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 worthy 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 (learn more about the treaty here).

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

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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