There’s only one continent on Earth that has never seen war or poverty, never seen slavery or genocide. Not coincidentally, it’s the only continent that probably had never seen a human being until the 19th century. Antarctica is no utopia: It is the coldest, windiest, driest place on the planet, inimical to human life and, beyond its coasts, virtually to life itself — surely the very reason it once held such an outsized place in the imaginations of would-be explorers around the globe. Yet today, as nations and audacious billionaires compete to reach an even less hospitable frontier — the surface of Mars — Antarctica stands as a beacon of hope for our species, a model of international scientific collaboration, proof that the story of exploration does not have to be a story of conquest.
Antarctica has plenty of natural resources to fight over, however difficult they might be to extract. But the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 forbids military activity on the continent. A subsequent agreement, the Madrid protocol of 1991, sets aside Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” Even as the thawing Arctic threatens to break out into conflict, with rival nations jockeying for rights to newly accessible oil deposits, the Pax Antarctica perseveres, upheld by the treaty’s 54 parties, among them adversaries like China and the United States.
The spiritual forebear of this geopolitical miracle is an explorer who has been overlooked by history, Adrien de Gerlache, commandant of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99. Before explorers who are better known today — before Ernest Shackleton, before Robert Falcon Scott, before Douglas Mawson — de Gerlache led the first purely scientific expedition to the southernmost continent, aboard a ship called the Belgica. Bucking the turn-of-the-century jingoistic frenzy that would soon lead to world war, de Gerlache’s mission established a model of international cooperation. The physician was American, the scientists were Eastern European, the cook was French, and half of the crew was Norwegian, including the first mate, future polar legend Roald Amundsen. During the Belgica’s journey, her frozen halyards flew not only the Belgian colors but at times the Stars and Stripes, the Norwegian banner, and even the Brazilian flag, which they were given during a stopover in Rio de Janiero.
The Belgica’s role in setting the continent on a peaceful course has been underappreciated because the expedition claimed few of the big firsts of polar exploration. But given what happened to the ship and the crew, their mere return was a heroic exploit in its own right.
It began as an effort to document Antarctica’s flora and fauna and geology, to sound its seabed and chart its coastlines. It turned into a harrowing struggle for survival after de Gerlache sailed relentlessly south into the thickening sea ice. The Belgica was stuck fast for more than a year. Not remotely prepared to endure an Antarctic winter, the 18 men aboard were stricken with scurvy, plagued by a mysterious polar malaise, and driven to the brink of insanity. Some crossed over into madness.
Like many explorers, de Gerlache was a dreamer, but unlike most he was not a conqueror. He had turned down an offer from Belgium’s King Leopold II to chart the river system in the Congo, which Leopold ruled brutally as a personal fiefdom. The assignment would have ingratiated de Gerlache with the king. But de Gerlache had little appetite for colonialism. He later approached Leopold to bankroll his Antarctic dream, but the king refused in turn, seeing no profit to be pried from a frozen, unpopulated land.
At a time when exploration and exploitation went hand in hand, de Gerlache charted another path. In the proposal for his expedition, he made no mention of any potential benefit aside from glory and knowledge, no resources to be extracted or virgin fisheries to claim. His belief in the value of science for its own sake set him apart from other explorers of the day hoping to lead expeditions to Antarctica. Among those was a flamboyant New York surgeon named Frederick Cook, who shared a stage with Houdini and a manager with P.T. Barnum, enrapturing audiences with the promise of an Antarctic gold rush: “We cannot say Antarctica has not gold and diamonds as well as Africa,” Cook told a crowd of potential investors, adding to that the tantalizing possibility of encountering native Antarcticans. In the end, Cook couldn’t raise the money. The doctor decided instead to join de Gerlache’s expedition, serving as both physician and anthropologist, on the off chance that he’d been right about the Antarcticans.
The Belgica left Antwerp in August 1897 and took four months to reach the tip of South America, during which time de Gerlache faced biblical storms and stared down a mutiny. In Tierra del Fuego, at the southern edge of the continent, de Gerlache and Cook were appalled at the plight of the Fuegian natives — the Yámana, the Alacaluf, and the Selk’nam — who had been pushed to the inhospitable fringes of the land by European settlers, murdered by ranchers, and decimated by imported diseases. Cook’s photographs of the Fuegians remain invaluable records of these lost cultures.
The horrors de Gerlache and his men witnessed in Tierra del Fuego reinforced the moral simplicity of their mission. When they reached Antarctica, the only tribe for Cook to study would be his own. His observations of the way his shipmates’ minds and bodies broke down during the Belgica’s imprisonment — as well as his ingenious remedies — remain relevant, even influencing NASA’s plans for missions to Mars.
In total, the Belgica expedition made 20 landings, more than all previous expeditions to the continent combined. The men discovered a sublime mountain-lined channel along the Antarctic peninsula that is now called the Gerlache Strait. But crucially, breaking with centuries of precedent in European exploration, de Gerlache declined to stake any territorial claim on behalf of his country over the land he discovered. This distinguished him from nearly every other expedition leader in the so-called heroic age of Antarctic exploration. More pointedly, de Gerlache refused to name a land after King Leopold.
In the half century that followed, nations scrambled to subdivide Antarctica. Armed conflict seemed inevitable. But de Gerlache’s model of internationalism and scientific cooperation won the day. His son, Gaston de Gerlache, would lead his own scientific expedition to Antarctica under the auspices of the International Geophysical Year, an international scientific project in 1957 and 1958, which led directly to the signing of the Antarctic treaty in Washington, D.C., the following year. Thanks to the de Gerlaches, Belgium had one of 12 seats at the table. The successful scientific diplomacy of Antarctica, in turn, inspired a similar approach in space exploration, particularly on the International Space Station, where terrestrial rivals like the United States and Russia collaborate peacefully.
The Antarctic Treaty will expire in 2048. By then, the world may be less thirsty for whatever oil might be buried under Antarctica’s melting glaciers. And by then, it’s reasonable to assume that manned expeditions will reach Mars. We can only hope they will be led by people who prioritize discovery over conquest. People like Adrien de Gerlache.
Julian Sancton is the author of “Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey Into the Dark Antarctic Night.”