MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH
The Belgica’s Journey Into the Dark Antarctic Night
By Julian Sancton
On Aug. 16, 1897, the Belgica — a refitted whaling ship under the command of Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery — set sail from Antwerp in an attempt to explore Antarctica. She would limp back to Belgium on Nov. 5, 1899, with a captain and crew profoundly physically and psychologically broken by their two winterings in the Antarctic ice. Advanced scurvy, aggressively poor planning, bad luck, prolonged light deprivation and (potentially) cyanide poisoning had tormented the surviving members of the expedition to the point of complete mental collapse. De Gerlache would spend the next year of his life attempting to regain his health under the sun of the French Riviera. Frederick Cook, the ship’s doctor, and Roald Amundsen, the first mate, despite having themselves suffered tremendous privations and struggles aboard the Belgica, would return almost immediately to sea. Amundsen would go from professional triumph to professional triumph until he and his plane disappeared over the Barents Sea in 1928, while Cook’s dubious claims to have summited Denali in 1906 and to have reached the North Pole in 1908 made him a national punchline, especially after a 1923 conviction for fraudulent oil promotions landed him in prison for seven years.
“Madhouse at the End of the Earth” — Julian Sancton’s exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing account of the Belgica’s disastrous Antarctic expedition — is a narrative of cascading system failures. Anything that could have gone wrong certainly did. The explosives they carried to break through ice had mostly disintegrated by the time they needed them. The lime juice their captain stocked because it was cheaper than lemon juice barely put a dent in the crew’s scurvy. (Limes, while less expensive, were also less helpful.) Ethnic rifts and significant language barriers impeded the crew, despite de Gerlache’s attempt to get more sponsorship money by stacking the deck with as many Belgians as possible. Tensions and miscommunication arose even between fellow countrymen, with differences between “Dutch-speaking Belgians from Flanders versus French-speaking Belgians from Wallonia.” The expedition’s cook only became the cook by beating the tar out of the previous cook, and he himself would be fired and replaced with the captain’s utterly unprepared “personal attendant.” Eventually, even the ship’s cat got depressed and died, as did the Gentoo penguin adopted by the crew.
The crew of the Belgica kept diaries of the expedition, which provide an extraordinary treasure trove for “Madhouse.” Sancton uses the explorers’ personal accounts to tease out the personalities and fears and rivalries of his subjects. They reveal de Gerlache’s constant financial concerns and his fraught professional relationship with the hideous King Leopold II. Cook’s diaries make it clear he joined the expedition as an anthropologist first and a doctor second. Sancton tells us Cook had returned to Brooklyn from a previous voyage with “a dozen or so Greenland dogs, several trunks full of animal skins and two Inuit teenagers, Kahlahkatak and Mikok, whom he called Clara and Willie,” a deeply unsettling aside. Sancton’s insight that the Belgian Antarctic expedition was “sold as a scientific mission, but at its core it was a romantic endeavor” offers an accurate lens through which to view not just this one journey but so much of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration that followed it.
Sancton often takes time away from his increasingly harrowing descriptions of life on the Belgica to admire the ingenuity and bravery that so often comes from necessity, which helps the reader better understand a man like Amundsen, who is never too sick or scared of starving to death to rave about the beauty of the landscape. Cook’s observations about what he termed “polar anaemia,” now more commonly referred to as “winter-over syndrome” and studied extensively by modern researchers, have stood the test of time, as have the occasionally “MacGyver”-esque treatments and protocols he created to keep (most of) the crew alive. These include an early form of light therapy during the many sunless months (stripping the men down and making them stand in front of a roaring fire) and his insistence that the men consume penguin and seal meat to fend off scurvy. Some of these skills he would use decades later to diagnose and treat the same condition in his fellow prisoners at Leavenworth, an only slightly more hospitable environment for humans than the Antarctic ice. There’s more scope in “Madhouse” for dark humor than for general levity, and Sancton knows when to employ it: “Several Midtown Manhattan establishments started serving the ‘Cook Cocktail’ — gin, lemon juice, egg white, maraschino, plenty of ice.”
Although Sancton devotes the latter portion of his book to the post-Belgica exploits of Cook and Amundsen, it’s the blinking, confused return of the crew to civilization that really brings the narrative home. “Attendees swarmed around the men, encircling and suffocating them much as the ice had. A journalist observing the festivities noted that the adventurers looked ‘disoriented’ and ‘unsettled’ by the attention.” They had somehow become heroes and patriots of various nations in their absence, despite failing to set any records or reach the south magnetic pole, and the image of their wobbly disembarking in front of throngs of proud onlookers, first in Punta Arenas and then in Antwerp, reminds one of the end of Edward Lear’s poem “The Jumblies”:
And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And every one said, “How tall they’ve grown!”
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”
The men of the Belgica would soon discover that they themselves had returned to a very different world from the one they had left. While they had been trapped in the ice and choking down slabs of lightly seared penguin meat, Marconi had developed the first wireless telegraph, the Dreyfus affair had been widely reported on and, as Sancton puts it, the Spanish-American War had been “declared, fought and settled in their absence.”
Upon the crew’s return, men and women alike appeared unsettled by the presence of the expedition’s survivors, which confused the explorers until Cook had access to a mirror again and saw what the civilians saw at a single glance: “Our skins were rough, like nutmeg-graters; and our hair was long, stubborn and liberally lined by bunches of gray, though the eldest among us was less than 35 years of age.”
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