Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey Into the Dark Antarctic Night

Crown. May 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781984824332. $30. HIST
The Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99) carried the first humans to ever spend the winter in Antarctica. The expedition’s research vessel Belgica was trapped in polar ice for over a year, forcing the multinational crew of sailors and scientists to withstand crushing pack ice, subzero temperatures, and extreme isolation. During the months-long polar night, they fended off scurvy by scarfing raw penguin meat. Stuck in their claustrophobic quarters, they bickered, scribbled letters to each other, and battled mental and physical deterioration. Most—but not all—overcame the odds and survived. Sancton (editor, Departures) gives this extraordinary saga its first book-length treatment. Blue-blooded Adrien de Gerlache battled guilt over his men’s plight and his own shortcomings as leader of Belgium’s first polar expedition. Stoic Norwegian first mate Roald Amundsen (eventually the first explorer to visit the North and South Poles) befriended American physician and ethnographer Frederick Cook. With mock solemnity, Cook and Amundsen formed the Order of the Penguin, to which they invited the expedition’s caring but firm Belgian second-in-command, Georges Lecointe.
VERDICT Belying its sensational title, this detail-rich account is a sober and humane chronicle of relationships among the explorers and their struggle for survival in the long polar night. Armchair travelers will enjoy.
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