White Continent Chronicles: Sweden’s Daring Expedition (1901-1904)

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The 25-year period from 1897 to 1922 was an era in the history of Antarctica marked by numerous exploratory expeditions. During this Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, as this period is called, there was an international focus on the scientific and geographical exploration of the South Polar regions. Each expedition took place before advances in transport and communication had revolutionised the work of exploration. As a result, they were all feats of endurance with limited resources. The “heroic” label acknowledged the adversities faced by these pioneers. In total, 16 major expeditions were launched from 8 different countries during this era. One of which is the first Swedish endeavour to Antarctica. 

As part of an international program, the first Swedish South Polar Expedition was organized in October 1901. The main purposes of the scientific expedition were to build a winter station on the east coast of Graham Land, to explore this part of Antarctica and to make meteorological, geological, and geomagnetic observations. The journey was led by Otto Nordenskjöld, sailed to Antarctica on the ship ANTARCTIC. Dr. Nils Otto Nordenskjöld was a Swedish geologist, and a polar pioneer. He was one of the first geographers with a scholarly background to explore and research in Antarctica. Along with the 32-year-old Nordenskjöld, seven other scientists, 16 officers and men made the voyage south. The command was placed under an experienced Antarctic explorer, Captain Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian-born whaler, and Antarctic explorer who had commanded the JASON during a whaling reconnaissance mission in 1892-1893 as far south into the Weddell Sea. A young geographer-geologist-anthropologist, named Dr. Gunnar Andersson, was going to join the ship at the Falkland Islands and assume leadership after Nordenskjöld’s group was dropped off at their wintering station. Plans then called for the Antarctic and its remaining crew to carry out research in the region during the summer and fall before returning the following year to pick up Nordenskjöld and his men. A good plan but this expedition developed into one of the most astonishing survival stories of the Heroic Age of exploration.

The expedition was not well funded being entirely dependent on private contributions. The ANTARCTIC left Gothenburg on October 16, 1901 and arrived at Buenos Aires on December 15. Nordenskjold received an offer of food, fuel and help from the Argentinian government if the ship took an Argentinian naval officer Jose Sobral with them, he was also to be a part of the wintering party. They went on via the Falkland Islands sighting King George Island in the South Shetlands on the 10th of January 1902. After a short trip ashore at Nelson Island, they carried on south determining the lie of the land on the Western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, clarifying the presence of a strait rather than a bay which enabled them to keep on sailing south.

Time was pressing so despite wanting to continue further south, they turned around and began to sail north. They landed on Paulet Island, from there crossed Erebus and Terror Gulf and made a depot on Seymour Island and proceeded south further down the Eastern side until they were stopped at 60°10’S by a band of ice. They attempted to sail east around it but with no end in sight and winter due to arrive soon, they turned back towards the Peninsula sighting land again on the 9th of February. For his winter campsite Nordenskjöld chose Snow Hill Island. He and five others were put ashore with equipment, supplies and sledge dogs after which the ANTARCTIC headed north for the Falklands.

The first project the men completed was a small magnetic observatory which served as shelter until the prefabricated hut could be built. However, it became clear that the chosen base, Snow Hill, was a very exposed and storm-prone area with storms lasting for days at a time. Soon the magnetic hut was destroyed, and several dogs died in the storms. In June one of the boats was blown away and wrecked. The men kept themselves busy with various scientific studies while their living conditions were not ideal. They became slowly grey as did everything in the hut covered in soot from the burning of coal and blubber to keep warm. Undaunted, after various failures, they prepared equipment and sledging food to start later in the season when the weather was better. Nordenskjöld made several trips by boat and dog sledge to establish depots. When spring arrived, Nordenskjöld, Sobral and seaman Jonassen set off for the eastern part of Oscar II Coast again with the men towing one sledge and the dogs the other. On a good day they could travel 30 miles, but this was the exception as the terrain was filled with crevasses, one of which nearly cost Nordenskjöld his life. Despite the extreme hurdles, the three men made it back to winter quarters on October 31 having covered 380 miles in 33 days.

By the end of November, the sea ice had still not broken up. In early December Nordenskjöld made a sledge journey to Seymour Island and made some important fossil discoveries but heavy on his mind was the fact that the sea ice was not breaking up and the ship was nowhere in sight. The ship had been expected any day in January and February yet still she did not show up and their fate was sealed on February 18 when a storm came in from the south and froze the sea completely over. The men were depressed, to say the least, at the prospects of spending another cold winter in the damp, cramped winter quarters on Snow Hill Island. 

The second winter (1903) was passed with meteorological readings and some sledging journeys for variety. On the 12th of October, Nordenskjöld and Jonassen on such a journey saw three men in the distance who turned out to be Gunnar Andersson, Lieutenant Duse and Toralf Grunden from their ship the ANTARCTIC. This meeting point was thus named Cape Well-met. Though black with soot and unrecognisable, the three stranded men from the ANTARCTIC brought another incredible story of courage. After the winter, on the way back to Snow Hill Island, the ANTARCTIC got stuck in the ice and sank. 

At this point, the expedition members were divided into three groups. Nordenskjöld’s group overwintered an extra year on Snow Hill Island, whereas the other two groups were forced to build stone huts to overwinter at Hope Bay and Paulet Island. An Argentinean vessel, the CORBETA URUGUAY, rescued all three groups of the expedition in November 1903. They left Antarctica for Buenos Aires where the crew transferred to a steamer for Stockholm.

Less is known about the impact of the exploration and research undertaken in this dramatic expedition. The scientists had gathered much valuable scientific information despite their difficulties and published reports that set the standard for subsequent expeditions. The expedition had also made significant contributions to exploring the geography of the Antarctic Peninsula. These things were accomplished while overcoming formidable obstacles requiring bravery and tenacity by all to survive the events of the expedition.

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