On this day in 1820, a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen spotted an ice shelf attached to Antarctic land now known as Queen Maud Land, making them the first to see the long-sought-after Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”) many explorers before had tried–and failed–to locate. It should have been a major accomplishment, giving Bellingshausen fame, glory, and his name in history books.
Except, it didn’t.
For over a hundred years, countries had been itching to claim victory and ownership of this far Southern land by being the first to actually prove it existed. Many empires had sent forth their bravest explorers in hopes of bringing prestige to their crowns. Most notable among these is Captain James Cook, who would later go on to make the first European contact with the coasts of Australia and Hawaii. Cook spent three years looking for Antarctica during his second voyage, which lasted 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–although later exploration would show Cook had been just a mere 80 miles from the continent’s coast.
So when Bellingshausen finally spotted Antarctica after so many failed attempts, it was a big deal, not only in the name of science, but also for geography–here, finally was proof the long-rumored continent existed.
Except, Bellingshausen is rarely given credit (outside of Russia) for his discovery.
For many years, tribute was instead paid to Edward Bransfield, an Irish sailor on a British expedition, who spotted what would later become known as the Trinity peninsula just three days later on January 30, 1820.
So, why the confusion?
It appears that while Bransfield was immediately aware of what he saw, describing “high mountains covered with snow,” Bellingshausen, it seems, took a more cautious approach. He was unwilling to claim definitive sighting of the lost continent because he wasn’t sure if, through the haze, what he was seeing was actual land or merely a large, floating iceberg. Because of this, upon Bellingshausen’s return to Russia, his “discovery” was largely ignored. In later years, an incorrect translation of his journal and some confusion over the specific date of his observations only stood to further discredit his findings. It’s only been more recently, under closer analysis and better understanding of the records, that Bellingshausen’s achievement has come to light. Most experts now agree he did see the continent earlier than anyone else. His descriptions of the lie of the land, mountain peaks, and ice caps tie into what explorers now know to be a spot on the northwestern coast of the continent.
Of course, the British still refuse to give up their claim of discovery, even despite this new evidence and Russia’s insistence on “righting the history books.” It’s become a point of national pride; so much so, in fact, that even America has gotten into the fight, though its explorer, Nathaniel Palmer, didn’t arrive until November 1820.
So, who discovered Antarctica and when?
Depends on who you ask. 😉