Although even the ancient Greeks were convinced there was a southern land territory, it still remained unknown or at least undiscovered for most of the first two millennia. The Maoris and Polynesians in their ancient cultures also tell of legends of a huge white land far to the south. Terra Australis Incognita, meaning ‘Unknown Southern Land’ is first titled on a map dated 1513, discovered in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul only as recently as 1929. (The title clearly illustrates the origin of the name Australia). Sara Wheeler’s wonderful story of her time spent at several South Pole bases is also entitled Terra Incognita. There are some who argue that the legendary lost world of Atlantis was actually based where Antarctica now lies and that a tremendous disaster, natural or otherwise, destroyed that civilisation and caused it to become the ice wilderness it now is. Of course it is only a theory, like those that claim Atlantis was originally in South America or in the Sahara. Until real evidence can be provided we must accept only the knowledge we presently have and honour the great adventurers who tried desperately for so many centuries to find this most remote of all the lands.
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Captain James Cook was the first seafarer to circumnavigate the continent of Antarctica on his voyages in 1772-1775 in the ships, Resolution and Adventure. Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle and he reached 71 oS. His initial, harsh opinion was, ‘That the world would not be benefited by a country doomed by nature to be forever buried under everlasting snow and ice.’ However, once some new territory has been discovered, a new land sighted, the curiosity of the human spirit will never be satisfied until that place has been revisited and explored. There were also intriguing stories coming back of the massive seal stocks to be found in the sub-Antarctic islands. Commercial considerations of the likely wealth implications were to prove another tremendous spur in encouraging the exploration of the region. Soon the planning of the early Antarctic explorations would commence and from then it would become only a matter of time and national pride before one explorer would be able to claim the ultimate prize. But who would it be and for the honour of which country?
Shortly after the beginning of the nineteenth century the Antarctic explorations really started in earnest. In 1819 William Smith set sail in his ship, appropriately named the Williams. The Russian explorer, Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, was also making voyages at this time. It is claimed he was actually the first to see the Antarctic continent, sailing there in his ships, Vostok and Mirnyi in 1819-21. In 1820, Edward Brans field, claimed to be the first person to see the Antarctic Peninsula; although it might have been Nathaniel Palmer, aged only 19, a sailor on the Hero also in 1820. Due to the length of the voyages and the fact it might be a year or more before ships could return with information, imprecise data on initial sightings would easily occur.
In February 1821, a sealer, John Davis, became probably the first person to actually land on the continent. Later James Weddell sailed to 74 oS, the farthest south yet reached and the sea he initially named after King George IV, now bears his name. The Frenchman, Dumont d’Urville, who earlier had persuaded the French Government to purchase the Venus de Milo, discovered Louis Philippe Land and explored down the Antarctic coastline which he proceeded to name Adelie after his wife. Her name was also given to a breed of penguin, presumably intended as a compliment, but whether to them or her is uncertain! In 1838-42 Charles Wilkes organised the largest expedition to date, its aim being to map the eastward coast, consequently it was named Wilkes Land.
Now the voyages were following thick and fast upon each other. The British expedition under Sir James Clark Ross was especially prepared to work in polar waters and its voyages took place between 1839 and 1843. His two ships, Erebus and Terror were strengthened for work in the ice, adding double hulls and reinforcing all their beams. His reputation was well established as he had located the Magnetic North Pole in 1831, when he sailed under the command of his uncle John Ross. It was a great time for discovering previously unknown places and naming them. He reached, and named, the Ross Sea and then Ross Island and also the Ross Ice Shelf (equal in size to France). Prophetically Ross’s opinion was that this enormous ice sheet, stretching as far as the eye and telescope could see and obviously far beyond, rested on a polar archipelago.