Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Book cover: Madhouse at the End of the Earth against a white background with a white pine tree next to it.

Since I, like much of the United States, am currently baking in this oppressive heat and humidity, a book on being trapped in the frozen, unceasing night of an Antarctic winter seems delightful.  Madhouse at the End of the Earth paints a vivid picture of Antarctica’s dangerous beauty. By the end, I even started looking into trips to Antarctica.  (Seems unlikely to happen, but you never know.)

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a non-fiction examination of the journey of The Belgica in 1897.  A young Belgian aristocrat, Adrien de Gerlache, wanted to do his family name proud by accomplishing something extraordinary.  Though tiny Belgium, newly independent, did not have much of a naval tradition to speak of, the sea enchanted young de Gerlache. He took every chance he could to sail, becoming a captain in his own right.

It seemed to him that in some ways, he was born too late and others had already made the important discoveries and captured the glory, particularly when it came to the Arctic.  Soon, however, his thoughts turned to the largely unexplored South Pole.  Perhaps there he could make a name for himself.  And so, de Gerlache decided he would lead a team to find the magnetic South Pole. 

The early part of the book focuses on de Gerlache’s life and his attempts to put together a crew.  It quickly becomes apparent that while de Gerlache might be a good sailor, he is not a great a leader.  Fearful of what the press might say if he did not crew his ship with mostly Belgians, he made very questionable staffing choices for a journey where having the right people in the right position was crucial. 

Eventually, The Belgica entered the waters surrounding Antarctica and the euphoria of reaching their destination and seeing sights very few humans ever had buoyed the crew. But soon, reality crept in. The men remembered how short the polar summer is and how unforgiving the ice will be.  A fateful decision by de Gerlache resulted in the ship becoming trapped in sea ice and the crew locked into enduring the harshest winter conditions on the planet. 

As light disappears, so does sanity and soon the question seems to be what will kill the men first? The environment, the lack of nutrition, or each other?

I can’t really explain why books/shows about early polar exploration are so enthralling to me, but it’s a category on my bookshelf.  (Small, to be sure, but there.) Of course, there’s Endurance by Alfred Lansing, the definitive book on the Shackleton expedition across the South Pole.  After watching The Terror on AMC, I also bought and read Paul Watson’s book Ice Ghosts, which chronicled the parallel stories of the doomed Franklin Expedition searching for the Northwest Passage and the modern expedition searching for the wrecks of those ships (of which the author was a part). 

But I think what really gets me is when I stand at the edge of one of the Great Lakes (or my rare chance to stand at the edge of the ocean) and look across, where there is nothing but sea and sky, there’s a tiny part of me that thrills at the thought of boarding a ship and seeing where the water will take me.  

However, this is likely the closest I will ever come to exploring either the Arctic or Antarctic. Standing about a foot away from shore on a frozen over Lake Erie during a polar vortex.

Even with the supposedly more advanced and technological knowledge of European explorers in the early 20th century, sailing the oceans was a huge gamble and the Arctic/Antarctic oceans even more so.  As Sancton makes clear in this book, it was the sailors and explorers who stopped and learned from the Inuit who had the best chances of surviving. 

A fortunate last-minute addition to the crew, the ship’s doctor an American named Frederick Cook was one such survivalist.  Cook previously served on an expedition to Greenland, where he took great interest in learning from and about the indigenous people (in typical “scientific” racist ways).  Many of those observations helped saved lives on The Belgica, such as how the Inuit avoided scurvy despite the distinct lack of citrus fruits in Greenland.  De Gerlache, however, continued to hold fast to accepted European wisdom of how to prevent scurvy, even as the disease continues to ravage the men following his prescriptions and disappears in those following Cook’s.

Overall, this is a well-researched and well-written look into an event about which I had no knowledge.  There are a few places where things get a little repetitive, but it’s not detrimental to book.  Sancton does a good job using primary sources to give us an insight into what these men were going through, while also being clear what is conjecture or an educated guess.  And he himself did visit Antarctica in the process of writing this book.  While obviously a different experience than being trapped in a wooden ship (or so I would hope), I think it really helped him describe what the men of The Belgica saw and experienced.  So if you’re looking for a way to trick your brain into thinking you’re cold and are interested in seafaring exploration, the Antarctic, and/or how people handle extreme situations, check out Madhouse at the End of the Earth.

One last reminder of winter to better enjoy summer

Find it online here