Julian Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth tells the riveting, page-turning story of the Belgica’s multinational expedition to Antarctica, led by Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache. This may be not be among the best-known stories of Antarctic exploration, but it is certainly among the most harrowing, as well as the most haunting, with an abundance of both natural and human drama.
And this book is almost as much about two not-yet-famous members of the crew—Frederick Cook, the American doctor; and Roald Amundsen, who would later be the first reach to the South Pole—as it is about de Gerlache and the Belgica expedition. The intriguing prologue, a 1926 meeting at Leavenworth penitentiary between Cook and Amundsen, sets the tone for the unpredictable journey onboard the Belgica years earlier.
The Belgica set sail in August of 1897 with the goal of reaching the South Magnetic Pole, at the 75th parallel. The expedition was significant in that “Belgium, little Belgium … was staking a claim to the next frontier of Antarctic exploration”—yet for many reasons, de Gerlache couldn’t sail with an all-Belgian crew. And, in fact, the addition of Cook and Amundsen were almost accidental. After the doctor he’d hired dropped out, de Gerlache turned to a telegram from Cook that he’d initially dismissed, deciding that giving Cook a chance was better than having no doctor onboard at all. He also took a chance on a young, inexperienced adventurer who’d sent him a letter asking to be part of the expedition: Amundsen would be named first mate.
The expedition’s problems began immediately, with seasickness and fighting among the crew, which intensified in the ports along the way, where liquor was readily available. The inability of de Gerlache to control his crew followed him as they continued south: “Since the Belgica had no official naval commission … he could not threaten a court-martial or keep offenders in shackles … It was not easy to keep control of a fractious, multilingual, multinational crew.” The most de Gerlache could do was fire the men, which ended up leaving him with more foreigners than Belgians on board when they left Punta Arenas.
Amundsen, in fact, was better prepared than his commandant, having studied French and Flemish before the expedition, and it served him well amid what Cook would later describe as the “language of the Belgica”—a mix of Flemish, German, and Norwegian. It’s not until later in the book that Sancton reveals a twist that changes Amundsen’s role and his relationship with de Gerlache.
And, as with any great adventure novel, these early tensions brilliantly set up what’s to come. By the time de Gerlache gets his first glimpse of the Antarctic continent, he “had conceived of the expedition, raised the money for it, endured arrows from the Belgian press and other naysayers, suffered delay after humiliating delay, and narrowly averted a mutiny and a shipwreck, and already he had lost one of the men under his command.”
Amid the dramas onboard, Sancton reveals the explorations on the ice as well, including plenty of near misses and narrow escapes, and the stakes get higher when the Belgica finds herself stuck in pack ice, where she’ll remain during the long Antarctic Night. “There was no way of knowing how large the pack was. To find its limits, the men would have to travel far from the ship, but to do so would be to risk never finding the Belgica again. Also unknown was the distance to land.” This being 1898, the crew had no way to seek help from the bottom of the world, no way to communicate with anyone north while in a still largely uncharted region.
Unfortunately, the crew did not bond over their shared uncertain fate; de Gerlache, letting his ambitions get in the way, made several missteps when it came to where they were and where he planned to take them, and he lost the trust of his crew. Cook and Amundsen became leaders of sorts during this time of little to no daylight, of “soft, colorless gobs” of canned food, as the men began to break down, physically and mentally. “The combination of fear and fatigue, depression and disorientation, darkness and isolation, the risk that the Belgica might be crushed in the ice at any moment, a slanted floor that had never leveled out after the formidable pressures of late May and seemed to skew reality itself, an infestation of rats, and a ship-wide illness with no obvious cause made most of the men feel as if they were losing their grip on sanity.”
The Polish scientist Henryk Arctowski put it simply: “We are in a mad-house.”
Yet both Cook and Amundsen continued to thrive, with Cook being much-needed as the ship’s doctor, and each of them taking advantage of the horrible conditions to learn and plan for future polar expeditions of their own. When Cook realized the men were suffering from scurvy, he ordered the killing of penguins and seals, which improved the men’s health even as it took an emotional toll. Hunting intelligent animals who were unafraid of humans and, in many cases, big enough to require a violent killing became demoralizing. The gruesome treatment of Antarctic animals will not surprise any reader of polar exploration; seals, penguins, and other birds were killed for science and for meat. At one point the men took penguins onboard as pets; they all died.
The ship’s prison of ice—and the crew’s attempts to free themselves—make for page-turning reading; amid this race against time and ice, the men are barely clinging to health and sanity. Madhouse at the End of the Earth reads like a thriller—alternately a psychological thriller, a medical thriller, and a high-seas action thriller. And even amid the grim narrative, there’s hope: Despite the misfortunes that befell the Belgica crew nearly every step of the way, several miracles happened that allowed them to break free of the ice and head north again, and this nail-biting journey home is just as fascinating as the journey to Antarctica.
In the end, de Gerlache didn’t make it to the South Magnetic Pole, but his return was celebrated nonetheless. And Sancton doesn’t end the story there; we learn what happened in the journey’s aftermath: the sickness, death, and mental illness that followed many of the men home—and of future expeditions as well, particularly for Cook and Amundsen, whose post-Belgica lives, though intertwined, took decidedly different turns.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth is gripping, insightful, and meticulously researched—with vivid details down to how the men looked and dressed and felt at key moments—and it is as much as about human psychology and human nature as it is about Antarctica and exploration.