So that those interested may compare the type, approach, emphasis, length, quality and accuracy of entries in the respective encyclopedias, four explorers have been chosen from amongst those that appear in each title. Of the four explorers, Wilhelm Filchner is German; Nathaniel Brown Palmer, American; James Weddell, English; and Sir Hubert Wilkins, Australian.


The length of entries in approximate pages and in words are given below.





Names                                     Howego  Mills  Riffenburgh  Stewart  Stonehouse  Trewby

A. Wilhelm Filchner                    1.5       1.75            .75             .2            .25              .2

B. Nathaniel Brown Palmer        1.5       1.75            .75             .3            .5                .25

C. James Weddell                       2.0       2.25          1.75             .3          1.0                .5

D. Sir Hubert Wilkins                 2.5       5.25          1.75             .75        1.0                .5

TOTAL                                       7.5     11.0            5.0             1.55        2.75            1.5                 






Names                                     Howego  Mills  Riffenburgh  Stewart  Stonehouse  Trewby

A. Wilhelm Filchner                  1823     1844           627            83              170         169

B. Nathaniel Brown Palmer       1715     1486           676          192              360         240

C. James Weddell                      2268     1599         1390          228              461         288

D. Sir Hubert Wilkins                2825     5187         1405          525            1018         317

TOTAL                                      8631   10116         4099        1028            2009         864               




The entries appear by explorer (A. Filchner, B. Palmer, C. Weddell and D. Wilkins) and then within alphabetically by author, i.e. Howego, Mills,  Riffenburgh, Stewart, Stonehouse and Trewby.



F7 FILCHNER, Wilhelm



the second german expedition to

antarctica (1911-12)

By 1908 Filchner had begun actively working on a proposal to take a German expedition to the Antarctic, and had received the support of a team of scientists. In addition, at an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm II, he had been granted permission to raise the required money by public lottery. Filchner’s original intention, similar to that envisaged in England at the same time by Shackleton, was for one party to approach the continent through the Weddell Sea, while a second would establish a base on the shores of the Ross Sea. Land parties would then be sent out and attempt to meet up at the centre of the continent, thereby ascertaining whether the Antarctic conti­nent was a continuous landmass or simply a collection of large islands. Unfortunately, inadequate funding precluded such a grandiose undertaking, and by 1910, when the final proposals were announced publicly, Filchner had already trimmed the enterprise to just the Weddell Sea party and a single ship. The vessel, selected with the help of Shackleton, Nordenskjöld and Nansen, was the Norwegian ship Björnen, which had been built specifically for work in polar seas. She was refitted and strengthened under Shackleton’s supervision, re-christened the Deutschland and placed under the command of Captain RICHARD VAHSEL.   

      Of the scientists selected by Filchner, none had previous experi­ence of polar conditions, so in the summer of 1910 Filchner took an expedition to Spitsbergen (= Svalbard) to test out not only the scien­tists, but also their equipment. With him were HEINRICH SEELHEIM (second-in-command), ER1CH PRZBYLLOCK. (astronomer and magnetician), and ERICH BARKOW (meteorologist), all of whom would escort Filchner to Antarctica. The party was accompanied by the geologist HANS PHILIPP (professor at Cologne University) and the mountaineer KARL POTPESCHNIGG. With considerable diffi­culty the party crossed the Spitsbergen ice cap, and at one time was reported missing, presumed dead. However, all returned safely to Germany and in 1911 Filchner published at Berlin a prospectus for the Antarctic expedition. Other recruits included Captain ALFRED KLING; the naturalist, JOHANNES MÜLLER; and the Austrian, Dr FELIX KÖNIG (see below). The total complement was thirty-five crew and scientists. Twelve Manchurian ponies and two Greenland dog-teams were also embarked.

      While Filchner remained in Germany to complete the arrange­ments for the scientific program, Captain Vahsel took the Deutschland out of Bremerhaven on 4.5.11. After calling at the Azores (31.5.11) and Pernambuco (26.7.11), she arrived on 7.9.11 at Buenos Aires where coal and other supplies were loaded. This first phase of the expedition was placed under the command of Seelheim, but a personal conflict with Vahsel made Seelheim so miserable that he decided to leave the expedition at Buenos Aires. However, by this time Filchner himself had arrived from Germany by steam-ship. The expedition sailed on 4.10.11, and on 28.10.11 reached South Georgia where it spent the next seven weeks in the company of Norwegian whalers anchored off Grytviken. An exploratory excur­sion to the South Sandwich Islands was made, and from the Undine, a vessel belonging to CARL ANTON LARSEN (q.v.), the party surveyed the coasts of South Georgia and reopened the observatory at Royal Bay. On 10.12.11 the Deutschland departed South Georgia for the Weddell Sea. The first ice was encountered five days later, and from then on conditions varied wildly from warm summer days to fog, snow and freezing temperatures.

      By the beginning of January 1912 the Deutschland was surrounded by ice floes and bergs, but wide channels frequently opened and permitted good progress to be made towards the eastern coast of the Weddell Sea. On 27.1.12 sediment was retrieved from a depth of 3430 metres and suggested that land was nearby. On 30.1.12, an ice cliff thirty to forty metres high was sighted, behind which continental ice rose to a height of 600 metres. This section of the Antarctic coast, never seen by earlier expeditions, was named Prince Regent Luitpold Land (now the Luitpold Coast). A suitable anchorage was found at Vahsel Bay in 77°45'S / 34°34'W, at the eastern extreme of what is now the Filchner Ice Shelf, and on 9.2.12 materials, dogs and ponies were unloaded and work started on a winter quarters (or stationhaus). (Filchner originally named the ice shelf after Kaiser Wilhelm but the emperor himself later changed the name in honour of Filchner.) A building measuring 17 by 9 metres was erected on the ice shelf and completed on 17.2.12, but the following day disaster struck when the ice supporting the building began to break away from the shelf. As their headquarters floated off to the north, Filchner and his team worked feverishly to dismantle everything and return it to the Deutschland. What the party had witnessed was a massive spring tide, three metres high, accompa­nied by a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure, affecting an area of nearly 600 square kilometres. Fortunately, by the time the camp had drifted out to sea everything had been removed except for a small part of the building and a dog that refused to be caught.

      The outward flow of broken ice prevented any further imme­diate attempts to make a landing, and for several days the Deutschland was allowed to drift in anticipation of more favourable conditions. A landing on continental ice was eventually achieved, and at a height of about a hundred metres two large depots of stores were established on the coast, then covered with ice and marked with black flags and poles. Filchner’s intention was then to return to South Georgia, spend the winter there and return the following summer to complete the mission. However, on 6.3.12 the sea froze over at a remarkable speed, trapping the Deutschland in the ice. Although clear water appeared occasionally, it soon became evident that the winter would have to be spent in the drifting pack ice of the Weddell Sea. Tents, small buildings and meteorological instruments were installed on the surrounding ice, an auxiliary boiler fuelled by penguin and seal carcasses was brought into operation, and electric lamps were wired into the cabins. The usual entertainments were provided for the crew, including horse riding on the ice.

      By the middle of June 1912, measurements showed that the drift had taken the Deutschland to a point about sixty kilometres to the east of a position where in 1823 the American sealer Benjamin Morrell had reported sighting land: Knownland, known as ‘New South Greenland’ or ‘Morrell’s Land’; no other ship had since sailed close enough to confirm its existence. On 23.6.12 Filchner, Kling and König set out with two sledges, each drawn by eight dogs, in the direction of Morrell’s Land with provisions for three weeks. In exceptionally difficult conditions, with temperatures falling to -35°C and daylight lasting only two hours, the three men reached 70°32'S / 43°45'W, from where Morrell’s Land should have been visible if it existed at all. A lead weight was lowered 1600 metres through a hole hacked through the ice, at which depth the line broke. Convinced, that Morrell’s Land was nothing more than a mirage or an iceberg,;

the team turned back for the journey home. However, by now large cracks had appeared in the ice, necessitating constant detours, while the Deutschland had in the meantime drifted sixty kilometres to the southwest of its previous position. However, by a remarkable feat of navigation, Kling successfully brought the team back to the ship on 30.6.12 after eight days on the ice.

      On 8.8.12, the expedition suffered its first casualty when Captain Vahsel died of an old illness from which he had suffered throughout the voyage. However, by now wide channels had begun to open, and by the end of September the Deutschland found extensive stretches of clear water. The boilers were fired, all equipment moved off the surrounding floes, and on 26.11.12 in 63°37'S 36°34'W the ship finally broke free of the ice. On 19.12.12 anchored off South Georgia, the expedition was officially dissolved and the Deutschland placed under the command of Captain Kling for the homeward voyage. Filchner left the Deutschland in Buenos Aires, took a steam-ship to Genoa and proceeded to Germany where he hoped to obtain authority for the expedition to continue into the following year. This permission was denied, while in the meantime the Deutschland was borrowed by the Argentinian government to relieve its meteorological team in the South Orkneys. The vessel was brought back to Europe and subsequently sold to Austria for a proposed Austrian expedition to the Antarctic (see below). Filchner himself was invited to take part in another expedition but felt he had seen enough of Antarctica for the time being and preferred to return to his Central Asian haunts. During the voyage, Filchner had started work on his narrative of the expedition, Zum sechsten Erdteil, which he completed at Bad Naudheim while convalescing from an injury sustained when he fell from a ship’s mast. The book was published at Berlin in 1922 with contributions from Seelheim, Przybyllok and Kling, together with an introduction by Nordenskjöld. Apart from a brief account by Johannes Müller, no further book-length reports were published until 1985 when a collection of articles was printed at Munich by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. No translation of Filchner’s work was made until 1994 when William Barr published his definitive To the Sixth Continent with its English translation of most of the relevant documents.

      FELIX KÖNIG returned to his native Austria and set about organizing an Austrian Antarctic Expedition. In May 1913 a committee was established under Count Wilczek to look into the matter. The Deutschland was purchased for the expedition and renamed Osterreich. In August 1914, König and his expedition lay ready to sail from the port of Trieste when Europe erupted into war. The Osterreich never left harbour and was sold to a local shipyard early in 1918.


Filchner, Wilhelm & Seelheim, Heinrich, Quer durch Spitzbergen: eine dwtsche Ubungsexpedition im Zentmlgebiet ostlich des Eisfjords (Berlin 1911).


Philipp, Hans, Ergebnisse der Wilhelm Filchnerschen Vorexpedition nach Spitzbergen 1910... (Gotha 1914).


[Filchner, Wilhelm], Denkschrift über die Deutsche Antarktische Expedition: allgemeiner plan... (Berlin 1911 [prospectus for the proposed expedition]).


Filchner, Wilhelm, Zum sechsten Erdteil: die Zweite Deutsche Südpolar-Expedition (Berlin 1922, 1923).


[Filchner, Wilhelm], Dokumentalion fiber die Anturktisexpedition 1911/12 (Munich 1985 [2 issues]).


Filchner, Wilhelm, Ein Forscherleben (Wiesbaden 1950, 1951, 1953, 1956 [an autobiography]).


Barr, William (ed. & trans.), To the sixth continent: the Second German South Polar Expedition (Bluntisham, Huntingdon & Banham, ‘  Norfolk 1994 [trans. of Zum sechsten Erdteil and part of the ‘  Dokumentation, together with historical background and a biography of Filchner]).


Müller, Johannes, Einiges aus der Geschichte der Südpolarforschung, unter besonderer Beriicksichtigung der letzten deutschen antarktischen Expedition und ihrer Navigation (Berlin 1914 [81 pages]).


[Anon.], ‘The German Antarctic Expedition’, Geographical Journal  42,4,1913.


Hayes, J. Gordon, The conquest of the South Pole: Antarctic exploration 1906-1931 (London 1932, 1936; New York 1933).


Schott, Wolfgang, Early German oceanographic institutions, expedi­tions and oceanographers (Hamburg 1987).


(Howgego) (1823 words)






Filchner, Wilhelm


Only in 1985 was the full truth learned concerning Wilhelm Filchner’s Second German Antarctic Expedition. A scheming and malevolent captain systematically undermined the authority of his expedition leader, effectively aborting the latter’s plans to establish a winter station and enforcing his early withdrawal from Antarctica with his program barely begun.

An Expedition Divided in the Weddell Sea, 1911-1912

As a young man, Lieutenant Dr. Wilhelm Filchner obtained leave from the Imperial German Army to travel in Russia and, in 1903-1904, to lead an expedition to Tibet. From 1909, he laid plans for an expedition to Antarctica, and after obtaining the patronage of Prince Regent Luitpold of Bavaria, he raised money through a public lottery. With none of his selected team at this time possessing previous polar experience, Filchner first led a training expedition to Svalbard in 1910, taking with him six others who were planning to go with him to Antarctica. Of them, only the scientists Dr. Erich Barkow and Dr. Erich Pryzbyllok eventually accompanied the expedi­tion, though Dr. Heinrich Seelheim deputized for Filchner as expedition leader before resigning in Buenos Aires.

      The ambitious objective of Filchner’s Antarctic expedition was to discover whether land or frozen sea was to be found between the Weddell and Ross Seas, and thus whether Antarc­tica was one continent or two. His original plan called for two ships, each landing parties that, kept in contact by wireless, would approach from either side and meet in the middle. Lack of money restricted him to one ship, the 344-ton Norwegian-built barque BjŅrn, which was renamed Deutschland. In com­mand Filchner appointed Captain Richard Vahsel, second offi­cer of Gauss during Erich von Drygalski’s Antarctic expedition, an appointment very much forced upon him by influential naval circles. Although Vahsel’s Antarctic experience would clearly be useful, he came with a dubious reputation and was described by the captain of Gauss as “greedy for power and an out-and-out schemer” (Filchner 1994, 202).

      On 3 May 1911, the expedition sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany, under Seelheim’s leadership, Filchner remaining behind to make final arrangements. At Buenos Aires, Seelheim resigned, Vahsel having made it clear that either he or Seelheim must go. Deutschland was now staffed by naval officers who owed their appointment and thus their loyalty to Vahsel rather than Filchner. On 18 October, the expedition reached South Georgia, where it was given a warm welcome at Grytviken by the whalers led by Carl Anton Larsen. The whalers had much to teach about the ice conditions likely to be encountered far­ther south, particularly in the Weddell Sea, about which no one knew more than Larsen.

      Warned that it was too early in the season to have hope of finding open water in the Weddell Sea, on 1 November Filch­ner set out on an exploratory voyage to the South Sandwich Islands to study whether their geology confirmed the hypoth­esis put forward by William Speirs Bruce of a link between these and other island groups in the “Scotia Arc” with the Antarctic Peninsula and South America. Soon after Deutschland’s return to South Georgia on 11 November, the third officer, Walter Slossarczyk, committed suicide. It was already clear that it was not a happy ship. Filchner now acquired an ally among the ship’s officers when Alfred Kling arrived from Buenos Aires with Manchurian ponies. Alerted to potential problems with Vahsel since Seelheim’s forced resignation, Filchner prevailed upon Kling to remain as watch-keeping officer.

      On 11 December 1911, Deutschland sailed for Antarctica with thirty-three men on board, together with eight ponies and seventy-five dogs. In addition to Filchner, the scientific team comprised two of his Svalbard colleagues, Barkow (meteorol­ogy) and Pryzbyllok (astronomy, magnetism), together with Dr. Wilhelm Brennecke (oceanography) and Dr. Fritz Heim (geology, glaciology). They were accompanied by the Austrian mountaineer Felix Konig.

      Considerable ice was met south of 57°30'S. From 62°S, Deutschland’s progress was intermittent, spending long peri­ods trapped in the ice, interspersed with occasional days of open water. On 18 January 1912, a particularly good day, the ship made 51 miles, and when Weddell’s farthest south of 74°15’S was passed on 29 January, like Weddell, Filchner was in the open sea. From the quantity of icebergs, he calculated correctly that not only must there be much more open water farther south, but also that the Weddell Sea extended consid­erably farther than previously realized. Soundings showed a distinct shallowing in the depth of water, a sure indication that they were approaching land, which was finally sighted on 30 January Now the weather was clear, and with the sun shining brightly, they approached ice cliffs over 30 meters high. Behind the cliffs rose slopes of ice and snow to well over 600 meters. This was a new discovery, far south of Bruces Coats Land, and Filchner named it Prince Regent Luitpold Coast for the expe­ditions patron. The ice front continued to the south-southwest, and this area Filchner named for the kaiser, though the kaiser was later to insist that it be named for Filchner himself. The expedition reached its farthest south in an embayment in the ice at 77°44'S, which Filchner named for Vahsel. It was the most likely site for a winter station yet seen. Inland, however, travel conditions were found to be difficult across the heavily crevassed surface, and Vahsel Bay was only finally adopted after two further attempts to find somewhere more suitable,

      Problems between Filchner and Vahsel now intensified, with Vahsel refusing to allow his sailors to help in setting up the station in Filchner’s preferred location, claiming that it would be impossible to move the 90 tons of provisions and equipment 2 miles across the sea ice. Ultimately, Filchner was forced to adopt a site selected by Vahsel, not on the ice shelf but on an iceberg, which looked sufficiently large and solid to remain in place for the duration of the expedition. It was not to prove the case. Having almost completed erection of their large hut on “Station Iceberg,” on 18 February 1912 a high spring tide set off a cacophony of explosions, as the iceberg slowly began to shift and then rotate as it moved out into the bay. Two days of frantic activity followed to dismantle the hut and move stores and equipment back to Deutschland. Filchner had by no means abandoned his plans to establish a winter sta­tion and to continue scientific studies. On 28 February, Brennecke and Heim were landed at their request to conduct research on the ice shelf. The next day, Deutschland was again caught up in drifting ice, from which it only escaped with dif­ficulty. Vahsel now insisted that Deutschland should sail north for South Georgia just as soon as the two scientists could be picked up, as they were on 3 March. Seeking to lay the blame for the expedition’s failure squarely on Filchner, at Vahsel’s instigation, Brennecke organized a “Great Ship’s Council” at which Filchner was accused of taking the scientists off the ice shelf prematurely and of having made inadequate attempts to land before ordering course set for the north.

