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The Belgian Expedition to the Antarctic Regions.

Letter from Dr. Cook

Departure of the Ship Belgica from Rio Janeiro.

The Staff, the Captain and Crew, and What They Hope to Accomplish.

Special Correspondence of The Inter Ocean.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Oct. 30, 1897. --

At last I am on the way to the land which has been the dream of my life -- the mysterious antarctic. I have talked of this journey of exploration so long, have wished for it so persistently, that now when my foremost ambition seems on the verge of realization, I can hardly assure myself that I am not on the road to another of the many disappointments. In three weeks I have covered one-half of the distance in an air line from New York to the south pole, and then, (missing text) the lower edge of the tropics. I awaited the arrival of the good ship Belgica, carrying the expedition with which I expect to cast my fortunes and misfortunes.

On my arrival at Rio de Janeiro the Belgian legation at once looked after my comforts with diplomatic nicety, as they did all the interest of the expedition. The Consular service was at my disposal, and the Minister, Count Van den Steen, offered me the hospitality of his home at Petropolis. The heat at Rio was so intense that after only a day's stay I gladly made Petropolis my home. So at the palatial residence of Count Van den Steen were spent the anxious days awaiting the arrival of the Belgica. The weather was delightful, the temperature never above 70 degrees, and everything about this, the new capital of Brazil, is arranged by nature and by man to bring forth expression of admiration.

After a fortnight of this dreamy tropical life, a telegram announced the arrival of the expedition ship, the Belgica, in the Rio harbor. We took the early morning train and slowly descended the 2,000 feet along several valleys, winding around various hills, down and down on the weird cogwheel railroad, until we reached the head of the bay. Here an old-style sidewheel steamer carried us to Rio de Janeiro. On the pier a delegation appointed by the Belgian colony of Rio de Janeiro met us. They had kindly secured a tug in which we were carried to the Belgica.

The Belgica.

There was nothing about the Belgica to attract unusual attention from a distance. She was rather odd in shape and color, but Rio harbor is full of weird-looking craft. We boarded the Belgica at about 11 o'clock. It was a scorching morning, and as we ascended the sea ladder a cloud of hot vapor rose above us from the moistened decks. The captain, Le Cointe, was at the gangway, and greeted each visitor as the Minister introduced us. Behind him on deck stood the commandant, Lieutenant de Gerlache, at his side the officers and scientific staff, while the crew was stationed on the port side of the quarterdeck.

To me this was a moment of special interest. Here for the first time I met, face to face, the party of total strangers, the members of the Belgian antarctic expedition, with whom I shall remain as companion and coworker for a period of months, perhaps years. I was greeted in a strange tongue - French - not a word of which I understood. One after another came to me asking questions, but I could only look askance at them. After a while I learned that the commandant could speak some English, and all of the scientific staff could speak some German, so we began to exchange ideas in tongues familiar to me. My first impression of the officers and crew was as it is today - decidedly favorable. Every one seems a picture of health, full of youthful vigor, and jolly good-fellowship. The Belgica appeared small, but she is well adapted to the prospective work, and, above all, she is filled brimful with good food - such delicacies as only a Belgian could select. I am sure as we penetrate the antarctic she will seem large enough. She will afford us a safe home and many, very many, comforts, as comforts go in the polar regions.

The Belgica left Ostend, Belgium, on Aug. 24, reached Madeira Sept. 13. From here, after an adjustment of the instruments and some scientific observations, lasting three days, she sailed for Rio de Janeiro. But Rio was not reached until late yesterday afternoon, Oct. 22. the voyage was made against a series of adverse winds and calms, making it necessary to steam a part of the time. The party enjoyed excellent health crossing the tropics, with little sickness.

Plan of the Expedition.

The general plan of the expedition was now for the first time outlined to me by Commandant de Gerlache. Up to the present all my communications had been by cable, and necessarily brief, but now I was able to elicit from the hard-worked projector the prospective plan of our campaign. The Belgica will start from here, after the magnetic instruments are adjusted, for Montevideo, where she will stop pershaps (sic) one day. From Montevideo we will proceed to Punta Arenas, Chili, in the Straits of Magellan.

At Punta Arenas we will make some scientific observations and collections, stopping perhaps eight days. And then, after coaling and restocking our provisions, we will sail for the South Shetland islands, then to Grahamland, and southwestward along its border to the limit of navigation. If time and ice conditions will permit, we will first sail along the eastern shore of Grahamland, and south into Weddell sea. But this journey, tempting as it seems, is now rather doubtful, owing to the short time at our command. From this western terminus of Grahamland, we shall try to map the coast to Alexanderland, and beyond as far as possible. Then we are to press southward and westward to Victorialand, where it is proposed to skirt the coast from Cape Adare to Mounts Erebus and Terror for a landing. If a safe landing can be found, Commandant de Gerlache and three companions will be landed with provisions for a year, a portable house, and a complete equipment for land exploration. The Belgica will then sail or steam for Melbourne to refit and coal, after which she will proceed to the Auklands, the Campbell, and other sub-antarctic islands. Deep-sea soundings and dredgings will be taken wherever the opportunity pressents systematic magnetic and meteorological obeservations will be takend, and large zoological collections are expected. In a general way it is the aim of the expedition to make a thorough scientific survey of the regions traversed. The commander reserves the right to alter any or all plans to suit unexpected conditions as we meet them.

