Jean-Baptiste Charcot

 Departing Havre, August 15, 1908

Without a doubt, the success of the FRANÇAIS Expedition only fueled Dr. Charcot's appetite for a return to the Antarctic to complete his works. His work? It is best described in Charcot's own words:

"I resolved to return to the region which I had begun to explore on the FRANÇAIS in 1903-05, i.e. that mountainous projection, due south of Cape Horn, which seems as if it had once been a continuation of America and is improperly known under the general name of Graham Land. There I should be able to continue the researches of the FRANÇAIS (themselves considered so valuable) in all branches of science, and to verify, complete, and expand them. To the south, Graham Land came to an abrupt end in 67° of latitude. Beyond, Alexander I Land rose amid the ice, scarcely visible and never yet approached. Was it a solitary island or part of a continent? West of it an unknown zone stretched as far as King Edward VII Land.

The BELGICA, carried along by the drift, was able to make some interesting soundings in part of this zone, but the work required continuing as far as possible westward, where nothing had been made out except by some geographers. Had we any right to go on calling by the name of the 'Antarctic Continent' this portion of our globe where the only indications of land to which we could point were two isolated peaks at a distance from one another? My exact object was to study in detail and from all points of view as wide a stretch as possible of the Antarctic in this sector of the circle, regardless of latitude. I knew that I had chosen the region where ice confronts the navigator as far north as 61°, where innumerable icebergs dot the sea, and where the coast-line is fringed with high mountains, to all appearance insurmountable. I had no hope therefore of approaching the Pole."

Jean Charcot had given a great deal of thought to this new expedition even before the end of the FRANÇAIS expedition. Upon returning to France, Charcot was encouraged by the satisfaction the scientists showed with the results achieved in Antarctica. He submitted a plan to the Academy of Sciences who formed a special committee and quickly approved his new program. The Museum and the Oceanographical Institute also approved which only helped solidify his financial request to the government. As expected, the French government, through the Budget of the Ministry of Public Instruction, agreed to a vote of 600,000 francs in financial aid. Later, another 100,000 francs were donated, including 10,000 francs from the Geographical Society of Paris along with grants from the Museum, the Paris Municipal Council and the Chambers of Commerce of several large French cities. The Ministry of Marine placed three naval officers under Charcot's direction and promised 250 tons of coal. Additionally, all necessary instruments, maps and documents were provided by the Surveying Department. The Prince of Monaco offered the expedition a complete oceanographical outfit. The scientific arsenal was one of the richest and most complete ever carried by a polar expedition as gifts poured in from the Museum, the Bureau des Longitudes, the Montsouris Observatory, the Meteorological Department, the Agronomic Institute and the Pasteur Institute.

While the scientific crew enjoyed themselves on the yachts of the Prince of Monaco, Charcot searched to find a ship as he considered it the most important factor in the expedition. His first idea was to repurchase the FRANÇAIS (since renamed the AUSTRAL) from the Argentine government. Unfortunately, the vessel was already being prepared for use in the South Orkneys. Next, with the aid of a close friend, Charcot tried to purchase a whaler, either in Scotland or Norway. All they could find were ancient vessels in dire need of considerable alterations. Abandoning the search, the men turned to Père Gautier, the masterful shipbuilder from St. Malo who had been so successful in the matter of the FRANÇAIS. Gautier was so enthused by the opportunity before him that he presented Charcot with a very modest estimate; construction of the POURQUOI-PAS? began in September 1907 and was launched on May 18, 1908. Her rigging was that of a three-masted barque and her masts, sturdy but short, had been selected at heavy expense among the finest specimens in Brest Arsenal. Everything was made about three times as strong as on an ordinary ship of the same tonnage. The powerful ribs were brought very close together. Two very thick plankings covered the ribs, protected themselves from the wear and tear of the ice by an exterior sheathing. An interior planking, caulked and coal-tarred, made an extra interior hull. Other than the bilge, which was built from elm, the whole ship was constructed from the finest oak. The engine was built by Labrosse and Fouché of Nantes and produced 450 horsepower. She was a beauty.

