The “exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing” (The New York Times) true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry—with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter
“The energy of the narrative never flags. . . . Sancton has produced a thriller.”—The Wall Street Journal
In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica.
But de Gerlache’s plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the commandant faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. De Gerlache sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellingshausen Sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship’s occupants were condemned to months of endless night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness.
In Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton unfolds an epic story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica’s men teetered on the brink, de Gerlache relied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity: the expedition’s lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook—half genius, half con man—whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship’s first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the storybook picture of a sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice—one that would either etch their names in history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean’s bottom.
Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica’s crew and with exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep.
Journalist Sancton debuts with a riveting account of the first polar expedition to spend the winter south of the Antarctic Circle. Setting out from Antwerp in August 1897 with plans to reach the magnetic south pole, the Belgian steam whaler Belgica ran aground and nearly sank in the Beagle Channel, lost a sailor overboard, and narrowly avoided a mutiny all before reaching Antarctica. During the Antarctic summer, the expedition's scientists collected more than 100 previously unknown specimens and discovered unmapped features of the Antarctic coast line. Running far behind schedule, the ship's commandant, Adrien de Gerlache, decided to push farther south as winter approached, entrapping the Belgica in ice with the intention of resuming the journey once temperatures warmed. Vividly recreating the crew's boredom, disorientation, fatigue, depression, and hysteria during their 13-month ordeal, Sancton focuses on the expedition's American doctor, Frederick Cook, whose prescription of daily seal or penguin meat helped the crew stave off scurvy, and Norwegian first mate Roald Amundsen, who became a legendary polar explorer thanks, in part, to the lessons he learned on the Belgica. Though the prose occasionally tips over into the melodramatic, this is a well-researched and enthralling portrait of endurance and escape.
madness at end of earth