Welcome back to the Marquess Magpie‘s next entry in the series „people dying on the ice and/or mountains“. This time, we are following the crew of the Belgica into the Antarctic night.
It is the age of polar exploration, and Belgian Navy officer Adrien de Gerlache decides to lead an expedition to the Antarctic to make his nation proud. One of the expedition‘s goals was to reach the (magnetic) South Pole. And oh my, during their journey things go south indeed.
They were not even anywhere close to the South Pole before some of the crew members started brawling and they had to get rid of their cook. The beginning of the book therefore has a bit of a boys will be boys vibe. They also lose one of the crew members quite early on during a storm.
The book mainly follows the commander de Gerlache, the ships’s surgeon Frederick Cook and first mate Roald Amundsen. Having read an abbreviated version of Amundsen‘s account of his later expedition to the South Pole, it was very interesting to see everyone‘s favourite viking in his younger years. These characters are what makes the story so very interesting. Cook and Amundsen developed a kind of bromance, tinkering with the exploration gear and going on skiing excursions together.
When faced with the decision to either abort the expedition or to let the ship get trapped in the ice, possibly for months, de Gerlache made the conscious decision to stay. He would hate to come home and be known as a quitter. His desire for fame and glory by far outweighed his instinct for self-preservation, and his crew didn‘t get to have a say at all.
Trapped in the ice, every night got longer and longer, until the sun disappeared for seventy days. One can only imagine what this does to your mental health. The ones being least affected were Cook and Amundsen, taking it as a chance to prepare even harder for future expeditions. Amundsen, the weirdo, almost seems to be having fun. But soon they had to face the fact that – not unlike punk – scurvy‘s not dead.
Thanks to the primary sources Julian Sancton used, this feels like a very close and accurate account of the story while offering different perspectives. The description of the preparation phase was a bit slow, but once the crew got on board the story really took off. The German translation was great and for once did not feel clunky at all.
5 / 5 Magpies – ice, death and madness all the way. Remember to eat your penguin meat.