10a Biscoe and the Enderby Brothers

As their quarry approached extinction, the sealers sought new hunting grounds—but important discoveries were made during those voyages. Nationalism had instigated the circumnavigations of Antarctica by Cook and Bellingshausen, but the third was an uneasy mixture of exploration and sealing. John Biscoe, at 36, was an ex-Royal Navy seaman employed by the Enderby Brothers, the firm that had sailed into Boston Harbor with a cargo of tea in 1773, thus triggering the “Boston Tea Party” and the American War of Independence. The company needed new ventures, so it switched to whaling and sealing. The Enderby tradition combined exploration with exploitation, and captains with education and naval experience were recruited to collect flora and fauna. The policy eventually bankrupted the company, but it left an enduring legacy of Antarctic exploration. Biscoe was to seek out new sealing grounds, but also to make discoveries in high southern latitudes. His vessels were the Tula and the much smaller Lively, sparsely equipped and provisioned, with 29 crew.

They sailed from England in July 1830 and, often at an agonizingly slow 3 knots or less, crossed the Antarctic Circle in January 1831. On 28 January they arrived at their furthest south: 69°S at 10°43´E. Biscoe ventured even further south than Bellingshausen, and in one way had better luck. He first definitely sighted land on 28 February 1831 at 66°S 47°20´E, when “several hummocks” resolved themselves into “the black tops of mountains … through the snow.” But after two days of trying to land, Biscoe gave up. He named his discovery Enderby Land. On 3 March his ships were separated by a three-day storm that drove Tula north. The indefatigable Biscoe turned his damaged vessel south again, hoping that the ice had blown away from the shore. It had not, and with some crew injured and others sick with scurvy, he sailed north. When Tula reached Hobart, only Biscoe and four others could stand, and two of the crew had died.

On 3 September Biscoe and Tula headed south again, but as they left port they met Lively at the mouth of the River Derwent. Lively’s crew had a harrowing tale to tell. Seven of her crew of ten were dead, and the survivors had been marooned in Port Phillip Bay (now Melbourne) when the ship had drifted out to sea while they were foraging ashore; it had taken weeks to recover and refloat it. Undaunted, the two vessels headed southeast in October. After some unrewarding sealing in New Zealand, they continued slightly south of east to cross Cook’s path and discover an island at 67°1´S 68°30´W; Biscoe named it Adelaide Island for England’s Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV. In late February they arrived in the South Shetland Islands, having completed a circumnavigation of Antarctica and finally established that there was a large continent at the heart of the ice. Biscoe wrote: “I am firmly of the opinion that this is a large continent as I saw to an extent of 300 miles.”

Biscoe needed to find seals before winter set in, but he failed, and Tula’s rudder was damaged in a late storm. He retreated to the Falklands, where Lively was wrecked. He wanted another season in Patagonia to make the voyage a financial success, but one by one his hard-pressed crew deserted. The bedraggled Tula sailed into London on 8 February 1833 with just 30 seal skins to show for a 30-month voyage. Biscoe received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, went on to skipper craft in the West Indies and around Australia, and sailed south again as far as 63°S on a whaling venture from Sydney in 1838. In 1842 a public appeal in Tasmania raised money to send him back to England, but he died on the voyage.

In 1833 the Magnet, under the command of British sealer Peter Kemp, left London for Antarctica in quest of seals. Little is known of Kemp—even the date of his birth is uncertain—but he went to Iles Kerguelen and on to the Antarctic Circle, where he saw land to the south at about 58°E on Boxing Day. He called it Kemp Land, and then turned north for more sealing at Iles Kerguelen. He fell overboard and drowned on the return voyage, but the Kemp Coast retains his name, though it was not seen again until Douglas Mawson visited it almost a century later.

Even less is known about the life of another British sealer and whaler, John Balleny, but his name lives on in a group of five islands rising sheer from the water and lying across the Antarctic Circle below New Zealand. They were named for him by the British Admiralty, in a tribute to a significant voyage. The Eliza Scott, under Balleny, and the much smaller Sabrina, under Thomas Freeman, sailed from England in July 1838 via the Cape of Good Hope and Iles Amsterdam to New Zealand. On 1 February 1839 they reached 69°02´S at 172°11´E, but the way south was blocked by ice. But it showed that there was a possible route along this longitude: the way into the Ross Sea had opened a crack. On 9 February Balleny saw what are now the islands that bear his name, and he briefly—and damply—landed there on 12 February; it was the first landing below the Antarctic Circle. He followed a course some 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Cook’s voyage on the Resolution, and on 2 March he saw land to the south and named it the Sabrina Coast. It became a memorial to his ship: in a violent storm on 24 March a blue distress flare was the last that was seen of the Sabrina and her crew. The Eliza Scott returned to England via Madagascar and St Helena, bearing just 200 seal skins. Balleny’s log and chart were paraded before the Royal Geographical Society, but the man himself faded into obscurity.

While early sealing brought wildlife populations to the verge of extinction, early whaling was less successful. The whaling industry’s chance for mass destruction of species other than Southern right whales would have to wait for the invention of the explosive harpoon head and the factory ship. However, those few early whalers and sealers who pursued new lands with as much enthusiasm as they hunted their quarry left an enduring legacy in Antarctic exploration.

author: David McGonigal

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