How the Russians discovered Antarctica

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How the Russians discovered Antarctica
How the Russians discovered Antarctica

On January 28, 1820, the ships of the Russian fleet "Vostok" and "Mirny" under the command of Thaddeus Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev approached the coast of Antarctica. Unable to land ashore because of the ice, the mariners set about hunting penguins and painstakingly describing their adventures.

Disciple of Kruzenshtern and participant in the war with Napoleon

The hypothesis of the existence of the Southern Land was put forward by ancient geographers and was supported by medieval scholars. A certain "Antarctic region" was mentioned by Aristotle in the middle of the 4th century BC. Ancient Greek cartographer Marin of Tire in the 2nd century AD NS. used this name on a world map that has not survived to this day.

Since the 16th century, the Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias and Fernand Magellan, the Dutchman Abel Tasman and the Englishman James Cook have been searching for Antarctica. The Italian Amerigo Vespucci had conjectures about the presence of a large unexplored land. The expedition in which he took part could not advance beyond South Georgia Island. Vespucci wrote about this: "The cold was so strong that none of our flotilla could bear it." And Cook, after unsuccessful attempts to find the southern continent, said: “I can safely say that no man will ever dare to penetrate further south than I was able to. The lands that may be in the south will never be explored."

It fell to the Russian navigators Thaddeus Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev to refute this statement.

When the naval ministry of the Russian Empire planned an expedition to the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, the choice fell on these people for a reason. Bellingshausen was older and more experienced, he sailed around the world on the ship "Nadezhda" under the command of Ivan Kruzenshtern. Lazarev, on the other hand, had a serious combat experience, having managed to take part in the wars with Sweden and Napoleonic France. At the age of 25, he commanded the frigate "Suvorov", which made a circumnavigation, visited Russian America and met with the ruler of the local settlements, Alexander Baranov.

The beginning of the voyage

Kruzenshtern took an active part in the preparation of the project, believing that the expedition to the South Pole could reach more southern latitudes than Cook had previously. With a detailed plan of the mission, he turned to the Minister of the Navy. Clarifying the tasks of the detachment, Kruzenshtern wrote that “this expedition, in addition to its main goal - to explore the countries of the South Pole, should especially have in the subject matter of checking everything that is wrong in the southern half of the Great Ocean and replenishing all the shortcomings in it, so that it can be recognized as say, the final journey to this sea. We must not allow the glory of such an enterprise to be taken away from us."

He pointed out the importance of selecting a team, appointing natural scientists, providing the expedition with physical and astronomical instruments, and recommended Bellingshausen, who had "rare knowledge of astronomy, hydrography and physics" as the chief.

"Our fleet, of course, is rich in enterprising and skillful officers, but of all these, whom I know, no one, except for Vasily Golovnin, can equal Bellingshausen," Kruzenshtern emphasized.

On July 16 (new style), 1819, an expedition of two sloops under the command of Captain 2nd Rank Bellingshausen left Kronstadt for Rio de Janeiro.

Since the government forced the action, the selected ships were not designed to sail in high latitudes. The crews were manned by volunteer naval sailors. The sloop "Vostok" was commanded by Bellingshausen, the sloop "Mirny" - by Lieutenant Lazarev. The participants also included the astronomer Ivan Simonov and the artist Pavel Mikhailov.

The purpose of the expedition was the discovery "in the possible proximity of the Antarctic Pole."By the instructions of the Minister of the Sea, mariners were instructed to explore South Georgia and the Land of Sandwich (now the South Sandwich Islands) and "continue their exploration to the distant latitude that can be achieved", using "all possible diligence and the greatest effort to reach as close to the pole as possible, looking for unknown lands ".

Both commanders were pretty annoyed by the problems with the ships, which they did not hesitate to report in their notes. The Vostok's hull was not strong enough to navigate the ice. Numerous breakdowns and the almost constant need to pump water exhausted the team. Nevertheless, the expedition made many discoveries.

In this barren country we wandered like shadows

Geographical scientist Vasily Esakov in the book "Russian Oceanic and Marine Research in the 19th - early 20th centuries." singled out three stages of navigation: from Rio to Sydney, exploration of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and from Sydney to Rio.

In early autumn, with a favorable wind, the ships headed across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of Brazil. From the very first days, scientific observations were carried out, which Bellingshausen and his assistants carefully and in detail entered into the logbook. After 21 days of sailing, the sloops approached the island of Tenerife.

The ships then crossed the equator and anchored in Rio de Janeiro. The participants of the expedition were negatively impressed by the urban dirt, general untidiness and the sale of black slaves in the market. The lack of knowledge of the Portuguese language added to the discomfort. Having stocked up on provisions and checking their chronometers, the ships left the city, heading south to unknown regions of the polar ocean.

At the end of December 1819, the sloops approached the island of South Georgia. The ships moved slowly forward, carefully maneuvering among the floating ice.

In Antarctic waters, Vostok and Mirny made a hydrographic survey of the southwestern shores of South Georgia. Previously unknown lands were given the names of officers and other officials of the two sloops.

