Review: Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton

Rating: 4 out of 5

Mr Sancton’s investigation of the Belgica‘s journey through an Antarctic winter is an in-depth investigation of the journey undertaken by a dreamer, Adrien de Gerlache, on behalf of a small European nation in the closing years of the 19th century. The book explores the characters of the mission in great detail while less emphasis is given to the mission’s scientific accomplishments though these are also mentioned. Alongside Commander de Gerlache, focus is on Frederick Cook and Roald Amundsen, and the name of the latter is probably familiar to most people who are aware of the 20th century’s polar histories.

The book’s first part concerns primarily Commander de Gerlache and his quest to put the mission together. This was perhaps the most imaginative part of the entire book, starting with the quest of Adrien de Gerlache to dedicate himself to the Belgian Navy. This already sounds like an impossible goal or, perhaps, just a pointless one. Yet, in the words of Mr Sancton, Adrien de Gerlache had a focus and a goal, and he managed to make it happen. The same applies to the organizing of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition and its recruitment of foreigners, even where the expedition’s Commander knew that the Belgian press would point out any mishaps (and un-Belgianness) in his behaviour. Throughout, the author tries to highlight where he sees the expedition commander’s behaviour as the result of a fear of media coverage—this is a very revealing angle for a problem some would consider modern.

The latter part of the book was a description of the journey, which could broadly be broken down into de Gerlache’s inability to command men as opposed to a sailing vessel, and his wish to achieve something, leading to the Belgica being entrapped in ice for an Antarctic winter. This is where many of the other characters, specifically Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook, really came into their own, but Mr Sancton’s description of the Antarctic wilderness almost makes it feel like another character. The vessel escaped its entrapment with the majority of its crew onboard but the polar winter left their mark on many of the survivors. The final few chapters and the afterword look into the later fate of Amundsen and Cook, the most illustrious of the crew with the possible exception of its leader.

I found this a good overview of an expedition I had previously not heard about. One thing I missed—and have also been unable to find anywhere else at present—is a map of the route the Belgica actually took, especially during the time of its entrapment, which is described rather well in text (but, alas!, no maps!). Everything else seems to be covered, even if some aspects (such as the scientific work onboard) could have been featured more prominently.

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