Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica's Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton

A true story of a polar expedition in 1897 that explored Antarctica. They made some amazing scientific discoveries, and hit many ‘firsts’. One of them, unfortunately, was the first polar expedition to spend a winter locked in the ice of Antarctica. There were many interesting characters on this expedition and we have first-hand accounts from them in journals, and photos. To spoil the ending, they mostly all make it but it didn’t feel like they would.

Sailing expeditions make my heart pump and this book was a great adventure! I sometimes wish I was an explorer on one of these journeys. I was working on a huge cruise ship for a time, and the feeling of being in the middle of the ocean is incredible. You are away from civilization. There is no cell phone service. I can imagine it must’ve felt even more incredible in the 1890s. Radio hadn’t even been invented yet. The age of sail was mostly over, but the Belgica was a ship with sails and a coal steam engine. These men signed up to travel half-way across the world to a place that they didn’t even have an accurate map for. They were literally going to ‘uncharted territory’. That stirs a great excitement in my heart, as I imagine it did in theirs.

The book moves along at a nice pace all the way from the inception of this expedition by de Gerlache. It chronicles their tribulations along the way and gives you direct quotes from different crew mates, from their journals, along with the narrative of where they went and what they did. This is an incredible story of survival under very difficult conditions. These are men trapped in a boat with no TV, radio, or phone for at least 365 days in the ice. It’s a physiological test as much as a physical test.

In the beginning of this review, I told you I wish I was on one of these expeditions…but not this one; being trapped on the ice and being at the mercy of the shifting ice floes must’ve been a terrifying experience. At any moment, your ship could be crushed by ice and you would drown or freeze to death. If hell is all fire, and pain…the winter in Antarctica must be the anti-hell. No animals. No other humans. Just white, grey, desolate ice as far as the eye can see.

One of the people in the expedition, the physician, was also an avid photographer. The author included many of his photographs in the back of the book. At different points throughout this book, I also checked the internet for more photos of this journey and more detailed maps of where they went. There are many maps at the start of the book, but it’s hard to flip back and forth all the time. Reading books like this, I learn geography as well as history!

If you enjoy these sorts of arctic tales of survival, I heartily enjoyed “The Terror” by Dan Simmons. It is a fictional tale of the doomed 1845 Sir John Franklin Northwest Passage expedition. Not a lot is known about that expedition, so he fills in the blanks with his imagination. Maybe there was something out there on the ice? How did the 150+ crew all die? It is a page-turning blend of artic adventure and gothic horror. (What a genre eh?)

Now that I’ve whetted my appetite for adventure with this book, I am seeking a good book to read about Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition. These two books look like great candidates:

  • Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie, John Geiger

  • Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time by Michael Palin

Rating: ★★★★★

Book #16 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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