Today is the birthday of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen who was born in 1778 in what is now Estonia. In 1820 he headed the first expedition to sight mainland Antarctica. I’ve read a lot about explorers and sea voyages researching this blog and the nineteenth century seems rather late to find a whole new continent. But of all the discoveries I’ve read about, it’s really the only recorded instance of someone finding a major land mass that was uninhabited. I could argue that none of the other famous adventurers we know about really ‘discovered’ anywhere because the places they encountered already had plenty of people living there.
For centuries people believed that there was a large land mass to the south of the equator. Aristotle had postulated that the Earth was symmetrical, so there must be a land mass to the south to balance out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Although the idea that the earth was spherical dates back to at least the 6th century BC, no one in Europe was completely sure that it was possible to cross the equator into the Southern Hemisphere until the fifteenth century. The unknown landmass to the south is marked on early maps as Terra Australis Incognita and it’s enormous. It was not until 1487 that Europeans knew that Africa was not joined to this land mass, when Bartolomeu Dias made it round the Cape of Good Hope. Ferdinand Magellan assumed when, in 1520, he sailed through the Straits of Magellan, that the land to the south of him was part of Terra Australis. This was not disproved until 1615.
In the seventeenth century, the newly found region called New Holland was assumed to be part of the large continent in the south, but then in 1642, Abel Tasman sailed around to the south of it, proving it was not the case. In 1773 James Cook sailed as far south as the Antarctic circle, but found only ice. He declared that there was no landmass there at all and the name Australia was given instead to New Holland.
In 1819 Bellinghausen, a captain in the Russian Navy, was chosen to lead a Russian expedition to the far south. He had already distinguished himself as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the world and had proved himself to be an excellent cartographer. His expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle since Cook’s voyage. Bellinghausen sighted the coast of Antarctica on January 20th `1820. During his voyage he sailed right around the continent, proving that it was not connected to any other landmass. Belinghausen’s orders for the mission were to explore as far south as possible and to carry out ‘scientific work’. I haven’t managed to find out what the scientific work was, but he couldn’t possibly have fulfilled the ‘far south as possible’ part of his mission any better than he did. Yet the Russians seem to have been unimpressed on his return. It was ten years before his account of his voyage was published.