England Claims Antarctica (1820)

On January 30, 1820, Edward Bransfield, a British seaman, landed on the continent of Antarctica, the first known person to do so.  He claimed the continent for the British Empire.  But that isn’t how the story ends.

In truth, no one knows who was the first person to set foot on Antarctica.  Polynesian fishermen and traders had traveled south to the ice fields for centuries.  Later, European explorers took up the challenge of going ever farther south in search of whales, fish, hides—and land.  They discovered more islands closer to the pole on successive voyages.

Adelie Penguins on iceberg in Antarctica (photo by Jason Auch)

Captain Cook himself, the most famous of Pacific explorers, is credited with being the first European to conclude that a continent existed under all that ice.  In 1773, aboard the HMS Resolution, Cook crossed over the Antarctic Circle for the first time. However, he never landed on Antarctica itself, driven back from the shore by closing ice.

That honor was left to Edward Bransfield, an Irish seaman stationed with the British fleet in Valparaiso, Chile.  Born in 1785 in the County Cork, Bransfield went to sea at 18 and immediately proved himself a worth sailor and navigator.  He rose quickly to become a master, the non-officer with sole responsibility for a ship’s navigation.  When news came to Valparaiso in late 1819 that an English merchant ship, the Williams, had been driven far south by strong winds and discovered even more islands (the South Shetland Islands), the fleet commander assigned Bransfield to join the Williams and continue exploring.

Hope Bay on Trinity Peninsula, Antarctica, 2012 (photo by PaoMic)

Bransfield led his ship to a continuing string of newly discovered islands, claiming each in turn for his government.  On January 20, 1820, the ship reached what is now called Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Antarctic continent.  Bransfield and the ship’s captain went ashore, becoming the first known humans to stand on the continent.  Antarctica, they claimed, was now the property of the British Empire.

The English claim did not stand without challenge.  In the intervening century, seven countries—Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom—have made claims to some of Antarctica.  In addition, the U.S. and Russia maintain a “basis for claim” that keeps their hands in the pie.

Fortunately, however, Antarctica has not been sliced up into national territories and exploited for military or commercial purposes.  And that status was secured forever on December 1, 1959.  On that date, twelve countries signed The Antarctic Treaty (Japan, South Africa, and Belgium joined those with territorial claims).  The treaty assures that the continent will be used only for peaceful purposes, that scientific study will be free and open, and that all knowledge from those studies will be exchanged and freely available to all.  Moreover, the “Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty,” added in 1991, designates the Antarctic as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”  It prohibits commercial development of the continent, instead focusing on its extraordinary scientific and biodiversity value.

References:

Beyond Endurance Expedition.  Edward Bransfield.  Available at:  https://archive.is/20120723161803/http://www.beyondendurance.ie/history/explorer/6.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

Cool Antarctica.  The UK in Antarctica, The History and Activity of the United Kingdom in Antarctica.  Available at:  https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/activity_of_UK_in_antarctica.php.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty.  The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  Available at:    http://www.ats.aq/e/ep.htm.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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