The 1897-99 Belgica expedition, first to overwinter in Antarctic waters: a tale of extraordinary scientific achievements and human endurance

Some 120 years ago Belgium funded an international expedition that departed Antwerp in August 1897. At that time, it was still unknown as to whether Antarctica was a continent and the location of the south magnetic pole was uncharted. The original aim of the Belgica expedition was to overwinter at Cape Adare in Victorialand on the edge of Antarctica. But this did not happen, instead the voyage first led to the chartering of the deep Drake Passage and eventually the discovery of many new islands bordering the Antarctic Peninsula and a new Passageway. There, the expeditioners collected a huge amount of scientific data while also mapping all the islands. Eventually, the vessel continued its voyage westward towards the Bellinghausen Sea where it eventually became trapped in ice for 13 months. After much duress, the expeditioners who had lost two companions successfully returned to Belgium. All the expeditioners gained international fame during the rest of their career.

During the expedition, investigations included biological, geological, geophysical, glaciological,  meteorological and oceanographical studies that became of great importance to science at the time. Many of these investigations continued while the vessel was trapped in sea ice during which time the expeditioners experienced significant illness and deprivation, while also fearing drowning from the possible crushing by movements in the sea ice and some large icebergs.

The numerous scientific reports resulting from the expedition have long been ignored but some of the oceanographic and meteorological investigations nowadays are a very important baseline since knowledge that the Antarctic Peninsula is facing the largest changes and challenges due to global warming. 

I will also briefly mention the overwintering at Cape Adare by Carsten Borchgrevink and the (Belgian-born) Australian Louis Bernacchi that occurred almost a year after the Belgica was trapped in sea-ice. In fact, Bernacchi had been offered a place on the Belgica. Had that ship reached Melbourne as originally planned, Antarctic history would have been different!
The presentation will rely on many archives and photographs taken during the expedition.