Adrien de Gerlache (1866-1934)
Baron Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery was an officer in the Belgian Royal Navy who led the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897–99 (BAE). The BAE was the first expedition to overwinter within the Antarctic Circle, after the ship was icebound in the Bellingshausen Sea. It collected the first annual cycle of Antarctic observations, reached 71°30’S, and discovered the Gerlache Strait. The BAE was also the first expedition of what has come to be called the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic Exploration (1897-1917), when international focus on the Antarctic continent resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration.
Early Years and Expedition Roots
From a young age de Gerlache was deeply attracted to the sea. He first worked as a cabin boy on an ocean liner and later joined the Belgian Navy. Longing for more adventurous work, he started planning an Antarctic expedition. He proposed his plan in 1894 to the Royal Geographical Society, and purchased a Norwegian-built whaling ship, which he re-fitted and renamed the Belgica.
The expedition set sail from Antwerp on 16 August 1897. Amongst the crew were Roald Amundsen, later to be the first man to sail the North West Passage and also to reach the South Pole; Frederick A. Cook a man who would later claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole; and a cat named after famed Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.
Exploration and Discoveries
During January 1898, the Belgica reached the coast of Graham Land. They sailed between the coast and a long string of islands to the west, making no less than twenty separate landings, as well as charting and naming the islands of Brabant, Liège, Anvers and, in memory of the sailor lost at sea, Wiencke Island. De Gerlache named the passage Belgica Strait. Later, it was renamed Gerlache Strait in his honor.
Heading southwest, the Belgica crossed the Antarctic Circle on February 15 and on February 28, became trapped in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea, near Peter Island. Despite efforts of the crew to free the ship, they quickly realized that they would be forced to spend the winter on Antarctica.
Overwinter and Escape from the Pack Ice
Many months of hardship followed. Attempts to free the ship and its crew from the clutches of the ice failed. Lt. Danco fell ill from a heart condition and died. Danco Island was named after him. Several men lost their sanity, including one Belgian sailor who left the ship “announcing he was going back to Belgium”. The party also suffered badly from scurvy. De Gerlache and Captain Lecointe became so ill that they wrote their wills.
Frederick Cook and the First Mate, Roald Amundsen, took command. Vitamin C was not discovered until the 1920s but Cook was convinced that fresh meat was the cure for scurvy due to his experiences with Robert Peary in the Arctic. He insisted that each man eat some penguin or seal meat each day and slowly the men all recovered their health.
By January 1899 the Belgica was still trapped in ice about 7 feet (2.1 m) thick and the possibility of another winter in the ice was becoming real. Open water was about half a mile away and Cook suggested that trenches should be cut to the open water to allow the Belgica to escape the ice. For the next few weeks, working day and night, the crew chopped and sawed their way through the ice towards the ship. Finally, on 15 February 1899, they managed to slowly start down the channel they had cleared.
It took them nearly a month to cover seven miles. On 14 March, 13 months after their initial entrapment, they cleared the ice. The expedition returned to Antwerp on 5 November 1899. In 1902, de Gerlache’s book Quinze Mois dans l’Antarctique (Fifteen Months in the Antarctic, published in 1901) was awarded a prize by the Académie Française.
De Gerlache made a number of important expeditions to the Arctic, among them Greenland in 1905 and 1909 and the Barents and Kara Seas in 1907. He assisted Ernest Shackleton with the organization of Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic expedition of 1914-17. De Gerlache sold him his yacht which Shackleton renamed the Endurance.