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The Discovery of Antarctica

As world first’s go there’s none more important than the discovery of a continent that, before its discovery, had long been considered a myth. The term ‘Antarctica’ was first used in the second century by a Greek geographer, Marinus of Tyre – its meaning unsurprisingly translates to ‘opposite the Arctic’

For many centuries it was imagined that Terra Australis, a name given to this hypothetical southern mass of land that counterbalanced that in the northern hemisphere, existed beyond the known world. It was a belief shared by many scholars since before the time of Christ yet it would be many centuries later before Terra Australis would reveal itself to be just two continents, Australia and, two centuries later, Antarctica.  

Among early claims to the discovery of Antarctica, was the account of a Dutch captain Dirck Gerritsz Pomp, whose ship was blown off course in 1599 whilst navigating his ship, the Blijde Boodschap, around Cape Horn off the southern tip of South America. Four years later there was a similar claim made by a Spanish captain, Gabriel de Castilla. There followed, for the next three centuries, a host of potential candidates.

It’s possible that a number of those claiming to have discovered Antarctica before it was first officially sighted, may have been the true discoverers. However, the one vital element that blew 99% of the claims out of the water, was proof.

A few centuries before the invention of the camera and telecommunications, that meant alternative forms of undeniable documentary evidence. Maps, drawings, pinpoint geographical locations – all would have helped boost the claims made by the list of candidates but without strong evidence their claims became nothing more than mere supposition.

It’s not surprising to learn that subscribers to the belief of each individual claim are made up, in the main, of compatriots of the supposed discoverers. 

Proof though is everything and to the leader goes the prize. The man in command at the helm when proof was actually deliverable, happened to be an Irishman. Edward Bransfield, born in Ballinacurra, County Cork and at the time of his commission, Ship’s master of HMS Andromache,  flagship of the Royal Navy squadron stationed on the west coast of South America.

Whilst on a journey from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso in Chile, William Smith, captain of a merchant brig, Williams, sailing out of Blyth in Northumberland, sighted, on February 19th, 1819, a group of islands after being blown off course during one of his regular trips around Cape Horn. 

The Discovery of Antarctica Tom Crean Book
Among the first reports of William Smith’s discovery – Finn’s Leinster Journal 19th August 1820

On reaching 62 degrees south he became the first man to sight land south of 60 degrees. Being beset by pack-ice and poor visibility, he kept the brig at a safe distance so as not to endanger her. He logged the location of what he had determined were a number of islands and continued on a passage to Valparaiso.

Upon his arrival he sought out the British Navy’s senior representative, Captain William Shirreff, commander of the HMS Andromache, flagship of the South American Station. After disclosing his findings to Shirreff, his account was initially ridiculed and his discovery was dismissed as nothing more than ice-islands. Smith though was not to be deterred and his many years of experience sailing the seas in the south had taught him to distinguish, with ease, between land and an iceberg.

In a second journey Smith made in June 1819, on which he set out to revalidate his discovery, he reached 62 degrees latitude yet once again the ice pack again forced him to retreat. He headed to Montevideo where his declarations of discovering new land were again met with ridicule and disbelief. His proclamations had however, reached the ears of American ship merchants who, with the potential riches to be had, attempted to coerce him into revealing the location. Their attempts fell on deaf ears and Smith remained tight-lipped stating, in patriotic fashion, that he would only reveal the location to an officer of the British.

Heading back out on a voyage to Valparaiso, he again steered the ship to the place of his discovery. On October 15th, 1819, he approached within 4 miles of the land. He confirmed it was indeed an island and was inhabited by a vast population of penguins lining its shores. After taking soundings and encountering more species of Antarctica’s rich wildlife, Smith made a token landing and, as was customary of such findings, he planted a British flag and took possession in the name of his king.

King George Island was later identified as the largest of the group of islands that today make up the archipelago that is known as the South Shetland Islands. 

The Discovery of Antarctica Tom Crean Book
The earliest report of the William Smith’s discovery -Dublin Journal 16th May 1820

On reaching Valparaiso his declarations were now being taken more seriously. The possibility of commercial resources should this discovery be authentic and armed with the knowledge that the Americans were anxious to learn of the location, Captain Shirreff  chartered Williams on which Smith would now be sailing under the command of Edward Bransfield, master of Shirreff’s flagship. With three midshipmen of HMS Andromache and the assistant surgeon of HMS Slaney, Bransfield took command of the refitted Williams and on 20th December, 1819, Smith led him on a course to the location. Bransfield’s brief was to “observe, collect and preserve, every object of natural science during the prosecution of the more important objects of the expedition.”

The Discovery of Antarctica Tom Crean Book
Message in a bottle. Written and signed by Edward Bransfield.

On the morning of 22nd January 1820, boats were hoisted from the Williams to effect a landing on one of the islands. Bransfield took to the whaleboat and ceremoniously planted the Union Jack on its shores. Initially Bransfield gave it the name New South Britain yet this was later changed to New South Shetland. 

The discovery of the Antarctic mainland has, as we know, long been an issue of contention yet firm documentary evidence points convincingly to that prize going to Bransfield who sighted Trinity Land, now the Trinity Peninsula, on January 30th 1820.