The second French Antarctic Expedition left Le Havre on August 15, 1908. She was complemented with twenty-two crewmembers, eight of whom had served aboard the FRANÇAIS. Also aboard was Charcot's young wife Meg, whom he had married on January 24, 1907. On October 12, the POURQUOI-PAS? arrived at Rio de Janeiro. Gifts were showered upon them and similar greetings met them as they later arrived in Buenos Aires. Madame Charcot stayed with the POURQUOI-PAS? until she reached Punta Arenas. Here she said good-bye to her husband and began the long, lonely journey back to France. The ship left Punta Arenas on December 16 and arrived six days later at Smith Island, in the South Shetlands. From here they sailed around the island and continued southeast until they reached Deception Island. Greeting them was a thriving colony of Norwegian whaling ships. The shore of the bay was littered with skeletons and carcasses of their catch. The Norwegians were very happy to finally have the opportunity to personally thank him for his wonderful charts of the northern coast of Graham Land peninsula; they were using them in their search for new whaling grounds. They were also pleased to have a doctor in their midst as Charcot saved a sailor from gangrene by amputating his hand. Charcot left Deception Island and the Norwegian whalers on Christmas Day, 1908.

On December 29 the POURQUOI-PAS? reached Booth Island and anchored in the bay where the FRANÇAIS had wintered in 1904. Charcot went ashore and discovered that almost everything had remained as he had left it: "I feel as though I've never been away". An exceptional harbor was located at Peterson Island on January 1, 1909 and Charcot named it Port Circumcision in honor of the great French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier.

Three days later, at 5 PM, Charcot, the geologist Gourdon and Lieutenant Godfrey set out in the ship's launch to take a look around the coast near Cape Tuxen. They remembered their previous five-day struggle, during the FRANÇAIS Expedition, to cross the channel between Petermann Island and the coast but threw caution to the wind and left behind extra rations and a change of clothes since they intended to be away only a short time and, besides, the water was free of ice. They studied the coastline and the nearby Bertholet Islands for a possible route to the south. Once their observations were completed, the men sat down to a meal and, once completed, started on the return to the ship. It was 10 PM and snow began to fall. The channel was no longer open as each narrow pathway was blocked by freezing floes. Time and time again they tried to force their way through but each time the pack ice formed around them quickly and silently. The sea was calm but the snow turned into sleet which soon soaked the men to the core. The motor became clogged and when Lieutenant Godfroy hacked at the ice with a spade, he soon gazed in horror as the spade slipped from his numb hands and drifted to its resting place at the bottom. Three days and nights went by before the men were discovered. Charcot wrote, "We all shouted together...We heard shouts of joy and saw the POURQUOI-PAS? approaching through the fog and snow. What a wonderful sight it was!" Less than 24 hours later, Charcot, Gourdon and Godfroy were still talking about their miraculous rescue when history repeated itself: the POURQUOI-PAS?, like the FRANÇAIS before her, had ran aground. Pieces of the hull were torn away and floated to the surface. The stern deck was under water as the bow remained pinned down from the heavy weight of the anchors and chains.

Charcot ordered everything to be moved from the bow to amidships or lowered into the boats. The engine was fortunately not damaged so it was hoped the POURQUOI-PAS? could be floated off the rocks at the next high tide. With a long, slow grinding of stone, metal and wood, the ship tore free. She retreated to the harbor at Petermann Island where efforts were made to repair the damage. She had been so well constructed that only superficial damage had resulted and what little water seeped in later was easily handled by the automatic pumps.

Further exploration took place prior to establishing winter quarters. Near the end of January, 1909, the POURQUOI-PAS? crossed the Antarctic Circle and sailed the length of Adelaide Island. Prior to this charting, the island was said to be only eight miles in length but, as it turned out, it was actually over 70 miles long.

The men charted every section of coastline that appeared before them. They entered a large bay, south of Adelaide Island, mapped the islands at it's mouth and named it Marguerite Bay after Charcot's wife Meg. At the end of January, the ship was directed to the harbor of Port Circumcision, at Petermann Island, where the crew made winter camp.

It took nearly a month to offload all the scientific instruments. The men built four huts on the western shore of the inlet; each was lighted by electricity, the wires strung on bamboo poles between the POURQUOI-PAS? and the huts. The men stretched three double-strength iron-wire hawsers across the inlet in order to protect the ship from icebergs entering the bay. The ship was secured with chains and all available deck space was roofed and walled with canvas. The men needed routine breaks and on February 23 Mardi-Gras was celebrated: Liouville, the zoologist, shaved off his beard and painted his nose red while Gourdon and the botanist Gain disguised themselves as Arabs.

