Who really discovered Antarctica? Depends who you ask.

In 1820, two rival expeditions set out to discover Antarctica—but only one could be first.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 29 Jan 2020, 15:46 GMT
The S.S. Terra Nova ferried explorers to Antarctica from 1910 to 1912. Originally a whaling ship, ...
The S.S. Terra Nova ferried explorers to Antarctica from 1910 to 1912. Originally a whaling ship, after Antarctica, the ship was a supply vessel until it sank in 1943 off Southern Greenland.
Photograph by Herbert G. Ponting, Nat Geo Image Collection

Two hundred years since the discovery of Antarctica, the frozen continent is known as a hotbed of scientific exploration and a place of adventure and icy peril. But who really discovered the new continent? That depends on how you define “discovered.” The fateful spotting could be attributed to a Russian expedition on January 27, 1820—or a British one just three days later.

Captain James Cook, an explorer for the British Royal Navy, searched for Antarctica for three years but never found the continent. At one point, he was only 80 miles from the coast.

Photograph by De Agostini, Getty

By the early 19th century, explorers had been on the hunt for a massive southern continent they called Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”). This vast landmass, it was thought, would “balance out” the land in the Northern Hemisphere. But early attempts to find the continent had flopped. Captain James Cook had spent three years looking for it during his second voyage from 1772-1775. The expedition took Cook and his men into the Antarctic Circle, but the explorer eventually called it quits after failing to find the continent.

Cook was convinced there was more to the story, though. “I firmly believe that there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the Source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean,” he wrote at the expedition’s end, but “The risk one runs in exploring a coast in these unknown and Icy Seas, is so very great, that I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored.” As it turned out, Cook had been just 80 miles from the continent’s coast at one point in his journey. (Discover the deadly disease that haunted sailors during the Age of Discovery.)

Cook’s travels spurred on other explorers, but none succeeded and the quest for the “unknown southern land” was considered impossible. Then, the search for Antarctica heated up again thanks to international rivalries and the potential profits from seal skins hunted in frigid waters. Global competition for territory and economic dominance prompted explorers from Russia, England, and the United States toward Antarctica.

In 1819, Russia tasked Fabian von Bellingshausen with going further south than Cook. On January 27, 1820, he looked toward solid ice that was likely an ice shelf attached to Antarctic land now known as Queen Maud Land. Unbeknownst to him, he had company: Three days later, British naval officer Edward Bransfield spotted the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. (See Antarctic explorers' huts frozen in time.)

Though von Bellingshausen was technically the first to see the unknown continent, writes historian David Day, his accomplishment was hidden for decades by an incorrect translation of his journal that led historians to assume he hadn’t actually seen land. Americans weren’t far behind: John Davis, a sealer and explorer, was the first person to step foot on Antarctic land in 1821.

The race to find Antarctica sparked competition to locate the South Pole—and stoked another rivalry. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen found it on December 14, 1911. Just over a month later, Robert Falcon Scott found it, too. He turned back with disastrous results. Scott’s entire party perished, and the expedition is still regarded as a failure. Yet when Amundsen spoke to the Royal Geographic Society in a ceremony honoring his achievement, writes historian Edward J. Larson, attendees cheered for the explorer’s dogs, but not for him. Antarctica may be chilly, but the passions it stokes in the hearts of explorers and their champions are fiery indeed.


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