As Bransfield was in command of Williams and was directed to the area by Smith, credit for the discovery of the mainland appears a little unfair on the Blyth man and the honour of the discovery deserves to go down in history as a shared one.

Bransfield proceeded to chart the coast and he presented his map and his journal to the Admiralty when he returned to Valparaiso. The journal was later lost yet Bransfield’s charts are today housed in the Admiralty’s Hydrographics Depatment in Taunton, Somerset.

Among the rival claims, which supposedly took place three days earlier on January 27th, 1820, is one made by Russia. 

The Discovery of Antarctica Tom Crean Book
Bellinghausen’s belief that Antarctic continent did not exist – Belfast Newsletter 12th October 1821.

They claim that Captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen, journeying in the sloop-of-war vessel, Vostock, was the first person to sight Antarctica. It is however a claim that can be dismissed by the candidate himself as can be determined in a letter he penned in May 1820, whilst moored in Botany Bay. He later reaffirmed this belief on 15th August 1821.

The Discovery of Antarctica Tom Crean Book
Bellinghausen dismisses the belief that Antarctica exists – Dublin Journal 9th December 1821

Some 47 years earlier on 17th January 1773, HMS Resolution under the command of Captain James Cook, was the first vessel on record to cross the Antarctic Circle. Despite penetrating the ice to 71 degrees south, Cook’s attempts to prove the existence of a Southern Continent ended in  failure yet during his voyages of discovery, a host of new lands were claimed or taken possession of by the Yorkshireman on behalf of his king.

Among these lands would be South Georgia, which, 143 years later, would become the theatre that played host to the penultimate act in the greatest survival and rescue tale in maritime history, one in which Tom Crean would play a primary role.

Cook concluded on his return:

“If anyone should have resolution and perseverance to clear up this point, I shall not envy him the honour of discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefitted by it.”

His words convey a belief that nothing of any commercial value to man lay beyond the bergs and floating ice should a continent exist there.

Cook was wrong, and soon after the discovery of Antarctica the floodgates opened as hundreds of ships flocked there to plunder its wildlife resources. In the course of one year, 350,000 fur seals were killed for their pelts and by 1830 the species had been brought close the the point of extinction. Whales and Elephant seals were also mass hunted for their oil as exploitation and greed took root and deprived the continent of many of its animal inhabitants.

As for the man who discovered Antarctica, his legacy was an obscure one that returns little information on his life after the Navy. Recently, coming up to the bicentenary of his great discovery, a resurgence of interest has led to the search for more information about the Ballinacurra man.

For Edward Bransfield the great pity is that after his return to England, his name never resurfaces such as one would expect in reward for such a notable achievement. No knighthood, little credit and almost total obscurity were to be his destiny. His years in retirement were lived out in Brighton where he passed away in 1852.

Today, in an age where digital content and images can be summoned up at the touch of a keypad, so too can a host of misinformation.

The Discovery of Antarctica Tom Crean BookAdding to the enigma that is Edward Bransfield, no photograph nor portrait of him has ever been discovered yet, continuing the mystery of the man, is an example of misinformation at its finest – a google search for him which returns some outrageous results. 

Among these are a US Navy Captain, Richard Worsam Meade II, (pictured right). More recently we have Karl Benz, (creator of the car that bears the same name – pictured centre) and thirdly,  adding to the catalogue of Bransfield identity hijacks, we have the iconic image of Tom Crean doubling up for his County Cork neighbour. It’s to be hoped for Bransfield, that the coming years will reveal to us an image that will provide him a separate identity – it’s the least this almost forgotten explorer deserves.

Similarly no image exists of William Smith, skipper of the Williams who was also denied proper award for his part in the discovery. Particularly harsh for Smith was that he could no longer continue his trade voyages after returning to England to discover his partners in the ownership of Williams fell upon financial difficulties and had been declared bankrupt. Now left without a ship, it signalled the end of his South Sea odysseys. After a spell working as a river pilot on the Thames, he was later given charge of a whaling ship and Smith would later ply his trade on the Davis Strait, in Greenland. For the role he had been recruited by  James Weddell, a man who would also leave his imprint on Antarctica after venturing there in the wake of its discovery. 

After being denied monetary reward for his discovery by the Admiralty, Smith lived out the remainder of his life in a charity funded almshouse and passed away in 1847.

It’s difficult to comprehend why the two men responsible for such a major discovery – one that had eluded mankind for so much of its existence, would be left with no reward or acclaim for their achievement. Their destiny, with great irony, was to be left out in the cold when they deserved as high a platform as could be afforded them. Unfairly, the fate of both men had more to do with a class system that deemed them both unworthy of such honour. Those plaudits were still, long after the discovery of Antarctica, reserved only for an exclusive set.

©Tim Foley  2020

References used in the compilation of this post are as follows:

The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc, Issues 154-206, Henry Colburn, 1820

The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc, Issues 207-258, Henry Colburn, 1820

Edinburgh Philosophical Journal Volume 3, A. Constable and Company 1820

Newspaper cuttings discovered in

Because of my research Tom Crean's story has changed so do please share the posts.
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