The Voyage of the ‘Why Not ?’ in the Antarctic: the Journal of the Second French South Polar Expedition, 1908-1910

Charcot’s is a rather ponderous book about an important expedition, with several historical excurses in which he consistently praises Antarctic explorers, as if to elevate himself.

p. 13: I provided each member of the staff with his cabin-furniture, of which the principal items were a folding-bed, a bureau, and a washstand. Every one could arrange these as he pleased, being at liberty also have made for him all the cupboards and shelves he might consider necessary. Wherever it was possible I had fitted up cupboards and lockers in the ward-room and the alley-ways. In addition to two book-cases in the ward-room a shelf ran round all the cabins, whereon we found room for nearly 3,000 books. [p. 209 states that there are 1500 volumes. What accounts for the difference

p. 90: From the same point of view, though it is obviously very gratifying to be the first to name a geographical point and to see on the maps designations which recall to one one’s own country, I have considered it a point of honour, on this Expedition as on the last, to keep and even restore in the right places the names which my predecessors have given to their discoveries. The various names adopted have always been and will always be the cause of numerous squabbles—and often of violent polemics, for national pride in its narrowest sense here comes on the scene. Nevertheless, as discoveries gradually multiply, the question seems to me more and more easy of solution. At any rate it presents no difficulty in the region where we are, where it is most simple to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. Still, I cannot pass over in silence, after having read Biscoe’s own Journal and carefully gone over his ground, the following sentence in H. E. Mill’s very interesting book, The Siege of the South Pole, p. 162: : ‘ Graham Land might well be restricted to the southern part south of Adelaide Island.’ Now Biscoe says, precisely, ‘this island (Adelaide Island) being the furthest known land to the southward,’ and I am not aware that any one ever even claimed, before the Pourquoi-Pas’ ? voyage, to have seen land south of Adelaide Island except Alexander I Land. Further, the land sighted by Biscoe, to which the name of Graham Land has been given, is, as he himself says, behind the Biscoe Islands, and seems to me to have the sole right to the name. In this matter the Americans for their part might object and say that Pendleton saw the land before Biscoe, which is probable; but that captain made the mistake of not describing it and not suggesting any name. In any case, Pendleton Bay is a memorial of his visit to this region.

p. 186-87: An important part of our daily duty is concerned with keeping everything clean, and I spend much time in grumbling about this…. But recently I was reading in one of the books of Admiral Jurien de la Gravière, the following passage, which I marked for use:—‘For my part I have always had a horror of a badly washed deck. In the midst of litter lying about, sang-froid is apt to evaporate. Before Sebastopol, General Pelissier was able to make cleanliness into a force and a virtue.’

Since the commencement of the month, we have organized optional classes for the crew after dinner, and tasks set to the men attending them occupy the hours when they cannot work out of doors. Gourdon, Gain, Godfroy and myself are the teachers of arithmetic, grammar, geography, navigation and English, and once a week Liouville gives a lecture, which is closely followed and much appreciated, on the dressing of wounds and first-aid….

Sunday is a day of rest. The flag is hoisted at the end of the gaff, and if weather permits the day is spent in ski-ing, or in excursions over the island. If it is too unpleasant to go out we stay on board reading or having ‘music,’ when frightful things happen ! My cabin is so placed that I am between the mess deck, the junior ward-room and our own ward-room. So it frequently happens that one gramophone is going on the mess deck and another in the ward-room, and the Chief Engineer is playing his mandolin desperately and dispiritingly, accompanying himself, it may be, to the song, ‘O Paquita, how I love thee!’ Speaking for myself, I should say: ‘How I have learnt to detest thee !’

p. 188: In the ward-room, apart from the work which takes up the greater part of our time, every one finds some occupation to his taste. Cards happily are never seen, the games in favour being dominoes or chess, and we are perhaps the only civilized community which does not play bridge. Rouch striving hard to win a bet, provides us with an unexpected and much appreciated distraction by reading to us every evening a few chapters of a great serial novel which he finds the means of writing daily, entitled, ‘The Typist’s Lover’!. 198-99, where Charcot records some anxiety and depression but says:

