The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas 1819-1821

Only a fraction of Fabian Gottlieb Benjamin Bellingshausen’s (aka Thaddeus, 1778-1852) long career in the Russian Navy was devoted to Antarctic exploration, his two-year expedition exploring Antarctic in 1819-21. It was nonetheless a notable venture as the second circumnavigation of the continent (the first was by Captain Cook in 1773-74), and the first actual sighting of the Continent in January 1820. His discovery of Alexander Island and the naming of the Bellingshausen Sea were not much honored in Russia since they were of little immediate practical use, but his achievements are now much more fully recognized, At least as translated and then edited in this version, Bellingshausen appears to have an easy-going if formal style of writing and shows himself to be a most judicious man in both his navigation and his leadership of the voyage, a character much doubted by his critics.

p. xxvii-viii, Intro. by Debenham: One contributory cause of the apparent indifference of foreign readers is no doubt that the book is comparatively heavy reading, and a second is that the voyage is not eventful in the sense that many others were. There was no tragedy and no outstanding discovery. History shows that it is the expedition which has either great good fortune or great disaster which finds a large reading public.

p. xxx: It was unfortunate that their very success, and lack of tragic incident, robbed them of praise due at the time, for then, as now, it is the model expedition which has least adventure to tell.

p. 23: …you must be guided by the accounts of voyages round the world of other celebrated explorers; these will serve as examples for the improvement and maintenance of the vessels and crews. They will be provided by special orders.

p. 24: You will require charts of all the seas over which you will have traveled before completing your voyages. Many have been supplied to you from the Admiralty, and those you are lacking you can obtain in England from among those published by the British Admiralty.

p. 26, Instructions from the Imperial Admiralty Department: (12) Finally, in order that on your return you may be able to compile an interesting and useful account from your notes, do not leave anything without remark that you may happen to observe anywhere as new, useful or interesting, not only with regard to navigation, but as being of general service in the spread of human knowledge in all parts. You will traverse wide oceans and pass many islands and various lands. The diversity of Nature in different places will naturally arouse your interest. Endeavour to describe all this in order to communicate it to future readers of your travels. For this, it is indispensable that you should have the accounts of any noteworthy travels in those places which you will be visiting. By reading them and comparing them with your own personal observations you will be able to note how far they are correct or inaccurate.

p. 30, June 25, 1819: Prince Lobanov-Rostovski, who arrived at Kronstadt on his own yacht from St Petersburg, sent me, as a present, a copy of the Voyages of C. Baudin and the Atlas annexed to it. This present was useful at a later date and was all the more welcome to me in that it came as a proof of good wishes for our success in the difficult task before us. [This book was Voyage aux Terres Australes, by Nicholas Baudin, 1800-04.]

p. 34, picked up several charts from the curator of the Royal Archives of Sea Charts in Copenhagen.

p. 39-40, in London: We experienced much difficulty in obtaining sextants ready for use and certain other instruments as well as the books and charts necessary for the voyage…. We obtained our charts for the voyage from Mr Arrowsmith and books from various booksellers…. We had expected that on our return to Portsmouth we should find there the instruments, charts and books, which we were expecting from London, instead of which we received them through the Russian Consul-General Dubachevski only on the 20th August.

p. 47, cites Humboldt’s Reise re Teneriffe.

p. 68, Nov. 1819, near Rio de Janeiro: We had with us a book entitled The Brazilian Pilot, and in it we found the description of the sloping mountain called the ‘Sugar-Loaf’….

p. 72-1: vivid picture of slave market in Rio!

p. 198: quotations from Forster, Cook, Kotzebue, and others suggest a fairly extensive polar library aboard, although one can’t be sure when the entries were written, during the voyage or as the official report.

p. 225: gives extract from the ca 1610 voyages of Ferdinand de Quiros, probably copied from a later work aboard.

p. 247, Bellingshausen returns to his frustration at not finding naturalists to accompany his voyage, especially when the opportunity to go ashore and study flora and fauna occurred: On such occasions I always remembered with regret that the naturalists Kuntze and Mertens, who had promised to accompany us, had altered their minds when it was too late to find anyone to take their places. They had refused on the ground that too little time had been given them to complete preparations for the voyage. Perhaps they were right, but I, as a naval officer, cannot help thinking, that all that a scientist need bring with him is his scientific knowledge; books were to be found at Copenhagen of every kind in quantities, and even if some had been unobtainable all the bookshops in London would have been at their service and they need not have lacked for anything.