Moving further south, the expedition first encountered a vast floating ice island. On the third and fourth days, after meeting with the drifting ice, three small unknown high islands were discovered. On one of them, thick smoke was coming from the mouth of the mountain. Here travelers had the opportunity to get acquainted with the nature of the southern polar islands and their inhabitants - penguins and other birds. The islands were named after Annenkov, Zavadovsky, Leskov, Torson. Later, when the names of the officers "ended", they passed to famous contemporaries. This is how the islands of Barclay de Tolly, Ermolov, Kutuzov, Raevsky, Osten-Saken, Chichagov, Miloradovich, Greig appeared on the map.

“In this barren country we wandered, or, better to say, wandered like shadows for a whole month; incessant snow, ice and fog are not in vain, the Sandwich land consists of all small islands, and to those that Captain Cook discovered and called capes, believing that it was a continuous coast, we added three more”, - wrote Lazarev.

During the last 24 hours we heard the cry of penguins

Finally, on January 28, 1820, "Vostok" and "Mirny" approached very close to the coast of Antarctica in the area of Princess Martha Land - the distance to the mainland did not exceed 20 miles. The proximity of the land was evidenced by the numerous coastal birds observed by the navigators. It is this date that is considered to be the day of the discovery of Antarctica.

On January 28 (to the present day) Bellingshausen wrote in his diary: “Cloudy with snow, with a strong wind, continued throughout the night. At 4 o'clock in the morning we saw a smoky albatross flying near the sloop. At 7 o'clock the wind left, the snow temporarily ceased, and the beneficial sun from behind the clouds occasionally peeped out.

Continuing our way south, at noon, we met ice, which appeared to us through the snow that was going then in the form of white clouds.

The wind was moderate, with a large swell; because of the snow, our sight extended not far. After walking two miles, we saw that solid ice extends from east through south to west; our path led straight into this ice field, dotted with hillocks. The mercury in the barometer foreshadowed even worse weather; frost was 0.5 °. We turned in the hope that we would not meet ice in this direction. During the last 24 hours we saw flying snow and blue stormy birds and heard the cry of penguins."

The next day "Vostok" and "Mirny" got closer, but strong wind, cloudiness and snow made it impossible to continue the study. Of particular interest to the head of the expedition that day was not even ice, but penguins, as can be judged from his notes. The participants in the voyage caused a real commotion among the inhabitants of the South Pole, trying to get to know them better.

“The penguins, whom we heard screaming, do not need the shore: they are just as calm and, it seems, more willingly live on flat ice than other birds on the shore. When the penguins were seized on the ice, many who threw themselves into the water, without waiting for the removal of the hunters, with the help of the waves returned to their former place. Reasoning from the addition of their bodies and being at rest, we can conclude that the mere impulse to fill their stomachs drives them from the ice into the water; they are extremely tame.

When Lieutenant Leskov on the ice floe covered many of them with the wing of a seine, those who did not fall under the net were calm and insensitive to the fate of those unfortunate penguins, whom they were putting into sacks before their eyes.

The stuffy air in these bags, and careless handling when catching, transporting and lifting penguins onto sloops, and the cramped unusual dwelling in the chicken coops made the penguins nauseous, and in a short time they threw out a lot of shrimps, small sea crayfish, which, as you can see, serve them food. At the same time, it will not be superfluous to mention that we have not yet met any fish other than whales in the great southern latitudes,”Bellingshausen shared his observations.

104 days have passed since the departure from Rio de Janeiro, and the living conditions on the sloops were close to extreme. Due to the constant sleet and fog, it was very difficult to dry clothes and beds.

Why did the expedition turn back

On January 30, the commander invited Lieutenant Lazarev and all the officers who were not on duty from the Mirny to lunch. The sailors spent the whole day in a friendly conversation, telling each other about the dangers and adventures after the previous meeting. At about 23.00 Lazarev and his assistants returned to their sloop. Swimming continued.

In the following months, the ships arrived in Australia for repairs, after which they waited out the winter among the Polynesian islands.

The next attempt to reach Antarctica was made in November 1820. In January 1821 Bellingshausen discovered the island of Peter I and the Land of Alexander I near it. However, due to the poor condition of the sloop "Vostok", he had to stop further research. By that time, the tackle and sails were badly worn out, the condition of the ordinary participants also inspired fears. On February 21, sailor Fyodor Istomin died on the Mirny. According to the ship's doctor, he died of typhus, although Bellingshausen's report indicated "nervous fever." Completing its epic, the expedition surveyed the South Shetland Islands in detail.

On July 24, 1821, the ships anchored in the Small Kronstadt roadstead. The voyage took 751 days, during which about 50 thousand nautical miles were covered.

In addition to Antarctica, travelers discovered 29 previously unknown islands, accurately determined the geographical coordinates of many capes and bays, compiled a large number of maps, took water samples from depth for the first time, studied the structure of sea ice, studied the inhabitants of the South Pole and collected rich zoological and botanical collections.

“Observations over atmospheric phenomena (temperature, winds, pressure, etc.) and oceanographic observations (over water temperature, depth, transparency, etc.) are extremely interesting. These data were very valuable material for understanding the peculiarities of the nature of the South Polar Region and for clarifying general geographic patterns on the globe. Among the diaries and cartographic materials, the report card of the expedition was of great scientific importance. The reporting navigation map of the Bellingshausen-Lazarev expedition is among the largest works of Russian sea expeditions of the 18th-19th centuries,”the geographer Esakov noted.