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Edward Bransfield and the Discovery of the Antarctic Continent

Zegrahm Contributor|January 24, 2020|Blog Post

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A Tribute To Edward Bransfield and the Discovery of the Antarctic Continent 

Explorers today pride themselves on making their own trails, discovering hidden gems, and venturing off the beaten path. We are inspired by the explorers of old, those who sought to chart and map the mysteries of the world. Explorers like Irish ship’s master Edward Bransfield, whose legendary expedition discovered and first charted the mainland of Antarctica in 1820.

With January 2020 marking the 200th anniversary of this voyage of discovery, the anniversary is being celebrated with the placement of a monument in Ballinacurra, Cork, the birthplace of this intrepid explorer. One of Zegrahm Expeditions’ much-loved ornithologists, Jim Wilson, has been instrumental in the recognition of this accomplishment. Below, he shares more about Bransfield’s story, and about the upcoming monument.

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Into the Unknown

Born in a small fishing village called Ballinacurra on the southern coast of Ireland in 1785, Edward Bransfield was pressed into the services of the British Navy at age 18, and from there rose through the ranks, becoming a decorated ship’s master and navigator. After surviving the Napoleonic wars, he was given his first command and told to investigate reports of a new land south of Cape Horn. This ‘voyage of discovery towards the South Pole’ sent him into the unknown with four officers and 25 crew members on the 81-foot-long brig Williams. They were sailing off the edge of the known world, where nothing existed on any map of the day.

After confirming merchant captain William Smith’s discovery of the now-called South Shetland Islands, Bransfield headed further south, and, on January 30, 1820, his expedition became the first to see and subsequently chart part of the Antarctic mainland. He returned to Valparaiso on April 16, 1820 after successfully completing the expedition with no loss of life and charting over 500 miles of Antarctic shoreline.

A Significant but Controversial Journey

The Antarctic expedition of Edward Bransfield was the first to see and chart any part of the Antarctic mainland, ultimately paving the way for future Antarctic explorers, including great explorers of the time such as James Weddell, Dumont d’Urville, and James Clarke Ross, all of whom acknowledged the great work that Bransfield had done in paving the way for them to travel the waters in and around the Antarctic Peninsula. It was on this foundation that the exploits of people like Amundsen, Shackleton, and Scott and were built.

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We know from a first-hand account of the expedition that they were aware of the enormity of their discovery and on that day, they talked about the possibility of having discovered the long-contested southern continent, often referred to in old maps as Terra Australis Incognita.

His legacy remains, though there has been debate about who saw the Antarctic mainland first, as most histories to this point have great Russian/Estonian explorer von Bellingshausen sighting the shore first, just two days ahead of Bransfield. Recent analysis of all the materials available have disproven this, showing that von Bellingshausen’s expedition saw the mainland a month after Bransfield.

A Monumental Celebration

 On January, 2020, a unique memorial dedicated to Edward Bransfield’s remarkable voyage will be unveiled in his birthplace of Ballinacurra, Ireland. As there is no known image of the mysterious ship’s master, no statue of his likeness was able to be produced. Local sculptor Matthew Thompson stepped up to the challenge of a monument for a faceless man, creating a monument based around the old stone navigation beacons that can be found at the entrances of some harbors, a nod to Bransfield’s navigation prowess. In addition to navigation symbols, a gentoo penguin can be found on the front of the monument, and a carving of the brig Williams on the back.

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The monument is at the center of six sections of limestone, carrying the names of other Irish Antarctic explorers around its edge—Ernest Shackleton, Francis Crozier, Tom Crean, Patrick Keohane, the McCarthy Brothers, and Robert Forde. The monument sits at the center of a map of Antarctica to emphasize that Edward Bransfield was at the very center of Antarctic exploration and the first Irish Antarctic explorer.

A Zegrahm Inspiration

While working on a Zegrahm Expeditions voyage, Jim Wilson, a professional ornithologist, was inspired to work towards the building of this monument after learning of places on the Antarctic Peninsula named after an Irishman he had never heard of. While doing some research, he made contact with Eugene Furlong, who was trying to raise the profile of Edward Bransfield and together they set up a project called Remembering Edward Bransfield. Their small committee has worked tirelessly for the last three years to get this monument erected in 2020, the year of the bicentenary of his historic expedition.

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He has further inspired other Zegrahm explorers with the tale of this voyage, including Gael Mueller, who, after hearing the story aboard the Island Sky, was compelled to design and register an Edward Bransfield Commemorative Tartan inspired by the colors of the Antarctic ice, clouds, ocean, rocks, penguins, and algae. It is Jim’s hope that the monument and the sharing of Bransfield’s expedition will continue to inspire the next generation of explorers, while giving the voyage the place it deserves as a recognized part of Antarctic history.

Book Your Antarctic Adventure With Zegrahm

We offer several excursions to this frosty, far-away land with our Antarctica cruises. Upon booking, one of our Expedition Advisors would be happy to answer any questions you might have about what to wear in Antarctica.

For more cruise destinations you can check out our small ship cruise expeditions here.