Through the First Antarctic Night, 1896-1899, by Frederick A. Cook, is an account of the first Belgian Antarctic Expedition, signficant for being the first time explorers spent the winter in the Antarctic region. The author, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, was an important although controversial figure in polar exploration. He served as photographer and ship’s doctor aboard the Belgica. Cook was the only American on board; the other 18 crewmen were mainly Belgian and Norwegian. One of those crewmen, 25-year-old Roald Amundsen, became the first to reach the South Pole, in 1911. Amundsen was one of the greatest explorers of all time; after meeting Cook aboard the Belgica, the two became lifelong friends. Amundsen credited Cook’s medical expertise for pulling the crew through their ordeal relatively unscathed, something Cook is too modest to boast about in his book.
Unless you’re a big fan of polar exploration, this book may not be your cup of tea. For the most part, Cook’s account involves detailed descriptions of weather, ice, daily routines and the ever changing moods aboard ship. There are no dramatic survival stories, no mutinies, no dazzling discoveries.
The expedition was a great success, however. The navigational data, biological samples, geological samples, and strategic/tactical insights proved extremely helpful for future exploration and in the advancement of science. Cook’s account, while not highly dramatic, and in fact somewhat monotonous, is loaded with details that will be nevertheless quite fascinating to exploration buffs.
What is dramatic in an undramatic sort of way is the description of what Cook calls the long Antarctic night. As winter descended, the Belgica became trapped in pack ice, and drifted along with it in all directions for the entire winter and well into spring. During this time, the crew experienced 70 consecutive days without the sun. The effects of this agonizingly long span of darkness on the crew’s mental and physical condition is described in excruciating detail. Cook was constantly treating crewmen for physical maladies and mental illness, with all but two crewmen coming through the ordeal in sound condition — one died on the ship due to a preexisting heart condition; the other went permanently insane.
The men were not confined to the ship for the duration of their entrapment by any means. Crewmen were able to move about the ice freely weather permitting, taking scientific measurements, gathering samples, skiing, hiking, and hunting penguins and seals for food.
Cook is an excellent writer. You can feel his enthusiasm, confidence and courage. He and others like him were above all exceedingly tough — mentally tough and physically tough. But that was not all. Cook and his comrades held each other in high esteem, giving high regard to each other’s strengths and downplaying weaknesses. These explorers bravely entered uncharted waters in the most inhospitable place on the planet. They lived to tell about it. Character overcomes all obstacles — a good lesson for today or any day.