Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

On November 14th 1900, a 35-year-old Anglo-Norwegian man signed his name in the RSGS visitors’ book: C E Borchgrevink. His name might not mean a great deal to us now, but at the time he was one of the best-known figures in the field of exploration, and he was visiting the RSGS in order to deliver a lecture entitled ‘Antarctic Regions’. Borchgrevink, in fact, claimed to hold an honour that no other explorer, before or since, was able to disprove: he proclaimed himself to be the first person ever to set foot on the Antarctic continent. 

Carsten Borchgrevink

On paper, the achievements of Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink are extraordinary. Not only had his party over-wintered on the Antarctic ice in 1899 – the first ever humans to do so – but they had celebrated Christmas there, greeting the new year and the new century as the most geographically isolated beings on the entire planet. They had taken with them a party of sledge dogs which they used for transport, and thus became the first explorers to travel on the Great Ice Barrier, now known as the Ross Ice Shelf. They had set a record for the ‘furthest south’, and made important observations about the position of the Magnetic South Pole. Why, then, was Borchgrevink sidelined in the annals of polar exploration, while the likes of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen were celebrated as icons of the ‘heroic age’? And why, instead of enjoying an atmosphere of peace and goodwill, did he and his men endure a Christmas riddled with tension and resentment? 

The son of a barrister, Borchgrevink was born in Christiania (now Oslo) on 1st December 1864. He studied natural science at the Royal College in Tharandt, Saxony, and emigrated to Australia at the age of 24, working in survey teams in Queensland and New South Wales before taking employment as a teacher at the Cooerwull Academy. He must, however, have been dreaming of adventure: in 1894, when a fellow Norwegian, Henrik Bull, began planning a whaling expedition to the Antarctic, Borchgrevink signed on in Melbourne as a deck-hand. During the two-year expedition, the ship visited Tristan da Cunha and several other remote archipelagos before arriving in the Ross Sea. On 24th January 1895, a party of six men, Borchgrevink among them, went ashore at Cape Adare, thereby making the first properly confirmed footfall upon the Antarctic continent. 

Bolstered by his first impressions of the bleak and inhospitable landscape, Borchgrevink returned to Australia and then travelled to London, where he submitted scientific papers to academic societies and addressed the Geographical Congress in an attempt to garner support for a new expedition to the Antarctic, this time under his own command. Unfortunately, Borchgrevink’s blunt manner and abrupt speech did little to further his cause; it didn’t help that he claimed most of the achievements of Bull’s expedition for himself. The eminent Scottish geographer Hugh Robert Mill tried to make the best of it: “No one liked Borchgrevink very much,” he observed, “…but he had a dynamic quality and a set purpose to get out again to the unknown South that struck some of us as boding well for exploration.”   

Unable to secure government backing, Borchgrevink eventually found financial support in the shape of a wealthy British publisher, Sir George Newnes. Having made his fortune from magazines such as Country Life and The Strand Magazine, Newnes offered £40,000 to equip and strengthen a barque-rigged whaling vessel which Borchgrevink re-named the Southern Cross. Officers and crew were engaged, most of them Norwegian, with the exception of two British officers and one Australian. To drive and tend the sledge dogs, Borchgrevink hired two men from Finnish Lapland. In all, a total of 31 men set sail from London on board the Southern Cross on 23rd August 1898.  

Officers of the Southern Cross

Ole Must and Persen Savio, the dog handlers

Travelling via Hobart in Tasmania, the ship encountered ice on 30th December and the men had their first taste of stormy seas in the Southern Ocean. As the ship repeatedly rammed into the ice, Borchgrevink noted that “the roar and noise in the forecastle as the ice-pack rubbed up against the vessel’s sides was deafening…” A ten-hour shift in the crow’s nest was a punishing ordeal for crew members who took it in turns to scan the freezing ocean for navigable leads.  

On 17th February, when the Southern Cross dropped anchor off South Victoria Land in ten fathoms of water, the crew celebrated with a four-gun salute. A small boat was lowered over the side, and Borchgrevink, the Australian physician Louis Bernacchi, and Persen Savio, one of the dog-handlers, landed on the same beach that Borchgrevink had visited four years previously. Equipment, coal and provisions were sent ashore, and the men set to work building two timber huts – one for habitation, and the other for storage. Borchgrevink called his base Camp Ridley, after his mother’s maiden name; as well as space for cooking, eating and sleeping, it contained an instrument room, a photographic darkroom, and a taxidermy studio. 

