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"BELGICA" AND ANTARCTICA.
Though details are wanting it is clear the Belgian Antarctic expedition, under Lieutenant Gerlache, in which an American, Dr. F.A. Cook, took part, has added considerably to our knowledge of Antarctica in a region which offers as much to the explorer as others more popularly known. The Belgica seems to have cruised along the east cost of what is generally known as Graham Land. and (sic) to have made high latitudes near or to the south of Weddell Sea. Owing to the scantiness of our knowledge of the land and water masses of the Antarctic region the charts are not overburdened with detail. Weddell Sea, mentioned in Dr. Cook's despatches, is, however, on the charts and was named after a British sealer, who, skirting the ice barrier to the southeast of Cape Horn, in 1823, penetrated as far south as latitude 74.15, a little west of longitude 40 west of Greenwich. Weddell was not the first to get so far south, as in 1822 Captain Morrell, a Yankee, had reached 75 south latitude in about the same region. As the experiences of sealers and the character of the ice seem to warrant it, most of the maps of Antarctica, therefore, give a big dip to the South Atlantic Ocean from Weddell Sea (40 west longitude) over to 40 east longitude.
Almost nothing is known of this vast area south of South America and the open Atlantic, since the most recent renewal of interest in Antarctic research centers about the more famous Victoria Land, due south of New Zealand, where the Borchgrevink expedition now has its headquarters. Under the circumstances, then, it is rather fortunate that the Gerlache expedition, instead of sailing west and landing on Victoria Land, as was its intention originally, confined its attention to Graham Land and the adjacent islands. Graham Land itself, which with its outlying islands is the most northerly Antarctic land, was the first Antarctic land to be discovered, and it fell to Captain Palmer, a Yankee whaler, to come across it in 1821. Biscoe in 1831, Bellinghausen in 1832 and D'Arville (sic) in 1837 mapped out the islands and some of the coast, but for over fifty years nothing was done to follow up on their discoveries, and it was left for Captain Larsen, a Norwegian, to steam along 300 miles of the new coast line in 1893.
The reports of Larsen's discoveries, covering as they did geological and botanical phenomena, with a probable trace of human habitation on Seymour island, whetted the appetite of geographical societies the world over. The cruise of the Antarctica in '94-'95 near Victoria Land, when Borchgrevink won his spurs, coming immediately after, naturally made the question of Antarctic exploration an immediate and burning issue in the world of science. And the interest then aroused continues to this day, as both Germany and Great Britain are planning special expeditions for 1900 which should be in a very favorable position to follow up the discoveries of the Gerlache expedition and to profit by the work of Borchgrevink in Victoria Land. The European savants are anxious for the United States to join them in exploration, and, curiously enough, they have allotted to the United States Graham Land and the Weddell Sea region, where the Belgica has just been cruising.
Our associations with Antarctica are such that we might well join in the work of exploration, since to an American Antarctic expedition, that of Captain Charles Wilkes, modern geography owes the rehabilitation of the south polar continent of Magellan. This continent, believed in in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was rather upset by Captain Cook in the eighteenth century and further given a body blow by the famous British explorer, Sir James Clark (sic) Ross, in the 40's. Sir James Ross' disbelief in Antarctica was partly due to his hostility to Captain Wilkes. He had discovered Victoria Land in 1841, just a year after Wilkes had charted a number of points of land between 100 and 160 east longitude and south of latitude 65, which Wilkes called the "Antarctic Continent." As Ross found open water on one place on the chart where Wilkes had incautiously reported land from hearsay, he threw doubt over all his rival's discoveries and carried on an acrimonious controversy. He was so bitter that rather than let his own discoveries bolster up Wilkes' Antarctica he declared that what he found in Victoria Land did not prove the existence of a polar continent, as the land masses might be merely ice-bound islands.
We know now that Ross was wrong. Geological testimony and the number and amazing size of the Antarctic icebergs -- compared with which those of Greenland are but pigmies (sic) -- demand a great continent. As Wilkes stuck to his continent, and as modern discoveries have proved him right, it would be but doing his memory justice were the United States to equip an Antarctic expedition and so help determine the metes and bounds of this wonderful circumpolar land mass, girt with volcanoes, ice-covered to a depth of thousands of feet and exceeding in area the whole of Europe.
Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.
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