Bransfield Versus Bellingshausen

The controversy over whether it was Irishman, Edward Bransfield or the Russian Fabian von Bellingshausen, who first set eyes on the Antarctic mainland in 1820, has continued for 200 years.

Both Bransfield and Bellingshausen were sailing in Antarctic waters in January 1820, though their ships were hundreds of miles apart. On January 30th, Bransfield’s brig Williams suddenly encountered land. In the words of Midshipman Charles Poynter, “…we were astonished by the discovery of land…” Poynter’s clear description included the conclusive declaration: “We can positively assert that we saw land in 64°S still trending to the Eastward…”

Bransfield had discovered part of the Antarctic Peninsula which he named he named Trinity Land.

Belfast Newsletter, 20th October 1821

Three days earlier, Bellingshausen, in the ships Vostok and Mirnyi, had reached 69° 21’S near what is today known as Dronning Maud Land. He reported: “ice mountains” and continuous ice”

Crucially Bellingshausen did not distinguish ice from land. Nor did he claim to have found the fabled southern continent. Contemporary newspaper accounts on his return from the ice added to the mystery. The Belfast Newsletter of October 20, 1821, reported Bellingshausen as saying: “…there is no southern continent or should there be one, it must be inaccessible from being covered with perpetual snows, ice, etc.”

However, the long debate over who made the first discovery was severely hampered by the loss of crucial documents. The log book of Williams disappeared and has never been found, which left Bransfield’s claim reliant on the surviving charts and some magazine articles about the expedition from the 1820s. But the most significant development was the discovery in the 1990s of the journal kept by Midshipman Poynter, which contains the most valuable first-hand account of the expedition.

Bellingshausen’s account of his 1819-21 expedition did not appear until a decade later in 1831 and a detailed English language version did not appear for well over 100 years in 1945.


Rip Bulkeley’s Research
More recently, the author Rip Bulkeley has conducted the most thorough investigation ever made in English. In striking similarity to the fate of Bransfield’s papers, Bulkeley reported that the original manuscript of Bellingshausen’s book about the expedition, his journals and the naval records have all disappeared.

From his research, Bulkeley said there were “reasonable doubts” about the Russian claim and that “…Bellingshausen was not the first commander to see the Antarctic mainland…” He concludes: “…the Russians did not see main ice until mid-February 1820, when they became the second expedition after Bransfield, now known to have seen the mainland.”

Bransfield left the navy in the 1820s and returned to the sea as a merchant mariner, while Bellingshausen resumed in career in the Russian navy. Edward Bransfield died a forgotten man in Brighton on October 31, 1852 at the age of 67. He outlived Bellingshausen, who died on January 25, 1852, by nine months.

See: Bellingshausen and the Russian Antarctic Expedition, 1819–21 by R. Bulkeley, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. (ISBN 978-1-137-40217-2)