Inside Camp Ridley

Early in March the Southern Cross departed for New Zealand, leaving behind a contingent of ten men who suddenly felt very lonely. Their average age was just 25.

“We were cut off from all the world, 2,500 miles south of Australia, and all ten of us realised our isolation as the vessel steamed away…” (‘First on the Antarctic Continent’)

The ship would return in twelve months’ time; meanwhile there was work to do, making the most of what daylight was left before the Antarctic winter started to bite. Exploring parties were sent out to climb the surrounding peaks and ridges, and to collect natural history specimens. There was a plentiful supply of fish, which the men caught by fishing from the ice floes; the specimens that were discarded by the naturalists made their way to the cook’s stove as a tasty supper. 

On 15th May the sun disappeared, and the days started to become very short and dark. “It was a depressing feeling,” admitted Borchgrevink, “like looking at oneself getting old.” Temperatures dropped to -31°C, and frequent storms confined the men to the hut, where they listened to their musical box and played chess, draughts and cards; but as the days wore on they became thoroughly sick of one another’s company, and tempers were wearing thin.  

At first, there were practical things to worry about, such as when a neglected candle set fire to a bunk and the entire camp nearly went up in flames. The huts were prone to bitterly cold draughts, but stopping up the gaps resulted in a near-fatal case of carbon monoxide poisoning. After these emergencies, Borchgrevink collected a ready supply of tents and provisions in case they needed to make a hasty exit. Feelings were not improved when the supply of tobacco ran out: since Borchgrevink seems to have been an enthusiastic pioneer of pipe-smoking in extreme circumstances, a practice later upheld by Scott, Shackleton and their comrades, this was nothing short of catastrophic. 

Borchgrevink enjoying his pipe

Borchgrevink must have sensed some kind of personal resentment among his men, and decided to stamp on it. He produced a formal memorandum declaring that “the following things would be considered mutiny: to oppose C.E.B. [Borchgrevink] or induce others to do so, to speak ill of C.E.B., to ridicule Mr. C.E.B. or his work, to try and force C.E.B. to alter contracts.” All things considered, this was not the most tactful way to defuse a tense situation.

The sledge dogs posed their own problems, with fierce squabbling that caused many fatalities; however, by 1st June they had increased their number with the birth of 16 puppies. While some of the meteorological instruments broke or failed in the extreme weather, some kind of respite was offered by the sight of the aurora streaming and flickering in the dark sky, and the total eclipse of the Moon which was observed on 23rd June. 

After midwinter, as the light began to return, the men tried to lift their morale by arranging ski-jumping and rifle-shooting competitions. Borchgrevink ventured out on another sledging expedition which lasted several weeks; caught in a severe snowstorm, he was forced to squash himself into a small tent with Savio and Must, the dog-handlers, for three days and nights while the winds howled around them. Each had to take it in turns to stand on all fours, to prevent the tent from collapsing on them under the weight of snow. 

During the expedition, the health of Nikolai Hanson, the zoologist and taxidermist, had been worsening. On 14th October he died of an unidentified illness, possibly an intestinal disorder, and he became the first person to be buried on the Antarctic continent. Dynamite had to be used in order to excavate a grave for him on the frozen summit of Cape Adare. Just before he died, Hanson was delighted to be told that the penguins were beginning to arrive for the summer, and one of the newcomers was brought to his bedside for him to see.

Adelie penguins

With the return of the penguins, a supply of fresh eggs and penguin meat was assured. The first eggs were gathered in early November, and soon the men’s thoughts turned towards Christmas. Possibly they felt themselves advancing towards the festive season with gritted teeth; or perhaps their spirit of conviviality was slowly returning with the prospect of their ordeal coming to an end. In any case, Borchgrevink painted a cosy picture in his official account: 

“Christmas Eve was celebrated by speeches, toddy, extra rations of biscuits, and a longing for home. On Christmas Day we had tinned plum-pudding, and Mr Evans, in honour of the occasion, baked cakes; and Mr Ellefsen [the cook] even surpassed himself in the excellence of his cooking.”

