Antarctic Voyage.—


In our last volume (p. 328) we laid before our readers an outline of the intended voyage of the French ships, Astrolabe and Zélée, and we now present them with a translation of Capt. d’Urville’s letter to the French government, relating his attempt to reach the South Pole as proposed therein.

M. le Ministre:—In addressing to you a detailed report of our proceedings in the Antarctic Seas, I hasten to announce the arrival of the corvettes Astrolabe and Zélée at Conception, where they still are. After having passed nearly a month in Magellan Strait, in the pursuits of hydrography, physical and natural history, we departed from that celebrated channel on the 8th of January; and, favoured by fine weather and a fair wind on the 9th and 10th, we proceeded along the eastern shore of Tierra del Fuego, at the distance of three to four miles, as far as the Strait of Le Maire, laying it down as we passed it correctly on the chart. From thence I directed our course, with all despatch, to the southern regions. On the 15th January we saw the first icebergs in the latitude of 58° S.; on the 17th we passed some miles to the eastward of Clarence Isle, which we were unable to see on account of fog. The fog continued for two days, and prevented the vessels from seeing each other at the distance of a cable’s length. On its clearing away the icebergs appeared numerous, and it became necessary to alter the course occasionally to avoid them. Continuing to the southward we made a rapid progress, and I cherished the hope of leaving them far astern, when, at daylight on the 22nd of January, we were finally stopped by a compact barrier of ice, which extended as far as we could see from S.W. to N.E. Enormous masses from 150 to 200 feet high were scattered here and there along the edge of this insurmountable wall, and nothing appeared to encourage the hope that it might soon break up. We ran along it among floating masses at the distance of one or two miles through an extent of 240 miles, which brought us from 64° 8. to 61° 8., near the Orkney Isles. I tried once to penetrate it among some hundreds of floating masses, but fortunately I was enabled to retreat in time. At another time we crossed through a place without accident, from the ice being somewhat rotten; but we shortly found ourselves shut in between two ledges, and were obliged to tack frequently among innumerable ice islands to disengage ourselves. 

We remained to the northward of the Orkney Isles until the 2nd of February. In the hope that the summer being more advanced would produce a favourable change in the state of the ice, I again attempted to get to the southward. On the 4th, in 62° S., the barrier re-appeared; nevertheless, seeing a space apparently less compact, I steered towards it, and after having run all the evening among innumerable ice islands, both the corvettes were secured to one of them for the night.

On the following day, the wind having changed, the aspect of every thing also changed, and all outlet for us was closed. All our efforts on the 5th and 6th, amidst danger and fatigue, concluded only in placing us in the midst of ice islands so compact that the two vessels were immoveable. The 7th and 8th were even more grievous; and we anticipated the dire necessity of remaining enclosed within this icy barrier for an indefinite time. In this case the vessels and their crews would have stood little chance of being saved.

On the 9th we set our sails to a fresh breeze from S.S.E. Thanks to its powerful assistance and to the activity of the crews in heaving on the warps, and by levers and pickaxes in forcing away the ice from the vessels, in eight hours we cleared the two miles of distance between us and the sea, and one more we found ourselves outside of all danger. In these anxious days in which our total loss was constantly threatened, the conduct of the officers was excellent, the crews continued throughout to obey their officers with zeal, notwithstanding the prolonged fatigue which they underwent. The vessels experienced no injury excepting in their copper, which was much damaged; and it is right to add, that they owed their safety to their solidity and their excellent qualities. Ships less solid or incapable of carrying their sails so well, would have yielded to the pressure and to the continued shocks of the ice, and would have been less able to disengage themselves.

Having escaped from prison, we continued our course for about 300 miles close to the barrier, which lay in an east and west direction, without finding any opening. On the 15th of February, having reached 33° W. longitude (30° 40’ from Greenwich,) and crossed the place where Weddel penetrated without seeing an iceberg, and finding that the barrier then took a northerly direction towards the Sandwich Islands, I considered it was time to give up this painful investigation. The crews were much fatigued; the nights, which were already long, doubled the dangers of such a venturesome navigation, and to have prolonged it would have been blind imprudence.

From thence we kept to the westward, and successively examined the Orkney Isles, the eastern parts of the New South Shetlands, where we corrected some important errors, and from thence we attempted again to get to the southward; and there, between 63° and 64° south, in a space of about 180 miles, we explored a coast until then entirely unknown, which repaid us for the trials we bad undergone.

Finally, we passed completely through Bransfield Strait, which no ship of war of any nation had yet done; and on the 17th of March we quitted the southern lands, and with them the icebergs, by which, for fifty-two days, we had been incessantly surrounded, and had often counted from sixty to eighty, independent of banks, which often interrupted our course.

This service has proved very severe to every person in the expedition; and although this is the first time that such attempts have been made by the French, I am convinced that no other chief of an expedition would have pushed his vessel further than I have done in similar circumstances.

