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Madhouse at the end of the earth

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Madhouse at the end of the earth by Julian Sancton is published by WH Allen

August 1897: The Belgica sets sail, eager to become the first scientific expedition to reach the white and wild expanses of the South Pole. But the ship quickly got stuck in the ice of the Bellinghausen Sea, dooming the ship’s crew to winter in Antarctica and months of endless polar night. In the dark, in the grip of a mysterious disease, the mind ravaged by the sound of dozens of rats swarming in the hold, they sink into madness … In this epic tale, Julian Sancton unfolds an adventure story that has gone horribly wrong.


The Belgian Antarctic Expedition left Antwerp in August 1897 with great fanfare, aboard a three-masted steam whaling ship called Belgica. In February 1898, the ship was plying the thickening sea ice at Bellingshausen. Far from his initial objective, the South Magnetic Pole, Commander Adrien de Gerlache made the disconcerting decision to navigate south, into the claws of the ice. The Belgica is quickly blocked and its men will become the first to suffer the cruelties of an Antarctic winter. After diving below the horizon on May 17, the sun would not rise for months.

There was no silent night. Those who stayed awake in their bunks were tormented by the squeaks that rose through the floor. The only creatures seemingly unaffected by the oppression of the dark were the rats. “It was as if the absence of the indiscreet rays of the sun favored their amorous passions,” wrote the expedition naturalist, Emil Racovitza, “and at every moment we heard the piercing and indignant cries of Miss Rat kissed by a gentleman. too enthusiastic. The Romanian sense of humor masked a deep anxiety in the face of the infestation. Rats are primarily nocturnal; darkness is their element. Since they embarked in Punta Arenas, the rodents had already produced several generations. After Nansen the cat lost interest in the hunt, nothing could stop their proliferation. Their cries echoed through the ship and in the minds of men trapped in the semi-conscious limbo between wakefulness and sleep. It was as if the rats were rushing through their brains.

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Henryk Arctowski, the oceanographer and geologist, was among the insomniacs. “Often … lying in my bunk, I would press my ear against the wall and listen to what was going on from afar,” the scientist wrote. If the pack was a living organism, the Belgica was its central nervous system, receiving pain signals for miles around. The ice was particularly active in the last days of May. Although the surface temperature has dropped two digits below zero, the sea has never been colder than around 28 degrees; the large temperature differential strained the ice half a meter thick on both sides, causing it to crack. The sounds that reached Arctowski’s ear through his wall were chilling: sometimes a resonating metallic click, like a tight coiled spring that suddenly clicks; sometimes something more organic, like the gurgling stomach of a voracious beast.

Even more infuriating were the deep thundering sounds of the terrible pressures shaking the pack during this time. “We hear them coming from afar like the roar of the field artillery galloping towards us,” writes Captain Georges Lecointe. The pressures, more violent than any that the men had yet witnessed, gripped the Belgica like a vice.

Had he looked out of his starboard cabin window at the right time on May 28, de Gerlache would have seen the ice suddenly tear, leaving a large crack parallel to the ship. The next day, May 29, the new crevasse closed with tremendous force. Its two sides did not stop after crashing into each other, but continued to collide relentlessly, forming a massive ridge, just as tectonic plate collision will give rise to a mountain range. It would only have taken a few minutes for the ridge to reach the height of the

boat. De Gerlache would have seen it forming with the naked eye. Because the pressures coming from starboard were greater than those resisting them, the crest began to advance inexorably towards the ship.

In his cabin, the captain listened helplessly to the agony of the Belgica. She let out long, sinister moans as her beams bent and quivered as the ice sent sudden, vicious blows to her ribs, each threatening to sink the hull. Until now, the ice had been relatively tame. De Gerlache had allowed himself to be lulled into supposing that his bet would pay off; that, most of the time free from land, the pack would be unable to crush the Belgica as they did the Terror, Erebus and Jeannette in the Arctic. But the sounds he heard now made it clear that the ice in the Bellingshausen Sea could be just as destructive.

The captain watched the giant pressure ridge close over the hull like a slow tidal wave. Blocks of ice weighing up to several tons each were pushed to its crest before falling back like pebbles. La Belgica had already surprised Gerlache with its resistance, but it was different. It wasn’t like sailing through a storm. He couldn’t negotiate his way out of trouble. Ice would do what it would do. It didn’t matter if there was a ship in the way.

Then, at half past ten in the morning of May 30, the creaking of the wood and the roar of the moving ice suddenly ceased. From the silence came, from all the sounds, the peaceful babbling of the water. Looking over the ship, the men saw something that made them jump: a few inches of black between the hull and the ice. They followed him around the perimeter of the ship and realized that, for the first time in months, the Belgica was floating freely.

But it wasn’t a leak, not at all. Rather, it was the prelude to a final attack. The ice only gathered strength, retreating before hitting the hull with redoubled force. At eleven o’clock, the pressure ridge threw itself into the starboard bow, a brutal ice-mower. “We suddenly felt the whole ship shake and move and there was a strange whistling sound,” wrote the ship’s first mate, Norwegian Roald Amundsen. “Now we would be able to see how strong our old ship was. “

Madhouse at the end of the earth by Julian Sancton is published by WH Allen, and available now.