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

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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