Responsibility weighs more heavily on me than ever, and to distract and encourage myself, I re-read my diary on the Français, written durin a period quite as agonizing as this. I light on a passage where I assert that, if ever I return to France, I will embark no more on such adventures. A few weeks after my return, I was thinking of nothing but the organization of a new Expedition, and three years later, I started off again! Is this my reward for my persistent efforts? Obstacles seem to arise everywhere in my path. After the summer campaign (which, it is true, was very fruitful) we found ourselves prevented from wintering where we wished, and we have to put up with a most detestable and troublesome of winters. Certainly our work is progressing well, but the trips on which I counted so much seem spoilt by the perpetual changes in the state of the ice…. Perhaps others could content themselves with the work already done; I cannot do so. I have to combat the possible demoralization of my companions and to watch over their state of mind. So my discouragement lasts but little. Besides, Shakespeare, my faithful friend, foreseeing everything, comes to my aid:— ‘When good will is showed, though it comes too short, The actor may plead pardon.’ [Antony and Cleopatra, II, 5]

p. 201: I have recently turned out from a locker complete files of the Matin and the Figaro for two years before our departure, kindly presented to us by their Editors. Every day I put on the ward-room table the numbers corresponding to the present date, and personally I have never read the papers so attentively or thoroughly. If I must confess it, the news, now so ancient, the scandals, the affaires, interest me just as much as if I had never heard of them. I had forgotten them nearly all and I await the next day’s issue with impatience. I am now much better acquainted with my country’s politics and the world’s happenings in 1907 than I have ever been, and probably than I shall ever be again.

p. 206-07: The evening of July 15 has whetted the men’s appetites, and they have come to ask my permission to found a Musical Society on the mess deck every Sunday. Then from bags and lockers are brought forth all the song-books, a haphazard medley of old ballads, sailors’ choruses, sentimental songs and music-hall trivialities. Every Sunday the programme is brought to me, whereon every one is down for his little contribution, which he sings lustily or chaffingly, as the case may be. We pass an hour together, and we are amused, which is the principal thing.

p. 209-10: We have fortunately an extremely well-furnished library with about 1,500 volumes of scientific works, travel-books, novels, plays, and artistic and classical literature, to distract, instruct, or help us in our work. The crew has the right of dipping into these to a great extent, but I have thought it best to strike off the catalogue for their use a whole series of volumes that seemed to me harmful, or at least useless, to most of these good fellows, who are happily still very much children of nature. The volumes which circulate most in the ward-room are undoubtedly those of the Dictionnaire Larousse, which, apart from the instruction which it gives us in our isolation from the rest of the world, cuts short if it does not completely check, discussions which would otherwise threaten to be interminable. Whether or not Larousse provides the solution, in a life like ours discussions are inevitable. They are one of the occupations, often one of the plagues, of Polar expeditions, and I well understand why, during a celebrated English Antarctic expedition, they should have been punished by fines when they overran the comparatively short hours when they were permitted. I must hasten to add that on our ship they seldom turned bitter, and the clouds which they may have raised quickly dispersed.

Further, most of us are watching one another, trying (to use the expression of one of my colleagues) to ‘study the psychology of the restricted community.’ Much has been said about cafard polaire (though it is too frequently invoked as an excuse), and it is certain that this life in common, with no possibility of finding distraction from temporary failure of nerves, with no hope of being able to take a meal alone or in other company, has its painful moments. Our arrangements on board at least allowed every one to find solitude in his own cabin, contrary to the rule of most expeditions, where two and sometimes three lived in the same room. This is one of the reasons why I advocate that even the crew should have a place to shut themselves in.

p. 211: August 23.—I read in to-day’s (!) Matin that Casablanca had just been taken by our Marines. Now one of our men, Thomas, was in the company that landed. I take the opportunity of going on to the mess deck, and after a few explanatory words to his comrades, giving him a special packet of tobacco. [This would have been the paper of a year earlier.

p. 229: Otherwise we tried to kill time as best we could and endured our ills patiently. We spent the morning in the warmth of our bed-sacks. A cake of chocolate sufficed for breakfast, and all the scraps of newspaper found in the parcels were read and reread.

p. 277, on Bridgeman Island which was reputed to be in full volcanic eruption, but which Charcot believed to be only swirling dust: We take numerous photographs of it, of which one notably proves not only the skill of the artist accompanying Dumont d’Urville, whose picture is before our eyes, but also that there has been no change of shape since the passage of the Astrolabe and the Zélée. [French edition is Le’Pourquoi-pas?’ dans l’Antarctique 1908-1910. Préface de Pierre Drach. Paris, Flammarion, 1968]