Episode 40: Antarctica

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For most of human history, Antarctica was more of a concept than a reality. Geographers from ancient times and voyagers in the Age of Discovery supposed there was a continent at the bottom of the world, but no one had actually seen it, and some, like Captain Cook, declared that there was nothing useful down there at all. Then, quite suddenly, at the end of the Second Decade, the envelope of humanity’s geographic knowledge stretched just far enough to enable discovery of the icy islands that lie at Antarctica’s northern tip. Exactly who “discovered” Antarctica is not entirely clear, both because there are differing definitions of what “counts” both as discovery and as Antarctica. But we know it happened in 1819 or 1820, and one of the discoveries coincided with the single deadliest disaster ever to occur on the frozen continent.

In this episode, Dr. Sean Munger will paint the historical context in which the discovery of Antarctica occurred, and he’ll take you onto the ships and into the icy waters of the land at the end of the world to get to the historical truth of what happened there. You’ll meet a reluctant Spanish admiral, a horde of rapacious, blood-soaked seal hunters, you’ll toast the claiming of the continent for the dying King George III several times with rum and spirits, and you may be haunted by the grim discoveries made on one of the world’s most desolate beaches—mysterious echoes of what may have been humanity’s first doomed struggle for survival in Antarctica. This episode also connects with various threads and stories discussed throughout the entire previous run of the Second Decade podcast.

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Additional Materials About This Episode

[Above] A Dutch map drawn in 1570, after Magellan’s voyage but before Drake’s, shows a curious convergence of geography, folklore and speculation in depicting Antarctica—which had not yet been discovered—as a massive “terra australis,” separated from South America by the Strait of Magellan. Drake proved this conception wrong less than a decade later, but Antarctica itself remained unknown until the Second Decade.

[Above] Half Moon Beach, Livingston Island, as seen on Google Maps. The cairn that serves as a monument to the San Telmo crew may be the small dot visible not far from the shore, toward the center of the image.

[Above] Nevil Maskelyne, the British astronomer whose zeal to view the transit of Venus across the disk of the sun eventually led to significant discoveries in the waters around Antarctica. Though Maskelyne hoped to win the British Parliament’s coveted prize for determining longitude at sea, the reward—or at least part of it—was ultimately given to clockmaker John Harrison for his development of the marine chronometer, without which discovery of Antarctica would probably have been impossible.

[Above] Seal hunters at work, later in the 19th century. During the Second Decade, the lucrative trade in seal furs and oil quickly denuded the Falklands and South Georgia Islands of their productive seal populations. This was part of the reason why Antarctica suddenly became attractive, but seal populations were nearly wiped out there too within a few decades.

[Above] The Spanish ship of the line San Telmo, 74 guns, was launched in 1788. Neither its captain, Joaquín de Toledo y Parra, nor the commander of the squadron, Brigadier Rosendo Porlier y Asteguieta, intended to make a voyage of discovery. Their addition to Antarctic history is entirely accidental, and tragic.

Here is a link to the article (in Spanish) on the San Telmo by Luis Molla Ayuso, which was one of the sources for this episode.

[Above] Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, Russian admiral, usually gets the credit for discovering Antarctica. Surprisingly, after von Bellingshausen’s discoveries, the Russians had little use for Antarctica until the next century, when Soviet expeditions began to visit the continent especially after World War II.

[Above] British captain James Weddell was part of the second wave of Antarctic exploration, after the original 1819-1820 discoveries. He was, predictably, mostly in search of seal rookeries.

[Above] Weddell’s ships traverse the icy waters around the Antarctic mainland. It was Weddell’s expedition, in 1821, that discovered the wreckage of the San Telmo, and evidence of human habitation in the area, discoveries that were reconfirmed in 1993. It is unknown how many men from the San Telmo made it to shore, or how long they survived.

All images are believed in to be in the public domain.

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