On the morning of New Year’s Day, 1900, the men turned their shirts inside out and “looked back with sentiments of pardonable pride on the work accomplished by us during the year just sped…” With hopeful eyes, they began to scan the wide stretches of open water for their returning ship. Many days passed in disappointment and it was the end of January before Ellefsen noticed a figure walking towards him across the ice. At first he thought it was an extra-large species of penguin, and it was only when it drew closer that he recognised it as Captain Bernard Jensen of the Southern Cross, carrying a mail sack on his back. All the other men were asleep, after an exhausting kayak expedition; but they were rudely and happily awakened by Jensen hammering on the door and plonking his bag down with the hearty cry of ‘Post!’ Eagerly, they opened and read all their letters from their loved ones; and then, just as eagerly, they prepared to abandon the small, claustrophobic hut that they had called home for just under a year. There wasn’t much sadness at departure: Louis Bernacchi expressed a heartfelt wish that he “may never pass another 12 months in similar surroundings and conditions.”

Camp Ridley in spring

As the Southern Cross sailed along the Antarctic coast, Borchgrevink and some of his crew disembarked onto the Ice Barrier to record a new southernmost position of 78°50’. At Franklin Island, off Victoria Land, their observations indicated that the location of the South Magnetic Pole was further north and west than previously thought. There were still opportunities for near-death situations: while exploring a beach at the foot of Mount Terror, Borchgrevink and Jensen had to cling like barnacles to a rock face as a tidal wave from a calving glacier surged across the bay and broke violently against the cliffs, submerging them and threatening to pull them into the sea. 

On 31st March they reached Half-moon Bay on Stewart Island, New Zealand, and the following morning a telegram was sent to the expedition’s sponsor, Sir George Newnes. As Borchgrevink waited in the telegraph office for the message to be sent, “suddenly, the clerk turned to inform me that some very distant official desired to congratulate me… and wished to know whether I had found any people ‘down there.’”

Working with a theodolite, with the Southern Cross in background

Reunited with his wife in Hobart, Borchgrevink enjoyed the first of many celebratory receptions. The Southern Cross arrived back in England in June, and in November the Royal Scottish Geographical Society welcomed Carsten Borchgrevink as a guest speaker in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. Before his lecture at Castle Terrace Hall in Edinburgh he was awarded the Society’s Silver Medal and Honorary Fellowship, and he then proceeded to describe the expedition’s highlights and achievements, with the aid of lantern slides which were greatly admired. 

“Whatever they had done in the south had been done to further knowledge, and he hoped and believed that it would help others to follow in their wake by diminishing the risks…” (The Scotsman, 14th November 1900)

Others were indeed planning to follow in Borchgrevink’s wake, as he well knew. In 1900, Britain was gearing up for another Antarctic expedition, under the command of one Robert Falcon Scott. Meanwhile, north of the border, William Speirs Bruce was pondering plans of his own. Too early, it seemed, the focus of attention had shifted from Borchgrevink to the explorers of the future; it was only much later, when it was realised just how deadly an environment the Antarctic could be, that the Southern Cross expedition was recognised for its true worth. Amundsen, on his successful trek to the South Pole in 1911, paid tribute to Borchgrevink for the experience and observations which made his own ordeal easier.  

In the years to come, jollier Christmases would be had in the Antarctic, and the midwinter darkness would be endured by happier companies; but still Borchgrevink and his men, struggling to get along in conditions they could never have imagined, deserve our respect. They did well to survive with the loss of only one man; and at least two of them – Bernacchi and Colbeck - were brave enough to return. Bernacchi accompanied Scott on his Discovery expedition, which departed in 1901; and Colbeck was Captain of the Morning which travelled twice to the Antarctic as Scott’s relief ship. As the winter snow covered his footprints, Borchgrevink knew that he had left a deeper trail for others to follow. 

The men who over-wintered on the Southern Cross expedition were:

C E Borchgrevink

William Colbeck, magnetic observer and cartographer

Nikolai Hanson, zoologist and taxidermist

Louis Bernacchi, magnetic observer, astronomer and photographer

Dr Herlof Klovstad, medical officer

Hugh Blackwall Evans, assistant zoologist

Anton Fougner, assistant zoologist

Colbein Ellefsen, cook

Persen Savio and Ole Must - dog handlers


Borchgrevink’s hut at Cape Adare still survives - the first ever building on the Antarctic continent.


Borchgrevink’s signature in RSGS Visitors’ Book


Further reading: ‘First on the Antarctic Continent’ (C E Borchgrevink, 1901); Antarctic Heritage Trust; Antarctic Guide; Australian Dictionary of Biography; Cool Antarctica

Note: Borchgrevink’s ‘first foot on the Antarctic continent’ claim has since been disputed: an American sealer, John Davis, claimed to have set foot there 74 years earlier, on 7th February 1821, but there is no conclusive evidence