Madhouse Promenade

125 years ago, life onboard the RV Belgica was not simple. Especially during the polar night of 1898, when the Belgica was frozen solid in Antarctic sea ice from March 5th 1898 until March 14th 1899. The perpetual darkness and cold monotony of the polar night depressed the expedition members physically, mentally, and morally. Their total isolation and boredom led to melancholy, moody dispositions, and irritations. Consequently, most of the men coveted to solitude, although hard to come by in the Belgica’s cramped quarters. Moreover, the deadening effect of the Antarctic winter took a considerable toll on the men’s bodies, as all suffered from dizziness, headaches, insomnia, and various digestion issues. Soon these physical burdens led to exhaustion, which eventually tipped to depression by their constant fear of the sea ice. The Belgica was almost continuously groaning and creaking as her wooden hull was bending under the pressure of the convulsing sea ice. At any given moment, the sea ice could puncture the hull and sink the ship, leaving the early explorers stranded and without means to ever return.

The most worrisome were the cardiac arrhythmias which most of the men were suffering from. Worst-hit patient was Emile Danco, the expedition’s geophysicist, who had an old heart lesion noted by Dr. Cook as “a leak in one of the valves, which has been followed by an enlargement of the heart and a thickening of its walls”. Danco’s condition deteriorated fast, and Dr. Cook feared he would not live another month. In time, Danco’s kidneys started to fail as well. On June 5th 1898, Emile Danco passed away while holding the hand of Georges Lecointe, captain of the Belgica, but most importantly, one of Danco’s closest childhood friends. Emile Danco was wrapped in the Belgian flag, and given the southernmost funeral in history as he was lowered through a hole in the sea ice.

Dr. Cook’s photograph of the RV Belgica stuck in sea ice during polar night. The photograph was taken by moonlight on June 3th 1898, with an exposure time of an hour and a half.
Credits: De Gerlache Family Collection, Zingem, Belgium.

Danco’s death dragged the men’s souls to abysmal depths, and the sailors were quickly demoralizing. As polar winter wore on, cognitive impairment continued, making all shipmates listless, unmotivated, disoriented, and incapable of concentrating on anything for more than a few seconds. Confidence in their future was lost, and many were on the brink of madness, as Henryk Arctowski noted in his diary: “We are in a mad-house”. Dr. Cook dedicated all of his time to determine the causes of this ship-wide illness. He believed the most critical factor was the disappearance of the sun, and called the general malaise that plagued the Belgica’s explorers “polar anaemia”. Dr. Cook therefore attempted to bring light to the Belgica, and ordered the men to stand naked in the glow of a blazing wood or coal fire. The “baking treatment”, as Dr. Cook called it, seemed in his opinion “the best substitute” for the absent sun. Although the flames of this fire weren’t as bright as the full-spectrum of the sun, Dr. Cook seemingly observed that some of the men’s moods, and even some of their physical symptoms, improved. The “baking treatment” was however not sufficient to resolve the damage of the Antarctic night, causing many of the men to remain bedridden, with signs of grave degeneration of both body and mind. To keep them active, Dr. Cook mandated the Belgica’s members to walk on the ice around the ship for an hour a day, an exercise the regimen nicknamed the “Madhouse Promenade”.

As weeks passed by, the Belgica eventually entered in the grip of scurvy. By far the most common cause of death on the sea during the time of early explorers, such as Columbus. Early symptoms were edema, paper skin, and foul breath, but these quickly transitioned into rotting gums, loosening teeth and joints, gangrene limbs, and old wounds to reopen. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, however, proven remedies, like fresh citrus fruit, were not available onboard the Belgica. Based on his previous experience with living among the Inuit in northern Greenland, Dr. Cook prescribed a daily diet of fresh meat, most often penguin but occasionally seal, to be eaten raw. Eventually, those who followed Dr. Cook’s diet saw their symptoms improve.

Commander Adrien de Gerlache, with his face bloated due to scurvy.
Credits: De Gerlache Family Collection, Zingem, Belgium.

This year, the RV Polarstern expedition members will fortunately not suffer from the physical, mental, and moral burdens the crew of the Belgica had to endure. First of all, the PS134 Polarstern expedition is currently operating in the almost ever-present daylight of the Antarctic summer, and will end before the polar night kicks in. Second, malnutrition will remain a far concern as, everyday onboard the RV Polarstern, at precisely 7.30 – 8.30, 11.30 – 12.30, 15.00 – 15.30 (coffee and cake break), and 17.30 – 18.30, we get well fed by our fantastic kitchen team. Even if you missed one of these moments because you were on shift, a (warm) dish will be waiting for you in the so-called “night kitchen”. The Polarstern is furthermore well equipped to keep its passengers physically fit, with amenities including a gym, sauna, small pool, and even a sunbed. Nonetheless, some of the Polarstern’s current passengers keep the promenade tradition alive by walking many numbers of rounds on the outside deck around the ship, as our gym facilities don’t provide an outdoor experience. But maybe the most important reason of our well-being is a certain future with a prospect to return home soon, an outlook the team onboard the Belgica was deprived of for many months.

Meet Petra and her team of stewardesses and stewards: Martina, Romy, Erik, and Christoph, the 2nd cook! Every day they get up with a big smile to not only serve us food four times a day, but they are also the ones keeping our ship clean and fresh. We are spoiled to have them!

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