Europeans Explore the Antarctic Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

European explorations of the Antarctic in the first half of the nineteenth century confirmed the existence of Antarctica, mapped much of the continent’s surroundings, fostered competing claims to the territory, contributed valuable scientific data on the largely unknown region, and contributed to the decimation of its seal and whale populations.

Summary of Event

The coldest and most isolated continent, Antarctica is surrounded by the world’s stormiest seas and by thick masses of floating ice. Nineteenth century Antarctic exploration had its basis in commercial enterprises, most notably the sealing and whaling industry, which searched the region for new hunting grounds. Most explorers believed that a larger southern continent existed, even before one became known. This continent had been called Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land). Antarctica;exploration of Exploration;Antarctica Bellingshausen, Fabian Gottlieb von Palmer, Nathaniel B. Ross, Sir James Clark Exploration;polar Sealing industry [kw]Europeans Explore the Antarctic (1820-early 1840’s) [kw]Explore the Antarctic, Europeans (1820-early 1840’s) [kw]Antarctic, Europeans Explore the (1820-early 1840’s) Antarctica;exploration of Exploration;Antarctica Bellingshausen, Fabian Gottlieb von Palmer, Nathaniel B. Ross, Sir James Clark Exploration;polar Sealing industry [g]Antarctica;1820-early 1840’s: Europeans Explore the Antarctic[1080] [c]Exploration and discovery;1820-early 1840’s: Europeans Explore the Antarctic[1080] [c]Environment and ecology;1820-early 1840’s: Europeans Explore the Antarctic[1080] [c]Geography;1820-early 1840’s: Europeans Explore the Antarctic[1080] Bransfield, Edward Weddell, James Dumont d’Urville, Jules-Sébastien-César Wilkes, Charles

British Captain James Cook Cook, James completed the first circumnavigation of Antarctica during his voyage of 1768-1775. He circumnavigated the Antarctic Circle three times but never spotted the mainland. He noted the large numbers of seals and whales in the region, which later sparked commercial interest. As outlying islands were stripped of their seal populations, commercial explorers began pushing farther south to find new hunting grounds.

Charles Wilkes’s Antarctic expedition.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Controversy surrounds the question of who first discovered the actual continent of Antarctica. The American sealer Nathaniel B. Palmer, Russia’s Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, and Great Britain’s Edward Bransfield Bransfield, Edward and their countries all laid claim to its discovery. It is possible that other sealers sighted the Antarctic Peninsula earlier, but their records have been lost.

The Russian aristocrat and naval officer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen commanded Russia’s first government-sponsored Antarctic expedition, commissioned by Czar Alexander I Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and polar exploration[Polar exploration] in 1819. Bellingshausen left Russia in 1820 with the ships Vostok and Mirnyi, closely following Captain James Cook’s eighteenth century course. Bellingshausen circumnavigated the Antarctic Circle and was the first since Cook to survey the region extensively. He spotted the Finibul Ice Shelf, the first sighting of the Antarctic continent, but the ice stopped his southerly progress. He also discovered Peter I Island, the most southerly land known at the time, and named Alexander Coast (now Alexander Island). He also encountered the American expedition under Palmer. Bellingshausen created excellent maps and charts that were published several years later.

The British Royal Navy Royal Navy;and polar exploration[Polar exploration] sent Bransfield to the Antarctic region aboard the Williams in 1820 to chart the south Shetland Islands and nearby areas. William Smith served as Bransfield’s pilot on this first official British expedition to Antarctica. Bransfield charted the coastline and harbors, collected science specimens, took meteorologic and magnetic readings, and then claimed the continent in the name of King George III. He sighted Livingston Island; landed on King George Island; discovered Deception Island, Tower Island, and the Bransfield Strait; and spotted the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula, calling them Trinity Land. He also discovered Gibbs, O’Brien, Elephant Seal, and Clarence Islands, and was the first person to sail into the Weddell Sea. Controversy surrounded his claims to spotting the Antarctic continent because his ship’s logbook was later lost.

The Connecticut sailor Palmer commanded the sealing ship Hero when it sailed to the Antarctic region in 1820. He sighted Trinity Land, which was the second sighting of the Antarctic continent, observing a land mass and an inland mountain range. The United States named the land Palmer Peninsula, the British referred to it as Graham Land, and other nations referred to it as the Antarctic Peninsula. Palmer also discovered McFarlane Strait and Yankee Harbor but left the area because it had few seals or whales.

