Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night


The harrowing story of a 19th century Antarctic expedition that became trapped in the ice for more than a year is told in a fascinating new book.  

Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night, by Julian Sancton, documents the fate of the Belgica, a ship that set sail from Antwerp, Belgium, on August 16, 1897, with an international crew on board. 

What began as a bold mission in the name of science became a struggle for survival. The men battled blizzards, hunger, depression, and rats, some became inconsolable, some mad, while others were consumed by a mysterious malady that turned them into living corpses.  

In writing and researching the book, Sancton was given an exclusive access to the ship’s logbooks and letters and to the original photos taken onboard by one of the crew.

Here, in a piece written exclusively for MailOnline, Sancton shares some of the startling images included in his book, while introducing the expedition and its legacy…    

Full of hope: The Belgica anchored at Antwerp, on the River Scheldt, before her August 1897 departure

Cook (left) and Roald Amundsen, the Belgica¿s first mate, would go on to become world-famous polar explorers in their own right. As their ailing companions remained on the ship, the two of them went on regular adventures across the pack ice

Cook (left) and Roald Amundsen, the Belgica’s first mate, would go on to become world-famous polar explorers in their own right. As their ailing companions remained on the ship, the two of them went on regular adventures across the pack ice 

Ludvig Johansen plays the accordion and Adam Tollefsen (far right) sits at the table. The other three men have been identified as Jules Melaerts, Antoni Dobrowolski, and Johan Koren, though their unkempt, post-wintering appearance makes it difficult to say who is who

The men of the Belgica suffered tremendous mental strain during the sunless winter. Two experienced serious psychotic episodes, and one, Adam Tollefsen, never recovered his reason

Cook, who refused to cut his hair during the expedition

The men of the Belgica suffered tremendous mental strain during the sunless winter. Two experienced serious psychotic episodes, and one, Adam Tollefsen, (left) never recovered his reason. Right, Cook, who refused to cut his hair

Despite the summer sun, the floe that held the Belgica showed no sign of shrinking. Certain that the men would not survive a second wintering, Cook and de Gerlache devised a wild plan to saw through more than a mile¿s worth of ice to liberate the ship

Despite the summer sun, the floe that held the Belgica showed no sign of shrinking. Certain that the men would not survive a second wintering, Cook and de Gerlache devised a wild plan to saw through more than a mile’s worth of ice to liberate the ship

The Belgica caught in the Antarctic pack ice, 1898. It would be trapped for more than a year before crew were able to free it

The Belgica caught in the Antarctic pack ice, 1898. It would be trapped for more than a year before crew were able to free it

The layout of the Belgica, with officers¿ quarters at the stern, laboratories amidships, and crew quarters in the forecastle, belowdecks. From ¿Fragments du récit de voyage,¿ by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, part of Résultats du voyage de la Belgica en 1897-99 sous le commandement de A. de Gerlache de Gomery, 1936

The layout of the Belgica, with officers’ quarters at the stern, laboratories amidships, and crew quarters in the forecastle, belowdecks. From “Fragments du récit de voyage,” by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, part of Résultats du voyage de la Belgica en 1897-99 sous le commandement de A. de Gerlache de Gomery, 1936

On August 16, 1897, a three-mast barque called the Belgica left Antwerp, Belgium, and set sail for Antarctica. Commanded by the young naval lieutenant Adrien de Gerlache, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition was to be the first purely scientific mission to the southernmost continent.

What began as an effort to chart the little-known polar regions, document their flora and fauna and geology, and reach the south magnetic pole turned into an epic struggle for survival after de Gerlache sailed the Belgica deep into the pack ice of the Bellingshausen Sea.  

The ship was stuck fast for more than a year and her men became the first to endure the physical and mental torture of winter south of the Antarctic Circle.

Intended as a patriotic endeavor that would redound to the glory of Belgium, the expedition became international by default when de Gerlache failed to find enough willing and capable Belgians to fill out the ranks. 

Among the Belgica’s 24 men were not only Belgian sailors—an unruly bunch, several of which would later be kicked off the ship for fomenting mutiny—but also Norwegian seamen, Eastern European scientists, and an American doctor. 

Two of the Belgica’s survivors would become legends of polar exploration. One was the first mate, Roald Amundsen, who in 1912 led the first expedition to the South Pole, beating Robert Falcon Scott by a few weeks. The other was the aforementioned doctor, Frederick Cook.  

