Madhouse at the end of the Earth The Belgica's journey into the dark Antarctic night

Julian Sancton

Book - 2021

"The harrowing true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry-with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter-in the tradition of David Grann, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Hampton Sides. In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. ...But de Gerlache's plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the commandant faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. De Gerlache sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellingshausen Sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship's occupants were condemned to months of endless night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness. In this epic tale, Julian Sancton unfolds a story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica's men teetered on the brink, de Gerlache relied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity: the expedition's lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook - half genius, half con man - whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship's first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the storybook picture of a sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice-one that would either etch their names in history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean's bottom. Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica's crew and with exclusive access to the ship's logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep"--

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Subjects
Published
New York : Crown 2021.
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Physical Description
viii, 350 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN
9781984824332
1984824333
Main Author
Julian Sancton (author)
Review by Booklist Reviews

In the grand tradition of such devastating polar histories as Andrea Pitzer's Icebound (2021) and Hampton Sides' In the Kingdom of Ice (2014), journalist Sancton provides a hair-raising study of Belgium's Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897–99. Best-known for being the first crew to winter in the forbidding, uninhabited region, the group included later-to-be-famous Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook. As Sancton graphically describes, however, the journey was also significant for its reported cases of polar madness, which afflicted some of the men while their ship, Belgica, was trapped in the ice. Drawing on an impressive array of materials, the author shows how the Belgica endeavor was yet another example of careful planning that quickly went awry as physical illness, natural disaster, and a breakdown in command derailed every good intention. The miracle here is that anyone survived, which was due in no small part to Amundsen and Cook. Sancton smartly focuses on these two men who would go on to legendary (in ways both good and bad) careers. This compelling narrative of an overlooked expedition is a sure-fire winner for armchair explorers. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

