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Bellingshausen and the discovery of Antarctica

  • Terence Armstrong


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.



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Andreyev, A. I., ed. 1949. Plavaniya shlyupov “Vostok” i ”Mirnyy” v Antarktiku v 1819, 1820 i 1821 godakh [Voyage of the sloops “Vostok” and “Mirnyy” to the Antarctic in 1819, 1820 and 1821]. Moscow, Izdatel'stvo Geograficheskoy Literatury.
Bellingshausen, T. T. 1831. Dvukratnyye izyskaniya v yuzhnom ledovitom okeane i plavaniye vokrug sveta, v prodolzhenii 1819, 20 i 21 godov… [The twofold expedition in the Southern Ocean and the voyage round the world, in 1819, 1820 and 1821…]. St. Petersburg, Ivan Glazunov, 2 vols.
Belov, M. I. 1963. Pervaya russkaya antarkticheskaya ekspeditsiya 1819–1821 gg. i yeye otchetnaya navigatsionnaya karta [The first Russian Antarctic expedition of 1819–21 and its navigational chart]. Leningrad, Izdatel'stvo “Morskoy Transport”.
Belov, M. I. 1970. Otkrytiye ledyanogo kontinenta [Discovery of the ice continent]. Izvestiya Vsesoyuznogo Geograficheskogo Obshchestva, Tom 102, Vypusk 3, p 201–08.
Humboldt, A. von 1824. Account of the discoveries of the Russians in the Southern Polar Seas, by Simonoff, M., Literary Gazette, 01, p 2627.
Sementovskiy, V. N. ed. 1951. Russkiye otkrytiya v Antarktike v 1819–1820–1821 godakh [Russian discoveries in the Antarctic in 1819–21]. Moscow, Izdatel'stvo Geograficheskoy Literatury.

Bellingshausen and the discovery of Antarctica

  • Terence Armstrong


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