Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica's Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night
“Anyone who appreciates historical narrative in which the boundaries of human endurance are examined will wholeheartedly appreciate this book.”
In August 1897, 31-year-old commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail aboard the Belgica, fueled by a profound sense of adventure and dreams of claiming glory for his native Belgium. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. But the commandant's plans for a three-year expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole would be thwarted at each turn. Before the ship cleared South America, it had already broken down, run aground, and lost several key crew members, leaving behind a group with dubious experience for such an ambitious voyage.
As the ship progressed into the freezing waters, the captain had to make a choice: turn back and spare his men the potentially devastating consequences of getting stuck, or recklessly sail deeper into the ice pack to chase glory and fame. He sailed on, and the Belgica soon found itself stuck in the icy grip of the Antarctic continent.
Plagued by a mysterious, debilitating illness and besieged by the monotony of their days, the crew deteriorated as their confinement in suffocating close quarters wore on and their hope of escape dwindled daily. As winter approached the days grew shorter, until the sunset on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, condemning the ship's occupants to months of quarantine in an endless night.
Forged in fire and carved by ice, Antarctica proved a formidable opponent for the crew. Among them was Frederick Cook, an American doctor, whose unorthodox methods delivered many of the crew from the gruesome symptoms of scurvy and whose relentless optimism buoyed their spirits through the long, dark polar night. Then there was Roald Amundsen, a young Norwegian who went on to become a storied polar explorer in his own right, exceeding de Gerlache's wildest dreams by leading the first expeditions to traverse the Northwest Passage and reach the South Pole.
Drawing on firsthand accounts of the Belgica's voyage, Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton tells the disturbing saga of the crew’s mental and physical anguish while isolated and trapped in the ice of Antarctica. In graphic and meticulously researched detail Sancton describes the countless impediments that pushed these men to the brink of insanity. Sancton is a senior features editor at Departures magazine, where he writes about culture and travel. His work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker, Wired, and Playboy, among other publications. This is the author's debut nonfiction work.
“The combination of fear and fatigue, depression and disorientation, darkness, and isolation, the risk that the Belgica might be crushed in the ice at any moment . . . seemed to skew reality itself, an infestation of rats, and a ship-wide illness with no obvious cause made most of the men feel as if they were losing their grip on sanity.”
Madhouse at the End of the Earth is filled with historical facts, astonishing detail, and firsthand narratives of the Belgica’s crew. Sancton does a brilliant job of transporting the reader to a far-off place and time. In its most basic structure, this work is a study of human nature under horrific conditions and how leadership, professionalism, and compassion ultimately prevailed over madness and disease.
The use of primary sources and Sancton’s unique, almost novel-like writing style is captivating. One can almost feel the sting of the Antarctic coldness and imagine the endless darkness and despair as it wraps its brutal shroud upon the crew. The endless monotony of not knowing whether they would survive and the toll it took upon their psyche is profound and gut-wrenching. Anyone who appreciates historical narrative in which the boundaries of human endurance are examined will wholeheartedly appreciate this book.