Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 October 2009
For the last twenty years there has been considerable Soviet interest in the circumnavigation of Antarctica by the Russian naval expedition of 1819–21, led by Captain T. T. Bellingshausen, with Lieut M. P. Lazarev as his second in command, in the sloops Vostok and Mirnyy. It is now reasonably certain that Bellingshausen sighted the Antarctic continent several times, notably on 27 January 1820 (New Style) at a point about lat 69°21′S, long 2°14′W, and was thus the first to see it (Edward Bransfield sighted the north-west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula at about lat 63°50′S, long 60°30′W on 30 January 1820, three days later). Bellingshausen did not claim to have done so however, but his descriptions of what he saw tally very well with what the edge of the continent here is now known to look like. There is one relatively new point. Bellingshausen's first sighting has been moved forward one day, from the 28th to the 27th, because it has been shown that he was keeping ship's time, from mid-day to mid-day, and therefore that what his log called the 28th (his sighting being in the second half of the day) was what the civil calendar would call the 27th (Belov, 1963, p 19–29). All this much is well documented and unlikely to be disputed. The question is, how much importance did he, and his contemporaries, attach to this discovery? And did he realize that he had seen the edge of a continent? Recent Soviet studies have sought to show that he had a very good idea of the importance of what he had seen, and that this idea did get through to his contemporaries. It is here that there is room for argument with the Soviet scholars.