Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton is a wonderful non-fiction account of the ill-fated 1897 expedition – the first ever to winter in the Antarctic region – which chronicles approximately two years in which the crew of the Norwegian-built Belgica faced a bleak prospect after becoming trapped in the ice. Insanity, death, cabin fever and a fear of starvation blighted the expedition, with several men succumbing to the symptoms of scurvy. The events are so well described by Sancton that one can’t fail to be impressed by such hardships these men had to endure, and we gain an admiration for their powerful survival instincts and resourcefulness.
Among its members were Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook, explorers who would later attempt their own conquests of the North and South Poles.
The description of the events are gathered from first-hand accounts – this was an expedition where a large amount of the crew kept detailed journals, as well as exclusive access to the ship’s logbook – and it tells a compelling story. I have read several books on the subject of polar voyages or shipping disasters in extreme areas of the world – The HMS Terror and Erebus are examples of similar doomed expeditions – but this book is the most detailed and the one that really offers a clear understanding of the fear and hardships these men were forced to harbour and endure.
What is conveyed most strongly in the book is the personalities of those involved – Amundsen and Cook and the commander, Adrien de Gerlache – and we get a wonderful insight into these men’s characters and get to understand what drove them. Frederick Cook, in particular, ended up with the most tarnished reputation after accusations of him falsifying his later exploration achievements and his involvement in a fraud case relating to the start-up of some oil companies and his subsequent imprisonment.
It reads almost as a thriller. The early section of the book draws all the characters together and shows us their backstories and motivations. It paints a strong picture of what life was like at that time. Then, as the expedition progresses, events take on a sinister turn when the captain makes the fateful decision to sail on, into the ice pack, in an effort to chase glory and fame, but also risking the lives of the crew at the same time. And the vessel did indeed get stuck in the ice. With winter drawing in, during a time where sunlight would not appear for many months, the men were forced to endure such a torrid time that even today, NASA’s experts planning far-long space exploration flights, use the studies gathered from this voyage as evidence of what extreme isolation can do to the human mind and body. It’s simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.
This really is a terrific book, one that will appeal to historians as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The writing is accessible and the nautical terminology easy to understand, and it’s rare for non-fiction to be such a page-turner, but Madhouse at the End of the Earth manages to satisfy on every level. Highly recommended.