "The inner parts of the country [were] . . . savage and horrible: the wild rocks raised their lofty summits till they were lost in the clouds and the valleys laid buried in everlasting snow. Not a tree or shrub was to be seen, no not even big enough to make a tooth-pick." 14
Cook, however, thought that there was probably more land to the south, because he believed, as did the scientific world of the day, that ice formed only on land. There was, he said, thousands of times too much ice in the ocean for South Georgiathe only southern land he had seen in three yearsto have produced it all. And so, for the first time that summer, Cook sailed south in search of whatever he might find.
On January 31, Cook discovered land just north of 60° S. It was the southern end of the South Sandwich Islands, a 220-mile-long chain of eleven volcanic islands. Fog made it impossible to see this landfall in detail, but thinking that it might be more than simply islands, Cook named it Sandwich Land for Lord Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty. This desolate place offered only ice and rocky cliffs, with virtually no harbors, a prospect that Cook described as "the most horrible coast in the world." 15 He later wrote jointly of this discovery and of South Georgia that they were "lands doomed by nature to everlasting frigidness and never once to feel the warmth of the Suns [sic] rays, whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe. . . ." 16
Cook sailed about the area for a few more days and discovered several more islands, but the fog was unrelenting, and ice held him well off the coasts. On February 6, he ended his explorations and headed north. The South Sandwich Islands were the last land Cook saw until reaching Cape Town seven weeks later.
The world's concept of the far south had to change after Cook's voyage, the first ever high-latitude circumnavigation of the Antarctic regions. Although he had failed to find a Southern Continent, he had set its possible limits. If it did exist, it had to be south of his trackoften south of 60° S. In these latitudes, Cook told the world, all was ice-covered and hostile. There was, he said, nothing of value there. Further exploration would be worthless. His own reports, however, contradicted this assessment. Cook and his men had seen unanticipated riches in the souththe abundant seals and whales of the Southern Oceanand they described them for all to hear. Cook had slain the myth, but his voyage generated a new, and valid, motive for men to venture south.
The First Sealers Arrive in the South
Efforts to exploit the Southern Ocean's wildlife began nearly simultaneously with Cook's return home. Sealing in particular would have major consequences for Antarctic discovery in the nineteenth century. Hunting, however, began with New England whalers, who arrived in the Falkland Islands, on the northern fringe of the Peninsula Region, in the early 1770s. Although there primarily for whales, they quickly realized that the southern elephant seal, especially the blubber-rich adult males that could be as large as three to four tons, were a valuable target as well. Fur sealing then evolved naturally out of elephant sealing, and both forms of sealing soon led hunters south of the Antarctic Convergence, to South Georgia. (The whalers, however, were not among them initially. For them, with whale stocks in the South Pacific and in the Arctic adequate to meet industry demands, there was no need to brave the ice. It would only be near the end of the nineteenth century that whalers would make the first serious attempt to expand their hunt farther south, into the Antarctic.)
The Americans and the British dominated the sealing industry. Although some accounts give the impression that the Americans were the more important of the two through 1818, this largely reflects the fact that more information is available about their efforts. Not only have more American logbooks survived, but several Americans also published narratives about their own voyages. Accurate records for sealers from any country, however, are scarce. This is not entirely accidental. Because the fur sealers typically killed all the animals they found, they were constantly looking for new grounds and tried to keep their discoveries secret, at least until they had exploited each new find.
The first documented pure sealing voyage to the south set sail in 1784. That year, the United States, an American ship out of Boston, went to the Falklands. The captain's original objective was elephant seal oil, but when he reached the islands and saw the great masses of fur seals, he decided to focus on them. His employers, disappointed when the ship arrived in Boston in 1786 with 13,000 fur seal skins rather than the anticipated barrels of elephant seal oil, sold the cargo for $.50 a pelt. The buyer then sent the skins to Calcutta, whence the next purchaser shipped them on to Canton, China, in 1789. There they fetched $5 each. The many American ships in Canton that year carried home the sensational news of the sale. Fur sealing in the Southern Hemisphere took off, and the fur seals of the Falklands, and then farther south, were doomed to near extinction on beach after beach.
