De Gerlache, a baron in the ices


Born at Hasselt (in North-East of  Belgiium) on 2 August 1866, baron Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery abandons his studies at École polytechnique from Brussels and embarks as ship's boy in 1883. After naval school, he becomes lieutenant in the navy. He will organise a scientific expedition to South pole. On 16 august 1897, BELGICA  leaves the harbour of Antwerp with about twenty people on board, including 5 scientifics.


The three-masted ship built in Norway as a sealer named PATRIA, then reconditioned for the expedition ; her characteristics are:

tonnage 336 GT ; 

dimensions 118'pp x 25' x 13'6"; 

auxiliary steam engine, 30 nhp, giving a speed of 7 kn.


The officers and scientifics who escort Adrien de Gerlache constitue an international crew:

Adrien de Gerlache, Naval officer, commandant (Belgian)

Georges Lecointe, officer d'artillerie, first lieutenant (Belgian)

Roald Amundsen, Naval officer, second lieutenant (Norwegian)

Jules Melaerts, Naval officer, third lieutenant (Belgian)

Henryk Arctowski, geologist, oceanographer and meteorologist (Polish)

Émile Danco, physician (Belgian)

Emil Racovitza, zoologist and botanist (Rumanian)

Antoine Dobrowolski, meterologist (Polish)

Frederick Cook, doctor of medicine, photographer (American) (joined the crew at the call of Rio)

Adrien de Gerlache and his crew are the first to spend a winter in Antarctic and to bring back essential scientific data for knowledge of these areas. During summer 1898, the Graham Land is explored then BELGICA drifts with the pack. After this forced wintering in the ices of the ice-barrier, the ship finds finally, on 28 February 1899, a passage towards to free water.

 EMIL RACOVITA (1868-1947) 

Emil G Racovita, or Emile Gustave Racovitza,  is a Rumanian biologist, zoologist, oceanographer and speleologist. 
Born on November 15, 1868 in Iassy in Moldavia, Emil Racovita continued his studies in Paris (1886-1896). Racovita take part thus in the first Antarctic wintering on board BELGICA. After the return of this expedition, Racovita present the results of this extraordinary voyage in Brussels in 1899, in Paris, in the Sorbonne, in 1900, and in Romania, the same year. From 1904, Racovita take part in speleological expeditions in all Europe, of the Balearic Islands in Carpates.


FREDERICK COOK (10 juin 1865 - 1940) 

In 1891, he is in North Greenland Expedition ordered by  the American Robert Edwin Peary, and of which the goal was the exploration of Greenland.

In 1893 Cook organised its own expedition and arm at its own expenses a ship, Zeta. It repeats the following year on board Miranda which failed to know a fatal outcome

In 1897, recruited by Adrien de Gerlache for Belgian polar expedition in the Antarctic, he joined on 22 October 1897 BELGICA at the call of Rio de Janeiro. He saves the members of the expedition of scorbut, forcing them to eat seal and pinguin meat.


He organises in 1906 an expedition towards the North Pole departing from Annoatok at 920 miles of the pole. He states to have reached the pole on April 21, 1908. Forced to wintering, he joined with his two companions their base on April 18, 1909. 

A polemic was born with expedition from Peary who claims to have reached the pole a few days earlier, April 6, 1909. The Congress of the United States judged the affair and Peary was declared official winner by 135 votes against 34.

For a swindle, he is condemned to 14 years of prison and is finally released in 1930. He will continue until its death to affirm to have reached in first the pole.

"Who was the first conqueror of North pole ? Cook or Peary ? Or none of both ?
If one can easily prove that Peary doesn't reach the North pole, on the other hand nobody can prove that Cook did it" 

Currently the assertions of Peary and Cook are strongly disputed by the specialists. It seems that the first men proven to the North Pole are Amundsen and Umberto Nobile aboard the Norge airship on May 12, 1926 and especially the Papanine Russian who landed with his plane on May 21, 1937.


