"Madhouse at the End of the Earth," | Reviewed by William Winkler
On August 16, 1897, a ship, so laden with fuel and supplies that its deck was only 18 inches above the waterline, departed Antwerp harbor. The Belgica, under the command of Adrien de Gerlache, was bound for the little known and seldom explored continent of Antarctica. The voyage was not merely for the purpose of geographic and scientific research, but also a statement of the newly independent nation of Belgium’s desire to take its place among the community of nations.
The Belgica sailed back into Antwerp harbor two years and three months later. The ship had undergone unimaginable stress and strain. Its crew, those who were still alive and sound of mind, had experienced a voyage unlike any other; they had spent a year trapped in the ice of Antarctica’s Bellinghausen Sea.
“Madhouse at the End of the Earth,” by Julian Sancton, tells the story of the Belgica’s journey. After nearly losing the ship in a storm in the Strait of Magellan on the southern tip of South America, the crew first spotted the Antarctic continent in November 1897, the beginning of Antarctic spring. In March 1898, after miscalculations and poor decisions by Gerlache, the Belgica became trapped in the ice pack, where it would remain for almost a year.
Sancton’s book describes the incredible hardships the crew endured. Until the ship’s doctor discovered that the meat of seals and penguins, eaten nearly raw, could provide needed vitamin C in the diet, the crew suffered from symptoms of scurvy; one died.
The long stretch of sunless days at the heart of the Antarctic winter drove many to the brink of insanity. And the seemingly futile plans to free the ship from the grip of the ice began to sap them of their hope of ever returning to their homes again.
Sancton humanizes most of the crew, and introduces the reader to two colorful officers of the Belgica; Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who would go on to become one of the leading polar explorers, and Frederick Cook, an American doctor who would later serve prison time for concocting a massive Ponzi scheme.
In his research for the book, Sancton had access to the Belgica’s logs as well as the journals kept by a large number of the crew. He traveled to Antarctica to discover firsthand the terrain the crew endured. And he spent countless hours digging through musty documents in Belgian nautical libraries. The result is a skillful piece of narrative non-fiction that recreates both the horrors and accomplishments of the Belgica’s expedition.