John Leard captained a British voyage to the Falklands and the Cape Horn region at roughly the same time as the voyage of the United States. After he returned to London in July 1788 with 6,000 fur seal skins, Leard proposed to the government that the British establish a sealing operation off the southern coast of Patagoniaan industry, he said, that should be controlled, in the interests of conservation. In particular, he wrote of how vital it was "not to kill the Females when with Youngnor should the Young [be taken] until about one Year old. . . ." 17 Although Leard was more concerned with creating a viable long-term industry than he was with saving seals, his ideas were enlightened for the times. The official response, if any, no longer exists. Whatever it was, nothing came of Leard's proposal, either to establish an official British sealing industry off Patagonia or to decree a conservation regime.
In the Falklands, however, private British ships soon joined the Americans taking fur seals. Although the work was relatively simple once a man knew what he was doing, some limited experience was necessary to do the job effectively. Profitable sealing meant knowing where to find the seals, how to kill and skin them, and ways to prepare, preserve, and stow the cargo. Early on, when no one had the requisite knowledge, the sealers had to learn by trial and error.
A splendid example of what could happen when an inexperienced crew set to work was recounted by Edmund Fanning, a 23-year-old Stonington, Connecticut, man who sailed as first mate on the Betsey, a ship that made a fur sealing voyage to the Falklands in 1792. Not only had no one aboard ever been sealing, no one even knew what a fur seal looked like. The first animals these neophyte sealers saw upon landing were sea lions, 300 of them. Thinking they were fur seals, they set right to work. Fanning wrote of what happened next: " 'Sir!' exclaimed Mike [the boatswain], as we were wondering whether our small vessel . . . could carry many thousand such mammoths, 'do you think these overgrown monsters are seals?' Surely they are , he was quickly answered. . . ." Matters grew worse as the men stalked the supposed fur seals. The animals "set forth a roar that appeared to shake the very rocks on which we stood, and in turn advancing upon us in double quick time, without any regard to our persons, knocked every man of us down with as much ease as if we had been pipe stems, and passing over our fallen bodies, marched with the utmost contempt to the water." By then, the men had figured out "to our entire satisfaction, that these were not fur seals." 18 This was Fanning's first sealing voyage, but not his last. He would return many times and become a major figure in the Peninsula Region story.
The hauls by the United States and by Leard's crew were experiments, but successful ones. The inept voyage Fanning experienced was one of the first dedicated American fur sealing ventures. From these and other voyages, American and British shipowners alike recognized the potential for fabulous profits, and began sending out more and more ships explicitly for fur sealing. Their captains soon had to look beyond the Falklands, however, because, as Leard had forecast, uncontrolled slaughter quickly devastated the local fur seal population. One of the first places they moved on to was South Georgia. Before long, dozens of ships were heading there, carrying gangs of sealers who ruthlessly searched the island beaches for seals. A number of these men remained ashore for months at a time, some even through the icy winters, typically living in makeshift shelters created from upturned whaleboats.
South Georgia fur sealing peaked at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The 1801-02 summer saw about 30 ships there, most from New England because the early days of Britain's conflict with France reduced the number of British ships in the sealing trade. But war was not the only factor shrinking the sealing fleet at South Georgia in the years that followed. The sealers had done their work so well, taking more than 1,200,000 fur seals from the island by one contemporary estimate, that few of the animals remained. 19 After the summer of 1801-02, most of the remaining sealers in the Western Hemisphere moved north of the Convergence to the Cape Horn area and to islands off the west coast of South America. There they repeated the slaughter that had already laid waste to the fur seal populations at the Falklands and South Georgia. By 1808, the replacement beaches were themselves nearly bare of seals. The British, swept up in the Napoleonic Wars, had already left the field. Now nearly all the Americans quit as well, and in 1812, the outbreak of a new conflict, this one between Britain and the United States, pulled the few remaining American sealers home.