Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen

After the death of James Cook in 1779, the European nations realized little success in their search for the great southern continent, Terra Australis. In 1819 Czar Alexander I of Russia authorized an expedition to the south polar region and thus the search was renewed.

The man chosen to command the expedition was Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. Born in 1779, he began his naval career as a cadet at the age of 10, graduating from the Naval Academy at Kronstadt at the age of 18. He was 40 years old when the call came forth for his exciting voyage to the south polar region. His goal was to continue the work of Cook while sailing as far south as possible. It is safe to say that Bellingshausen considered Cook a personal hero and mentor as he constantly studied Cook's remarkable achievements.

Bellingshausen's flagship was a 600 ton corvette named the VOSTOK . The second ship was the 530 ton MIRNYI which was a transport vessel. Both ships were built of pinewood. A total of 117 men sailed with the Vostok and 72 were aboard the MIRNYI. In the third week of July, they set sail eventually arriving at Portsmouth, England where he went on to meet in London with the president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. Banks had sailed 50 years earlier with Cook and now supplied the Russians with books and charts for their expedition. On September 5, 1819 Bellingshausen's polar expedition departed from Portsmouth and by the end of the year they were within sight of South Georgia. From here they headed southeast for the South Sandwich Islands where they began a circumnavigation of the group. It is interesting to note that icebergs supplied their fresh water needs. On January 26, 1820 Bellingshausen crossed the Antarctic Circle becoming the first to do so since Cook in 1773. The following day his log indicates sailing to within 20 miles of the Antarctic mainland. He should have been able to see it so perhaps he simply mistook it for a wall of ice. The dispute as to who first sighted the mainland remains to this day. England says it was their naval captain Edward Bransfield, America says it was their sealer Nathaniel Palmer while the Russians insist it was Bellingshausen. On February 22 the VOSTOK and MIRNYI were hit by the worst storm of the voyage. For three days they were pounded by the storm with heavy snows and wind causing ice encrusted ropes and spars which concealed the icebergs from the weary lookouts. His only option was to sail north and on April 11, 1820 the faster VOSTOK arrived at Sydney harbor with the MIRNYI entering the harbor eight days later. After a month of rest, Bellingshausen took his ships on a four month exploratory cruise of the Pacific. Arriving back in Sydney in September, Bellingshausen was notified by the Russian consul that an English sealing captain named William Smith had discovered a group of islands on the 67th parallel, which he called the South Shetlands, and had proclaimed them to be part of the Antarctic continent. Bellingshausen immediately decided to take a look for himself with the major motive of finding a way to continue further south.

On the morning of November 11, 1820 the VOSTOK and MIRNYI left Sydney for the last time arriving at Macquarie Island the last week of November where they exchanged greetings with English and American sealers. Here they discovered the fur seal population had been entirely wiped out and now the slaughter was of the elephant seals.

On December 24th the ships once again penetrated the Antarctic Circle, the first since their exploratory voyage eleven months earlier. It didn't last long as they were confronted with storms pushing them northward and by the 16th of January, 1821 they had crossed the circle no less than 6 different times with each time resulting in the relentless storms forcing them northward. On January 21 the weather finally had cleared and at 3:00 PM they spotted a dark speck against the ice in the distance. All telescopes on the VOSTOK scanned the sight and with the increasing sunlight Bellingshausen had no doubt that they had discovered land within the Antarctic Circle. The next day the land turned out to be an island which Bellingshausen named Peter I Island. Fog and ice kept them from landfall so they continued on for the South Shetlands. On January 28 they were enjoying fine weather, within the 68th parallel, when once again land was sighted some 40 miles to the south-southeast. Too much ice lay between the ships and landfall but a number of mountains free of snow were sighted. Bellingshausen named his second discovery Alexander Coast, now known as Alexander Island. Although not part of the mainland, it is nevertheless connected to it by a deep wide shelf of ice and had they put a boat ashore and ventured across this shelf, they would have arrived on the Antarctic mainland. Sailing on, one week later they came upon eight English and American sealing ships in the South Shetlands. This is where Bellingshausen met a young American, Nathaniel Palmer, who was the captain of the HERO. Two different accounts of this meeting exist. According to American Edmund Fanning, Palmer told him Bellingshausen named the coast "Palmer's Land" in honor of the boy discoverer; Bellingshausen's own account only mentions a polite conversation about the weather and sealing with Palmer returning to his ship afterwards.

Contented, Bellingshausen sailed north and arrived in March at Rio de Janeiro where they remained until May overhauling the ships. On August 4, 1821 they dropped anchor at Kronstadt. The voyage had lasted two years and 21 days. Only three men had been lost. Russia seemed uncaring about the great discoveries as some ten years elapsed before Bellingshausens' works were even published, most of which remain untranslated. Russia was unimpressed with his circumnavigation of the continent and thus all interest in Terra Australis was abandoned until whaling fleets were sent to the south in 1946. The first Russian scientific base was established on the mainland during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58).

Bellingshausen continued to serve his country for another 30 years, attaining the rank of Admiral. He later became Governor of Kronstadt. Russia now claims that Bellingshausen was the true discoverer of the Antarctic mainland which, ironically, they failed to recognize for 100 years.



Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839

by Alan Gurney.


Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.


Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, published by Reader's Digest, second edition.