      Filchner had hoped to follow his newly discovered Luitpold Coast northward to establish its connection with Coats Land. Soon, it became clear that ice rather than he would determine the ship’s course. By 15 March, Deutschland was firmly frozen into the pack and drifting slowly into the Weddell Sea. On board the unhappy ship, there were two distinct factions: Filchner and his few loyal friends, Kling, Konig, and Pryzbyllok; and Vahsel, backed by virtually everyone else. It was a poi­sonous atmosphere in which to endure an Antarctic winter.

      As much for relief from this atmosphere as desire for the expedition to yield at least some concrete results, when Filch­ner found that Deutschland’s course would take it within 40 miles of the position reported for “New South Greenland” by the American sealer Benjamin Morrell in 1823, he decided to make a journey over the ice to try to find it. This winter jour­ney bears some comparison with that famously undertaken by Edward Wilson during Robert Falcon Scott’s second expedi­tion, though Filchner was to enjoy at least some daylight and his lowest temperature—at -39°C (-39°F)—was significantly less cold. Another difference was that Wilson’s base was fixed, whereas Filchner would have to return to a drifting ship, which he might have difficulty in locating. On 23 June 1912, Filchner, Kling, and Konig set out with two sledges and sixteen dogs, provisioned for three weeks. They found the going excep­tionally hard over the rough and broken sea ice. Having gone 31 miles, they turned back at 70°33'S, 44°48'W—Morrell’s position for “New South Greenland”—having seen no sign of land. The return journey was equally hard, though fortunately for most of the way they could follow their own tracks. Would they be able to find the ship? Clearly, it would not be in the same position as when they had left it, and they could guess only at the direction and distance of its drift. With Kling hav­ing just a theodolite to navigate by, Deutschland’s masts were spotted in the far distance, 38 miles from its position eight days previously. By 30 June, they were back on board.

      For some weeks it had been apparent that Vahsel was ail­ing, and on 8 August he died, probably as a result of the later complications of syphilis, a disease whose effects might do much to explain his exceptionally malignant behavior. Com­mand of the ship devolved to Wilhelm Lorenzen, again no friend to Filchner. By the end of September, the ice showed signs of opening up, though it was not until 26 November 1912 at 63°37'S, 36°34'W that Deutschland was finally released. Reaching South Georgia on 19 December, Filchner had to enlist the help of Larsen’s whalers to protect him from his crew, who appeared intent on physical violence and had to be housed onshore well away from the ship. Filchner now placed Kling in command of Deutschland and returned to Germany in an unsuccessful attempt to raise money for a second season.

      Although not altogether without achievements, having dis­covered the Luitpold Coast and the Filchner Ice Shelf and prov­ing that “New South Greenland” was not where Morrell had reported it and probably did not exist, Filchner’s Second Ger­man Antarctic Expedition is unfortunately remembered today chiefly for the intense animosity among its participants. Filch­ner had no taste for further polar exploration, preferring to return to the areas where he had first traveled in Central Asia and the Far East, where he was to journey extensively Not until after his death did he sanction release of a memoir telling the full truth concerning his Antarctic expedition.

See also: Bruce, William Speirs; Coats Land; Drygalski, Erich von; Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf; Larsen, Carl Anton; Morrell, Benjamin; Shackleton, Ernest (1914-1916); Weddell, James; Weddell Sea; Wilson, Edward

References and further reading:

Filchner, W. 1951. Ein Forscherleben. 2nd ed. Wiesbaden: Eberhard Brockhaus.

————. 1994. To the sixth continent: the Second German South Polar Expedition. Huntingdon, England: Bluntisham Books.

Kirschmer, G., comp. 1985. Dokumentatwn iiber die Antarktisexpedition 1911/12 van Wilhelm Filchner. Munich: Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.


(Mills) (1844 words)







Wilhelm Filchner was born on September 13, 1877 in Munich, son of Eduard and Rosine Filchner. As a teenager he enrolled in the Munich Cadet Corps, the first step in a military career. Having gained official Russian approval, in 1903 he undertook his first expedition: a solo trip on horseback across the Pamir Mountains from Osh in the Fergana Basin to Murgab, then back via Kasgar in Sinkiang.

      This led in turn to his first scientific expedition, to map the upper course of the Ma-Qu (Huange He) in western China for the first time. Now with the rank of lieutenant, he set off for China in the fall of 1903 and returned home early in 1905, having accomplished his mission, despite some terrifying encounters with the hostile Ngolok tribe. Thereafter he worked at the Trigonometrical Department of the Prussian Land Survey, instructing route-surveying courses for offi­cers posted to the German colonies.

      In the light of endeavors by Belgium, France, Britain, Japan, Sweden, and Australia in exploring Antarctica, Filchner was motivated to plan his own Antarctic expedition. With the support of his super­iors in the German Army, he proposed crossing the Antarctic Ice Sheet from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, using sledges drawn by ponies. In preparation for this expedition, he mounted a small practice expedi­tion to Svalbard in the summer of 1910.

The expedition headed south in 1911, entering the Weddell Sea in December of that year. Due to bad luck and serious opposition from the captain of the expedition vessel, Deutschland, Filchner was unable to establish a foothold on the continent. Deutschland became beset in the ice of the Weddell Sea early in 1912 and spent the winter adrift. Fortunately she emerged unscathed. Positive accomplishments includ­ed the exploration of the east shore of the Weddell Sea (Luitpold Coast) and the discovery of the Filch­ner Ice Shelf.

      With the outbreak of World War I, Filchner spent some time on the Western Front, then was transferred to the Intelligence Service of the German Admiralty and was appointed head of the Naval Intelligence Service in Norway and later in The Hague.

      For several years after the War, he supported him­self by writing, about both Sinkiang and the Antarc­tic. Then, between 1926 and 1937, he mounted two major expeditions to Sinkiang and Tibet, whereby he completed impressive geomagnetic traverses of some 6500 and 3500 km, respectively, often living and traveling under extremely difficult conditions and suffering various injuries and bouts of illness. It was on this basis that he was awarded the Nationalpreis fur Kunst und Wissenschaft by Adolf Hitler on Janu­ary 30, 1938.

      When World War II broke out in the fall of 1939, Filchner was engaged in geomagnetic surveys in Nepal, where he contracted malaria. On heading south for treatment, he was interned when he crossed into India, and spent the war years, with his daughter Erika, in the ladies’ camp at Satara, near Poona.

      At the end of the war Filchner opted to stay in India, settling in Poona. Finally, in 1949, ill health obliged him to return to Europe, where he settled in Zurich. He died on May 7, 1957, at the age of 79, and was buried in Enzenbuhl Cemetery in Zurich.

william barr


See also German South Polar (Deutschland) Expedi­tion (1911-1912); Weddell Sea, Oceanography of

References and Further Reading

Filchner, Wilhelm. A Scientist in Tartary: From the Huang-ho to the Indus, translated by E. O. Lorimer. London: Faber & Faber, 1939.

————. Ein Forscherlehen. Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus, 1956.

————. Route Finding and Position Locating in Unexplored Regions. New York: Academic Press, 1957.

————. To the Sixth Continent: The Second German South Polar Expedition, edited and translated by William Barr. Bluntisham: Bluntisham Books; and Banham, Norfolk: The Erskine Press, 1994.


(Riffenburgh) (627 words)








Filchner, Wilhelm. b. Sept. 13, 1877, Munich, d. May 7, 1957, Zurich. Ger­man scientist/explorer who led the Ger­man Antarctic Expedition of 1911-12, on the Deutschland, which discovered the Filchner Ice Shelf and the Luitpold Coast. Independent of William S. Bruce (q.v.), he had conceived the idea of a transantarctic traverse in order to test the legend of the Ross-Weddell Graben, but neither his nor Bruce’s traverses ever came off. He wrote some books (see the Bibliography). An anti-Nazi, he ex­plored mostly in Asia.


(Stewart) (83 words)








Filchner, Wilhelm. (1877-1957). German traveller and explorer. Born in Munich, Germany, he trained in a military academy and was commissioned in the German army. Interested in survey and geophysics, he spent as much time as possible travelling in Russia and central Asia. After meticulous study of all the available geographical evidence he planned and led the German Antarctic (Deutschland) Expedition 1911-13, intending to cross the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the as-yet-unattained South Pole. Successfully penetrating the Weddell Sea, he landed a station hut in the shelf ice but had to withdraw hurriedly when the ice broke away. Later caught in the pack ice, Filchner and his small scientific team spent a relatively unproductive winter, breaking free in November 1912. Though the expedition failed in its primary aim, Filchner’s encouragement ensured that his team produced excellent biological and oceanographic results. In later life he continued to explore in warmer climates of central Asia and Nepal. He died in Switzerland on 7 May 1957.


(Stonehouse) (170 words)







Filchner, Wilhelm (1877-1957) German surveyor and army officer, born in Munich. Filchner joined the army and crossed the Pamir Mountains in 1900 and led a 1903-05 expedition to Tibet, car­rying out cartography work and taking magnetic observations.

      He was chosen to lead the 1910-12 second german south polar expedition to cross the antarctic continent from the weddell sea to the ross sea on sledges, using a prefabricated hut as a base camp. The ship, Deutschland, was trapped in pack ice from March to November 1912 and, when storms finally broke up the ice, the hut and men were carried northward for a considerable distance before they could be reached by the ship. Filchner carried out impor­tant oceanographical research on the move­ment of the pack ice. On his return, Filchner wrote of his experiences in Zum sechsten Erdteil, published in 1923.

      During an expedition to Nepal in 1939-40, he carried out further magnetic surveys of the Himalayas region. A book about his various trav­els, Ein Forscherleben, was published in 1950.


(Trewby) (169 words)









PALMER, Nathaniel Brown


Antarctica, South Shetland & Orkney Is


United States sealer-captain and Antarctic explorer (1799-1877). Born in Stonington, Connecticut, the son of a shipyard owner, Palmer first went to sea at the age of fourteen and was soon taking charge of small coastal vessels. In 1819-20 he sailed as second mate with JAMES P. SHEFFIELD (q.v.) in the Hersilia, which made a pioneering voyage to the South Shetland Islands (see William Smith and Joseph Herring for their discovery). The Hersilia, fitted out by EDMUND FANNING (q.v.) and others, returned to Stonington on 21.5.20 with a cargo of 8868 seal skins valued at over $22,000. The success of the voyage stirred enormous interest in the new-found sealing grounds, so five sealers were fitted out by Fanning and sent south to make their fortunes.

      The brig Frederick, commanded by BENJAMIN PENDLETON, had sailed from Stonington before the return of the Hersilia, but her consort, the schooner Free Gift, Captain THOMAS DUNBAR, still lay in port. Fanning then directed Dunbar to sea with instructions to rendezvous with the Frederick and provide Pendleton with news of the new discoveries. Three other vessels would follow and all would work together. Palmer became part owner of the Express and commander and part-owner of the sloop Hero. The Hersilia herself joined the fleet sailing south, while four other vessels, the Clothier, Emetine, Catherine and Spark, were being readied for subsequent voyages. Discovery of the new sealing grounds brought similar frantic activity at most of the other ports of the New England seaboard, as well as in Britain.

      The Hero and the Express sailed into the Falklands on 16.10.20 to find other American sealers already arrived, as well as two British captains, JAMES WEDDELL (q.v.) with the Jane and GEORGE POWELL (died 1823) in the Eliza. Palmer and Pendleton made contact in the Falklands as planned, and together the so-called Fanning-Pendleton fleet sailed for the South Shetlands.

      The Hero (under Palmer) and Express left the Falklands at the end of October and after a stop at Staten Island arrived first at Smith Island. Two days later, on 12.11,20 at Rugged Island, they found the Hersilia had already arrived, with the Frederick and Free Gift anchored about three kilometres away at New Plymouth (a rendez­vous in the channel between Livingston and Rugged islands). By the following day all five vessels of the Stonington fleet were anchored at New Plymouth. Palmer was then sent off to look for sealing grounds, first to Deception Island, then southward to Orleans Strait. Once back across Bransfield Strait he followed the land to the north­east until he found the entrance to McFarlane Strait, where on 24.11.20 the entire fleet found the sheltered Yankee Harbor (an inlet on Greenwich Island). Camps were set up ashore, and in January 1821 Palmer took an extensive cruise, possibly as far as 66°S. The Fanning-Pendleton fleet remained at Yankee Harbor for the rest of the season, by the end of which they had loaded 21,000 skins (or 88,000 in another account). Thirty American, twenty-four British and one Australian sealer (the brig Lynx, out of Sydney), were also hunting for skins that season (1820-21), among them captains JOHN DAVIS (q.v.) and CHRISTOPHER BURDICK who arrived at Yankee Harbor on 8.12.20. Competition was fierce, and many an angry encounter flared up between the British and Americans. However, by the end of March 1820 most of the vessels had quit the islands, some to winter in the Falklands and others to London or New England. Only Captain CLARK. and ten men of the London sealer Lord Melville were forced to spend a miserable winter in the islands after their ship had been driven by winds offshore and failed to return. They were picked up the following summer, thereby receiving the distinction of being the first crew ever to overwinter in Antarctica.

      The following summer, the season of 1821-22, some forty sealers were back in the South Shetlands. Edmund Fanning, his son William and Benjamin Pendleton organized a six-vessel fleet. Palmer took command of the larger sloop James Monroe, while another family member HARRIS PENDLETON took over the Hero. By 6.11.21 the fleet lay off Deception Island but soon discovered that Yankee Harbor was choked with ice. What was worse was that the seal population had almost been exterminated by the previous season’s slaughter. Palmer therefore set off in search of new sealing grounds and on 30.11.21 off Elephant Island encountered a small English vessel, the Dove, captained by George Powell, whom Palmer had met in the Falklands. Powell was an educated man, interested in the natural sciences, who while sealing carried out meteorological and hydrographical measurements.

      The two captains, Palmer and Powell, sailed in company to the north of Elephant Island and to the south of Clarence Island, then headed east into interminable fog. On 7.12.21 the ships sighted land to the east, which Powell named the Inaccessible Islands. Proceeding east through ice floes, Powell managed to land on one of the islands, which he named Coronation Island and claimed in the name of King George. A message was left in a bottle, noting the discovery, which was the first ever sighting of the South Orkney Islands. By coinci­dence, the islands were seen quite independently four days later (11.12.21) by MICHAEL MCLEOD, a Scottish sealer from Leith who was sailing with James Weddell. Palmer and Powell parted company about 11.12.21. Powell proceeded south but was halted by pack ice in 63°20'S. Short of provisions, he returned to the South Shetlands and was back in the Thames in August 1822. By the following November Powell had published the first comprehensive chart and sailing directions for Antarctica. Palmer returned to Deception Island, from where on 27.1.22 WILLIAM FANNING, aboard the Alabama Packet, reported the taking of only 1000 skins. The Express, Free Gift and James Monroe would sail within a few days, while the Frederick, Alabama Packet, and Hero would try their luck on the Chilean coast.

      Palmer spent the next few years trading in the West Indies, first in command of the schooner Cadet, then of the brig Tampico. He ran guns, ammunition and troops to Simon Bolivar (q.v.) during the struggle for South American independence. He then took command of the brig Francis and sailed back and forth to Europe for the next few years. Palmer returned briefly to the Antarctic in 1829-31 with ALEXANDER SMITH PALMER and Benjamin Pendleton, taking the ships Annawan, Penguin and Seraph. The fleet sailed partly under the sponsorship of JEREMIAH N. REYNOLDS (q.v.), proponent of the ‘hollow earth’ theory, and took with it the naturalist JAMES EIGHTS of Albany, often regarded as the world’s first Antarctic naturalist. Eights published five papers on his findings, and discovered fossil wood and the ten-legged ‘sea spider’. He also suggested that rocks could be carried by icebergs, pre-dating Darwin’s similar idea by ten years. Sealing was poor and during the return voyage Palmer’s ship was boarded by pirates. In the 1830s Palmer grew wealthy from Atlantic trade, and later became involved in ship building and with the clipper trade to China. He died in 1877 in San Francisco after returning from a voyage to the East. He was buried at Stonington near his home, a mansion recently purchased by the Stonington Historical Society.

      In 1844 THOMAS W. SMITH published his recollections of eighteen voyages, seven of which were whaling expeditions to the South Pacific. He went sealing aboard the Norfolk around the Falklands in 1816-17, and in 1818 sailed aboard the Admiral to South Georgia. In 1820 he was whaling aboard the Hetty around New South Shetland and in 1831, while on a whaling voyage in African waters, he was shipwrecked. In 1832 he reached New Bedford where he was apparently cheated out of his pay by the captain and owners of the vessel.


The log book of the Hero is in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Fanning, Edmund (q.v.), Voyages around the world; with selected sketches of voyages to the South Seas, North and South Pacific Oceans, China, etc... (New York 1833; London 1834).

Laurie, R.H. [Powell, George], Chart of South Shetland, including Coronation Island [and] Notes on South Shetland, &c., printed to accompany the chart of these newly discovered lands... (London, 1 Nov, 1822),

Smith, Thomas W, Narrative of the life, travels and sufferings of Thomas W. Smith: comprising an account of his early life, adoption by the gipsys, his travels during eighteen voyages to various parts of the world, during which he was five times ship wrecked, thrice on a desolate island and near the South Pole, once upon the coast of England and once on the coast of Africa... (Boston 1844).

Eights, James, ‘Description of a new crustaceous animal found on the shores of the South Shetland Islands’, Transactions of the Albany Institute, 1833.

Eights, James, ‘Description of a new animal belonging to the Arachnides of Latreille’, Boston Journal of Natural History 1,2, 1835.

Eights, James, ‘On the icebergs of the Ant-Arctic Sea’, American Quarterly Journal of Agriculture and Science 4, 1, 1846,

Boumphrey, R., ‘Alexander Smith’s account of the discovery of East Antarctica, 1841’, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Mar. 1964.

Balch, Edwin Swift, Antarctica (Philadelphia 1902).

Balch, Edwin Swift, ‘ Stonington Antarctic explorers’, Bulletin American Geographic Society 41, 8, 1909.

Bertrand, Kenneth 1., Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948 (New York 1971 [attempts to reconstruct Sheffield’s voyage from his log])

Boas, Norman F., Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer & Nathaniel B. Palmer, 2nd (Mystic, CT 1998 [25 pages]).                    

Caiman, W.T, ‘James Eights: a pioneer Antarctic naturalist’, Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of London, 1937.

Gurney, Alan, Below the convergence: voyages towards Antarctica 1699-1839 (London 1997, 1998).                      :

Martin, L., ‘Antarctica discovered by a Connecticut Yankee, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer’, Geographical Review, Oct. 1940.

Mitterling, P.I., America in the Antarctic to 1840 (Urbana, IL 1959).

Spears, John R., Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer: an old-time sailor of the sea (New York 1922; Stonington Historical Society 1996).

Sperry, Armstrong, South of Cape Horn: a saga of Nat Palmer and early Antarctic exploration (Philadelphia 1958).         

Stevens, T.A., The first American sealers in the Antarctic 1812-1819E and the first voyage of the brig Hersilia of Stonington, Conn.,1819-1820 (U.S. Dept. of State 1954).                  

See also the bibliography for WILLIAM SMITH.


(Howgego) (1715 words)  




Palmer, Nathaniel


For many years, the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer was widely believed to have made the first sighting of Antarctica on 16 November 1820. Although we now know that he was pre­ceded by Fabian von Bellingshausen (27 January 1820) and Edward Bransfield (30 January 1820), Palmer is still credited with a number of other discoveries, including being the first to find the fine harbors of Deception Island (which he may also have been first to visit), Half Moon Island, and Yankee Harbor; codiscoverer (with George Powell) of the South Orkney Islands;

and, most intriguing, to have possibly sailed along the Antarc­tic Peninsula as far as 66°S—or 68°S—to Marguerite Bay.

      Born in Stonington, Connecticut, Nathaniel Brown Palmer first went to sea at age twelve in ships running the British blockades between New York and Portland during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. In 1819, after a period working in the New England coastal trade, he was appointed second mate by James Sheffield on Hersilia’s voyage to the South Atlantic, searching for new sealing grounds. While ashore on the Falkland Islands, where he had been left behind to obtain fresh meat from the wild cattle, Palmer heard of William Smith’s discovery of the South Shetland Islands from the mate of Espirito Santo. On Sheffield’s return after search­ing for the mythical Aurora Islands, Hersilia was reprovisioned and course was set for the South Shetlands, which were reached in January 1820. Hersilia was the only American sealer participating in the 1819-1820 season. Its return to Stonington on 21 May, with 8,868 sealskins, confirmed rumors that rich sealing grounds had been found; this stimulated fren­zied activity in the New England ports as sealing fleets were hurriedly fitted out for the long voyage south.

Early Explorations of the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, 1820-1821

Hersilia’s sealskins sold for more than $22,000. Palmer invested his share of the profits in purchasing part owner­ship in Express and Hero, the latter a 44-ton sloop in which he now sailed as captain with four others as crew, in a fleet consisting of five vessels commanded by Benjamin Pendleton. A “shallop” such as Hero was particularly useful for an expedition of this kind. A very small vessel of shallow draft, it could safely ferry men, supplies, and sealskins between the beaches and the larger ships at anchor in one of the more sheltered bays. Such a vessel was also useful in scouting out better harbors and beaches with fur seals. It was in this last role that Palmer made his name.

      The Stonington fleet anchored at New Plymouth, at the west tip of Livingston Island, all five ships being there by 13 November when Hero and Express arrived. This anchorage is open to gales from the northwest, and Pendleton was clearly unhappy with his fleet’s exposed position. He was also aware of the many other American and British ships coming to the islands to seal. On 15 November, therefore, Palmer was dis­patched on an exploratory voyage with instructions to look for better harbors and new fur seal beaches. Palmer’s log sur­vives, so we know exactly where he went. It has the appear­ance of being written up after—rather than during—the voy­age, being in a uniform hand with entries running continuously across the page, irrespective of drawn columns in which hours of the day, speed, course, and the like should have been marked. It is probable that it was copied afterward from rough notes made at the time.

      Palmer sailed directly for Deception Island, where he was almost certainly the first to find and penetrate the excellent harbor, which fills the flooded caldera forming the islands interior. Assuming that this island is named for its deceptive nature (whether because its interior is largely water rather than land, or because its harbor entrance is deceptively difficult to find), Palmer’s log is puzzling in that he writes “got underweigh on a cruise stood over for Deception.” Although this might be held to imply that the island was already called Deception and thus had been visited previously and its harbor found, more probably all is explained by the mode of composition of Palmers log, written up after his discoveries had caused the island to be so named. Certainly, his account of entering the harbor gives no impression that it had ever been seen before. After he spent another day at Deception, Palmer’s log reports on 16 November that he “got over under the Land,” a cryptic description of his voyage across Bransfield Strait (“got over”) and approach to the Antarctic Peninsula (“under the Land”). Here he “Discovered—a strait—Tending SSW & NNE—it was Literally filled with Ice and the shore inaccessible we thought it not Prudent to venture in we Bore away to the Northward & saw 2 small Islands and the shore everywhere Perpendicular” (see Palmer’s log, quoted in Hinks 1940, 422). This passage records Palmer’s discovery of the Orleans Channel between Trinity Island and the mainland, which he records as blocked by ice, his inability to land, and his subsequent bearing away to the north and passage back to the South Shetlands. On 17 and 18 November, Palmer explored McFarlane Strait, between Livingston and Greenwich Islands, where he found two fine harbors at Half Moon Island and Yankee Harbor. By 20 Novem­ber, Palmer was back with the Stonington fleet to report his discoveries to Pendleton, who promptly decided to move the fleet to Yankee Harbor.

      Palmer undertook another exploratory voyage in January 1821, but it is not clear where he went: By this time only very brief notes are recorded in his log, with only five entries for the period concerned (14-18 January). Knowledge that a voyage took place, combined with Palmer’s much later recorded state­ment that he reached 68°S, as well as other evidence relating to Pendleton himself and another sealer (Daniel Clark) hav­ing reached latitudes as high as 66°S, were sufficient for the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot to credit American sealers with discovery of Marguerite Bay, otherwise his own discovery. Charcot, however, was not known as “the gentleman of the Poles” for nothing and was perhaps more generous than most would be prepared to be today. Palmer’s voyage to 66°S or thereabouts remains a fascinating possibility—but not yet a proven one.

      It was on 6 February, shortly after his return from this voy­age, that Palmer found himself in thick fog off Deception. When the fog lifted, he found himself between two large ships. These were the Vostok and Mirnyy of Russia’s imperial navy. Palmer was summoned on board to meet the commander, Belling­shausen. Accounts of what took place vary and no doubt have been subject to embellishment, but according to American sources Palmer offered to pilot Bellingshausen into a safe har­bor (Deception Island) and described his discovery of an immense extent of land to the south, on which Bellingshausen congratulated him and suggested the name “Palmer Land.” Bellingshausen’s own account is confined to what Palmer told him of the sealers and the numbers of sealskins obtained. If Palmer had reported significant discoveries, one might have expected some mention by Bellingshausen, though he was not one to accept hearsay evidence for geographical discovery.

Discovery of the South Orkney Islands, 1821-1822

The following season, Palmer captained the 80-ton sloop James Monroe in a Stonington fleet of six vessels, again under Pendleton’s overall command, though this time anchored at Deception Island. Few fur seals were found, and Palmer was sent on long exploratory cruises, probably along the Antarctic Peninsula, and certainly to Elephant and Clarence Islands. It was while off Elephant Island that Palmer fell in with the British sealer George Powell, and the two decided on a voyage to the east during which they discovered the South Orkney Islands on 6 January 1822 (see Powell, George). No log sur­vives for Palmer’s voyage, but contemporary newspaper accounts imply that from Deception Palmer sailed across to the peninsula and then northward, skirting land first and then the edge of the pack ice (on a course similar to Edward Bransfield’s) in 1820 before he met Powell at Elephant Island.

      The discovery of the South Orkneys was Palmer’s last sig­nificant contribution to the exploration of Antarctica, though he did undertake one more voyage to the South Shetlands in 1829-1831 (see Pendleton, Benjamin). Unlike many other sealing explorers, Palmer prospered in later life as a business­man, shipowner, and member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club. He died in 1877.

See also: Antarctic Peninsula; Bransfield, Edward (1819-1820); Deception Island; Marguerite Bay; Pendleton, Benjamin; Powell, George; Sealing and Antarctic Exploration; Sheffield, James; South Orkney Islands; South Shetland Islands

References and further reading:

Bertrand, K.J. 1971. Americans in Antarctica, 1775-1948. New York: American Geographical Society.

Hinks, A.R. 1940. The log of the Hero. Geographical Journal, 96(6), 419-430.

Spears, J. R. 1922. Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, an old-time sailor of the sea. New York: Macmillan.


(Mills) (1486 words)







American sealer Nathaniel Brown Palmer (born Au­gust 8, 1799, Stonington, Connecticut) became one of the first people to see Antarctica in 1820. He was preceded by two others earlier that year: Fabian von Bellingshausen (on January 27) and Edward Bransfield (on January 30).

Palmer, whose father was a shipyard owner in Stonington, went to sea at the age of 12. He first sailed to the Antarctic in 1819, as second mate on the brig Hersilia (James Sheffield, master), which operated in the newly discovered South Shetland Islands, the first US vessel known to have visited the archipelago. The voyage brought home 8868 skins of fur seals, spurring other New England ship owners to outfit sealing expeditions.

      Palmer commanded the 47-foot (14.3-m) sloop Hero on another sealing voyage in 1820. Among Hero’s five-man crew was Peter Harvey, born in Phi­ladelphia in 1789, one of the first black persons to reach the Antarctic. Hero sailed with four other Sto­nington vessels in a group led by Benjamin Pendleton. After arriving in the South Shetlands, Palmer took Hero southward to search for a better anchorage. He moored inside the flooded caldera of Deception Is­land—almost certainly the first to do so. On Novem­ber 16, 1820, either from Deception’s southeast coast or from Hero’s mainmast. Palmer is said to have sighted Trinity Island to the southeast and the Ant­arctic Peninsula beyond. The next day, he sailed to investigate, but heavy ice prevented him from making a landing. In January 1821, while searching for seal rookeries, Palmer took Hero along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula as far south as Marguerite Bay.

Later that year, commanding the sloop James Monroe, Palmer was sealing in the South Shetlands as part of another Stonington fleet led by Pendleton. In company with British Captain George Powell of Dove, Palmer sailed east; together they discovered a large island of a new group on December 6, 1821. Because there were no seals to harvest, Palmer had little interest in the island, but Powell went ashore the next day and claimed it for the British crown, calling it Coronation Island, and the group “Powell’s Group,” now known as the South Orkney Islands.

Palmer made a final Antarctic voyage from 1829 to 1831, commanding the brig Annawan and sailing in company with his brother, Alexander S. Palmer, mas­ter of the schooner Penguin, in a voyage from Sto­nington led by Pendleton aboard the brig Seraph. The private sealing and exploration voyage was the first to earn sanction by the US government. It included the first American scientist to visit the Antarctic, phy­sician and geologist James Eights, who published seven papers on his findings, including his discovery of fossil wood in the South Shetlands, the first fossil discovery in Antarctica.

      “Captain Nat,” as Palmer was widely known later in life, became wealthy as a ship designer, owner, and master, particularly of the Yankee clipper ships used in the China trade. He died in San Francisco, Cali­fornia, on June 21, 1877, the day after returning from a voyage to Asia.

jeff rubin

See also Antarctic Peninsula; Bellingshausen, Fabian von; Deception Island; Sealing, History of; South Or­kney Islands; South Shetland Islands; South Shetland Islands, Discovery of

References and Further Reading

Bertrand, Kenneth J. Americans in Antarctica, 1775-1948. Burlington, VT.: American Geographical Society, 1971.

Clark, Arthur H. The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Own­ers, Builders, Commanders, and Crews 1843-1869. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910.

Hinks, A. R. “The Log of the Hero.” Geographical Journal 96 (6) (1940): 419-430.

Kaplan, Sidney. “Negro Seamen Present at the Discovery of Antarctica.” The Negro History Bulletin 19 (4) (1956): 80

Martin, Lawrence. “Antarctica Discovered by a Connecti­cut Yankee, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer.” The Geographical Review 30 (4) (1940): 529-552.

Mitterling, Philip I. America in the Antarctic to 1840. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1959.

Spears, John R. Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer: An Old-Time Sailor of the Sea. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Stevens, Thomas A. “The Discovery of Antarctica.” The Log of Mystic Seaport 28 (1977): 106-114.


(Riffenburgh) (676 words)







Palmer, Nathaniel B. b. Aug. 8, 1799, Stonington, Conn. d. 1877, San Fran­cisco. Nathaniel Brown Palmer. Son of a shipyard owner, and brother of Alex Palmer. Nat went to sea at 14. He was 2nd mate on the Hersilia during its 1819-20 voyage to the South Shetlands. The following season, 1820-21, he was a ma­jor part of the Fanning-Pendleton Seal­ing Expedition, in which he was captain and part-owner of the Hero, and co-owner of the Express—at the age of 20!  On Nov. 17,1820, he sighted the Antarctic Peninsula, and on Feb. 6, 1821, he met von Bellingshausen (see that entry for details). Yet again, the following season, he was back in the South Shet­lands, as commander of the James Monroe, and on Dec. 6, 1821, with British sealer George Powell, discovered the South Orkneys. Powell, unlike Palmer, was not part of the Fanning-Pendleton Sealing Expedition of that season. In 1829-31 he and Ben Pendleton led the Palmcr-Pendleton Expedition to the same area, with Palmer commanding the Annawan, which he co-owned. At the end of the expedition Palmer’s vessel was boarded by pirates. Later Palmer became a clipper ship master and de­signer.


(Stewart) (192 words)







Palmer, Nathaniel Brown. (1799-1877) American sealing master and navigator, possibly the first to see and explore Antarctic Peninsula. Born on 8 August 1799 in Stonington, Conn., the son of a shipbuilder, Palmer started his seagoing life as a ship’s boy on New England coasters. At 18 he was given his first command, an inshore schooner. At 19 he sailed as second mate aboard the sealing brig Hersilia (Capt. J. A. Sheffield) to seek new sealing islands in waters south of Cape Horn. While replenishing stores in the Falkland Islands in 1819, Palmer may have persuaded his captain to follow a British sealing brig, Espiritu Santo, to the newly-discovered South Shetland Islands, where they secured a substantial cargo of skins. In the following season Palmer commanded a sloop, Hero, assisting a Stonington-based fleet of five brigs and two schooners in a return to the islands. Under the overall command of Capt. Benjamin Pendleton, Hero’s role was to carry skins and stores, and explore for new islands while the rest of the fleet hunted. In the course of a busy season. Palmer and Pendleton sighted land to the south of Deception Island, which Palmer vis­ited, exploring both south and west but finding no seals in the area now called Palmer Archipelago. Returning to the South Shetland Islands he met the ships of the Imperial Rus­sian Naval Expedition 1819-21 off Deception Island, and discussed his findings with the leader, Fabian von Belling­shausen. In a further search eastward, in company with the British sealer George Powell, on 7 December 1821 he participated in the discovery and exploration of the South Orkney Islands.

      Palmer turned his attention to more profitable trading in northern waters, returning south for a final sealing voyage in the brig Annawan in 1829-30, in company with his brother Capt. A. C. Palmer in the brig Penguin. Thereafter he became a prosperous ship owner, contributing substantially to the design and development of clipper chips trading to Europe, the Antipodes and China. He retired from the sea in 1850, maintaining his interests in sailing, ship design and long-distance maritime routes. He died in San Francisco on a return journey from China in 1877.


(Stonehouse) (360 words)






Palmer, Nathaniel Brown (1799-1877) American sealer. Born at Stonington, Connecticut, where his father was a ship owner. As a 19-year-old he joined a sealing expedition to the south shet­land islands.

      The following season, commanding the Hero, he returned to the area as part of a large fleet. On 16 November 1820 he is reputed to have sighted the antarctic peninsula. On 25 January 1821 Palmer encountered the expedition led by Thaddeus bellingshausen in the South Shetlands. According to the Russian explorer, ‘I lay to, despatched a boat, and waited for the Captain of the American boat. ... Soon after, Mr Palmer arrived in our boat and informed us that he had been here for four months sealing. ... They were engaged in killing and skinning seals, whose num­bers were perceptibly diminishing. There were as many as eighteen vessels about at various points ... the whole fleet of sealers had killed 80,000.’ In mid-October of the following season. Palmer met James weddell in the falkland islands and another British sealer, George Powell, with whom he discovered the south orkney islands.

      After a few years trading in the Caribbean he returned to the Antarctic in 1829, but the sealing was poor and he was raided by pirates. He made a fortune in the Atlantic in the 1830s and was later involved in the clipper trade to the Ear East. He died at sea during a return voyage to San Francisco in 1877.


(Trewby) (240 words)










W18 WEDDELL, James


Antarctica, South Orkney &   South Shetland Is

Anglo-Scots navigator, sealer and Antarctic explorer (1787-1834). Born in Ostend, his father was a Presbyterian upholsterer from Dalserf in Scotland who had settled in London and married Sarah Pease, a member of a famous English Quaker family. At the time of James’ birth his father was in poor health and died a short time later. In order to provide money for the family, James’ elder brother, CHARLES WEDDELL, joined the Royal Navy. James, aged nine, joined him as boy, first class, on the Swan, but discharged himself six months later. Charles eventually settled in the West Indies, dying in 1818. James entered the merchant service and was apparently bound to the master of a Newcastle collier for some years. About 1805 he shipped on board a merchantman trading to the West Indies, making several voyages there. However, charged with striking his tyrannical captain, he was handed over to the frigate Rainbow as a prisoner, guilty of insubordination and mutiny.

      In Jamaica Weddell once again volunteered for service in the Royal Navy and in December 1810 was appointed master of the Firefly. In December 1811 he was moved to the Thalia, and on her return to England and being paid off he was promoted on 21.10.12 as master of the Hope. He was aboard the Hope when in 1813 in the English Channel she captured the True Blooded Yankee, an American privateer. A few months later Weddell was moved to the brig Avon. The Avon was paid off in March 1814 and Weddell was appointed to the Espoir sloop, sailing to the West Indies and Nova Scotia, from which he was promoted to the Cyndus frigate and later to the Pactolus. With the end of the Napoleonic War he was laid off on half-pay in February 1816 and for a while resumed merchant voyages to the West Indies.

      (A) In 1819 Weddell was introduced to James Strachan, a ship­builder of Leith, who together with James Mitchell, a London insur­ance broker, owned the 160-ton brig Jane, an American-built ship taken during the War of 1812 and re-fitted for sealing. News of the discovery of the South Shetland Islands by William Smith (q.v.) had just broken, and Weddell suggested to Strachan that fortunes might be made in the new sealing grounds. In particular, Weddell was interested in rediscovering the mythical ‘Aurora Islands’, said to lie to the east of Cape Horn at 53°S / 48°W. The islands had been reported in 1762 by the Spanish ship Aurora while sailing from Lima to Cadiz, and then again in 1794 by the corvette Atrevida which had been sent to find them. Details of Weddell’s first voyage are fragmentary; he arrived with the Jane in the Falkland Islands and wintered there from 1819 to 1820, collecting hydrographical infor­mation in the Falklands and the surrounding islands. The Jane carried chronometers, a luxury beyond the reach of most sealers, and it is known that these were rated at Staten Island on 27.1.20 before Weddell’s vain search for the Aurora Islands. A few days later Weddell, his holds full, left the southern seas for the voyage back to England. He carried letters from other sealers, notably from the Liverpool ship George which had taken 9000 seals, and was the first to report the shipwreck of four sealers: the American Clothier (wrecked at Blythe Bay on the north coast of Livingstone Island), and the British Hannah, Lady Troubridge (Captain RICHARD SHERRAT) and Ann.

      (B) Weddell’s first voyage showed a handsome profit for Strachan and Mitchell – enough for them to purchase a second smaller vessel, the 65-ton Beaufoy. In September 1821 the Jane, commanded by Weddell, and the Beaufoy, commanded by the Scot MICHAEL MCLEOD, left the Thames and by August 1821 were at Madeira, where stores were taken on board. After calling at the Cape Verde Islands for salt the two vessels arrived at New Island in the Falklands. There Weddell encountered CHARLES H. BARNARD (q.v.), commander and owner of the brig Charity, who had been marooned on the Falklands for two years, 1812-14. It was perhaps at Weddell’s prompting that Barnard was to write an account of his experiences(1829).

The Jane, Beaufoy, and Charity then sailed for the South Shetlands, arriving late in October 1821. By that time, forty-five American and British sealers were in the area and seals were becoming scarce. The three vessels therefore separated to scout for new grounds. On 11.12.21, when 384 kilometres to the east of Elephant Island, McCleod in the Beaufoy sighted land further to the east – the South Orkney Islands, discovered quite independently four days earlier by GEORGE POWELL (see Nathaniel Brown Palmer). The three captains rendezvoused at Yankee Harbour on Greenwich Island on 22.12.21, and in February 1822 Weddell with the Jane sailed for the South Orkneys where seals were taken and some survey work carried out. The Beaufoy sailed directly to South Georgia where she was joined later by the Jane. The two vessels sailed for England at the end of March 1822 and arrived in the Thames in July.

      (C) The next few months were spent frantically re-supplying the Jane and Beaufoy for a third voyage to the Antarctic. Although the major purpose was sealing, Weddell now had instructions that if no seals were found he should ‘prosecute a search beyond the track of former navigators’. This appealed immensely to Weddell, who was more an explorer than a sealer, and the ships were duly equipped with three chronometers, compasses, barometers, thermometers, logbooks, charts and the new steel pens and graphite pencils. Weddell commanded the Jane, with twenty-two crew, while the Beaufoy, with thirteen men, was given to MATTHEW BRISBANE (q.v.), a Scotsman from a seafaring family.

      The two ships sailed from the Thames on 13.9.22 and after entering the Atlantic separated: the Jane steering for Madeira and the Beaufoy for the Cape Verde Islands. By 14.10.22 both ships were off Bonavista in the Cape Verdes. After taking on supplies they sailed on 20.10.22 and crossed the equator on 7.11.22. During the crossing the Jane developed a serious leak, requiring an anchorage to be found on the coast of Patagonia. After searching around the Valdes Peninsula (10.12.22), a harbour was found at Port St Elena on 19.12.22. While repairs on the Jane were being carried out the Beaufoy went sealing along the Patagonian coast. By 1.1.23 the two vessels were in company again off the coast of Patagonia, where they searched for an island, the ‘Aigle Reef’, which had been reported by a variety of navigators, particularly Captain BRISTOW in 1819 and the whaler-captain ROBERT POOLE (see below), of the Aigle. Finding nothing, they arrived off the South Orkney Islands on 12.1.23, anchoring between Saddle Island and Melville Island (= Laurie I.). Sealing proved disappointing, so the two ships headed south, and by 27.1.23 had reached 64°58'S. Weddell, wanting to make use of the long periods of daylight, then turned north to look for land between the South Orkneys and South Sandwich Islands, and on 1.1.23 was at 58°50'S.

      Weddell was now convinced that nothing new remained to be discovered in those latitudes, and that he should search further to the south. Following the 40°W line of latitude, the two ships reached 66°S on 10.2.23, and a week later at 71°10'S were rapidly approaching the furthest south penetrated by any ship in the Southern Ocean. The season was unusually mild and tranquil, and ‘not a particle of ice of any description was to be seen’. By 17.2.23 the two ships had reached 74°34'S / 30°12'W. A few icebergs were sighted but there was still no sight of land, leading Weddell to theo­rize that the sea continued as far as the South Pole. Another two days sailing would have brought him to Coats Land but, to the disap­pointment of the crew, Weddell decided to turn back. The region would not be visited again until 1911, when Wilhelm Filchner discovered the ice shelf which now bears his name.

      Weddell returned north along the 40° line of latitude, passed by the South Orkneys and sheltered at South Georgia, where he and his crews searched for the elusive seal. On 17.4.23 they sailed from South Georgia bound for the Falklands, and on 11.5.23 anchored off New Island. After wintering at the Falklands the two ships sailed on 7.10.23 for the South Shetlands. They survived a ferocious hurricane but were prevented from approaching the islands by thick pack ice, and on 18.11.23 Weddell turned west to search for seals around Cape Horn. On 23.11.23 the Jane and Beaufoy dropped anchor in Wigwam Cove, sixteen kilometres north of Cape Horn, and during December made another fruitless attempt to reach the South Shetlands, still locked in ice.

      In the first week of 1824 the two ships separated: Brisbane and the Beaufoy stayed in Tierra del Fuego until 20.1.24; Weddell cruised the Patagonian coast as far as the Santa Cruz River, then returned to the Falklands on 2.3.24. Seventeen days later Weddell sailed for Patagonia to rendezvous with Brisbane, but by that time the Beaufoy had set off on the homeward voyage and was to arrive in the Thames on 20.6.24. Weddell encountered severe storms, and a leak in the Jane forced him to put in at Montevideo. Repairs completed, the Jane sailed from the Rio de la Plata on 4.5.24 and reached the Thames on 9.7.24. His record for a southerly voyage

three degrees beyond that of Cook, caused some raised eyebrows. Rather than confronting the Admiralty with numerous charts and records, Weddell was persuaded by Strachan and Mitchell to incorporate everything in a book, thereby adding credence to his discoveries. The first edition appeared in 1825. In August 1824 Brisbane sailed the Beaufoy from the Thames for a return voyage to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands, with particular instructions to revisit the Fuegian islanders they had encountered two years earlier. Brisbane returned to England on 14.4.26 and Weddell added a short account of the voyage, mainly concerning the Fuegians, to the second, enlarged edition of his book publish in 1827.

      In 1826 Weddell offered his services to the Admiralty with a proposal for a return voyage to the high southern latitudes, either in command of an expedition sponsored entirely by the Admiralty, or in ships of his own with the costs defrayed by the government. The proposal failed to meet the approval of JOHN BARROW (q.v.) and was turned down. Instead, Weddell returned to trading along the warmer Atlantic coasts. In 1829 he was still master of the Jane, but on a passage from Buenos Aires to Gibraltar the Jane leaked so badly that on arrival at Horta, in the Azores, she was condemned and allowed to founder. Weddell and his cargo were transferred to another ship for the passage to England but this ran aground on the island of Pico, and Weddell survived only by lashing himself to a rock.

      The loss of the Jane meant financial ruin for Weddell, who was forced to take paid employment as a ship’s master. In September 1830 he left England as master of the Eliza, bound for the Swan River colony, Western Australia. From there he proceeded to Hobart, Tasmania, where in May 1831 he assisted JOHN BlSCOE(q.v.) in landing his scurvy-afflicted crew from the Tula. Weddell sailed for England in the Eliza in January 1832 and arrived in the Thames six months later. In London he took up lodgings at 16 Norfolk Street where he resided in relative poverty and obscurity, apparently supported by a Miss Rosanna Johnstone. He died in September 1834 at the age of forty-seven and was buried in the churchyard of Clement Danes.

      ROBERT POOLE (1761-1833) was related to and was possibly the son of Joseph Poole, who sailed with Cook. Robert’s gravestone at Staplegrove Church, near Taunton, bears the inscription: ‘A man distinguished alike by an enterprising spirit and inflexible integrity. He crossed the equator to and from the Pacific Ocean 22 times. Passed Cape Horn 17 times, sailed once around the globe and like­wise to the 74th degree of North Latitude and to the 62nd degree of South Latitude besides having performed many other voyages to different parts of the world in seasons of trying difficulty and danger to which his avocation in the earlier part of his life often exposed him. He acknowledged and placed full reliance on the wisdom and beneficence of an all powerful and overuling providence, and in the quiet retirement in which his later years were spent, he was wont to recur to more active scenes of his life in terms of heartfelt gratitude for having been upheld by the wonderful goodness of God in protecting him thru the many dangers to which he had been exposed. Died 5 May 1833 aged 72 years’.


Weddell, James, A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-24. Containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea, to the seventy-fourth degree of latitude; and a visit to Tierra del Fuego, with a particular account of the inhabitants. To which is added, much useful information on the coasting navigation of Cape Horn, and the adja­cent lands (London 1825; 2nd edn [enlarged], London 1827; reprinted, Newton Abbot 1971).


Robert Poole’s epitaph was kindly transcribed for the author by Roger Pattimore (private communication).


D  Balch, E.S., Antarctica (Philadelphia 1902).


Gurney, Alan, Below the convergence: voyages towards Antarctica 1699-1839 (London 1997, 1998).


Headland, Robert, The island of South Georgia (Cambridge 1984).


See also the general bibliography for Antarctica in the article for WILLIAM SMITH.


(Howgego) (2268 words)




Weddell, James


Antarctica’s Weddell Sea preserves the name of arguably the greatest of the sealer explorers, James Weddell. In 1823, he pen­etrated the normally ice-strewn Weddell Sea to reach a farthest south of 74°15'S, bettering James Cook’s record by more than 3 degrees; it was not surpassed until 1841 by James Clark Ross. The Weddell seal is also named for this most prominent of Antarctic explorers.

      Possibly born in Massachusetts, Weddell from an early age was brought up in Scotland to a Presbyterian father and a Quaker mother. This was an unusual parental combination at the time and undoubtedly influenced the development of his tolerant but deeply held religious views. First going to sea at the early age of nine, he alternated between the British Royal Navy and the merchant navy, establishing a reputation in both as a competent and respected seaman until his promising career in the Royal Navy was cut short by the end of the Napoleonic Wars.


A Sealing Voyage to the South Shetland Islands, 1820-1821

Weddell first sailed south in 1820 as master of the 160-ton brig Jane, an American prize taken in the War of 1812 and now owned by Strachan and Gavin, shipbuilders of Leith. On this voyage, Weddell searched in vain for the Aurora Islands in hopes of finding new sealing grounds before spending the winter in the Falkland Islands, where he characteristically occupied himself by compiling sailing directions to the islands. While there he must have heard of William Smith’s discovery of the South Shetlands, where he acquired a full cargo of sealskins by 5 January 1821, when he sailed back to London, arriving that April.


A Sealing Voyage to the South Shetlands and South Orkneys, 1821-1822

The profits of this voyage enabled Weddell and John Strachan to buy the 65-ton cutter Beaufoy, which was to sail in consort with Jane on future voyages. Setting out in July, the two vessels reached the South Shetlands in late October. Since seals even then were already scarce, Beaufoy was sent to search for new sealing grounds. On 11 December, land was sighted 240 miles east of Elephant Island. This was the South Orkney Islands, and Beaufoy’s sighting came only six days after the discovery of this archipelago by George Powell and Nathaniel Palmer. Weddell did not investigate further until February 1822, when he himself visited the South Orkneys in Jane, having been unable to obtain sufficient sealskins in the South Shetlands and hoping for more seals here, as well as an opportunity to chart a newly discovered land. In the event, few seals were found, and Weddell had time to compile only a rough chart before rejoining Beaufoy at South Georgia and sailing for England in late March. This voyage was less profitable than the first but still sufficiently so to encourage the organization of a third voyage.


Farthest South in the Weddell Sea, 1822-1824

Weddell’s reputation rests chiefly upon his third voyage, during which he was to achieve his farthest south. In September 1822, the two vessels set out from London, Beaufoy now command­ed by Matthew Brisbane rather than Michael MacLeod, its master on the previous voyage. South of the Cape Verde Islands, Jane was discovered to be leaking, repair being effected during an enforced anchorage on the Patagonian coast. By now it was too late in the season to visit the South Shetlands, where the beaches would long ago have been cleared of the few surviving fur seals. Weddell therefore decided to make straight for the South Orkneys, which he reached on 12 January 1823. There, he found seals when he landed on Saddle Island three days later. They were not the desired fur seals but rather a different species with leopard-like spots; he called them sea leopards. In fact, they were not leopard seals but Leptonychotes weddelli, a new species soon to be known as the Weddell seal. Very few fur seals were found, but Weddell was now able to compile a rea­sonably accurate chart of the islands.

      Following reports of high land seen in the distance, Wed­dell headed south from the South Orkneys on 22 January, only to find that the reported land was nothing but icebergs. Indeed, land and iceberg are often confused in such high latitudes, where the land itself is largely ice-covered. Faced with the deci­sion of continuing south or returning north to search for land between the South Orkney and South Sandwich Islands, Wed­dell decided on the latter, turning about at 64°58'S on 27 Jan­uary, but again no land nor seals could be found. It was evi­dent that if there was undiscovered land, then it must lie farther to the south. Weddell therefore turned in that direction once more on 4 February. Sailing south close to 30°W, Weddell sighted land at 66°S, only to dematerialize again into an ice­berg. This one was studded with rocks and stones and partic­ularly deceptive. With the wind against them and the sea strewn thickly with icebergs, it seemed unlikely that they would penetrate far, especially so late in the season, but on 16 February the wind changed, blowing instead from the west. With the wind with them and through a sea increasingly clear of ice, Jane and Beaufoy reached 71°34'S on the following day, thereby surpassing James Cook’s record farthest south, which had stood since January 1774. In these conditions—truly extraordinary for the Weddell Sea, which has since acquired a notorious reputation for ship-crushing ice—Weddell contin­ued until he reached 74°15'S at 34°16'W on 20 February. There, with an extended view, he was surrounded by open sea with but three icebergs in sight. However, the wind had changed to the south, there was no imminent prospect of land, and the season was very late. Aware that any further progress south would be slow and that there was a very real danger of being trapped by ice forming to the north, Weddell reluctantly turned about and headed—like Sir Ernest Shackleton but in different circumstances—for South Georgia.

      The comparison with Shackleton is not inapt. Weddell was not far from where Endurance was lost and, like Shackleton, knew of no place of safety closer than South Georgia. He was determined to get north at speed and make the most of the fol­lowing wind to escape what he suspected would soon turn into an ice trap. His voyage was uneventful, but it could easily have been otherwise. In particular, on the night of 7 March, as the two vessels lost sight of each other, Jane sailed at 10 knots through a sea infested with small icebergs. These are not eas­ily seen, especially at night, even with the aid of an experienced seaman at the masthead to shout out warnings. Jane was for­tunate to escape unscathed, but then Weddell was desperate to exploit every favorable wind, even a southwest gale in such a sea. On 12 March Jane and Beaufoy were reunited and shortly afterward reached Undine Harbour near the western tip of South Georgia’s southern coast. There they repaired vessels, recuperated, and feasted off whatever culinary delights could be culled from the island’s bleak shores. Weddell, a man of many parts, revealed himself now as a naturalist, and his account of South Georgia’s wildlife is still highly regarded.

South Georgia was left behind on 17 April and course was set for the Falkland Islands, which were reached after a rough passage of three weeks. Indeed, as if to make up for Weddell’s extreme good fortune in the Weddell Sea, little was to go right for him afterward. With Jane and Beaufoy still largely empty of sealskins or any other cargo, further sealing was attempted with little success off the Falklands, South Shetlands, and Tierra del Fuego. The voyage to the South Shetlands was par­ticularly unproductive, with thick pack ice preventing even a close approach during two months of fruitless effort in Octo­ber and November, normally when the islands would be acces­sible. Weddell was forced to withdraw his battered vessels to Tierra de Fuego, where a stay of several months yielded more in ethnographic observations than seals, with Weddell again proving himself an acute observer with wide interests. Jane and Beaufoy separated there to attempt further sealing along the Patagonian coast and in the Falklands as they made their way back to London, which Beaufoy reached on 20 June 1824 and Jane on 9 July.

Weddell’s classic account A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-24 containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea was published in 1825. Naturally, he was par­ticularly keen to publicize his record farthest south, which at the time and afterward was received with some skepticism, particularly when other navigators were unable to penetrate beyond even the margins of the Weddell Sea. Indeed, Weddell had been exceptionally fortunate, and the ice conditions of 1823 were not experienced again for almost another 150 years, After the Admiralty rebuffed his proposal to lead an Antarctic exploring expedition, Weddell found employment in later life as a ship’s master, sailing all over the world but making no more voyages of exploration. On 9 September 1834, he died at the age of forty-seven.

 See also: Cook, James (1772-1775); Farthest South; Palmer, Nathaniel (1821-1822); Powell, George (1821-1822); Ross James Clark (1839-1843); Sealing and Antarctic Exploration; Shackleton, Ernest (1914-1916); Smith, William; South Georgia; South Orkney Islands; South Shetland Islands; Weddell Sea

References and further reading:

Gurney.A. 1997. Below the Convergence: voyages toward Antarctica, 1699-1839. New York: W.W.Norton.

Weddell, J. 1970. A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-24 containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.


(Mills) (1599 words)






Weddell was primus inter pares in the group of sealing captains who accomplished so much exploration of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic in the early years of the nineteenth century, and whose achievements were recorded for posterity. During his great voyage of 1822-1824, he discovered the sea now named after him and penetrated it to the then-astonishing latitude of 74°15' S.

      As with so many of his contemporaries, much of Weddell’s early life is obscure. His father was a pros­perous Scottish-born upholsterer trading in London, and his mother, to whom he was deeply attached throughout his life, was a Quaker. Although it is known that he was born in 1787, his place of birth is uncertain. London would seem likely, but both Ostend and Massachusetts are possible. His father died early, and Weddell, following a brother into the Royal Navy, became a “boy, first class” on board HMS Swan on June 1, 1796. He was soon discharged and entered the merchant service, where he remained until he rejoined the Royal Navy in 1810 as an able seaman. Promotion then became rapid, as Weddell was a highly competent seaman. He was acting master within 1 year and received his warrant as master within 2. With the peace following the Napoleonic Wars, Weddell left the navy and reentered the merchant service.

      After a few unremarkable years, Weddell arranged for the firm of Strachan & Gavin, of Leith, together with other investors—of whom one seems to have been Weddell himself—to outfit the brig Jane (160 tons) for sealing in southern waters, under his command. During his first voyage, in 1819-1820, Weddell— who, unusually for the time, carried a chronometer and knew how to use it—visited the South Shetland Islands, searched for and failed to find the “Aurora Islands,” and wintered in the Falkland Islands, where he prepared detailed notes and charts of anchorages.

      Encouraged by the success of the voyage, the inves­tors purchased a diminutive vessel, Beaufoy (65 tons), to act as tender to Jane, and Weddell again set forth for the sealing grounds in 1821. He visited the Falklands, South Georgia, and the South Shetland Islands, and Michael McLeod, the captain of Beau­foy, reached the South Orkney Islands on a scouting mission a mere 6 days after their discovery by George Powell and Nathaniel Palmer. It seems to have been Weddell who named this archipelago when he visited it in Jane in February 1822. He charted the islands and, following his usual practice, made such scientific observations as he could.

By this time, Weddell was highly experienced in the sealing trade, and Strachan & Gavin, which seems to have had the same enlightened attitude as did the Enderby Brothers with regard to their captains engaging in exploratory and scientific work when possible, speedily decided on a third voyage. After a complete reequipping, Jane and Beaufoy, the latter under the command of Matthew Brisbane, who appears to have been an almost exact contemporary of Weddell, departed the Thames in September 1822. Jane sprang a leak on the voyage south, and this caused delays, as it was necessary to spend some time in a secure anchorage on the Patagonian coast in order to effect repairs. It became obvious Weddell that it would not be profitable to head to the South Shetlands because of the lateness of the season and also because most of the seals in the archipelago had, by that date, already been slaughtered. He determined to aim for the South Orkneys, where they arrived after much bad weather, in mid-January 1823. Few seals were secured, but among them was one preserved by Weddell, which later became the type specimen of Leptonychotes wecldei, the Weddell seal. Unsatisfied, Weddell determined seek new sealing islands and to examine the area between the South Shetlands and South Sandwich Islands. Failing in this, he decided to head south. For the first part of the passage the conditions were poor, but in mid-February, extraordinarily late the season, and well to the south of the Antarctic Circle, the weather ameliorated and rapid progress was made in the desired direction. On February 1 the sea was completely clear of ice—in Weddell’s words, “not a particle...was to be seen”—and these conditions continued with a favourable wind “light and easterly” enabling “all sail” to be kept. On February 20, the wind shifted to the south, causing Weddell to reverse course from his farthest south at 74° 15' S, 34° 16' W. No land was in sight.

      It is important to appreciate the wisdom of Weddell’s decision at this juncture. He was aware that a long and potentially difficult navigation northwards at an unpropitious time of the year awaited Jane, Beaufoy, and their crews. Even though further progress could have been made by altering course to southeast or west, Weddell appreciated that disaster loomed for his ships if the weather suddenly turned as it could easily have done, and that, even if he did discover new sealing grounds, it was so late that most of the seals would already have left.

      By mid-March both ships were in Undine Harbour in South Georgia, refitting and refreshing the crews, especially with regard to antiscorbutics, and continuing sealing. Weddell himself devoted much time on charting and making observations of wildlife and other natural phenomena. After wintering in the Falklands, Weddell set off, in October, on a renewed attempt to reach the South Shetlands. Although was early in the season, this would have been at the optimal period for sealing, and the expedition had so far been woefully unsuccessful in its main aim. However, after a prolonged struggle with the pack, which was very far north, it proved impossible to land and Weddell headed for Tierra del Fuego. During his sojourn there, he continued with his observations of wildlife, this time also experiencing the novelty of trying to establish relations with the inhabitants, in whom he appears to have had a good deal of interest.

By now anxious about the prospect of having to return home with no seal products, Weddell ordered that the two ships separate, and both thereafter ulti­mately had some success. Jane reached London in July 1824, to find that Beaufoy had arrived some weeks earlier.

Partly based on a desire to ensure that his record south be accepted by the maritime authorities, Wed­dell determined to prepare a book concerning his voyages. This appeared in 1825 under the ponderous title A Voyage Towards the South Pole Performed in the Years 1822-1824; Containing an Examination of the Antarctic Sea to the Seventy-Fourth Degree of Latitude: and a Visit to Tierra del Fuego and presented a distillation of his experiences, including comprehen­sive notes concerning navigation in the difficult waters. It also included his observations on wildlife and contained a proposal for the conservation of seals to ensure continuing future harvests. The book is a masterpiece, and recognition of his work came with his election to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

      Weddell’s work at sea as captain of Jane con­tinued but not as part of the sealing trade. Jane was deemed unfit for further use while at Horta in the Azores, and, after having been shipwrecked on the way home, Weddell became captain of Eliza, engaged in the Australia trade. One of the most celebrated coincidental meetings of polar “greats” took place in May 1831, on the Tasmanian coast, when Weddell and his men helped to moor John Biscoe’s Tula, limping in with a sick crew after her great voyage.

      For both Weddell and Brisbane, sad demises were in store. The latter was murdered by gauchos in the Falkland Islands on August 26, 1833. Weddell left the sea after returning from Tasmania in mid-1832. He resided in lodgings in London, where, despite being one of the greatest Antarctic sailors of all time, he died in poverty in September 1834.

Ian R. Stone

See also Biscoe, John; Enderby, Messrs.; Sealing, History of; South Georgia; South Orkney Islands; South Sandwich Islands; South Shetland Islands; Weddell Seal

References and Further Reading

Jones, A. G. E. “New Light on James Weddell, Master of the Brig Jane of Leith.” Scottish Geographical Magazine 81 (3)(1965): 182-187.


————. “Captain Matthew Brisbane.” Notes and Queries (1971): 172-175.

Weddell, J. A Voyage Towards the South Pole Performed in the Years 1822-1824. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1825.


(Riffenburgh) (1390 words)






Weddell, James, b. Aug. 24, 1787, Ostend (then in the Austrian Nether­lands). d. Sept. 9, 1834, London. Scot­tish navigator, explorer, seal hunter. Son of an upholsterer. Joined the RN in 1796, was in the merchant navy, then again in the RN. He commanded the brig Jane on three voyages into Antarctic waters, with the prime purpose of sealing and fishing. His first voyage was in 1819-21, and on it he discovered, or rather rediscovered, the South Shetlands and South Orkneys. After this trip he bought a share of the Jane, and was in high southern latitudes again in 1821-22, again at the South Shetlands, as well as the South Orkneys (which he named) in Feb. 1822. His third voyage was in 1822-24. By Feb. 16,1823, he was at 70°S, and on Feb. 20,1823, he set a new southing record of 74°15'S, 34° l6'W, and concluded that the South Pole was in an ocean (he was wrong). He was in a new sea, which he called the George IV Sea (later named the Weddell Sea). On that third voyage he also surveyed the South Shetlands and South Orkneys, and brought back Leopard seal specimens to London. In late 1823 he was back at the South Shetlands but could not land. Weddell continued as a ships captain un­til 1832, and wrote A Voyage Toward the South Pole in 1825.


(Stewart) (228 words)






Weddell, James. (1787-1834). British master mariner and polar explorer. Born in Ostend of Scottish parents, orphaned while still a child, Weddell was apprenticed to ships in the North Sea coastal trade. In 1816, while still a seaman, he ill-advisedly knocked down his captain in a dis­pute, and was transferred to the Royal Navy. There he fared better: his navigational skills secured rapid advancement to midshipman and Master. In 1819, paid off from the navy, he took command of a Leith sealing brig, Jane (160 tons), in which he made two successful and profitable voyages to the newly-discovered South Shetland and South Orkney Islands. In 1822 he began a similar and more adventurous voyage. Leaving London on 17 September, accompanied by Capt. Matthew Brisbane in the cutter Beaufoy (65 tons), he made a routine passage down the South Atlantic Ocean arriving off the South Orkney Islands on 12 January 1823. There Weddell undertook a running survey and collected specimens of seals for the Edinburgh Museum.

Seeking new islands, the two ships turned south on 22 January, making slow progress in wet, foggy weather, through a sea laced with pack ice and bergs. On 4 Febru­ary, in better conditions and with favourable winds, Weddell determined to press as far south as possible. By 16 Febru­ary, having crossed the Antarctic Circle and reached 70°S, Jane and Beaufoy found themselves in open water, head­ing southeast under mild west winds, surrounded by flocks of seabirds ‘of the blue petrel kind’, with many humpback and fin whales in sight. On 20 February 1823 the wind shifted to south, making further progress difficult. Wed­dell and Brisbane had reached the remarkable latitude of 74° 15'S, longitude 34° 15' 45”W. Having found no new land, and mindful of the need to secure a profitable cargo, Wed­dell felt it was time to return north. In what must have been an unusually benign season, he had penetrated a huge bight, now called the Weddell Sea, achieving a record furthest-south that took him 214 nautical miles beyond Cook’s earlier record. Most remarkably, he had achieved it in an area that is normally full of slowly-circulating pack ice - an area in which several later expedition ships were threatened, beset, damaged or destroyed.

      After a stop in South Georgia the expedition wintered in the Falkland Islands. In the following summer they returned to the South Shetland Islands and eventually to Tierra del Fuego in constant hunt for a cargo of sealskins and oil. They returned to Britain in May 1824. Weddell published an account of his voyages (see below), including his many carefully researched observations of weather, tides and natural history. Little is known of his subsequent life, though he continued sealing, and died in London on 9 October 1834, aged 47.

Further reading: Weddell (1825)


(Stonehouse) (461 words)







Weddell, James (1787-1834) British naval officer, sealer and explorer. Born in Ostend, in the Netherlands, Weddell spent some years at sea before joining the British Navy and serving in the Napoleonic war against France. He became a cap­tain with the enderby brothers, and made three sealing voyages to the southern ocean: in 1819-21, 1821-22 and 1822-24. The first of these was for seal prospecting, and the second combined sealing with surveying work around south georgia, the south shetland and the south orkney islands.

      On his third voyage, in 1822-24, in the brig Jane accompanied by the cutter Beaufoy under Captain Matthew Brisbane, he beat James cook’s ‘farthest-south’ record: sailing in the sea he named after King George IV—now the weddell sea—he reached 71°15', a record in open water that was unsurpassed for 90 years. Encouraged by the Enderbys to explore the Southern Ocean, he kept accurate records of sea surface temperatures, measured magnetic declination, and recorded seismic activity in the South Shetlands. He observed ‘a pinnacle of an iceberg so thickly incorporated with black earth as to present the appearance of a rock’; these unusual forms are called ‘black icebergs’. Leptonychotes weddelli, the weddell seal, was discovered during the expedition.

      Weddell published A Voyage towards the South Pole, which is recognized as one of the classics of Antarctic exploration, in 1825. It included an account of king penguins: almost nine decades later, the naturalist R C Murphy wrote, ‘The details of his [penguin] study have long been overlooked, or perhaps disbelieved, by ornithologists, but they actually comprise the best account of the bird’s life history that has yet been published. Nothing in my own observations would lead me to change a line of Weddell’s almost forgotten history.’


(Trewby) (288 words)











W15 WILKINS, George Hubert


 antarctica, arctic

(Known as Hubert Wilkins) Australian explorer, adventurer, photog­rapher and pioneer polar aviator (1888-1958). Born at Mount Bryan East, South Australia, he was the thirteenth child of Henry Wilkins and Louisa Smith. His father had been born in a settler’s camp at Holdfast Bay, had tried his hand at prospecting, then returned to South Australia as a drover. Hubert Wilkins studied engineering part-time at the School of Mines in Adelaide, but his real passion was for photography and cinematography. In Sydney he worked for a year in a tent cinema operation; he spent four years wandering through Europe and America; then in 1908 he was hired by the Gaumont Company of London as a cinematographer and by the London Daily Chronicle as a reporter. In England in 1910 he learned to fly under the direction of Claude Grahame-White, then in 1912 he was sent to Constantinople (= Istanbul) by Gaumont to photograph and shoot film of the Balkan War. The following year he visited Trinidad and the West Indies. Wilkins had for some time taken an interest in the prospective role of both aircraft and submarines in polar exploration, and with the establishment of permanent weather stations in the polar regions. His first opportunity to visit the Arctic came in 1913 when he was appointed photographer to the expedition of VILHJALMUR STEFANSSON (q.v.). Although he suffered the loss of his equipment with the sinking of the Karluk, he stayed on until 1917 and became Stefansson’s second-in-command.

      In 1917 Wilkins enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps with the rank of lieutenant. Coincidentally, his superior officer was Captain JAMES FRANCIS HURLEY, who served with both Mawson’s and Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions (see the article for Douglas Mawson for some biography for Hurley). Wilkins took charge of the photographic department with the Australian forces in France and was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts to rescue wounded soldiers in the third battle of Ypres. He also received a Bar for his Military Cross for temporarily leading a company of American soldiers whose officers had been killed in action. At the end of the war, Wilkins turned again to aviation and entered the England to Australia Air Race of 1919 as navigator on the Blackburn Kangaroo, only to crash into the fence of a mental asylum in Crete. He then went to Russia to photograph the upheavals and famine which had smitten the country since the Revolution. In 1920 he visited the Antarctic for the first time as second-in-command of the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition under JOHN LACHLAN COPE (q.v.). In 1921 Wilkins was commissioned to lead a scientific survey expedition through southeastern Queensland, to the Roper River region of Arnhem Land and across Groote Eyiandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The expedition, which had been organized by the British Museum in response to a concern that many native species were disappearing in the face of advancing farmland, collected some 5000 specimens, including many rare mammals. In 1921-22 Wilkins was aboard the Quest with Sir ERNEST HENRY SHACKLETON (q.v.) on his last expedition to the Antarctic. In 1922-23 he was posted to Russia and Eastern Europe to report on the work of the Society of Friends’ Emergency and War Victims’ Relief Committee, at the same time collecting vital intelligence for the United States government. Remarkably, he also had something of a reputation as a naturalist and ornithologist, and in 1923-25 the British Museum sent him to northern Australia to collect rare native fauna and report on Aboriginal tribal life.

      However, it is as a pioneer of aeronautical polar surveying that Wilkins is most remembered. In 1925 he drew up plans for an Australasian Polar Pacific Expedition with the idea of flying from the Ross Sea across King Edward VII Land to Graham Land. The South Australian branch of the Royal Geographic Society attempted to raise funds for the expedition but the money was not forthcoming. In order to gain financial support for his Antarctic adventure, Wilkins turned his attention to the Arctic and in 1926 took command of the first Wilkins-Detroit Arctic Expedition. This enterprise, spon­sored by the Detroit Aviation Society and the Detroit News, set out to test the viability of aircraft for polar survey work and, if condi­tions permitted, would attempt to fly an aircraft across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland. On the recommendation of Vilhjalmur, Wilkins employed the services of the experienced bush pilot CARL BEN EIELSON (see below).

      The first forays made in 1926 from Point Barrow, Alaska, were generally disappointing, but in 1927 Wilkins and Eielson returned to Point Barrow for a second attempt. In April they achieved a flight 900 kilometres northwest across an unexplored area of the Arctic Ocean. However, after engine trouble had twice brought them down on the ice floes, their Stinson plane ran out of fuel, forcing Eielson to make a third emergency landing on moving ice. Abandoning their plane, the two aviators set out to walk the 200 kilometres back to the Alaskan coast. Crude sledges were fashioned from aeroplane parts, but these were soon abandoned in favour of backpacks. The coast was eventually reached near Beechey Point after a thirteen-day trek. In 1928 the two companions went back to Point Barrow for a third time and on 15.4.28 Eielson succeeded in flying their Lockheed Vega monoplane to Spitsbergen (= Svalbard) in a time of twenty hours and twenty minutes. The flight, which itself was generally uneventful, took the aviators a little to the north of the Canadian archipelago and Greenland, and although many unexplored regions were covered, no unknown islands were seen. A severe storm forced them to make an emergency landing on Dead Man’s Island in the Svalbard Group, a short distance from their destination at Green Harbour on Spitsbergen’s west coast. There they sat huddled in their little aeroplane for five days until the weather cleared sufficiently for a takeoff. After three attempts to get the aeroplane off the ice, the two aviators successfully brought the Vega into Green Harbour. Their success, following by less than a year the widely publicized solo flight of Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris, attracted a wave of international attention in European capitals and in North America. Often regarded as the first direct flight from the New World to the Old, the achievement gained Wilkins the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the Morse Medal of the American Geographical Society and a knighthood from the king of England. Eielson was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Hoover in Washington.

      Following his successes with aircraft in the northern polar regions, Wilkins turned his attention to Antarctica and approached Major R.G. Casey, an official at the Australian High Commission in London, for financial backing from the government. When Casey failed to obtain the necessary funds the wealthy publisher William Randolph Hearst stepped in with $25,000 in return for the exclusive press and radio rights. Wilkins intended to fly from Deception Island in the South Shetlands, across the Weddell Sea, then, if a suitable opportunity arose, across Antarctica itself. The same Lockheed Vega would be used, renamed Los Angeles in honour of Hearst, together with a second identical aircraft named the San Francisco. Ben Eielson joined the expedition as chief pilot, together with another experienced Arctic pilot, Joseph Crosson, who would later become the first to fly an open-cockpit plane between Fairbanks and Point Barrow, Alaska.

      The Wilkins-Hearst Expedition sailed from New York on 22.9.28 and at Montevideo transferred, along with its two aircraft, to the whaling-vessel Hektoria. In the Falkland Islands, Wilkins received authorization from the governor to make territorial claims to the Falkland Islands Dependency, of which Deception Island was a part, on behalf of His Majesty’s government. Wilkins and his companions arrived at Deception Island on 4.11.28, and twelve days later Eielson took the Los Angeles on its first test flight. A week later, Joseph Crosson took the San Francisco to the air, and by 26.11.28 both aeroplanes were making regular short flights. The original intention was to take off and land on skis, but a spell of unusually warm weather had melted the ice in the bay. When flocks of birds made a lift-off from open water similarly hazardous, it was decided that a land-based attempt would have to be made using wheels. With equipment borrowed from the local Norwegian whaling station an airstrip 800 metres long was cleared on the beach, and on 20.12.28 Wilkins and Eielson finally took to the air in the San Francisco. Their route took them over Hughes Bay and across the Gerlache Strait towards the Danco Coast where Wilkins instructed Eielson to take the Vega to 2700 metres and cross the peninsula from west to east. In 67°S they saw for the first time a group of narrow channels threading between the mountains, many of which, along with other features, were named after old friends and supporters of the expedition. Fighting gale-force winds, Wilkins opened the hatch and dropped the territorial proclamation on behalf of the British government. In 71°20'S, with half of their fuel used up, the San Francisco was turned around and taken north across the Larsen Ice Shelf back to Deception Island. In a single flight, more than 1600 kilometres of unexplored territory had been seen. A second excursion on 10.1.29 followed a similar route and served to confirm earlier sightings. Both aeroplanes were then dismantled and stored at the Norwegian whaling station, leaving Wilkins and his team to board the patrolling British warship HMS Flerus, and return to Montevideo.

      In the summer of 1929 Wilkins flew as a passenger aboard the Graf Zeppelin on its round-the-world flight (see the article for Count Zeppelin), and on 30.8.29, soon after completing the Zeppelin flight, he found time to marry Suzanne Bennett, an Australian actress. In November 1929 he returned to Deception Island, on this occasion with pilots AL CHEESEMAN and PARKER DRESSER CRAMER (q.v.) (Eielson had gone back to Alaska to pioneer an airmail service). The British government once again authorized Wilkins to make territorial claims, providing £10,000 and the services of the Discovery Committee’s research vessel William Scoresby. One of the aircraft was reassembled and taken aboard ship, which then took the expedition almost to 67°S in order to find a more suitable takeoff area. In the event, floats had to be used, but several successful flights were completed between December 1929 and January 1930. On 27-29.12.29 it was discovered that Charcot Land was in fact a large island, over which Wilkins dropped a flag and document claiming the island in the name of King George V. A final flight on 1.2.30 reached 73°S in the vicinity of Peter I Island, but no new discoveries were made.

      In 1931 Wilkins attempted to sail an old United States subma­rine (originally the 0-12; bought for one dollar) under the ice to the North Pole, but the vessel, rechristened the Nautilus in memory of Captain Nemo, broke down and the attempt was abandoned. Nevertheless, the enterprise stands as the first to make use of a submarine beneath the polar ice cap. This would be the last of Wilkins’ private expeditions. He subsequently accepted a post as manager and second-in-command to his friend and supporter, the American millionaire LINCOLN ELLSWORTH (q.v). During the 1930s he made four trips to the Antarctic, and in 1935 Ellsworth became the first to successfully fly across the Antarctic continent (for details of Wilkins’ relationship with Ellsworth see the article for the latter). In 1936 Wilkins was a passenger aboard the airship Hindenburg on its maiden voyage to the United States, and in 1939 he was commander of the Alaskan-Canadian section of the contin­gent searching for the lost Soviet aeronautical expedition of Sigizmund Levanevskiy. (Levanevskiy had attempted in August 1939 to take a large four-engined aeroplane from Moscow to Los Angeles. He and his five-man crew were never traced.) At about the same time (1937-39) Wilkins was working on plans for a second submarine voyage beneath the Arctic ice, but with the outbreak of World War II the ambition was never realized. In 1940-41 he was sent to Europe and the Far East on special missions for the United States government. He visited Europe to discuss United States contracts for supplying aeroplane parts, and in the Far East visited Japan, China, Burma and Thailand on an economic fact-finding mission. Wilkins settled in the United States in 1942 and worked during World War II for the United States government as consultant to the United States military on matters of survival techniques, submarine travel in the polar regions, Arctic defence systems and issues related to geography and geology. Despite his strong associa­tion with the United States he never renounced his Australian citizenship. Wilkins visited Antarctica for the last time in 1957 as a guest of Operation Deepfreeze, and died of a heart attack the following year. His ashes were taken to the North Pole by the crew of the nuclear submarine USS Skate and on 17.3.59 were scattered over the Arctic ice.

See also the article for Parker Dresser Cramer.

CARL BEN EIELSON (1897-1929) was born in Hatton, North Dakota, and studied law at the University of North Dakota. In January 1918 he trained as an aviator with the newly-formed avia­tion section of the United States Army Signal Corps, but World War I ended while Eielson was still in flight training. America having no further need for pilots, he was discharged with the rank of second lieutenant in March 1919. Eielson then alternated between college and aerial barnstorming in the Midwest for the next three years. Unable to decide between law and flying, in 1922 he accepted an offer to teach science, English and physical education at a high school in Fairbanks, Alaska. There he immediately saw the potential for aviation in the wilderness of Alaska and with the backing of several Fairbanks businessmen became the sole pilot for the Farthest North Aviation Company. Using surplus army aircraft he was soon making the first regular commercial flights from Fairbanks to the mining camps and communities of the interior. For six months in 1924 he flew a regular mail service between Fairbanks and McGrath, then remained in Alaska until September as a bush pilot. He subsequently enlisted in the Army Air Service and after one year at Langley Field, Virginia, he returned to North Dakota, where he found employment as a bond salesman. It was then that he was approached by Wilkins.

After making his pioneering flights with Wilkins in the Arctic and Antarctic, Eielson went back to operate his own air service in Alaska where he had acquired twelve aeroplanes, three hangars and a staff of experienced Alaska pilots and mechanics. In ceremonies in Grand Forks in April 1929 he obtained the rank of colonel in the National Guard. Eielson died on 9.11.29, when his Hamilton airplane crashed in Siberia while attempting to rescue fifteen passengers and furs valued at $ 1 million from the ship Nanuk which had been trapped in the ice off North Cape (= Mys Sehmidt). Eielson and his senior mechanic, Earl Borland, had made one successful trip to the ship and back to Nome, but a second flight from Teller, a staging point northwest of Nome, proved disastrous when their plane crashed in a storm. After seventy-seven days an extensive search involving flyers from the United States, Canada and Russia, found Eielson’s Hamilton monoplane about fifty kilometres west of Cape Vankarem. Twenty-four days later the bodies of Eielson and Borland were discovered in the snow.


The Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, which include a large collec­tion of original material documenting Wilkins’ career, were donated by Winston Ross, Wilkins’ last secretary, to Ohio State University in 1985 and 1988.


Collections of Eielson memorabilia are on display at the Hatton-Eielson Museum, North Dakota, and in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. Other items are on display at the University of North Dakota.


Wilkins, George Hubert, Flying the Arctic (New York & London 1928).


Wilkins, George Hubert, Undiscovered Australia: being an account of an expedition to tropical Australia to collect specimens of the rarer native fauna for the British Museum. 1923-1925 (London 1928).


Wilkins, George Hubert, Under the North Pole. The Wilkins-Ellsworth submarine expedition (New York 1931).


Wilkins, George Hubert, Our search for the lost Soviet aviators.


Wilkins, George Hubert & Sherman, Harold M., Thoughts through space. A remarkable adventure in the realm of mind (New York 1942: London 1971).


Wilkins, George Hubert, ‘Natural history’, in John Robert Francis Wild, Shackleton’s last voyage (London, etc. 1923).


Burke, David, Moments of terror; the story of Antarctic aviation.


Grierson, John, Sir Hubert Wilkins — enigma of exploration (London 1960).


Nasht, Simon, The last explorer (Hodder 2005).


Simmons, George H., Target: Arctic. Men in the skies at the lop of the world (Philadelphia 1965; New York 1979).


Thomas, Lowell Jackson, Sir Hubert Wilkins. His world of adventure (London [1962]).


(Howgego) (2825 words)





Wilkins, George Hubert


On 17 March 1959, the American nuclear submarine USS Skate broke through thick ice to rise to the surface at the North Pole. In temperatures of -32°C (-26°F), the crew lined up on deck with a rifle squad near the bow to hold a memorial service for Sir Hubert Wilkins, pioneer polar aviator and the first man to attempt to reach the North Pole by submarine. As the rifles fired three times in a last salute, Wilkins’s ashes were scattered across the swirling snow. Such an honor would not have been paid to an ordinary man, but then Wilkins’s life and achieve­ments had truly been most extraordinary.

      George Hubert Wilkins was born and grew up in the Aus­tralian Outback. After a colorful early life as a reporter and pho­tographer in the Balkans, West Indies, and elsewhere, he was invited in 1913 to join Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s Canadian Arc­tic Expedition. During this expedition he was to learn much about Arctic survival and travel from Stefansson and the Inuit. In particular, he noted that ice would often provide possible places for an airplane equipped with skis to land and take off. In 1920, after a brief but distinguished period as a combat pho­tographer in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War I, he joined John Cope’s star-crossed and disorganized expedi­tion in the expectation of being able to make the first flight in Antarctica. When Cope proved incapable of acquiring a plane—and indeed of achieving anything of significance— Wilkins withdrew and applied instead to join Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was also interested in the potential of airplanes for Antarctic exploration. It has been suggested that Shackleton took Wilkins on with a view to training him as a potential leader to continue his own polar work. If true, Shackleton had chosen well. Wilkins joined as naturalist, photographer, and reserve pilot. But again he was disappointed when the expedi­tion never had an opportunity to pick up its airplane from Cape Town before Shackleton’s untimely death on South Georgia.

In 1923,Wilkins gained his first leadership experience when was he was appointed to take charge of an expedition to north­ern Australia to collect specimens for the British Museum. Much as he loved the desert, however, he was to make his name in the polar regions during a succession of pioneering expedi­tions first to the Arctic and then the Antarctic, in which he was able to demonstrate the full potential of the airplane for polar exploration. Wilkins was never interested simply in “firsts” or in Pole-hunting. His great hope was that the results of his and other expeditions would lead to the establishment of a network of meteorological stations in the Arctic and Antarctic, resulting in a significant improvement of long-range weather forecast­ing worldwide and thus in the alleviation of famines.


An Inauspicious Beginning to Ambitious Plans to Explore the Arctic Ocean, 1926

North of North America lays the largest expanse of unex­plored territory in the Northern Hemisphere. This was the area that Sir Ernest Shackleton had wished to investigate in Quest before the withdrawal of Canadian government support caused him to head south instead. Ejnar Mikkelsen had spent two years here searching in vain for “Keenan Land,” where distant mountains had been reported in the 1870s by whalers, some way north of Point Barrow on Alaska’s Arctic coast. Wilkins’s plan was to make a series of reconnaissance flights, using Barrow as his logistics base. Initially, he had wanted to use an airship, due to its greater range and payload, but none was available, so he decided instead to rely on airplanes. His first task would be to fly in sufficient stores and equipment from Fairbanks in central Alaska, the farthest north reached by ordinary transportation.

      Obtaining the backing of the North American Newspaper Alliance, the American Geographical Society, and a number of wealthy people from Detroit, Wilkins purchased two Fokker monoplanes, one (The Detroiter) a big tri-motor with Wright Whirlwind engines, the other (The Alaskan) a single-engine plane with a 400-horsepower water-cooled Liberty engine. The expedition began disastrously when a journalist was killed by a propeller after The Detroiter had ploughed into a snowbank on its first attempt to take off; then The Alaskan stalled as pilot Carl Ben Eielson and Wilkins came in to land, with consider­able damage being done to the plane but not to the crew. Things got worse when Major Thomas Lanphier, piloting The Detroiter with Wilkins again on board, stalled above the run­way but from a greater height and with greater damage result­ing. Again, the crew emerged unharmed. With both planes temporarily out of action, and all misadventures widely reported in the newspapers, Wilkins came under considerable pressure to appoint new pilots. Richard Byrd and Roald Amundsen were competing to be first the reach the North Pole by air, and it now looked as if Wilkins would be left behind. For Wilkins, however, being first to the Pole was a matter of small concern. He was much more interested in searching for new land. Loyally, Wilkins stood by his pilots, appreciating that their errors had been caused by optical difficulties in esti­mating the height of their planes above the narrow runway, lined as it was on both sides by tall snowbanks.

      Three weeks later, on 31 March 1926, Wilkins and Eielson took off for Barrow in The Alaskan. Across their path lay the Brooks Range, marked on their map as 1,800 meters high. Climbing to their ceiling of 2,740 meters, they found moun­tains still towering above them and had to wind their way along narrow valleys before reaching a wide-open plain and beyond that the unexplored Arctic Ocean, over which they ven­tured out for 150 miles before heading back to find Barrow, where they landed safely despite whirling snow in a blizzard. Two more flights between Fairbanks and Barrow followed in The Alaskan. During the first Wilkins broke his arm in two places but carried on regardless; he broke his arm in a third place on the return flight after quietly bandaging it himself and telling no one. On one occasion, The Alaskan was down to its very last liters of fuel before reaching Fairbanks. On another, the grossly overloaded plane was so close to the mountain slopes in the Brooks Range that its wheels were sent spinning as it brushed over a high crest. On the fourth flight, The Alaskan crashed on takeoff from Fairbanks, and Wilkins had no choice but to use The Detroiter, the much less reliable tri-motor. The flight was made despite the two pilots quarrelling in the cockpit and at one stage struggling with the controls— one wishing to go on, the other to return. In all, more than 6,000 miles were flown north of the Arctic Circle, mostly over unexplored territory.


Crash-Landing in the Arctic Ocean, 1927

Although his 1926 work had provided essential groundwork for planned later flights, Wilkins inevitably appeared some­thing of a laggard in comparison to Byrd and Amundsen, who enjoyed spectacular achievements that same year. But prior­ity to the North Pole had in any case been higher on his spon­sors’ than his own agenda. Backed now by the Detroit News, Wilkins returned to Fairbanks in February 1927 with The Detroiter and two ski-equipped Stinson biplanes.

      Amundsen’s 1926 flight in the airship Norge across the Arc­tic Ocean via the North Pole had shown that no substantial landmass was likely to be found on the meridian between Bar­row and the North Pole. Instead, Wilkins planned to concen­trate his flights on regions to the northwest and northeast of Barrow. Finding that weather conditions favored a flight to the northwest, Wilkins and Eielson took off on 29 March, aiming to fly to 80°N, 180° E and W to examine the sector bound on the east by the flight of Norge and to the west by the drift of Jeannette (see De Long, George). Five hours later and 450 miles out over the pack ice, they were forced down by a misfiring engine at 77°45'N, 175°W. This was the first landing on the Arc­tic pack and was made without difficulty on a relatively level ice floe. Wilkins had always intended to land on the ice and now spent a half-hour taking soundings, from which he esti­mated the depth of Arctic Ocean at more than 4,800 meters, the deepest measurement yet obtained for this ocean and mak­ing nearby land improbable. Two hours’ work on the engine restored it to a condition where a takeoff could be tried, though it was not until the third attempt that they finally got into the air—and then only for ten minutes before being forced down again. In heavily blowing snow and a biting wind, they spent another hour repairing the engine before they were again airborne in atrocious conditions and growing darkness. For two hours they flew toward land, being held back by headwinds and able to read the controls only by torchlight, the sun long since set. The engine finally died, and from an alti­tude of 1,500 meters they glided down, hoping to find smooth ice beneath. Instead, they collided with a snowdrift that tore off the undercarriage and broke a wing but left them and their plane otherwise undamaged. They were 75 miles from land; their only hope was to walk to Barrow over the ice. They were prevented from starting out for five days by a blizzard; when they finally did, the ice had drifted northeast so that they were 100 miles northwest of Barrow before they were able to set out.          