Commandant Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery

Frederick Albert Cook, the expedition¿s surgeon, ethnologist, and photographer

Commandant Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery (left) Frederick Albert Cook, the expedition’s surgeon, ethnologist, and photographer (right)

The equator-crossing ceremony aboard the Belgica, on October 6, 1897. Albert Lemonnier, the expedition¿s cook, wields a wooden ¿razor¿ to shave initiates

The equator-crossing ceremony aboard the Belgica, on October 6, 1897. Albert Lemonnier, the expedition’s cook, wields a wooden “razor” to shave initiates

First mate Roald Amundsen

The Belgica¿s captain, Georges Lecointe

First mate Roald Amundsen (left). Right, the Belgica’s captain, Georges Lecointe

Three Ona women, photographed by Cook in Tierra del Fuego Cook was also the expedition¿s designated anthropologist. His images of the lost tribes of Tierra del Fuego, such as the Selk¿nam women shown here, vividly document bygone ways of life

Cook was also the expedition’s designated anthropologist. His images of the lost tribes of Tierra del Fuego, such as the Selk’nam women shown here, vividly document bygone ways of life 

Norwegian sailor Carl August Wiencke, age nineteen

De Gerlache, his face bloated with scurv

Norwegian sailor Carl August Wiencke, age nineteen (left). Right, De Gerlache, his face bloated with scurv

Frederick Cook photographed the Belgica in the Gerlache stait, a sublime channel along the Antarctic peninsula, named after the expedition¿s commandant, Adrien de Gerlache

Frederick Cook photographed the Belgica in the Gerlache stait, a sublime channel along the Antarctic peninsula, named after the expedition’s commandant, Adrien de Gerlache 

Trapped in the ice and madness in the winter sun: What happened to the Belgian Antarctic Expedition? 

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition was the first expedition to winter in the Antarctic region.

Led by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, then in his early 30s, it is considered the first expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Among its members were Frederick Cook and Roald Amundsen, who would later become famed polar explorers.

The Belgica left Antwerp in August 1897. En route to the Antarctic, the expedition visited Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, and Montevideo. American Cook joined the expedition in Rio.    

In January 1898, Belgica reached Graham Land, on the Antarctic Peninsula. After charting and naming several islands from some 20 different landings, the expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle on February 15, 1898. 

However the expedition failed to find a way into the Weddell Sea in time and became trapped in the ice of the Bellinghausen Sea, near Peter I Island.

Despite the crew’s efforts to free Belgica, they were trapped for the duration of the Antarctic winter.  

Unlike later expeditions, the Belgica was not fully equipped for the desperate situation the crew found themselves in. There was not enough winter clothing, there was a shortage of food, and what food there was lacked nutritional value. 

In May, the perpetual darkness of polar night set in and the crew did not see daylight again until July 23, 1898. 

The men succumbed to illness. Two experienced serious psychotic episodes.   

Several months of hardship followed. Even as spring and summer arrived, the crew were unable to free the ship from the ice. 

Cook eventually suggested that trenches be cut to the open water roughly a mile away to allow the Belgica enough room to escape. The crew used dynamite and tools to create a channel. 

On 15 February, 1899, Belgica started down the channel. It cleared the ice a month later and returned to Antwerp on November 5, 1899.  

Despite his indisputable heroics aboard the Belgica, he is remembered today as a confidence man who falsely claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1908 and served seven years in prison for running an elaborate Ponzi scheme. 

Cook also served as the photographer of the expedition. His photographs are among the first ever taken of the continent. 

Using a custom-made Zeiss lens, Cook took spectacular images of the Antarctic landscape and wildlife, and of the ship trapped in the pack ice. He was also the expedition’s designated anthropologist. His photographs of the lost tribes of Tierra del Fuego, as well as of his own shipmates as they fell prey to illness and insanity, reveal his deeply humanistic eye.

During their icy imprisonment, the men were stricken by a mysterious polar malaise, compounded by scurvy and likely beriberi disease. Among those who suffered the most was de Gerlache himself. 

One possible cause might have been Cook’s unorthodox method for developing his photographs. Having run out of fixer solution, Cook experimented with baths of hydrocyanic acid, a highly poisonous substance used to euthanize animals to keep as specimens. (It was also the active ingredient in Zyklon B, used in Nazi gas chambers.)