This well-written, entertaining account of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99), rooted in primary sources, is the first to appear in English since Through the First Antarctic Night (1900), written by the expedition's surgeon, Frederick Cook. In contrast to an unflattering portrait of expedition leader Adrien de Gerlache, the book gives Cook, then soon to be infamous, and Roald Amundsen, the ship's second officer and later world-famous explorer, top billing. Although in his note on sources, Sancton, a journalist, openly questions Cook's accounts' credibility, the narrative leans heavily on Cook's published book as well as his very dubious later recollections. Amundsen's voice is heard mostly through his contemporaneous diaries. Perhaps to justify its hyperbolic title, the volume maintains a novelistic straining for effect, resulting in passages with a precise level of detail that could not possibly be gleaned from the original sources. In fact, the most interesting new bits of information contained here cannot be verified from published primary accounts either, and the complete absence of specific citations detracts from this title's value to academic library collections. A reprint of Cook's classic, colorful, and equally literary eyewitness account remains a viable alternative. Summing Up: Optional. General readers and undergraduates.--R. M. Bryce, independent scholarRobert M. Bryceindependent scholar Robert M. Bryce Choice Reviews 59:09 May 2022 Copyright 2022 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99) carried the first humans to ever spend the winter in Antarctica. The expedition's research vessel Belgica was trapped in polar ice for over a year, forcing the multinational crew of sailors and scientists to withstand crushing pack ice, subzero temperatures, and extreme isolation. During the months-long polar night, they fended off scurvy by scarfing raw penguin meat. Stuck in their claustrophobic quarters, they bickered, scribbled letters to each other, and battled mental and physical deterioration. Most—but not all—overcame the odds and survived. Sancton (editor, Departures) gives this extraordinary saga its first book-length treatment. Blue-blooded Adrien de Gerlache battled guilt over his men's plight and his own shortcomings as leader of Belgium's first polar expedition. Stoic Norwegian first mate Roald Amundsen (eventually the first explorer to visit the North and South Poles) befriended American physician and ethnographer Frederick Cook. With mock solemnity, Cook and Amundsen formed the Order of the Penguin, to which they invited the expedition's caring but firm Belgian second-in-command, Georges Lecointe. VERDICT Belying its sensational title, this detail-rich account is a sober and humane chronicle of relationships among the explorers and their struggle for survival in the long polar night. Armchair travelers will enjoy.—Michael Rodriguez, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Journalist Sancton debuts with a riveting account of the first polar expedition to spend the winter south of the Antarctic Circle. Setting out from Antwerp in August 1897 with plans to reach the magnetic south pole, the Belgian steam whaler Belgica ran aground and nearly sank in the Beagle Channel, lost a sailor overboard, and narrowly avoided a mutiny—all before reaching Antarctica. During the Antarctic summer, the expedition's scientists collected more than 100 previously unknown specimens and discovered unmapped features of the Antarctic coast line. Running far behind schedule, the ship's commandant, Adrien de Gerlache, decided to push farther south as winter approached, entrapping the Belgica in ice with the intention of resuming the journey once temperatures warmed. Vividly recreating the crew's boredom, disorientation, fatigue, depression, and hysteria during their 13-month ordeal, Sancton focuses on the expedition's American doctor, Frederick Cook, whose prescription of daily seal or penguin meat helped the crew stave off scurvy, and Norwegian first mate Roald Amundsen, who became a legendary polar explorer thanks, in part, to the lessons he learned on the Belgica. Though the prose occasionally tips over into the melodramatic, this is a well-researched and enthralling portrait of endurance and escape. Agent: Todd Shuster, Aevitas Creative Management. (May) Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Journalist Sancton debuts with a riveting account of the first polar expedition to spend the winter south of the Antarctic Circle. Setting out from Antwerp in August 1897 with plans to reach the magnetic south pole, the Belgian steam whaler Belgica ran aground and nearly sank in the Beagle Channel, lost a sailor overboard, and narrowly avoided a mutiny—all before reaching Antarctica. During the Antarctic summer, the expedition's scientists collected more than 100 previously unknown specimens and discovered unmapped features of the Antarctic coast line. Running far behind schedule, the ship's commandant, Adrien de Gerlache, decided to push farther south as winter approached, entrapping the Belgica in ice with the intention of resuming the journey once temperatures warmed. Vividly recreating the crew's boredom, disorientation, fatigue, depression, and hysteria during their 13-month ordeal, Sancton focuses on the expedition's American doctor, Frederick Cook, whose prescription of daily seal or penguin meat helped the crew stave off scurvy, and Norwegian first mate Roald Amundsen, who became a legendary polar explorer thanks, in part, to the lessons he learned on the Belgica. Though the prose occasionally tips over into the melodramatic, this is a well-researched and enthralling portrait of endurance and escape. Agent: Todd Shuster, Aevitas Creative Management. (May) Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"The harrowing true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry-with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter-in the tradition of David Grann, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Hampton Sides. In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a threeyear expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. But de Gerlache's plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the commandant faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. De Gerlache sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellingshausen Sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship's occupants were condemned to months of endlessnight. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness. In this epic tale, Julian Sancton unfolds a story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica's men teetered on the brink, de Gerlacherelied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity: the expedition's lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook-half genius, half con man-whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship's first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the storybook picture of a sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice-one that would either etch their names in history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean's bottom. Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica's crew and with exclusive access to the ship's logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep"--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Drawing on the Belgica’s crew’s diaries and journals and exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, an epic tale of a polar expedition that went terribly awry follows the crew, as they, condemned to months of endless night and plagued by a mysterious illness, descend into madness. Illustrations.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The “exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing” (The New York Times) true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry—with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter“The energy of the narrative never flags. . . . Sancton has produced a thriller.”—The Wall Street Journal In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. But de Gerlache’s plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the commandant faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. De Gerlache sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellingshausen Sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship’s occupants were condemned to months of endless night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness.In Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton unfolds an epic story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica’s men teetered on the brink, de Gerlache relied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity: the expedition’s lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook—half genius, half con man—whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship’s first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the storybook picture of a sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice—one that would either etch their names in history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean’s bottom.Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica’s crew and with exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep.