Thursday, January 28, 2010

Of Antartica; and enemy flesh

It is now generally accepted that the very first sighting of Antartica took place on this day, one hundred and ninety years ago, by a Russian expedition under the leadership of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (also known as Thaddeus von Bellingshausen). The British got there a few days later, and the Americans ten months after that. Bellingshausen’s diary, though, is one of the documents which supports Russia’s claim for the first sighting. There do not appear to be any online translations into English of his diary for the Antartica sighting, but there is a substantial extract in English from a little later in the same voyage when Bellingshausen made discoveries around New Zealand.

Born to a Baltic German family in 1779 in what is now Estonia but was then part of the Russian Empire, Bellingshausen joined the Imperial Russian Navy at the age of ten. After studying at the Kronstadt naval academy, he rapidly rose to the rank of captain, and took part in the first Russian circumnavigation of the world. Subsequently he was in charge of various ships in the Baltic and Black Seas.

When Czar Alexander I decided on two major expeditions in 1819, one to the northern polar seas the other to the southern, Bellingshausen was chosen to lead the latter (after the first choice, Commodore Roschmanow, suffered ill-health). His two vessel convoy (Vostok and Mirnyi) set off from Portsmouth in September the same year. The expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle on 26 January 1820, and two days later - on 28 January, 190 years ago today - it made the first sighting of the Antarctic coast.

During the voyage Bellingshausen also visited Ship Cove in New Zealand, the South Shetland Islands, and discovered and named various other islands. He returned to Kronstadt in August 1821, and thereafter fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829 attaining the rank of admiral. In 1839 he was appointed military governor of Kronstadt, and died there in 1852. See Wikipedia for more on Bellingshausen, and for more on the actual journey.

In the early 1980s, according to Wikipedia, the British polar historian A G E Jones looked at competing claims for the first sighting of Antartica. He concluded that Bellingshausen was indeed the discoverer of the sought-after Terra Australis, beating the British explorer Edward Bransfield whose first sighting was on 30 January 1820. Jones’s study relied on various documents in the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in Saint Petersburg, including Bellingshausen’s diary.

An English version of Bellingshausen’s account of the journey was published in 1945 by the Hakluyt Society - The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819-1821 (two volumes, translated by Edward Bullough and edited by Frank Debenham). A few copies are available secondhand on Abebooks, but are not cheap, costing several hundred pounds each.

However, just over a century ago, in 1909, Whitcombe & Tombs published, in New Zealand, A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, From 1642 to 1835 written by Robert McNab. It contains a substantial extract from Bellingshausen’s diary (translated especially for the book) and is available online thanks to Victoria University Library’s New Zealand Electronic Text Centre. Here is part of the extract.

28 May 1820
‘We were at that moment surrounded by high, steep mountains, mostly covered with forest. Towards the north we perceived the southern slope of the northern part of New Zealand, also rather high. On the western side we perceived a fenced-in space and apparently inhabited. Soon afterwards two boats approached us from this side, one containing 23 men and the other 16. Over the stern side of the boats rose a rectangular squared beam of about 6 feet. The oars were like shovels, like those employed by all the inhabitants on the shores of the Southern Sea, and painted dark red. The men were rowing two and two. When they reached a distance of a few sazhen [one sazhen equals seven feet] from our vessel they stopped. One of them rose and gesticulating wildly, pronounced a loud speech. We understood nothing of course of what he was talking, and I answered with the universally accepted signs of peace and friendship. I waved a white flag and asked them to approach. The islanders consulted among themselves and at last approached our vessel. I invited the old man who had delivered the speech, and who appeared to be their chief, to come on board. He came trembling and seemed quite lost. I treated him in an amiable manner, made him a present of a few trifles, such as glass beads, a mirror, printed linen, a knife. He was greatly delighted with these presents. I then explained to him that I wanted some fish, pronouncing the word in New Zealandese (giyka) fish. He at once understood me, laughed aloud and communicated my request to his comrades, pronouncing the word giyka. All the men in the boat seemed very pleased at it, they also repeated the same word and clearly expressed their readiness to serve us. When it grew dark they hastened on shore.

All the men were clad in a garment made of a tissue, reaching down to the knees and buttoned over the chest with a bone or a basalt. They were all girt with a rope and had a piece of tissue thrown over the shoulder by way of a felt cloak. Their garments were woven of the New Zealand flax which grew in large quantities on the shore. Their faces were tattooed with regular figures of a dark blue colour, but these ornaments were evidently the privilege of the elder or distinguished people. Their knees were rather thin which was due to the fact that they are sitting with their legs underneath them.

The sloop Mirny made only a moderate course and could not manage to run into the Sound before dark. She was therefore compelled to manoeuvre with all her sails in unfavourable wind. When it had grown dark I gave orders to raise two lanterns, one above the other, on the sloop Wostok, and also to raise blue lights from time to time, so that M. Lazarew should not mistake the shore, where the inhabitants had lit fires, for the sloop Wostok toward which he was regulating his tacks.

The current coming from the Sound had hindered them a great deal, and when it changed he made several tacks and cast anchor at eleven o'clock, near the sloop Wostok in a depth of about 11 sazhens, the ground consisting of green slime.

I gave orders that the sailors standing on watch should have loaded firearms, and that they should be ready for action. These measures were absolutely necessary in consequence of the well-known cowardly attacks of the New Zealanders, who were waging a constant war among themselves, and were known to eat the flesh of their enemies.’

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