Although Bellingshausen, Bransfield, Bransfield, Edward and Palmer spotted the mainland of Antarctica, no explorer in the first half of the nineteenth century reached the continent itself because of the nearly impenetrable ice fields that surrounded it. Within the next decade and a half, sealers continued to search for new hunting grounds. The British whaling firm Enderby Brothers underwrote many of these expeditions. These expeditions discovered new islands and mapped many miles of coastline, helping define the new continent’s outlines. One of the voyages found a potential passage through the packed ice that later would be followed by famed explorers such as Sir James Clark Ross, Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink, Robert Falcon Scott Scott, Robert Falcon , Sir Ernest Shackleton Shackleton, Sir Ernest , and Roald Amundsen Amundsen, Roald .

February 7, 1821, marked what some historians believe is the first recorded landing on the Antarctic continent, by a crew from an American sealing ship under the command of Captain John Davis Davis, John . Other historians credit Borchgrevink’s British expedition of 1899 as the first to set foot on the Antarctic continent. In 1821, an officer and ten men of the British sealing ship Lord Melville wintered on King George Island after their ship had been driven away by a storm, stranding them. They were the first to endure an Antarctic winter. In 1821, sealers George Powell Powell, George and Palmer discovered the South Orkney Islands South Orkney Islands . James Weddell Weddell, James took part in sealing expeditions in 1820-1821 and 1821-1822. He was interested as much in science and discoveries as in sealing. In 1823, he explored the South Orkney Islands, and that same year, he reached the Weddell Sea, the farthest south anyone has explored and a feat that would not be repeated for another eighty years.

In the 1830’s, the British, French, and Americans launched scientific expeditions and also voyages to reach the farthest southern point possible. They sought new land and the location of the south magnetic pole and established that Antarctica was indeed a continent. The French naval expedition headed by Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville Dumont d’Urville, Jules-Sébastien-César and Charles Hector Jacquinot, in the Astrolabe and Zelee, sailed from 1837 to 1840. They charted parts of the Antarctic Peninsula and came within four miles of the continent. They named the land they saw Adlie Land, claiming it for France, and measured the earth’s magnetism in southern waters.

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes Wilkes, Charles and the U.S. Exploring Expedition sailed in 1838 under the aegis of the U.S. Navy Navy, U.S.;and polar exploration[Polar exploration] in order to chart the southern seas. Wilkes Wilkes, Charles charted several hundred miles of new coastland, including Cape Hudson and the Shackleton Ice Shield, but he could not reach the south magnetic pole because of thick ice. The U.S. expedition’s work marked a milestone in American science and helped establish U.S. claims to parts of the continent.

In 1839, the British sent Sir James Clark Ross with the ships Erebus and Terror to find the south magnetic pole; he had already found the north magnetic pole in 1831. Ross changed course after hearing of the French and American expeditions and discovered that the most accessible area of the coast lay in what became known as the Ross Sea. He spotted the Admiralty Mountains, which had been the most southerly land known. He claimed Victoria Land (Possession Island) for Great Britain and discovered Franklin Island and Mount Erebus Erebus, Mount , an active volcano Volcanoes;Mount Erebus on Ross Island. He was stopped by what became known as the Ross Ice Shelf. Ross discovered that the magnetic pole had to be accessed by land, not sea. His scientific crew also spotted a number of new fish species.


After the expeditions of the first half of the nineteenth century, most Antarctic exploration was abandoned for the rest of the century. The seal and whale populations had been greatly reduced and there was little commercial interest in the land itself. The John Franklin Franklin, Sir John expedition of 1845, sent by the British to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Arctic exploration region, disappeared, drawing explorers back to the Arctic to discover the expedition’s fate.

In 1895, the Sixth International Geographical Congress sought to revive Antarctic exploration, beginning a new age of exploration in the region. The advent of the whaling industry in the beginning of the twentieth century also helped reinvigorate interest in the continent. The “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration lasted from 1894 until 1941 and included the famous and tragic race for the South Pole in 1911-1912 between Scott Scott, Robert Falcon of Britain and Amundsen Amundsen, Roald of Norway. This period, marked by geopolitical interest in exploring and laying claim to the last uncharted territory on Earth, also witnessed the first systematic scientific exploration of the continent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gurney, Alan. Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Chronicles the major voyages of discovery and exploration as well as everyday life and problems encountered during the expeditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Race to the White Continent: Voyages to the Antarctic. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Explores the American, French, and British expeditions launched between the years 1837 and 1842 and discusses their significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markham, Clements R. The Lands of Silence: A History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration. 1921. Reprint. Mansfield Centre, Conn.: Martino, 2005. A classic overview of exploration in the Antarctic and Arctic regions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mills, William J., ed. Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. A useful overview of key figures and expeditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosove, Michael H. Let Heroes Speak: Antarctic Explorers, 1772-1922. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Covers the period from Cook’s 1772 expedition to Shackleton’s final voyage in 1922. Includes extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index.

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