John Biscoe (1794-1843) was a British mariner who contributed to the exploration of the Antarctic.
Biscoe joined the British navy in 1812 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. He was involved in the American "War of 1812" and rose rapidly to become an acting ships master before being released at the conclusion of hostilities.
Moving into the merchant marine, Biscoe again rose to ships master, sailing to the West Indies and to India and the far east. In 1830, he joined the whaling company of Enerby and Sons. Enerby and Sons was rather unusual in that it encouraged exploration and scientific collection by its ships masters. In July, 1830, Biscoe sailed in command of two small ships, the brig Tula (74 feet), supported by the cutter Lively (54 feet), and a crew of twenty-nine, with instructions explore the Southern Ocean for seals, whales and "new discoveries."
After stops in the Cape Verde and Falkland Islands, Biscoe sailed east in search of the reported, but non-existent Aurora Islands, and then to the South Sandwich Isy through icebergs and pack ice. At 69°S 10°43'E, Biscoe confronted impenetrable pack ice. He did not know it, but the Antarctic coast's (Princess Astrid Coast) lay just over the horizon]] . There he discovered no way to land and nothing worth landing for. Continuing east and then south below the Antarctic Circle (January 21, 1831), the small ships picked their way through the ice.
At 8 pm on the evening of February 25, Biscoe "saw an appearance of land . . . At noon our latitude was 66° 29'S, longitude 45°17'E.. ." Biscoe observed a steep ice cliff which appeared to have calved icebergs and "it ran away to the southward with a gradual ascent, with a perfectly smooth surface,and I could trace it in extent to at least for 30 to 40 miles from the foretop (of his ship) with a good telescope; it was then lost in the general glow of the atmosphere. As I observed some two or three lumps that had the appearance of land from the irregularities of their surface, I lowered a boat and went myself to ascertain whether or not there was any appearance of land on nearer view, judging myself to be about 3 miles at this time from the main body; but after pulling for half an hour or more, I found that we were rather more than half a mile from it still, with the ice so thick we could at times scarcely get the boat through it, as both vessels were hull down, and entirely at times hid from us by the ice, the weather also having a black appearance from the northward with a heavy N.E. swell, I deemed it most prudent to return having convinced myself this was nothing more than a solid body of ice. I saw nothing near it except a few penguins, and shortly after getting on board observed a young elephant (a seal) on a point of ice-field we were then passing, and which I went in the boat and shot."
Biscoe's log illustrates amply how difficult it was (and remains) to make a clear observation of the Antarctic coast from a ship. What is now know as the Tange Promontory lies at 67° 27'S 46°45' and was quite probably what Biscoe observed but convinced himself was "nothing more than a solid body of ice."
On February 28, 1831, Biscoe's log reports:
Latitude 65° 57' S, longitude 47°20' 30" E. PM passed to the southward through much broken field-ice. 4 p.m. saw several hummocks to the southward, whih much ressembled the tops of mountains, and at 6 p.m. clearly distinguished it to be, and to considerable extent; to my great satisfaction what we had first seen being the black tops of mountains showing themselves through the snow on the lower land, which, however, appared to be a great distance off, and completely beset with close field-ice and icebergs. The body of the land bearing S.E.
Over the following days, the Tula and the Lively tracked the coast through the ice. The region was named Enderby Land and various mountains and points were named, including Cape Ann (66°10'S 51°22'E). The mountain behind the cape is today known as Mount Biscoe.
On March 5, a major storm separated the Tula and the Lively and the crew began to suffer from injuries and sickness. After returning to Cape Ann the Tula searched for the Lively. By April 6, Biscoe assumed it lost and directed the Tula, north and east to Hobart, Tasmania, where he arrived a month later with the loss of two crew members. In a odd coincident, in Hobart harbor, Biscoe met James Weddell who had a brought a similar exploring approach to the Southern Ocean as commander of a sealing expedition a few years earlier.
In September, as Biscoe was leaving port aboard the Tula, the Lively arrived with its master and two crew, the rest having died. A month later, both ships set out again. After unsuccessful seal hunting stops at the Chatham and Bounty Islands, and another search for reported but nonexistent islands (these called the Nimrod Islands), Biscoe headed for the Shetlands. Steering slightly south in the hopes of finding new land, on February 15, 1832, Biscoe discovered Adelaide Island, with the mountains of the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula in the background. On February 17-18, sailing northwest along the coast, the Biscoe Islands were discovered and as well as the Pitt Islands. Over the next weeks, Biscoe based himself in the South Shetlands and search with little success for seals. However, in further exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula, he lay claim to the region for England and gave the name (Graham Land) to the Antarctic Peninsula (it now applies to the northern portion of the peninsula.)
In late April, the Tula and the Lively arrived in the Falkland Islands to complete the third circumnavigation of the globe at high southern latitudes. The first two with the expeditions were led by James Cook and Thaddeus von Bellinghausen.
In June, the Lively, was wrecked, but the crew was saved, and Biscoe gave up further efforts to find seals and returned, via Brazil to England, where the Tula, arrived on February 8, 1833.
Despite the failure of the expedition in terms of hunting and commerce, the Enderbys seemed pleased with the discoveries made and publicized them widely. Biscoe was honored by the Royal Geographical Society and the Paris Société de Géographie. Biscoe believed that the widely separated pieces of land that he discovered were parts of a single vast continent, which proved to be correct.
Biscoe was offered command of a follow up voyage by the Enderbys later in 1833, but he declined and returned to trading in the West Indies.
In 1836, Biscoe married, and in the next year, settled in Australia. In late 1838, Biscoe commanded a smalling whaling boat on an six month voyage about which little in known. In December 1839, in Hobart, Tasmania, he met with Jules Dumont d'Urville who was commanding a French voyage of exploration in the Southern Ocean. After a few years commanding passenger and cargo vessels plying the region, Biscoe health and financial standing failed. In 1842, a public appeal was made for funds to aid his family's return to England. Biscoe died on the trip in 1843.
Two British Antarctic Survey research vessels have been named RSS John Biscoe in his honor and were in service 1947-55, and 1956-1991.
- From the Journal of a voyage towards the South Pole on board the brig "Tula", under the command of John Biscoe, with the cutter "Lively" in company, J. Murray (editor), The Antarctic Manual for the use of the Expedition of 1901, 1901
- Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997 ISBN: 0393039498.
- Antarctica: Exploring the Extreme: 400 Years of Adventureby Marilyn J. Landis, Chicago Review Press, 2001 ISBN: 1556524285.
- South Pole: A Narrative History of the Exploration of Antarctica by Anthony Brandt, NG Adventure Classics, 2004 ISBN: 0792267974.
- Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
- John Biscoe collection, Hubs Archive, accessed December 30, 2008