III. Southern Ice: Voyages to Antarctica


Gathering ice for water for the Astrolabe (detail), from Jules Dumont d’Urville, Voyage au pole sud, 1842-54
(item 23).

Although sealers from both the United States and Great Britain were beginning to probe the Antarctic region by 1820, it wasn’t until 1835 that the Admiralty began to think about sending some vessels to look for the Antarctic continent.  The impetus came from the Royal Society, and from one of its Fellows, Edward Sabine, who had convinced his fellow scientists to embark on a “magnetic crusade”, as he called it.  The goal was to set up magnetic stations all over the globe, to record magnetic variation, declination, and intensity, in the hopes that the earth’s magnetism, which seemed so capricious and inconstant, could be finally understood.  The magnetic poles were of particular interest, and since the north magnetic pole had been located, it seemed only natural to attempt to find the south magnetic pole.  All anyone knew was that it lay in a region south of where Captain Cook had sailed, and it probably was located on the still unknown southern continent.

The “magnetic crusade,” however was actually a European-wide movement, having been first proposed by Alexander von Humboldt of Germany.  Before the British could mount their expedition, the French in 1837 sent out two ships of their own, with the explicit purpose of locating the south magnetic pole.  Hot on their heels in 1838 were the Americans.  They were not much interested in magnetism, but the United States did want to sponsor their first scientific voyage of discovery, and the Antarctic was one of the few areas accessible by sea that was relatively unexplored. The British finally dispatched their ships in 1839.  Antarctica would not yield its secrets easily, as none of these three expeditions actually set foot on the Antarctic continent.  Nor did they locate the desired south magnetic pole.  However, they did map certain stretches of its coastline.  Mostly, however, they discovered how difficult it was to penetrate the pack ice that surrounds Antarctica.


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