Who Discovered the Antarctic Continent?

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In this excerpt from the Atlas of Antarctica, cartographer Peter Fretwell sets out four contenders for the fame of finding Antarctica. You would be forgiven for thinking it would be easy to find a continent twice the size of Australia, but that wasn’t the case for Antarctica. Captain Cook, one of the greatest sailors in history, attempted to navigate the Southern Ocean twice in the 1770s, but never looked at the land and was unable to cross the dense ice sheet surrounding the coast.

From the mountainous icebergs, he predicted that the land should exist further south, but it would be so desolate and not worth the effort to find it. He was right that the land exists, but he was wrong about its value. It was fifty years ago that it was seen at the end of Antarctica, and was subsequently seen by three more explorers almost the same year.

Who exactly ‘discovered’ the continent is a matter of debate among scientists, and this debate revolves around what exactly makes Antarctica. The first claim belongs to William Smith, the British captain of a cargo ship sailing from Cape Horn to Valparaiso. Smith was running south down the Drake Passage to avoid one of the devastating storms common in that part of the world.

As dawn broke on February 19, 1819, he saw the high, rocky island that now bears his name. The island is part of the South Shetland Islands, the northernmost archipelago in Antarctica. Closer inspection showed that the beach is home to many fur seals, a potential gold mine for seals, and Smith knew this. He set sail for Chile eager to keep his discovery a secret until he informed the British Admiralty’s office in Santiago. Upon arrival, he commanded the flagship and assigned Edward Bransfield, a naval captain in charge.

The ship returned to the newly discovered islands as soon as the spring came. What a shock he must have had! By the time he got there, several other ships were already crossing the island chain. They belonged to the sealers. William Smith might not have betrayed the game, but his sailors gossiped in the harbor and the seal hunters, who appreciated the pristine hunting grounds, sailed as soon as they heard the news.