Thaddeus von Bellinghausen (also Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen) (1778 - 1852) was a Russian naval officer who contributed to the exploration of the Antarctic. His expedition was likely the first to sight the continent of Antarctica.
Born to an noble family, Bellinghausen became a naval cadet at age ten. In 1803-6, he was part of a expedition led by A.J. von Krusenstern which circumnavigated to globe. In 1809, Bellinghausen held his first command and in subsequent years continued to to rise steadily through the ranks of the Russian navy. He evinced scientific interests and was a keen admirer of the British James Cook, who travels and charts Bellinghausen studied and used on his subsequent expedition to Antarctica.
Following the Napoleonic wars, Krusenstern pushed for new voyages of exploration. In March, 1819, Czar Alexander I anounced two expeditions, to the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. Bellinghausen was appointed to the command of the Antarctic expedition, with two ships, the Vostok and the Mirnyi (commanded by Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev). The expedition sailed from Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg, in late July, stopped in Portsmouth, England, crossed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, which and reached the island of South Georgia in the south Atlantic in late November. While Bellinghausen charted the south coast (Cook had charted the north coast), two British sealing ships were actively hunting in the area.
Five days sailing south brought Bellinghausen to the South Sandwich Islands, which Cook had sighted but not explored. For two weeks, the Russian charted and named the islands and sent ashore a party to collect samples. One of the South Sandwich Islands is now know as Bellinghausen Island.
In the next phase, the expedition travelled east and south, crossing the Antarctic Circle on January 26, 1820. On January 27, Bellingshausen saw petrels and heard penguins, which observation convinced him that land was nearby. He reported seeing extensive ice and "in different places over the ice we could see icy mountains to the south." These and similar observations convinvced him that his expedition was skirting the coast on the southern continent. Because of shifts in the ice surrounding the Antarctic coast it is not possible to be certain about what Bellingshausen saw, but his log confirms that he was about probably 20 miles from shore. While debate has raged over whether Bellinghausen was actually seeing the continent of Antarctica at this this, it comes down to a debate over whether he was observing fixed ice over land or ice moving away from the continent over water. Three days later, a ship led by British naval officer Edward Bransfield and merchant Captain William Smith had a clear sighting of mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula. Bellinghausen and his officers were confident that they were observing ice over a continent (perhaps of continuous land, perhaps of islands) and are generally credited (still not without debate) with the first sighting.
Four days later, Bellinghausen attempted to approach the coast again but was unable to pass the icebergs and broken ice that combined with adverse winds to limit his southward motion. After sailing north, the expedition returned south again in two weeks and observed "behind the icy fields of small ice and islands is to be seen a continent of ice, whose edges are broken off perpendicularly, and which stretches as far as the eye can see, becoming higher towards the south in the same way as the coast."
Following this, the expedition made north again and after some difficulty, including a furious nine-day storm, reached Sydney, Australia in April. Where they rested and prepared for further exploration.
In early November, Bellinghausen's ships left Sydney with a variety of specimens including a live kangaroo. At Macquarie Island the expedition encountered sealers and moving south and east crossed the Antarctic Circle on December 24, 1820. On January 21, the expedition discovered Peter I Island. On January 28, 1820 mountains were sighted along what was named the Alexander Coast on the Western side of the Antarctic Peninsula (In 1936, it was established that the land is an island connected by an ice shelf to the mainland and renamed Alexander Island.) The waters to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula are now known as the Belinghausen Sea.
Heading north, the expedition reached the South Shetland Islands on February 5, 1821 (Bellinghausen had heard the news of the discovery by William Smith while in Australia.) On the next day, the Russians encountered a sloop commanded by the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer who had been working the waters with other sealers for several months and had even worked along the Antarctic Peninsula. Palmer came aboard and met with Bellinghausen before returning to his boat. Subsequently, Palmer's biographer would write that Bellinghausen learned of Palmer's discoveries further south and declared the American to be the discoverer of Antarctica. This claim is unverified and not generally accepted.
Return to Russia and Legacy
Bellinghausen charted the South Shetland Islands before beginning a return journey and arriving back in Kronstadt in August, just over two years after his departure. In Russia, Bellingshausen's discoveries seem to have largely been unheralded. His report of the voyage was not published for ten years, and was not translated into another language for seventy more years. Bellinghausen's accomplishments would not receive recognition until long after his death, and Russia was not active in the Antarctic for over 130 years. However, the Antarctic region Bellingshausen Sea is named tor the noted navigator, and a modern Russian research station located in the South Shetlands is named Bellinghausen Station.
Bellinghausen, however continued to advance in the Russian navy, reaching the rank of Admiral, and the military governor of Kronstadt.
- Antarctica Observed, A.G.E. Jones, Caedmon of Whitby, 1982 ISBN: 0905355253.
- Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997 ISBN: 0393039498.
- Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
- Antarctica: Exploring the Extreme: 400 Years of Adventureby Marilyn J. Landis, Chicago Review Press, 2001 ISBN: 1556524285.