In October 1897, BELGICA gets under way to the Graham Land, reached in January 1898 when Amundsen takes part in several raids inside the lands equipped with skis. (He was the first to use skis in the Antarctic). In March the ship was taken in the ice-barrier and wintered for 6 months (first wintering in the Antarctic) before being released and returning to Belgium. At the time of this first major expedition, Roald Amundsen tied a solid friendship with the doctor of the board, Doctor Frederick Cook who played a dominating part in the success of the wintering.

 Back in Norway, Amundsen obtains his master's certificate, and launches out in the passage of the North-West (passage which links the Atlantic to the Pacific by the far North Canada to the Bering Strait) discovered by land way since 1822 but never been crossed by a ship. He buys a boat, GJOA, and leaves on16 June 1903. On 9 September, he drops anchor on the Southern coast and prepares for the wintering in a bay named Gjoa Haven.

After its trip, Nansen lends FRAM to him and Amundsen prepares to repeat the drift through the Arctic Ocean. In June 1910 he sails officially for the Bering Strait and changes direction informing Scott. On 15 January 1911 he installs his base camp, named Franheim, in Bay of Whales on the Ross ice-shelf in the Antarctic. Amundsen reaches the South Pole on 15 December 1911 at 3pm. Scott is then still distant of 572 km. He will spend more than thirty-three days to traverse them. Amundsen and his men are back to Bay of Whales on 26 January 1912 after a journey of 2824 km which they crossed in 94 days (56 on the outward journey, 38 on the return) that is an average of 30 km per day.

After FRAM, Amundsen charters a new ship MAUD to cross in 1918 the North-East passage, open  in 1879 by the Swedish Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld (1792-1866), becoming the first man to cross the two mythical passages of the Arctic.


In 1903, de Gerlache prepares with Charcot the expedition of FRANCAIS. The relationships between the two men are bad and de Gerlache disembarks at Pernambuco call, in Brazil.


In 1913, de Gerlache orders a ship for expeditions in Spitzberg with Lars Christensen. For lack of money, in January 1914, he sells the ship to another explorer who renames it ENDURANCE: on board, Ernest Shackleton will derive nine months in the ices.


In June 1931, are published the plans of the new ship Belgian school, MERCATOR, signed by A of Gerlache, general manager of the navy. The cost of the sailing ship is 9 million Belgian Francs. With a gross tonnage of 778.86 tons, the boat is equipped by an auxiliary engine of 500 hp, her dimensions are:

length 78,40 m
width 11,09 m

After delivery, the ship returnes to the yard to modify rigging, with too heavy masts and too light ballast. The 15 sails represent a total surface of approximately 1600 sq m

The school ship MERCATOR is the fifth school ship of the Belgian merchant navy which begins her career of ship school in 1932 to finish it in 1961. She is named after the famous geographer Gerard Cremer Mercator author of the famous world maps. She is a three masts rigged as a barquentin i.e. the foremast carries square sails while the mainmast and the mizzenmast carry fore-and-aft sails.


Built in 1931 at the yard of Leith in Scotland, MERCATOR goes to the sea for the first time on 5 September 1932 and will train each year around fifty of apprentices officer framed by a dozen of crew within a four months winter voyage in the Atlantic followed by a three months summer cruise.

From 1934 to 1935, he embarks a Franco-Belgian scientific expedition for the Easter Island from where he brings back the gigantic statue of "God of Tuna", currently preserved at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. 

During the Second World war, MERCATOR goes under English flag. Back in Belgium in 1947, she is in bad state and it is only in 1950 that she will be able to take again the sea.

She took part in several races of sailing ships.

Since 1961, she does not train any more young officers but her career continues. Alongside quay, at Antwerp then at Ostend, she became a tourist monument which receives nearly 130 000 visitors per year.

Forbidden to sail in large sea, she may be engaged in coastal navigations. In August 2002, MERCATOR takes part to tall ships parade at Zeebrugge when City of Bruges was elected "Cultural Capital of Europe 2002"




Sources : Wikipedia, Watercraft Philately, Mercator ASBL

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