Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer on Madhouse at the End of the World: "Julian Sancton’s impressive research and incisive writing style ensures that this lockdown story grips like the pack ice."
There’s a startling opening to Madhouse at the End of the World a sailing book recounting the Belgica’s 1897-9 expedition to the Antarctic:
Frederick Cook, a doctor, serving 14 years for fraud in Leavenworth Goal, Kansas, has finished his voluntary night duty among the inmates howling from the agony of opium deprivation, when he is visited by the most famous polar explorer of this generation, Roald Amundsen.
The deep bond between the men was forged 25 years earlier when they were shipmates on Adrien de Gerlache’s flawed scientific exploration to Antarctica.
Nation’s pride at stake
The 31-year-old de Gerlache had spent three years raising funds for his expedition and was acutely conscious of the extent to which his nation’s pride was involved.
He was desperate to achieve some sort of ‘first’ – ideally the discovery of the south magnetic pole, but almost anything would do, if it increased knowledge of the mysterious continent.
The Belgica, a 113’ three-masted steam whaler, carried a mixed crew, mainly Belgians and Norwegians with two full time scientists, collecting and recording data.
There were two cats until the captain lost his temper and threw one overboard:
‘the wretched animal swam and screeched for as long as it was in sight’, wrote one of the young Norwegians, who would later die a similarly horrible death.
It was the pressure of expectation (and the lack of funds) which drove de Gerlache and his captain, Georges Lecointe, to take the fateful decision to continue heading south when winter was closing in.
A grim toll
The Belgica spent almost a year trapped in the Antarctic ice, more than three months in unrelieved darkness.
Scurvy and mental illness took a grim toll.
While Amundsen almost welcomed the privations as they contributed to his dream of becoming an outstanding explorer and Dr Cook devised ingenious and sometimes effective remedies, most of the rest of the crew suffered anguish in body and mind.
There were more deaths and the survivors knew they had been extraordinarily lucky to escape before enduring a second winter.
Julian Sancton’s impressive research and incisive writing style ensures that this lockdown story grips like the pack ice.
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