Antarctic History 101

Many people have never given Antarctica much thought at all, but the continent's history shows that it's worth considering.

Many people have never given Antarctica much thought at all. According to "Exploring the Last Continent: An Introduction to Antarctica," even the first person to get close to spotting it, James Cook, dismissed the landmass out of hand. Cook believed that because the waters surrounding the continent were so icy and the path so dangerous, no one would ever venture farther than he had to properly discover the continent. He wrote in his diary that even if someone did, "The world will derive no benefit from it."

Thankfully, James Cook was wrong. Here's a brief look at the history of Antarctica, and why Cook vastly underestimated what this continent had in store:


To really explore the continent's history, we have to go back far before Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle. The idea of a large southern continent had been around for ages - in fact, the name "Antarctica" was coined far before anyone was even close to actually finding it. The Ancient Greeks supposed that such a continent could exist - it was a lucky guess, based mostly on the assumption that there had to be some land mass to balance out the northern continents. The North Pole was called the "Arktos," the Greek word for "bear," after the constellation that hung in the northern sky. Greek philosophers assumed there must be an anti-Akrtos continent on the south pole.

The concept of such a landmass was carried through the years, and captured the imaginations of explorers. As time went on, many people thought they had found the great southern continent - for example, Ferdinand Magellan, when sailing through the straight that would later take his name, thought the land south of him could be it. This land was, in fact, simply a small string of islands. Despite many false "discoveries" of Antarctica, those exploring the world's southern waters were still hoping to find the elusive continent.

First discoveries

Cook dismissed Antarctica's potential in 1774, after crossing the Antarctic Circle and deciding that if there was a continent at all, it was too small and cold to be of much use to anyone. That didn't dissuade the most adventurous and ambitious sailors from packing up and heading south, however. On Jan. 27, 1820, Fabian von Bellingshausen became the first person to spot land south of the Antarctic Circle. Later, John Davis was the first to land on Antarctica, and he stepped onto the continent in 1821.

Dangerous attempts

Although today you can easily and safely visit Antarctica, the first voyages there were more harrowing journeys. The ice was a big problem for ships that had neither the strength nor technology to stand up to the pressure as the frozen water expanded. If crews did manage to land, their time on the continent was spent facing the risk of frost bite, starvation and dehydration. Still, many were called to the glory of getting to know the continent the world has been attempting to find for so long.

In 1911, two groups of explorers began the race to become the first to reach the south pole. Roald Amundsen, an explorer from Norway, originally wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole - a title that was taken before he had finished planning the voyage. Instead, he decided to head south. This was at approximately the same time that Captain Robert F. Scott, a British naval officer, was also leading a crew to Antarctica. Amundsen, eager to reach the pole first, began his expedition ahead of schedule. This paid off, despite being a risky move - Amundsen reached the pole well before Scott and his men. When Scott reached the pole and discovered he had been beaten, he and his companions turned around to return back home - they died on their way back to the ship.

Perhaps the most exciting story of Antarctic expeditions is that of Ernest Shackleton and his ship, the "Endurance." In 1915, Shackleton set out to cross the Antarctic continent - a feat that had never been achieved. As his ship approached land, however, the pack ice grew too thick to pass. As the ice expanded, the "Endurance" was slowly destroyed - it was trapped for 10 months before the pressure finally broke the ship completely. Miraculously, Shackleton and his crew survived - after camping on the ice for another five months, they were able to take a lifeboat on a 17-day journey until they reached civilization.

The Antarctic Treaty

In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the whole continent to peaceful collaboration for scientific investigation. In 1961, the treaty went into effect, and all territorial claims any country had made before that time were suspended. In 1991, the Treaty expanded to agree not to explore for oil or other minerals for at least 50 years. This is in effect until 2048, at which point it can be revisited. If all countries that are party to this agreement, of which there are 29, agreed otherwise, there could be mineral or oil exploration sooner. In total, there are 52 countries that have signed the treaty.

The treaty is meant to establish Antarctica as a zone free of military operations and nuclear development, to be used only for peace and international cooperation. It is also meant to ensure no countries dispute who owns Antarctica. The treaty means Antarctica has never been part of a war or a site of war.

Governing Antarctica

Antarctica really isn't governed as we understand it, but there is an annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the state of things in Antarctica and make recommendations about what should happen to keep it in line with the treaty that governs it. There have been special meetings to address climate change and tourism, among other things.

Becoming part of history

Today it is much easier and far safer to reach Antarctica, and the continent has become a scientific research sit and a beacon for particularly adventurous travelers. Despite the modern ease with which people can visit, few people have. This means that each and every visitor who travels to Antarctica becomes a part of the continent's history. If you want to be included in the few who have visited the continent that inspired philosophers and eluded explorers, schedule your trip  to Antarctica today.