Living the life of an Antarctic explorer in the early 19th century was fraught with peril. I’m sitting in the kitchen with a mug of tea and a copy of Let Heroes Speak, Michael Rosove’s accounting of Antarctic Explorers during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, and it’s stirring stuff. I’m currently reading Chapter 3 which recounts the exploits of the brave (or foolhardy) men who sailed south into the ice floes and polar storms that scoured the ocean around the South Orkney, Shetland and other islands in their search for seals.

Wrenching quote:

Eighty-five years after the seal massacres, historian Hugh Robert Mill poignantly portrayed the sadness of the atrocities: “The southern summer of 1820-21 was a dark one for the fur-seals whose ancestors had basked upon the shores of the South Shetlands for untold centuries, following their quaint, semi-civilized life and pursuing their patriarchal customs of war and love undisturbed by any being capable of contending with them…. The killing of seals, perhaps from the total ignorance of the victims of the threatened fate, perhaps from the almost human family affection they display, perhaps from the pathos of their innocent eyes, seems nearer murder than any other form of butchery or sport, and the first assault upon such a tribe of creatures is really painful to think about.”

You might think that being the captain of a sailing vessel made of wood and reinforced with copper siding would mean that your death would usually come about, if come about it must, from having your ship crushed by pack ice. No so! Here are a couple examples of the varied deaths that those brave (or foolhardy) captains succumbed to:

Captain Cook, famous explorer of the globe and braver of thick fogs, snow storms, intense cold, and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous. Accomplished too much to recount here, and ended his days on the sandy shores of Kealekekua Bay, Hawaii, when murdered by natives on the 14th of February, 1779.

A boatload of 10 men under the command of John Rowe was sent to find water and supplies in New Zealand by Cook’s fellow captain, Tobias Furneaux. They landed at Grass Cove, now Whareunger Bay, and disappeared inland to search for wild greens. When they failed to return, a search party was dispatched, and made the ‘gruesome discovery that their mates had been cannibalized by the Maoris.’

Henry Foster, a ‘capable British captain with a scientific background’, explored the South Shetland Islands aboard the Chanticleer from 1828-31. Cause of death: fell into the raging rapids of a river in Panama and was drowned sometime shortly thereafter.

Matthew Brisbane, captain of the Beaufoy, helped Wedell penetrate deep into the southern seas, and discovered that which we now know as Wedell Sea. Cause of death: murdered in 1833 by ‘mutinous gauchos’ during his tenure as head of the British establishment at Port Lewis on East Falkland.

Raging rapids in Panama, murderous uprisings of mutinous gauchos, cannibalization by Maoris–such was the potential fate of an Antarctic explorer back in the day!

Update: Captain Dumont d’Urville voyaged south to the Antarctic in 1840. His hydrographer wrote as they advanced through icebergs:

“Their perpendicular walls towered over above our masts; they overhung our ships, whose dimensions seemed ridiculously diminuitive compared to these enormous masses. The spectacle which presented itself to our gaze was at once grand and terrifying. One could imagine oneself in the narrow streets of a city of giants. At the foot of these immense masses we perceived vast caverns hollowed out by the sea, where waves rushed in with a roar. The sun darted oblique rays on the immense walls of ice, which resembled crystal. The effects of light and shade were truly magical and striking. From the top of these ice mountains there leaped into the sea numerous streams, caused by the apparently very active melting of the snow.”

Dumont d’Urville perished with his wife and son in a fiery train accident near Versailles.