The Southern Ice-continent: The German South Polar Expedition aboard the Gauss 1901-1903.

Drygalski led the first German Antarctic Expedition in 1901-03, as part of Germany’s growing status in the international community with its own colonial aspirations. Its emphasis was scientific research and its chosen region the southern Indian Ocean as centered on the Kerguélen Islands.

p. 43: Every scientific member and every officer had his own cabin…with cupboards, drawers, washstand, mirror, writing table, bookshelves, a small radiator for steam heating (never used), one or two electric lamps, one paraffin lamp, an electric ventilator and one or two deck lights….

The sixteen crew members were quartered in two sleeping spaces…. A special seamen’s library had been generously donated by a club in Kiel: it was set up in the passageways to the men’s quarters, and saw much use.

The saloon had several pictures and paintings and “An extensive and much-consulted library of books was arranged all around up against the deckhead.

p. 199, on winter activities, including a Wednesday night lecture series from 16 June to 10 Sept., card playing, and gambling: So for a time there was a vogue for betting—usually with something alcoholic as the stake, drawn from the participants’ own private supplies. These wagers were usually settled by reference to Meyer Konversationslexikon, which was quite sufficient for the purpose, until the whole business suddenly collapsed when the veracity of the encyclopaedia was called into question. Up until that point the various volumes of the work could generally be found piled up on the table at mealtimes, ready at hand to settle any issue.

p. 201: We read a great deal during the winter on board the Gauss, and it was interesting to see what the various members of the party chose to pass the time. Our library was excellent and well-stocked, especially through gifts from my good friend Dr Hans Meyer in Leipzig, whose Konversationslexikon was indispensable to our intellectual life; from Herr Justus Perthes in Gotha who sent us an extremely useful selection of titles from his publishing house; from the Royal Society in London, who gave us all the Challenger volumes, and from the booksellers, Calvary, C. Skopnick and Paetel in Berlin. Herr Geheimrat v. Neumayer lent us some books from his own library, as did the Interior Ministry and most of the members of the expedition, along with other friends; as a result very few books were actually bought. We had the use of a collection that was sufficient for all our needs, from the lightest of light reading, comprised in a large number of popular editions, through belles lettres to the classics and the weighty tomes of the various sciences. By the end of the year the lighter books had been read to pieces, especially as they were also very popular with the crew, who, through the generosity of a society in Kiel, had also been supplied with their own collection of books.

The members of the expedition made use of different books according to their tastes and to the time available; but it was noticeable how often one title would make the rounds of the mess, largely as a result of conversations at table. Such a book was for instance Grimmelshausen’s Simplizissimus, given to us by Dr W. Meinardus, and which was very popular. I myself preferred historical and political works, and explain my taste by the fact that such books were most likely to remind me of the rest of the world and help me to keep in touch with human affairs, and so better retain a sense of proportion about our own activities. Apart from H. v. Treitschke’s works, which I read from cover to cover, I was particularly impressed by Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, which subsequently circulated round the mess. Vanhöffen gave his attention to the Challenger volumes, and when he had finished those, moved on to Petermann’s Mitteilungen, which had been given to us by Herr Perthes in Gotha. Other people preferred philosophical works, thus confirming the view once expressed to me by the former President of the Berlin Geographical Society, Herr Dr W. Reiss, that the infinite calm of the polar ice provided the best atmosphere and the greatest leisure to reading philosophy. After our experiences in the Antarctic though, I for one must express my aversion to such literature, for those who indulged in it were so drawn towards moods of brooding and introspection as to be quite hopeless as colleagues and for that matter useless to themselves. And since no-one can expel the idea of fate totally from his mind, least of all in the polar ice, where one is perpetually up against the relentless pressure of nature, this would lead to a deal of deleterious self-torment, so that I often felt considerable relief when the philosophical phase had run its course.

p. 218: used Meyer’s lexicon to figure out how to construct oil-lamps.