      Wilkins had learned much from Stefansson about Arctic survival skills, and all his knowledge was to be fully tested in the thirteen days it took to reach land. Each night, he and Eiel­son built a built an igloo for shelter, carefully cleaning their boots before turning them inside out and drying their socks on their chests. Thin ice was negotiated by crawling on all fours, and when Wilkins once impatiently attempted walking upright across a doubtful floe, he fell straight through. Unable to swim, he was kept afloat only by his pack. Pulling himself out with considerable difficulty, he rolled across the thin ice to safety and then stripped naked, meanwhile rubbing the inside of his clothing in the snow. These were the survival tactics of the Inuit, and without knowledge of them, Wilkins would have frozen to death in a few minutes. Once back at Barrow, Eielson was sent south for treatment of his badly frostbitten fingers while Wilkins made one final but unsuccessful attempt to fly to Etah in North Greenland. With temperatures now too warm to land safely on sea ice, Wilkins concluded his activities, fly­ing back to Fairbanks in early June.


The First Airplane Flight across the Arctic Ocean, 1928

Having demonstrated the unlikelihood of any considerable landmass in the Arctic Ocean northwest of Barrow, Wilkins’s goal the next season was to explore the area to the northeast. The comparative lack of success during his campaigns of 1926 and 1927 meant that he no longer had wealthy sponsors, and in order to purchase a single-engine Lockheed Vega skiplane, he had first to sell his three other planes. On 15 April, Wilkins and Eielson took off on the third attempt across the Arctic Ocean, the planned course taking them over previously unexplored territory. Thus, rather than fly directly to the North Pole—a route already taken by Amundsen in Norge—Wilkins set out to fly south of the Pole to 84°N, 75°W, north of Ellesmere Island, overflying the area where Robert Peary had reported Crocker Land and Frederick Cook Bradley Land. Despite clear weather, no land could be seen here or anywhere else along their route; the condition of the ice also did not suggest that land was just out of sight. Having reached his target point, Wilkins turned south until he could see northern Ellesmere. Thirteen hours out from Barrow and with the accuracy of his navigation confirmed, Wilkins now had a choice: land at Cape Columbia to wait out the storm he had forecasted for Spitsbergen around the time of their planned arrival, or continue on. He decided on the latter, and Spitsbergen was sighted seven hours later. The storm arrived as predicted, forcing Eielson to land on Dead Man’s Island in the extreme northwest of Ice Fjord, where they remained for five days until the weather improved. Getting back into the air proved difficult. With Wilkins outside pushing the plane, Eielson twice managed to take off. Both times Wilkins was left stranded on the ground, being unable to climb back on board, and on the second occasion he was hanging from a rope by his teeth as the plane began to lift into the air. The third time, Wilkins stood with one foot inside the cockpit hatch and pushed with the other until the plane finally loosed itself from the snow and hurtled forward. Climbing to 1,000 meters, they could see across the fiord the wireless masts of their intended destination of Green Harbor, where their arrival was announced to the world by the Norwegian gov­ernment wireless station. In all, they had flown 2,500 miles, of which the first 1,300 had never before been overflown. During this flight, Wilkins showed outstanding skills as a navigator, in particular flying across rather than along meridians. He was rewarded by a shower of honors, including a knighthood and the Royal Geographical Society’s Patrons Medal.


The First Antarctic Flights, 1928-1929

Wilkins next turned his attention to Antarctica, where for many years he had wished to fly; indeed, he considered his Arctic flights mere preparation. Sponsored by the American Geographical Society and by William Randolph Hearst’s American News Service, to which all rights were sold, the Wilkins-Hearst Expedition set out from New York on 22 September 1928. It reached Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands on 6 November on board the whaling ship Hektoria. With secure financial backing, Wilkins had been able to purchase two Lockheed Vega monoplanes and to bring with him two other pilots—Eielson and Joe Crosson— as well as an engineer and a radio operator. His plan was to fly from the Antarctic Peninsula to the Ross Sea, for which he needed a landing strip—on snow or firm sea ice—in order to be able to take off with a full load. Unfortunately, this was not possible at Deception. Even this early in the season, the bay ice was unusually thin, with lit­tle snow lying on the beach nearby The first Antarctic flight took place on 16 November with Eielson as pilot and Wilkins as passenger, making a wheeled takeoff from the short airstrip on the beach. The aim was to scout for a more suitable operating base farther south, but they were forced back after a brief flight when the weather closed in. Ten days later, both planes took off in better weather but were again unable to find a better base. Disaster was narrowly avoided some days afterward, when Eielson attempted a landing on the ice within Deception’s sheltered bay The ice was thinner than it had seemed from the air; Eielson crashed straight through but fortunately without significant damage to him­self or the plane.

      Having leveled and lengthened the runway as far as pos­sible, Wilkins and Eielson took off on 20 December with as much fuel as they dared and with emergency provisions for two weeks. Flying across Bransfield Strait at 1,800 meters, they were surprised to see the high plateau of the Antarctic Penin­sula still above them, and it was not until they had climbed to 2,500 meters that they were able to cross over the penin­sula to fly down the little-known east side. Wilkins now viewed areas of Antarctica that he had planned to survey by boat and on foot with John Cope’s abortive expedition of 1920-1922. How much easier to survey them from the air! After flying for five hours and with fuel tanks half-empty, the two planes turned about at a farthest south of 71°20'S, 64°15'W, naming the unreached land beyond them “Hearst Land” for their sponsor. Eleven hours after leaving, they landed again at Deception, having flown 1,300 miles. Much of the land seen was previously undiscovered, and only some of the coastal areas had been explored in any detail. Not sur­prisingly given the circumstances, Wilkins’s hurriedly sketched maps were later found to contain errors. In partic­ular, his report that the peninsula was cut through by a series of straits was soon proved incorrect by the British Graham Land Expedition, which showed the “ice-filled straits” to be glaciers, an understandable mistake to make from the air (see Rymill, John).


Further Antarctic Flights and Discovery of the Insularity of Charcot Island, 1929-1930

Wilkins returned to Deception Island in September 1929, this time accompanied by Parker D. Cramer and A. H. Cheesman as pilots, neither Eielson nor Crosson being available. One way or another, Wilkins was determined to avoid having to rely on wheels and would instead use skis. With wheels on the plane. Deception’s runway was too short and twisting to take off with a full load of fuel, thus restricting his range and forc­ing him to return to Deception to land (for nowhere else could he be sure of finding sufficient level ground). With skis, how­ever, there would surely be many places where he could land—as he had already proved in the Arctic. Wilkins’s initial hope was that the previous year’s thin ice and lack of snow at Deception had resulted from unusually mild conditions that would not be repeated. In any case, an early start would guar­antee him suitable conditions, at least during the first part of the season. Again, however, even in September, he found little snow on land, and the bay ice was even thinner than in the previous year.

      Fortunately, Wilkins had an alternative. The Discovery Com­mittee of the British Colonial Office had been so impressed by his work during the previous season that it had offered him the use of RRS William Scoresby, one of two ships employed in the series of scientific expeditions known as the Discovery Inves­tigations. On 12 December, William Scoresby left Deception with one of Wilkins’s two planes on board. It sailed south for 400 miles to Adelaide Island without finding sufficient open water for a seaplane or suitable ice surface for skis. On 18 December, returning north, they reached the sheltered anchorage of Port Lockroy, Wiencke Island, where the sea ice had now gone out. Making the most of his opportunity, Wilkins took off the next day and climbed to 3,000 meters, crossing the Antarctic Penin­sula to Evans Inlet before the uneven running of the engine led him to turn back. On his return, apparently flat ice was spotted in Beascochea Bay, about 100 miles south of Port Lockroy, but when the plane and its supporting vehicle—an Austin Seven car—were placed on the ice, they began to sink in temperatures well above freezing and had to be hurriedly hoisted back on board. William Scoresby next followed the edge of the pack ice in the hope of finding flat ice farther south. On 27 December, Wilkins finally got his plane airborne again and headed toward Charcot Land. Poor visibility forced him to fly below 150 meters in the knowledge that close by were mountains over 600 meters high. Going on was perilous, and after glimpsing dark cliffs ahead, Wilkins turned back. Two days later he was in the air again, this time in much better conditions. By following the coastline around he was able to prove that French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot in 1910 had indeed discovered an island rather than part of the continent. This was the main achieve­ment of this season’s flights, though Wilkins was also to make a survey flight from Port Lockroy north to Deception along Gerlache Strait and beside the Antarctic Peninsula on 5 January1930. He also flew as far south as 73°S, 101°W from the vicin­ity of Peter I Island on 1 February, but in such conditions that little could be seen and nothing new discovered. He was still no closer to his dream of completing the first transantarctic flight.


The First Submarine Voyage toward the North Pole, 1931

It was not sufficient for Wilkins to have pioneered aviation by airplane in the Arctic and Antarctic. Having flown many hours above the Arctic Ocean, he knew better than anyone that even during winter it was not covered by a single surface of solid ice. Instead, shifting ice floes formed pressure ridges where they smashed together and leads of open water where they drifted apart. A submarine should, in principle, be able to surface at many points. Typically, Wilkins’s plan to reach the North Pole by submarine was inspired by a much larger vision than merely the desire to achieve a first. He foresaw a future in which submarine cargo vessels would eventually sail through the Arctic Ocean, drastically cutting shipping routes between North America and Europe, together with a network of meteorological stations camped out on the ice and kept supplied by submarines.

  Understanding that his plans might require some explana­tion, Wilkins first outlined them in a book. It was successful in persuading a number of distinguished scientific bodies to back him, but the general public remained skeptical and sus­pected a publicity stunt, Wilkins therefore had to provide much of the funding from his own savings, though he did receive a substantial donation from Lincoln Ellsworth, heir to an indus­trial fortune and himself a polar explorer of some distinction, having partnered Roald Amundsen during his North Pole flights of 1925 and 1926. This expedition was to be the first of a series on which Wilkins and Ellsworth were to collaborate.

  An obsolete 0-class submarine built in 1918 and due for scrapping under the terms of an international treaty was now made available by the U.S. Navy. It was named Nautilus by Wilkins as a tribute to Jules Verne and his prophetic novel Twenty thousand leagues under the sea. It had a submerged speed of 3 knots, and its battery had a range of 125 nautical miles before it needed to be recharged. Since Wilkins expected to find open water every 25 miles, this appeared to provide a substantial margin of safety, as did its maximum diving depth of 60 meters, significantly deeper than he expected the ice to reach even under pressure ridges. Chartered to its construc­tors, Simon Lake and Commander Sloan Danenhower, for $1 per year for five years, it was fitted with a number of special features for traveling under ice. In addition to strengthened bows, these included a snorkel-like device to allow fresh air into the submarine through a hollow ice-cutting drill in case it became trapped below ice for any length of time, as well as a sledge-deck formed out of steel runners on a wooden super­structure. The purpose of the latter was to allow the subma­rine to slide along the bottom of the ice in a manner analogous to a sledge above it.

  After a series of tests at New York in the Hudson River, Nautilus was judged ready to sail on 4 June, captained by Danen­hower. While it was crossing the North Atlantic substantial damage was discovered in the engine room, putting the engine temporarily out of action and requiring three weeks’ repair in England. At the time, Wilkins put this down to mishandling, but later he was to suspect something more malicious, for it was already becoming clear that some of the crew members shared the misgivings of the general public about his venture.

      Slow to start from New York and further delayed in England, Bergen was reached only on 1 August; there the chief scientist, Dr. Harald Sverdrup, came on board. From Bergen, Nautilus made its way north along the Norwegian coast to Spitsbergen, where trials finally began on 19 August, more than two months later than Wilkins had hoped. On 22 August, Danenhower gave orders for Nautilus to dive for the first time beneath the ice. There was no response. A diver was sent down and reported that both diving rudders were missing. They could not have simply fallen off. When the submarine was anchored at Bergen, someone had sabotaged the submarine by ensuring that after a few days at sea they would drop away Clearly there was a saboteur on board, and most likely the earlier damage in the engine room had been deliberate and not accidental. The fact that at least one crew member was determined to do all that he could to avoid diving under the ice did not put off Wilkins. He had always intended to use the sledge-deck to slide underneath rather than dive beneath the ice. Now, this was the only option available to him. While preparing to make use of the sledge-deck, Wilkins continued to provide his scientific staff with every opportunity for carrying out their studies as Nautilus sailed north to 81°59'N at 17°30'E—the farthest reached by a vessel in this region—and then west toward Greenland. Meeting with ice again on 31 August, Danenhower ordered the ballast tanks partially filled, and Nautilus slowly sank beneath the edge of the pack. As soon as the ship began to move forward, the sound of ice scraping against the metal hull was so alarming that Danenhower immediately withdrew. When no signs of damage could be discerned, the ballast tanks were again filled, and Nautilus maneuvered under the ice for about an hour; all the while, horrendous sounds mysteriously magnified within the submarine. It was now too late in the season for further experimentation. On 7 September, Wilkins ordered an end to the Arctic voyage and took Nautilus back to Bergen, where it was scuttled per prior agreement with the U.S. government.

      Although widely regarded as unsuccessful, Wilkins’s exper­imental use of a submarine to investigate the Arctic Ocean was not without its achievements, quite apart from pioneering a form of transport that decades later would become central to exploration. Despite the sabotage to Nautilus, Wilkins had proved the possibility of conducting an extensive scientific program from a submarine. For the first time, bottom samples had been obtained from the Arctic Ocean, and a gravity meter had been used on a submarine. A submerged ridge north of Svalbard had also been charted. Nevertheless, because Wilkins had spoken of reaching the North Pole and had failed to get anywhere near it, his expedition was portrayed as a failure and treated with ridicule by the press.


Later Expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic

Although Wilkins was to lead no further exploring expedi­tions, his career in the polar regions did not end with Nautilus. The millionaire Ellsworth, having previously spon­sored a number of expeditions in which he had participated but not led, including Wilkins’s most recent undertaking, decided that he wished to be his own expedition leader. Making the first flight across Antarctica had been the goal of Wilkins’s 1928-1929 and 1929-1930 expeditions, but he now unselfishly supported Ellsworth’s plans to achieve the same objective. He provided Ellsworth with whatever advice he could offer—who could give more?—and acted as chief expedition organizer during three expeditions in 1933-1934, 1934-1935, and 1935-1936. Time after time, misfortune befell Ellsworth before he at last achieved his ambition.

  In August 1937, Wilkins was back in the Arctic to play a prominent role in the search for the Soviet aviator Sigismund Levanevskiy, lost during a trial flight across the Arctic Basin. Before contact was lost, Levanevskiy’s last recorded position showed him just past the North Pole on a route from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska, some 1,200 miles out from land, Wilkins’s immediate offer of help was gratefully accepted by the Soviet Union, which provided him with funds to purchase a Consol­idated Catalina long-range flying boat. Accompanied by former Antarctic colleagues Herbert Hollick-Kenyon and A. H. Cheesman, Wilkins hurried north. From Coppermine and then Akiavik in northern Canada, four flights were made between 22 August and 17 September along a series of merid­ians toward the Pole; there was no sign of the missing men. By mid-September, the annual freeze-up had begun. With the fly­ing boat no longer usable, Wilkins and his two pilots returned to Washington, D.C., where they reported to the Soviet embassy. A twin-engine Lockheed Electra equipped with skis was purchased, in which they returned to Akiavik. In January 1938 they were able to resume their flights, which now had to be carried out by moonlight in the sunless Arctic winter. Nothing was seen of Levanevskiy, despite many hours of searching over the Arctic Ocean and south across the moun­tains of northern Alaska. Much was learned, however, of the problems to be surmounted in high arctic aviation and about the behavior of the ever-shifting pack ice. By the time instruc­tions were received from the Soviet embassy to terminate the searches, Wilkins had flown more than 45,000 miles, most of them over areas never previously overflown.

      Wilkins’s last expedition to Antarctica in 1938-1939 was to place him in an awkward situation. Again he was accompany­ing Ellsworth as adviser and chief organizer on an apparently innocuous expedition involving a flight over Enderby Land. But after they departed Cape Town, Ellsworth revealed that he had been given secret instructions by the U.S. State Depart­ment to claim whatever territory he saw for the United States and to disregard existing Australian claims. As a loyal Aus­tralian citizen, Wilkins found himself impossibly placed. He escaped this dilemma by secretly posting containers reassert­ing the Australian claim wherever he had the opportunity!

This episode ended collaboration with Ellsworth, not to mention Wilkins’s active career in exploration. As a consultant, he continued to visit the polar regions until shortly before his death. His last visit to Antarctica was a five-month stay with Operation Deep Freeze (1957-1958) to help with the testing of equipment and emergency rations. The 1958 voyage of the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus across the Arctic Basin (see Anderson, William) gave Wilkins enormous satisfaction, ful­filling his prophecies of the important role to be played by sub­marines in Arctic exploration. It was most fitting that USS Skate was able to fulfill his last wish—to have his ashes scat­tered at the North Pole.


See also: Airplanes; Amundsen, Roald (1926); Anderson, William; Antarctic Peninsula, East Coast; Charcot, Jean-Baptiste; Charcot Island; Cook, Frederick (1907-1909); Cope, John; Deception Island; Discovery Investigations; Ellsworth, Lincoln; Mikkelsen, Ejnar (1906-1908); Operation Deep Freeze; Peary, Robert (1905-1906); Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (1913-1918); Submarines; Wiencke Island; Wild, Frank (1921-1922)


References and further reading:

Casarini-Wadhams, M. P. 1989. By submarine to the Arctic: Sir Hubert Wilkins’ Nautilus expedition of 1931. Unpublished M.Phil. Thesis, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

Grierson, J. 1960. Sir Hubert Wilkins: enigma of exploration. London: Robert Hale.

Wilkins, G. H. 1928. The flight from Alaska to Spitsbergen, 1928, and the preliminary flights of 1926 and 1927. Geographical Review, 18(4), 527-555.

————. Flying the Arctic. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

————. 1929. The Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition. Geographical Review, 19(3), 353-376.

————. 1930. Further Antarctic explorations. Geographical Review, 20(3), 357-388.

————. 1931. Under the North Pole: the Wilkins-Ellsworth submarine expedition. New York: Brewer, Warren, and Putnam.


