I picked Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton late one night thinking it would be a sci-fi book. In small print the cover said “The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night” which would have been a clue if I had read it. But it ends up that this journey, one of the first to Antarctica reads like science fiction, although it is a factual account of an expedition to a piece of our own planet that has an environment as alien as any you might encounter in space. It has air humans can breathe, but the behavior of an ice field is treacherous, the cold temperatures are unfriendly to human life, and isolation and severe weather take a toll. What drives men to go on risky adventures, to put their very lives on the line for fame and fortune, science, and curiosity? What drives them to want to simply be first?
Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery of Belgium does not want to do as his family expects. De Gerlache wants to go to sea. Belgium has a tiny navy consisting of only two ferries, but de Gerlache finally is allowed to earn credentials as a navigator after which he joins the navy. King Leopold, his king offers to send him on an expedition to the Congo, but de Gerlache wants to go to Antarctica. He raises money, finds a ship (the Belgica), hires sailors and scientists and after three years of planning sets sail for Antarctica. He wanted to use an all-Belgium crew, but it proved impossible. He left with his friend Danco, Georges Lecointe (28), his captain, an experienced Arctic explorer, Amundsen, and a crew that spoke a variety of languages (French, Dutch, Norwegian, German, Polish, English, Romanian, Latin). The best bit of luck de Gerlache had was when he took on Dr. Cook who met the group in South America and saved many lives on the ship by his Arctic experience and his great good sense.
De Gerlache made a fateful decision to spend a winter frozen into the Antarctic ice pack because he wanted to continue when summer returned to find the Southern Magnetic Pole. Early adventures on the ice revealed a lovely canal that opened between glaciers where perhaps the expedition spent too long collecting scientific data. By the time they moved on winter was upon them. Thankfully there were men on this expedition who loved to pit themselves against nature, the harsher the better. De Gerlache, suffering from scurvy, never having trekked the cold places, was not one of them, but he was an excellent navigator. He made the decision to spend the winter in the ice pack deliberately and the hardships that ensued should have been laid at his feet, but he never reaped the criticism he deserved, although he did not come off unscathed either.
The expedition undertaken by de Gerlache for family, nation, and science was intended to give Belgium a place on the world stage and it did succeed somewhat in this regard. But it was the Order of the Penguin, the risk-takers, the experienced polar travelers who saved the lives of the men of the Belgica and the reputation of de Gerlache. Lecointe, the 28-year-old captain, Amundsen and Cook, the Arctic explorers brought experience to bear.
Even so, trapped in an ever-changing field of ice and watery channels that opened and closed at a whim, trapped in a season without sun day after day, riddled with scurvy due to a lack of fresh food, life aboard the creaking ship became a madhouse in the sense that holding onto sanity became a challenging legacy of ice and night that no one had foreseen. Obviously, the mental state of participants in extreme conditions presented explorers of Antarctica with information on a subject they had not included in their scientific considerations and studies. Madhouse at the End of the World is a well-researched and detailed presentation of the journey of the Belgica and of the men who went on that expedition. It is also an engrossing read.