p. 223-24: During the days we spent discussing these plans for the spring I took the opportunity of re-reading the accounts of our predecessors in the South Polar Regions in order to refresh my mind with whatever earlier explorers had had to say about the nature of the place and how they had come to terms with it. Of course I was already familiar with all these works by Ross, Dumont d’Urville, Wilkes, Weddell and Biscoe, and the more recent ones by Borchgrevink, Bernacchi and Dr Cook. It was substantially due to the generosity of Geheimrat v. Neumayer that we had all these on board, and I must say that of all the different things I read while I was there, nothing was so stimulating as these works on the South Polar Region itself. Other members of the expedition took the view that it was precisely because of where they were that they had no desire to read about it. There was quite enough of it on view all round them. In my case it was different. Reading such works in precisely such surroundings gave me renewed pleasure, and I read them all once more from cover to cover. The inspiration I received from them was tremendous, not simply because I was able really to get to know everything these explorers did and how they managed, and how to put a proper value on it, but also because it enabled me to judge our own situation more fairly.

Drygalski then continues with comments on works by Ross, Wilkes, d’Urville, and others: In my consideration of earlier achievements, Ross’s account stood pre-eminent. It has such a depth of content and he approaches every problem with such a fine imperturbability. Wilkes’ disquisitions were of great interest as the product of an outstanding seaman and sharp observer of what he saw round him, even though the conclusions he later drew from these observations were subject to error. But how could anyone in his time be so sure of coming to the right conclusions about the ice forms that represent the only means of judging one’s position, as we are today? How should a mariner faced with the south polar ice, be sure of sniffing out in every case the difference between inland ice and floating sea ice? Today we can tell by looking at the surface characteristics whether it is afloat or not, but conditions in the Arctic can be such as to make the question hard to answer even now. We too have sometimes failed to distinguish icebergs from inland ice when on our sledge journeys, until we were able to make a clear identification. How much more difficult then, when Wilkes was here.

It is no surprise that he should have mistaken huge masses of floating blue ice for land or for islands, so we should not be too quick with our condemnation of the fact that the land which he thought he had found turned out to be floating ice now that he knew the region better. In the Antarctic, land ice can appear where previously icebergs were to be found, and floating ice can well look just like land ice.

I learned above all from Wilkes’ account, to be astonished at the great uniformity of the Antarctic; to find that the same conditions apparently prevail along the whole stretch of Wilkes Land as far as Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, with easterly or south-easterly winds blowing off a vast mass of inland ice, with the same flat sea lapping at its edge, interrupted by ranges of icebergs, islands or land promontories, with more or less fast fields of pack-ice similar to the one in which the Gauss lay. Wilkes himself failed to make a proper landing, but he speaks of landing on the ice, and there he is right for he did reach fields such as the one surrounding the winter quarters of the Gauss, where in terms of solidity and every other physical and biological test the ice was as good as terra firma.

I found Dumont d’Urville’s account no less stimulating, a sensitive and impressionable man, his lively nature did not always perhaps retain the self-possession necessary in the face of the difficulties put in his way by the Antarctic; and yet he was perhaps able, because of this, to describe and respond to all the details and nuances more effectively than would a blunt seaman. He was therefore well-deserving of the success vouchsafed him, where Wilkes had tried in vain having achieved a genuine landing (on Adélie Island) and raising the tricolor over solid rock. This achievement by d’Urville is of great significance, for to send a boat away for so long and so far from the ship, in the kind of weather typical of the Antarctic, when every hour, every minute almost can witness a total change in the conditions, is an act of daring to be undertaken only by someone able to sense the subtlest secrets of nature. A reader able to make judgments only according to the principles of the mariner would doubtless have acted differently here. D’Urville’s explorer’s sensitivity however made the daring move at the right moment, as neither Ross nor Wilkes was able. It is to the lasting honour of his expedition, and of France, to have been the first to set foot on an island belonging to the South Polar Continent.

I gained much instruction too from reading other authors I have mentioned, in addition to these basic works of antarctic exploration. One conclusion I came to was that, in one respect, no proper view had yet been taken of how to cope with the polar ice….

p. 315—having escaped the ice finally, and enroute back via Africa they encountered a Norwegian ship which gave them a number of newspapers. Tells how one of the officers as part of his translations embellished the news to satisfy the craving for more news of home.

The Gauss produced a ship’s newspaper, Das antarctische Intelligenz-blatt, with poetic contributions or translations. One poem on the Solstice 1902 is given on p. 200-01. According to Claudia Hermichen a catalogue of the Gauss library exists in manuscript, topically arranged, in Leipzig.