The scientists in their labs. Pictured: Romanian naturalist Emile Racovitza

Polish geologist and meteorologist Henryk Arctowski

The scientists in their labs. Right: Romanian naturalist Emile Racovitza. Right: Polish geologist and meteorologist Henryk Arctowski

Racovitza¿s cartoons lampooned life on the Belgica. Here, Arctowski admires an aurora australis that spells out s**t

Racovitza’s cartoons lampooned life on the Belgica. Here, Arctowski admires an aurora australis that spells out s**t

Second engineer Max Van Rysselberghe melts snow for drinking water under the shelter built amidships

Second engineer Max Van Rysselberghe melts snow for drinking water under the shelter built amidships

De Gerlache and an emperor penguin captured on the pack ice

Amundsen on skis, with freshly slaughtered Adélie penguins.

De Gerlache and an emperor penguin captured on the pack ice (left). De Gerlache found penguin meat revolting, and his refusal to eat it only worsened the effects of scurvy. Right, Amundsen on skis, with freshly slaughtered Adélie penguins

Sailor Johan Koren dissects an emperor penguin in the wardroom

Sailor Johan Koren dissects an emperor penguin in the wardroom

Lecointe on wash day (left)

Lieutenant Emile Danco, de Gerlache¿s childhood friend and the expedition¿s magnetician

Lecointe on wash day (left). Right, Lieutenant Emile Danco, de Gerlache’s childhood friend and the expedition’s magnetician

While Cook was careful never to remain in the darkroom for long, the toxic fumes would have had nowhere to escape except through de Gerlache’s adjacent cabin. 

The early signs of low-grade cyanide poisoning resemble the symptoms de Gerlache—and several others— experienced on board the Belgica, including headaches, fatigue, erratic heart rate, vertigo, and confusion.

But if Cook accidentally put his shipmates at risk, he was widely credited with saving (most of) their lives.

He prescribed a diet of fresh penguin and seal meat to cure them of scurvy and devised the first known instance of light therapy to combat their profound depression. 

Finally, it was at his insistence that the winter-weakened men devised a last-ditch plan to saw through more than a mile’s worth of meter-thick ice to liberate the ship.

His ingenious interventions, particularly the regular psychological surveys he conducted, have inspired NASA’s plans for manned missions to Mars, a distant and hostile environment in many ways comparable to Antarctica at the turn of the 20th century.

Cook’s photographs remain invaluable documents of the expedition that kicked off the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, setting the stage for polar heroes like Robert Falcon Scott, Douglas Mawson, and Ernest Shackleton.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton is published on 27 May by WH Allen (Penguin) 

An excursion to an iceberg caught in the pack not far from the Belgica

An excursion to an iceberg caught in the pack not far from the Belgica

From left: Engelbret Knudsen, Jan Van Mirlo (looking at camera), Gustave Dufour (far end of table)

From left: Engelbret Knudsen, Jan Van Mirlo (looking at camera), Gustave Dufour (far end of table)

Cook¿s ¿masterpiece,¿ taken by moonlight on June 3, 1898, with an exposure time of an hour and a half

Cook’s “masterpiece,” taken by moonlight on June 3, 1898, with an exposure time of an hour and a half

De Gerlache in his cabin, where he spent much of his time as sickness took hold of him

De Gerlache in his cabin, where he spent much of his time as sickness took hold of him

Sledging and camping equipment, including Cook¿s ingenious design for a wind-deflecting conical tent

Sledging and camping equipment, including Cook’s ingenious design for a wind-deflecting conical tent

Dinner in the wardroom. From left: Arctowski, Amundsen, Lecointe, Racovitza, and de Gerlache

Dinner in the wardroom. From left: Arctowski, Amundsen, Lecointe, Racovitza, and de Gerlache

Amundsen, left, and Arctowski, preparing sticks of tonite explosives in the Belgica¿s wardroom

Amundsen, left, and Arctowski, preparing sticks of tonite explosives in the Belgica’s wardroom

Clearing what the men hope to be a way out of the pack. Some pans of ice weighed several times as much as the ship herself

Clearing what the men hope to be a way out of the pack. Some pans of ice weighed several times as much as the ship herself

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