In the afternoon the Minister took Commandant de Gerlache and most of the scientific staff to begin the first of a long series of presentations and introductions to the congenial Brazilian officials. We were first presented to the chief of customs and the Minister of Marine Affairs, from which we derived the two-fold pleasure of being warmly greeted and freed of harbor dues, custom annoyances, and other troublesome local regulations.

Receptions at Rio.

We began the week on Monday by the Presidential reception. The Minister, Count Van den Steen, had arranged the details, and, according to his instructions, we assembled at the office of the Belgian consul shortly after noon. From here we embarked in coaches drawn by small, handsome mules. We were hurried through narrow streets, along an endless number of low houses, plastered outside and in. The door and windows were full of men, women and children, ill at ease, but all doing nothing in various ways.

In half an hour we reached the White House, an imposing and substantial building, constructed from the local schist which everywhere underlies the city. Led by Count Van den Steen, we entered, ascended to the third floor and were marshaled in the President's reception-room, with very little ceremony. The room was handsomely decorated by wall paintings and fresco decorations, probably of Italian design, while the floors were of beautiful inlaid wood, also of foreign manufacture. There were no carpets, little furniture, and the mantels (sic) were covered with artificial flowers and plants.

In a short time the President, Senhor (sic) Prudente, Jose de Moraes, entered. We were presented separately, after which the Minister made a short address, to which the President replied in a few words, and then, grasping our hands, he offered a cheerful greeting to each member of the expedition.

The Belgian colony had long planned a feast for the expedition, and this was the grand event at Rio, to which we looked for real joy and lasting comfort. The time had been set for the evening of the 25th at the Restaurant Petropolis, on Rua de Ovidor. We assembled at 7 o'clock. There were about 100 present. This represented the male members of the colony, the officers and scientific staff of the expedition, and a few newspaper editors.

The room was large and airy. Electric fans were in position, but the air was cool enough without their use. The walls were decorated with flags, and the tables with flowers and fruit. The bill of fare was Belgian - a few local additions to the very best that could be imported from Belgium. This, I am sure, is sufficient said of a very delightful collection of rare foods and good drinks. There was much enthusiastic speechmaking and toasting in French, Portuguese, and Italian, presumably complimentary to Brazil, Belgium, and the expedition, but I did not understand it. The spirit of hilarity, however, was in the air, and, although I was a foreigner, among strangers whose language was unknown to me, I cannot remember having enjoyed a banquet at home better. We had all been wined and dined, separately and collectively before and after, but the occasion which will always remain on our minds as the best treat of all is the Rio Brazilian banquet.

Southward Bound.

The following day, and for the balance of the week, we visited various local places of interest, explored the city in various ways, and were received at a special meeting of the local Geographical society.

Saturday, at 2 o'clock, was set for the time of sailing, and although we appreciated the honors and pleasures conferred upon us by the hospitable Belgians and Brazilians, the appointed time found us all eager to continue our voyage toward the south pole. Many visitors were on board at the last moment. The Minister, with his fatherly interest in the expedition, was there, and the Belgian committee representative of the Rio Geographical society, and various other distinguished visitors were there to bid us "Au revoir" and "Bon voyage."

Among the visitors were a couple of young ladies, who received an unusual share of warm attention from the prospective frigid explorers. A desire to kidnap them as a diversion to break the long monotony of the journey was frequently expressed, and, no doubt, deeply felt, by at least on lonely bachelor. The last visitor was a young Brazilian in a gaudy uniform, who came by a special government launch as a representative of the president. His particular mission was to offer us the President's compliments and his wishes for a successful voyage. This we appreciated as a delightful bit of thoughtfulness on the part of President Moraes.

As we advanced a rather strong wind ruffled up an uncomfortable sea, and as we approached the narrows, which are guarded by two ancient-looking forts, it was deemed best to part with our visitors. The Brazilians hugged and kissed us, as is their custom, the men only, not the ladies. Our good friends, of the Belgian colony offered many cordial greetings, and as the tugs withdrew from us the oft-repeated "Au revoir," and "Bon voyage" came with every leap of the sea.

Our progress against the incoming wind and sea was very slow. But this gave us an excellent opportunity to take a long, parting view of the beautiful Bay of Rio de Janeiro, with all its indescribable splendor. The sun was low, close to the crests of several mountain peaks. We were steaming out of the mouth of the bay, a harbor which is said to be large enough to afford room for the entire naval fleets of the world. On every side were mountains rising abruptly from the waving expanse of blue. Mountains with cliffs and steep slopes, many apparently perpendicular, but all sides nearly covered by a thick, dark green verdure. Only the loftiest peaks were bald, and even these had a few weather-worn trees to add color and life.

But we must be off to less fertile lands -- on to the icy south, stopping only at Montevideo and the Straits of Magellan before we attack the virgin ice south of Cape Horn.


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, OCT. 30, 1897

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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Original Source:
  Chicago Inter Ocean, Chicago, IL. October 30, 1897.  
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  Jennifer Holvoet, University of Kansas.  
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