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Bernacchi and the first Antarctic winter-over expedition

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Louis Charles Bernacchi was a member of the first expedition to winter on the Antarctic continent led by Carsten Borchgrevink, a man who was determined to lead his own expedition to the continent after having been on the Antarctic.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Highlights: Borchgrevink's Huts

Bernacchi and the first Antarctic winter-over expedition

Louis Charles Bernacchi was a member of the first expedition to winter on the Antarctic continent led by Carsten Borchgrevink, a man who was determined to lead his own Antarctica expedition to the continent after having been on the Antarctic. While in England drumming up support for an expedition Borchgrevink meet Bernacchi, who at the time was dreaming of being part of the Belgian expedition that was being organised at the time.

Louis Bernacchi's statue

Writing in the Age on 9th January 1897, Bernacchi wrote enthusiastically about the planned Belgian expedition in which:

The only really successful attempt to organise such an expedition appears to be the one recently organised through the unique efforts of Monsieur de Gerlache, a Belgian naval lieutenant. Monsieur d Gerlache has been indefatigable in endeavouring to promote Antarctic exploration, and at his last efforts have been crowned with success. The money for the enterprise has been procured by a national subscription organised by the Royal Geographical Society of Brussels, and aided by the cooperation of the Belgian press. The subscription thus raised produced GBP 5,200, and this sum has been augmented by a liberal grant from the Government….La Belgica will carry a crew of about 20 men

Bernacchi’s desire to join the Belgians

Bernacchi wished to be on this expedition and he thought why not? He was half Belgian and had all the necessary qualifications or was in the process of acquiring them. While studying at the Melbourne Observatory Bernacchi wrote the Belgian expedition to explore the almost unknown regions surround the South Pole was a rare opportunity to the see the land of eternal ice and snow as was the vast array of scientific research and geographical discoveries that could be made. Shortly, Bernacchi applied to the Consul General for Belgium expressing his desire to join Belgica and offering his services in the expedition’s astronomy and magnetic departments. His hopes were high as the Consul General was a personal friend of Monsieur de Gerlache. Confirmation that he was successful in his bid to join the expedition was announced in February 1897.

Waiting for a year to join the expedition, only to be disappointed

After waiting patiently for a year bad news arrived in March 1898 when it was announced via cablegram that Belgica had been wrecked off the Cape Horn with all hands saved. This was a blow to Bernacchi as he was waiting in Melbourne for the Belgica where she was expected to have arrived in March. Despite the news being contrary to what actually happened – Belgica had been trapped in pack-ice and was to drift westerly from the Antarctic Peninsula through the winter and into the next summer before freeing herself – there was no change Bernacchi could have joined the expedition at a later date as the rest of the plans were abandoned.

Bernacchi’s plan B: Borchgrevink’s expedition

Bernacchi’s mind returned to an offer that was made to him by Carsten Borchgrevink who had suddenly found a backer in England for his expedition. Bernacchi wrote that:

In September of 1897 I had received a letter from…Borchgrevink, whom I had the pleasure of frequently meeting in Melbourne when he visited Australia for the purpose of arousing Australian interest in Antarctic exploration. He informed me that he had succeeded in finding the necessary funds for his Antarctic expedition and would be pleased to take me on his staff. Being at the time compromised with the Belgian expedition, I was compelled to decline the offier…but…added that if anything should occur which would prevent me joining Belgica I should be…..pleased to avail myself of his offer

On May 9 after hearing nothing more about the Belgian expedition Bernacchi informed the chief of the Melbourne Observatory, Mr Baracchi, that he was leaving immediately in an attempt to join Borchgrevink’s expedition. This surprised the chief who warned Bernacchi not to seek ‘cheap notoriety’ as he considered Bernacchi to have a bright future at the Observatory. Nontheless, Barrachi sent him off with a testimonial. Within days the London press announced his a member of the new expedition.

Bernacchi inducted into the expedition

In June Bernacchi arrived in London to be warmly greeted by Borchgrevink before being swept up with meetings with fellow members of staff, taking a short course at Kew Observatory in a new magnetic instrument that was to be used and helping buy instruments for the expedition. Bernacchi discovered that he was to be in charge of meteorological observations and photography (a hobby of his) and along with another staff member, William Colbeck, a magnetic observer. They were to be part of the plan Borchgrevink had hatched in which the expedition was to spend a year on the continent right through its unchartered winter, taking observations, making zoological collections and exploring inland as far as possible. The ship that was to take the expedition to Antarctica was not to stay for the year in fear it may be locked in and crushed by the ice, although Borchgrevink hoped that they could do some preliminary exploring with her.

Learning the magnetic observation ropes

At Kew Observatory Bernacchi began studying the operation of a new unifilar instrument for taking magnetic observations, with it being purchased from the Royal Society for GBD 60. The magnetic surveying to be undertaken by the expedition was considered to be one of the more interesting aspects of the overall programme as it was important to the navigation of ships in the southern seas and for understanding magnetism. The Royal Society in particular took a keen interest in the men who were chosen as observers and gave what advice they could on the subject. Bernacchi found the reception by the scientific community encouraging, unaware they did not share the same warm feelings towards Borchgrevink. In fact, Clememts Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society opposed Borchgrevink for many years.

Bidding farewells to friends and family

Finally on 22 August 1898, the Southern Cross left the docks into the Thames on her long voyage south. For Bernacchi this had been a day he had been dreaming about since his youth, yet he found it disturbing writing in his diary that ‘’a strange confliction of emotions prevailed that day among the members of the expedition: excitement, anxiety, expectation, pride and unutterable sorrow. Sorrow at parting with friends and relatives…I was glad I had few friends in England to bid adieu to….that ordeal awaited me in Australia’’.  

Hobart’s grand send-off plans

In Australia plans were already underway for a massive send off for their journey southwards to Antarctica. Hobart, where the ship was to dock for two and a half weeks was putting together a massive entertainment programme that aimed to repeat the send off it gave Sir James Ross 58 years earlier. When the ship finally departed a large crowd assembled with cheers for the explorers. Vessels in the harbour dipped their flags and the Battery Point signalman was ordered to hoist the signal ‘ Farewell, and a prosperous return’. From Government House windows were opened with people waving out to the men.

Heading south to the unknown

Now the journey south truly began with Bernacchi writing that ‘’we have started for the cold land of the South – for the world’s end! But what to expect in that land of mystery and desolution it were rash to decide. Joy and satisfaction beamed upon every face; all are anxious for the encounter with the ice.

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