(Mills) (5187 words)






Sir George Hubert Wilkins (October 31, 1888-December 1,1958), Australian polar explorer, photog­rapher, cinematographer, pioneer aviator, balloonist, naturalist, newspaper reporter, navigator, submariner, and decorated war hero, was born at Mount Bryan East, South Australia. He studied engineering at the School of Mines in Adelaide but shifted fields entirely and became a cinematographer for the Gaumont Company and a reporter for the Daily Chronicle of London. Wilkins learnt to fly, and in 1912 was des­patched by the Gaumont Company to film moving images of the war in the Balkans. In 1913 he took the post of cinematographer on Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s Canadian Arctic Expedition (he allegedly misread a telegram and mistakenly thought that it was an Antarctic expedition) and by early 1916 had returned to Australia to join the Australian Flying Corps as a lieutenant. His new role was to assist Captain Frank Hurley (photographer on Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition and Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition) in filming hosti­lities in World War I France for use in newsreels. Despite his refusal to carry firearms, he twice earned the Military Cross, first for his attempts to rescue wounded men at the Third Battle of Ypres, and later for leading a company of American soldiers.

  It was Wilkins’ fascination for aviation and photography that inspired his first real brush with Antarctic exploration. Inspired by Hurley’s achieve­ments, he felt sure that a combination of aerial pho­tography coupled with the great distances that could be travelled rapidly by aeroplane could significantly enhance the potential for Antarctic discovery and exploration. He participated in the British Imperial Expedition (1920-1922), organised by John L. Cope, which aimed to make a successful transpolar flight using two aircraft for the attempt with a further twelve support aircraft. The expedition began in the spring of 1920 but failed to secure adequate funding or the necessary aircraft, relegating its endeavours to a 4-month fact-finding trip in Andvord Bay and the west coast of Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsu­la. Undeterred, Wilkins left the expedition early and approached the US representative for Junkers aircraft to secure the loan of three aircraft for a further expedi­tion. However, his plans were shelved when Wilkins instead agreed to accompany Shackleton as naturalist on what was to be Shackleton’s last Antarctic expedi­tion. The expedition, which had scientific objectives, continued after Shackleton’s death under the com­mand of Frank Wild and afforded Wilkins the oppor­tunity for further Antarctic experience and to photograph flora and fauna on South Georgia.

      In 1925, Wilkins again tried to realise his dream of aerial exploration with the Australasian Polar Pacific Expedition. However, its aim to fly from the Ross Sea over King Edward VII land to Graham Land was again frustrated by lack of funds. With funding a recurring difficulty, Wilkins sought to raise his credi­bility and public profile between 1925 and 1928, by joining with Carl Ben Eielson (1897-1931) in a series of Arctic endeavours. Eielson’s 2200-mile (3450-km) flight from the North Slope of Alaska over the polar ice cap to Greenland was the first flight from North America over the North Pole to Europe. Eielson was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and won the Harmon Trophy for the greatest American aviation feat of the year. Wilkins received the Morse Medal from the American Geographical Society, the Patrons Medal from the Royal Geographical Society, and a knighthood from King George V. Armed with these new honours, Wilkins again tried to attract finance for an Antarctic expedition. With Eielson he had demonstrated the efficacy of aerial reconnais­sance in the Arctic as a tool for exploration. Together they had charted hundreds of miles of new terrain and corrected existing maps to exclude phantom landmasses claimed by earlier explorers.

      Initially Wilkins approached R. G. Casey, a major in the Australian army and an official at the London High Commission, but his argument for an Antarctic expedition to establish strategic weather stations on the Antarctic rim failed to secure funding. Instead, William Randolph Hearst, the millionaire American publisher, paid US$25,000 for exclusive media rights to an Antarctic expedition that consequently became known as the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition.

The expedition’s pilots once more comprised Wilk­ins and Eielson, with the addition of Joe Crosson, an experienced Arctic pilot who had been the first to fly an open plane between Fairbanks and Point Barrow, Alaska, and to land on a glacier. The trio used the same well-proven Lockheed Vega aircraft (with its name now changed to Los Angeles) as was flown during the Wilkins-Eielson Arctic endeavours of 1928. The seasoned Vega became the first plane to be flown in the Antarctic and was backed up by a second Vega dubbed San Francisco. In addition, the expedition received $10,000 of equipment from Aus­tralia’s Vacuum Oil Company, while the Norwegian N. Bugge Hektor Whaling Company provided sea transport. Crucially, Heintz and Kaufman of San Francisco equipped the planes with shortwave radio equipment that furnished long-range communication and served as a radio distress beacon when the Morse key was depressed continuously.

      Before leaving the Falkland Islands (their final port before Deception Island), Wilkins received instructions from the governor to make territorial claims to the Falkland Islands Dependency, which included Deception Island. From Deception Island, Wilkins hoped to explore Graham Land and the Palmer Peninsula (parts of what is now known as the Antarctic Peninsula) as far as fuel and weather permitted. However, his grand design was to fly to the Weddell Sea from Deception Island and then across the Antarctic continent (later achieved by Lincoln Ellsworth) to the Ross Sea and Framheim, Roald Amundsen’s base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf during his South Pole expedition. On December 20, 1928, Wilkins and Eielson flew San Francisco for 10 hours above Hughes Bay, across Gerlache Strait, and close to the Danco Coast before crossing the Peninsula from west to east. Beyond 67° S they discovered and named a series of channels and dropped a territorial claim on behalf of the British government. Running short of fuel, they then turned around at 71°20’ S. During their flight Wilkins took only 20 minutes to sketch 40 miles of unknown territory in addition to photographing their flight with a Kodak 3A folding autographic camera (using 122 roll film) and two movie cameras. In just 10 hours their 1300-mile (2100-km) flight charted nearly 1000 miles (1600 km) of terra incognita and marked the first time that undiscovered land was mapped from a plane. The expedition’s final flight, on January 10, 1929, flew 250 miles (400 km) south to confirm their previous aerial sightings.

  In November 1929, the second Wilkins-Hearst Ex­pedition returned to Deception Island, aided by £10,000 from the Colonial Office and transported by the Discovery Committee’s research ship, William Scoresby. The expedition pilots comprised Wilkins, Al Cheeseman, an experienced Arctic pilot, and Parker D. Cramer (1896-1931), pioneer of the “Great Cir­cle” route. The expedition’s final flight reached 73° S but made only one substantial new finding between December 27 and December 29, Wilkins’ discovery that Charcot Land (as it was known) was an island, which Wilkins claimed for Britain.

      In the 1930s, Wilkins organised three expeditions for American millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951). He participated in Ellsworth’s attempts to fly across the Antarctic continent from 1933 until Ellsworth finally succeeded on November 22, 1935. In 1957 Wilkins made his last journey to Antarctica as a guest of Operation Deepfreeze. He died the following year and his ashes were scattered at the North Pole.

ian n. higginson

See also Antarctic Film; Antarctic Peninsula; Aviation; British Imperial Expedition (1920-1922); Deception Is­land; Ellsworth, Lincoln; Norwegian (Fram) Expedition (1910-1912); Photography, History of in the Antarctic; Shackleton, Ernest; Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Ex­pedition (1921-1922); South Georgia; Wild, Frank

References and Further Reading


Burke, David. Moments of Terror: The Story of Antarctic Aviation. Kensington NSW: New South Wales Universi­ty Press, 1993.

Grierson, John. Sir Hubert Wilkins: Enigma of Exploration. London: Robert Hale, 1960.

———-. Challenge to the Poles: Highlights of Arctic and Antarctic Aviation. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964.

Jenness, Stuart. George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1916. McGill-Queen (Native and Northern Series), c. 2004.

Landis, Marilyn. Antarctica: Exploring the Extreme: 400 Years of Adventure. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001.

Thomas, Lowell. Sir Hubert Wilkins: His World of Adven­ture; A Biography. London: Arthur Baker, 1962.

Wilkins, Sir George. Flying the Arctic. New York, London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928.

———. Under the North Pole: The Wilkins-Ellsworth Submarine Expedition. New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1931.


(Riffenburgh) (1406 words)





Wilkins, Sir Hubert, b. Oct. 31, 1888, Mount Bryan East, South Australia, d. Dec. 1, 1958, Framingham, Mass., USA. George Hubert Wilkins. Australian avia­tor and adventurer, son of a South Aus­tralian farmer. His first foray into Antarc­tica was as one of the four members of the British Imperial Expedition of 1920-22, which failed to cross too-rugged Graham Land from west to east. Embarrassed, he quit that expedition, and joined Shackleton’s last expedition, on the Quest, in 1921-22, as photographer/ornithologist. In 1928-30 he led his first Antarctic ex­pedition, the Wilkins-Hearst expedition, a trip financed by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and spon­sored by the American Geographical So­ciety. He took two Lockheed Vega mono­planes and an Austin motor car, and the expedition left New York on Sept. 22, 1928, the same year Wilkins had been knighted for his services to science and exploration. The party, which included two pilots, Cheesman and Eielson, as well as an engineer and a radio operator, boarded their expedition ship, the Hektoria, at Montevideo. On Nov. 6, 1928, they landed at Deception Island, in the South Shetlands. On Nov. 16,1928, Eiel­son and Wilkins made the first Antarctic flight in an airplane. On Nov. 26, 1928, both planes took off in an unsuccessful search for a better base. On Dec. 20, 1928, Eielson and Wilkins set off again on Antarctica’s first air expedition, from Deception Island going SW over Graham Land and back. They flew 1,300 miles in 11 hours, and discovered the Crane Chan­nel, the Lockheed Mountains, and the Stefansson Strait, and incorrectly charted much of Graham Land. On Jan. 10, 1929, Wilkins and Eielson flew 500 miles over Graham Land before storing the planes for the winter. Wilkins returned to New York. In Sept. 1929 he was back at Deception Island. He made a few local flights, and then took one of his planes south on the William Scoresby, to look for a better landing strip. The ship sailed from Deception Island on Dec. 12,1929, and returned as far as Port Lockroy on Dec. 18, 1929. On a local flight Wilkins spotted Beascochea Bay, and they sailed there. But the ice was melting (it was 54° F) and he could only make an abortive flight over Charcot Land on Dec. 27, 1929. On Dec. 29, 1929, he and Chees­man flew over Charcot Land again, this time proving it to be an island (Charcot Island), and claiming it for Britain. On Jan. 5, 1930, the William Scoresby left Port Lockroy for Deception Island, and then on to the Falkland Islands to refuel, arriving back at Deception Island on Jan. 25,1930. All this time Wilkins was mak­ing local flights, his last one being on Feb. 1, 1930. He mapped altogether 80,000 square miles of new territory, was the first leader to discover a new territory from an airplane, and incorrectly believed the Antarctic Peninsula (as it later became known) to be cut off from the rest of the continent. In the 1930s Wilkins was tech­nical adviser/manager of Ellsworth’s flights {see Ellsworth, Lincoln) from the Wyatt Earp, providing ship-base support for the American flier. Sir Hubert’s ashes were scattered over the North Pole.


(Stewart) (525 words)





Wilkins, George Hubert. (1888-1958). Australian explorer, aviator and adventurer into both polar regions. Born on a sheep station at Mt Bryan East, 100 miles north of Adelaide, South Australia, Wilkins was the youngest of a family of 13, of whom only seven survived infancy. At 16 he learnt general and electrical engineering in a trade school. At 20 he was running a small business maintaining cinematographs, but stowed away on a cargo ship. Landing in Algeria, he made an adventurous way to England, where he learnt to fly and take aerial photographs. During the Balkans war of 1912-13 he became a photographer and war correspondent, was several times imprisoned and narrowly escaped death by bombardment and firing squad. In 1913 he joined Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s expedition to the Canadian Arctic, spending three years in the field as photographer and correspondent for the London Times. Returning to Britain in1916, his ship was torpedoed and sunk. Wilkins was rescued by the Royal Navy, reached England, and joined the Royal Australian Flying Corps as air and field photographer. He saw service in France, was wounded and awarded the Military Cross and Bar. In 1919 he attempted to fly back to Australia as navigator in an air race, but the aircraft crashed in Crete and he returned to England.

      Demobilized in 1920, Wilkins joined the British Impe­rial Antarctic Expedition 1920-21, which initially promised opportunities for flight and aerial photography in Antarctic Peninsula. When the expedition was reduced to a recon­naissance by whale boat, with no aircraft and few possi­bilities for exploration, Wilkins (together with J. L. Cope, the leader) withdrew. Homeward bound in Montevideo he encountered Sir Ernest Shackleton, who invited him to join the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition as naturalist and photographer. Soon after the expedition ship Quest arrived in Grytviken, Shackleton died. The expedition con­tinued for a few months under Cdr. Frank Wild, briefly exploring the South Sandwich Islands and the Weddell Sea before returning to Britain. After a spell as a cine-photographer with the Society of Friends, recording relief work in war-devastated Russia and Poland, in 1923-25 Wilkins led a museum-sponsored natural history expedi­tion to northern Australia. In 1926 he joined forces with the North American News Alliance to make a number of exploratory flights in the Arctic, securing for the purpose several aircraft and an entourage of pilots and mechanics. After two preliminary seasons based in Barrow, Alaska, involving flights over unexplored sea ice and mountain ranges, on 16 April 1928 he flew with pilot Carl Ben Eielson across the Arctic basin from Barrow to Green Harbour, Svalbard in a single-engined Lockheed Vega air­craft, a flight of over 4000km (2500 miles) in just over 20 hours. For this and earlier Arctic achievements Wilkins was knighted and awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

      On return to the US Wilkins immediately developed plans for pioneering flights in Antarctica, using the same single-engined aircraft and a small field team. Supported as before by geographical societies and the press, he organized the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expeditions 1928-30, which aimed initially to fly from the South Shetland Islands to the Ross Sea, a distance comparable to that achieved on his trans-Arctic flight. Starting from Deception Island, on 16 November 1928 he and pilot Carl B. Eielson made the first-ever flight by powered aircraft in the Antarctic region (just two months ahead of Byrd’s first flight over the Ross Ice Shelf). Poor ice conditions and bad weather made the long flight impossible, but on 20 December they flew over 960km (600 miles) to the base of Antarctic Peninsula. Leaving the aircraft to winter on Deception Island, Wilkins returned to the US, first to become involved in flights of the airship Graf Zeppelin over Europe, second, to marry his fiancee, actress and fellow-Australian Susanne Bennett. After a brief honeymoon he returned to Antarctica for a second season. Again snow, ice and weather conspired to make the long flight to the Ross Sea impossible, but Wilkins and his two pilots, S. A. Cheeseman and P. D. Cramer, achieved several shorter flights along the Peninsula, to Charcot Island and over the Bellingshausen Sea.

      In 1931 Wilkins formed a consortium with Lincoln Ellsworth, a wealthy US mining engineer, and others, and the support of several scientific bodies, in a plan to operate an ex-US Navy submarine to reach the North Pole under the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. Though well researched and prepared, the expedition was beset by ill will, even sabotage among the crew, and Nautilus made only minor forays under the ice north of Svalbard. In 1932 Ellsworth and Wilkins again formed a partnership for a further attempt to fly across West Antarctica (see Ellsworth’s Antarctic Expeditions 1933-39). In a series of three expeditions, one from the Ross Sea and two from West Antarctica, Wilkins proved an efficient consultant and manager. In August 1937 he helped in an aerial search of the Arctic basin north of Alaska and Canada, seeking a Russian T4 aircraft reported missing on a trans-Arctic flight from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska. Within a week of receiving the report, Wilkins had bought a Catalina flying boat, enrolled pilots H. Hollick-Kenyon and S. A. Cheeseman, and was flying long search flights over the Arctic Ocean from Coppermine, northern Canada. The flights continued for several months, involv­ing about 45000 miles of searching, but no signs were found of the missing aircraft.

      In 1938 Wilkins joined Ellsworth in a fourth Antarctic expedition, this time to Ingrid Christensen Coast of Princess Elizabeth Land. As operations manager Wilkins remained with the ship, taking several opportunities to raise the Australian flag on coastal islands, reinforcing his country’s claim to the territory.

      During World War II Wilkins remained a civilian but, employed in various capacities as a consultant or observer, characteristically managed to see more action than most servicemen. In later life he continued to travel, visiting the South Pole in 1957 as a guest of the US government, and developing latent interests in religion and the occult. He died of a heart attack on 1 December 1958, aged 70.

Further reading: Grierson (1960).


(Stonehouse) (1018 words)





Wilkins, George Hubert (1888-1958) Australian scientist, photographer and explorer. Born in South Australia, the son of a farmer, Wilkins stud­ied at the Adelaide School of Mines. In 1912 he was Turkey’s official photographer during the Balkan War, and between 1913 and 1917 was photographer on several Arctic expeditions. He then enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps.

      A member of the ill-equipped 1920-22 british imperial expedition, Wilkins withdrew after a frustrating few months in Antarctica. The follow­ing year he joined the quest expedition as ornithologist, and from 1923 to 1925 collected specimens for the British Museum.

      Wilkins mounted an expedition to Antarctica in 1928-30 sponsored by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst; the aim was to fly over the Antarctic continent. From deception island he made the first Antarctic flight, in November 1928, in a Lockheed Vega monoplane piloted by Carl Ben Eielson. The 10-hour flight down the coast of the antarctic peninsula demonstrated that aircraft were viable means of transport in Antarctica. He made a number of geographical discoveries but, because his aerial views rather distorted, the Peninsula was charted as an archipelago; it was not until John rymill tried to penetrate some of Wilkins’s ‘channels’ and ‘straits’ that these gaps were found to be glaciers. He also carried out aerial surveying alexander island and charcot island.

      Following the expedition, Wilkins returned to the Arctic to work in commercial aviation and in 1931 bought a surplus US Navy submarine for $1 with the intention of sailing it under the North Pole. Refitting the submarine cost $250,000, and it was renamed Nautilus. Wilkins reached 81°59'N but could not penetrate the ice, so the plan was abandoned and the submarine scuttled.

      In 1937 he undertook a fruitless search for a Russian party missing near the North Pole. After his death, by submarine his death, his ashes were taken to the North Pole by submarine and scattered on the ice. 


(Trewby) (317 words)