By March, 1909, the Antarctic autumn had ended. Icebergs were already straining the hawsers as the POURQUOI-PAS? jerked at her anchors. By April the storms had returned, temperatures dropped and snow fell heavily. To keep the mens' spirits up, Charcot and his assistants offered courses in grammar, geography, English and navigation while Liouville gave lectures in first aid. Some 1500 books were available for reading and Charcot issued a daily copy of Le Matin. Of greatest interest was Lieutenant Rouche's attempt at writing a romantic novel, on a bet, entitled L'Amant de la Dactylographe--The Typist's Lover. The men enjoyed listening to each new chapter which Rouche read aloud. Outdoor recreation was offered by the founding of the Antarctic Sporting Club. A track was marked out on one of the lower slopes of the inlet so that ski and sledge races could be held; tin can medals were awarded to the winners. Meanwhile, Commander Charcot became ill with polar anemia. His legs became badly swollen and his lungs struggled as each painful breath was taken. The weather became too extreme so all excursions came to a halt. Charcot wrote, "Our life on board goes on, busy yet monotonous. But if the months seem to pass quickly, the hours are long".

On September 18, 1909, an expedition was sent to Graham Land. Charcot was still to sick to join it but by mid-October he made his first journey from the ship. On October 31, the men started loading the scientific equipment aboard the ship. Once everything was aboard, the POURQUOI-PAS? sailed for the Norwegian colony on Deception Island to resupply their diminishing coal reserves, arriving on November 27. Here they received good news: Ernest Shackleton, earlier in 1909, had gotten within 180 km of the South Pole; in April the North Pole had been reached by the American Robert E. Peary; a fellow Frenchman, Louis Blériot, had made the first powered flight across the English Channel.

The Norwegians offered Charcot the services of a diver who descended and inspected the damaged hull of the POURQUOI-PAS?. It was soon discovered that a large section of the keel had been torn away. The Norwegians all agreed that if the ship and expedition was to survive, they should make for home immediately. Charcot would have no part of this as he felt his nation's honor, as well as his personal reputation, was at stake. So, on January 7, 1910, the POURQUOI-PAS? once again sailed south. Three days later they crossed the 69th parallel. They sighted Alexander I Land (Alexander Island) and something beyond. Charcot climbed to the crow's nest and "to everyone's surprise, contradicting my previous orders, I commanded the helmsman to change course. To avoid drawing attention to myself, I descended and ate a quick lunch, then climbed to the crow's nest again, this time taking my binoculars. There is not the slightest doubt. Those are not mere icebergs that point their peaks toward the sky, but land, new land, clearly visible and a land that is our own!". They sailed westwards and on January 11, 1910, Charcot claimed discovery of an unknown land within the Antarctic Circle. Situated at 70°S, 76°W, Charcot named the new discovery Charcot Land, not after himself but after his father. Try as they might to approach it, the ice prevented them from getting any closer. Fearing further damage to the ship, Charcot simply sailed in a wide arc to the west. They explored the coastline to 124°W and on January 22 turned for South America. On February 11, 1910, she arrived at Punta Arenas. From here she continued north and by early June Charcot and the POURQUOI-PAS? had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. She sailed up the Seine River on June 4 and at precisely 2 o'clock on June 5, escorted by two torpedo boats sent to meet her by Admiral Boué de la Peyrère, Minister of Marine, she reached Rouen.

The results of the second French Antarctic Expedition were impressive. A total of 1250 miles of coastline and newly discovered territory had been surveyed. Maps created from this expedition were so precise that they were still being used twenty-five years later by sealers and whalers. Enough scientific data was collected to fill 28 volumes, illustrated with some of the 3000 photographs taken during the expedition. The Polar historian, Edwin Swift Balch, wrote that Charcot's explorations "occupy a place in the front rank of the most important Antarctic expeditions. No one has surpassed him and few have equaled him as a leader and as a scientific observer". Robert Falcon Scott referred to Charcot as "the gentleman of the Pole".

Following his work in the Antarctic, Charcot went on to command a Q-boat in Britain's Royal Navy during World War I. His conduct was courageous and earned him a Distinguished Service Cross. On the night of September 15, 1936, the POURQUOI-PAS? met her demise as she went to the bottom during a storm off the coast of Iceland. There were 44 men aboard; only one survived. The Captain, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, went down with the ship. Commander Charcot---gentleman, explorer, scientist, doctor, philosopher---was truly a great man.


The Voyage of the Pourquoi-Pas?, by Jean Charcot.

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

Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.

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

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.



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

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.

The Voyage of the Pourquoi-Pas?, by Jean Charcot.