Madhouse at the End of the Earth tells the story of Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery’s eccentric Belgian Antarctic Expedition, which set sail from Europe in August 1897, intent on becoming the first scientific enterprise to reach the South Pole. Perhaps predictably, it didn’t work out. The team instead became the first to overwinter in the Antarctic; not all of the crew returned.
The book’s cover shows the three-masted steam whaler RV Belgica locked fast in pack ice, the scene radiating an eerie, twilit chill. ‘They were sailing through an empty map,’ observes author Julian Sancton of the time immediately before the ship became stuck.
On rare occasions, Captain Lecointe was able to glimpse the stars and fix the ship’s position. ‘In reality, however, we are as hopelessly isolated as if we were on the surface of Mars, and we are plunging still deeper and deeper into the white Antarctic silence,’ wrote Dr Cook, the expedition’s true hero. The fact that so many of the crew survive is really down to his brilliance. Explorer, medic, sociologist, inventor, fraudster, photographer (the cover shot is his), he was the man who saved the ship’s company from scurvy and psychosis.
Sancton’s telling of the Belgica’s jam reads like a thriller. His extensive research is tangible in the text and he has the appealing habit of ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. There are plenty of surprises, too. The Belgica’s first mate was a young Norwegian named Roald Amundsen, who spends much of the voyage jotting down personal milestones and notes about how he’ll do things differently when his turn comes. ‘Unfortunately, the scientists are very frightened,’ runs a diary entry on the eve of de Gomery’s impulsive and unilateral decision to sail south and entomb the ship in pack ice – almost as if the scientists who had been specifically promised that this wouldn’t happen because it was suicide were being unreasonable wimps. ‘Amundsen could surely tell that his high spirits made him an exception on board,’ writes Sancton.
The author’s mix of reportage and novelistic reconstruction keeps the story rolling, even in the frozen doldrums of a months-long polar night. For all the expedition’s early farce, the human tragedy of the venture hits home and the shadows cast on the survivors are revealed to be long and lasting.
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