My next object was to gain, as soon as possible, one of the ports of Chili, in order that my crews might have the rest and refreshments so necessary after a six months’ harassing navigation like ours. I entertained the hope of conducting them in good health, but after some days a grievous scurvy shewed itself on board the Zélée. Fifteen days only before, Captain Jaquinot, who commands her, had hailed me that the health of nis crew was good, so that my consternation was great on the 16th March, when he announced, by signal, that he already had thirty scorbutic cases, twenty-one of which were in bed. This sad intelligence was concealed from the crew of the Astrolabe; nevertheless the disease progressed, and, to crown the misfortune, the winds, although generally moderate, were for a long time against us, so that it was not until the 7th of April that the two ships were able to enter the Bay of Conception, and to anchor off the little village of Talcahuano.

It was high time that we had arrived. On board the Zélée forty men were, more or less, affected by the scurvy; forty more were confined to their bed, seven or eight at the last extremity; and one dead. On the 1st of April the Astrolabe, much less unfortunate, had, nevertheless, fifteen men, more or less, severely attacked. Among the officers several exhibited the first symptoms of this dreadful disease, the ravages of which I now saw for the first time. All the sick were immediately landed and placed in a lodging which I hired for the purpose, and where they received every possible care from the medical officers. I hope that the influence of climate, the air of the land, and above all good fresh provisions, will shortly restore their exhausted strength, and I hope to put to sea again after a month’s stay in this port.

We found here the English frigate, President, Captain Scott, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Ross, the commander-in-chief on the South American station, and several fine French whalers fishing on the coast of Chili. I have already seen some of the captains of these vessels; all tell me they are satisfied with the conduct of their crews.”

We gather from the foregoing abstract of M. D’Urville’s voyage that the French ships left the eastern entrance of Magellan Strait for the Strait of Le Maire on the 8th January, from whence they steered to the S.E., and passing east of Clarence Isle met the barrier of ice on the 22nd in 64° S., which they traced to New Orkney or Powell’s Group in 61° S. Passing to the northward of these islands they were to the eastward of them in 62° S., on the 4th of February, where the icy barrier was again formed, and even locked in till the 8th; after which, they traced it east and west to the meridian of about 31° west of Greenwich, till the 15th of February, when finding it take a northerly direction towards the Sandwich Islands, they kept to the westward again, examining the Orkneys, which are between 60° S. and 61° S., and the eastern part of the South Shetland group, improving the charts of those islands. Another attempt was then made to get to the southward, failing in which, the vessels passed westward through Bransfield Strait, when some unknown land was explored. The terms of Capt. D’Urville’s letter are vague enough as to the exact position of the newly discovered land in longitude, though not so in latitude. But we apprehend that as the Astrolabe examined the shores of the eastern islands of the Shetland group, she passed to the southward in their meridian, which is that of about 58° W. in which direction she would come to Trinity or Palmer’s land, already laid down in the charts, although its shores are by no means accurately defined. There are, however, certain points of the south shore of Bransfield Strait laid down with precision in 1829, by Capt. Foster, in H.M.S. Chanticleer, on her way to Deception Island, where, it will be remembered, that lamented officer made a series of observations on the pendulum; remaining in its neighbourhood from the 5th of January to the 9th of March. Capt. Foster landed on Cape Possession on the southern side of the western entrance of Bransfield Strait, and deposited a written document there, naming the land “Prince William’s land,” after his late majesty William IV., which lay between the meridians of 60° and 63° W., in lat. 64° S., and on which he fixed the positions of various peaks, namely, Mount Parry, Mount Herschel, &c., and the coasts of which are tolerably connected. In the way of newly discovered lands then we must await the appearance of Capt. D’Urville’s charts for such details as may enable us to distinguish the unknown coasts he has explored, from those already laid down by Capt. Foster, R.N., and Capt. Biscoe; and with regard to the honor claimed by Capt. D’Urville, of his ships of war having been the first of any nation that has yet passed through Bransfield Strait, had it not been for the Chanticleer’s voyage we might have conceded it to him; but as that vessel, entering the Strait from the westward, went to Deception Island, in 1829, under the command of Capt. Foster, she being a vessel of war, employed on a valuable scientific mission, as we have before mentioned, much as we may regret to deprive Capt. D’Urville even of that useless honor, how can we concede it with the fact before us, that the Chanticleer actually passed to the eastward through Bransfield Strait nine years before the Astrolabe and Zélée passed through it to the westward.

It is certainly a matter of congratulation for English seamen, although no one can look with unconcern at the contrast afforded by the sufferings of the French vessels, after being fifty-two days in the ice, that the Chanticleer was sixty-three days in it without having a single case of illness! This was attributed, by her surgeon, to the watchful care of her first Lieutenant, now Capt. H. T. Austen, R.N.