First sightings of the mainland of Antarctica: towards a critical analysis

The existence of land in the vicinity of the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula was first rumored in the early seventeenth century. However, since no reliable documentary evidence for that event has survived, the discovery of Antarctica is generally assigned to the nineteenth century. On 19 February 1819 William Smith, commander and part-owner of the English merchant brig Williams, sighted the South Shetland Islands, which by modern reckoning form part of the Antarctic continent. But when and where did the first sighting (“discovery”) of the mainland of Antarctica occur? According to one school of thought, that event fell on 16 (28) January 1820, when the Russian Antarctic Expedition, commanded by F. F. Bellingshausen, sighted an ice shelf on the coast of the mainland. According to others, the first sighting occurred on 30 January 1820, when a British expedition, commanded by E. Bransfield, discovered Trinity Land, which they believed to form part of the southern continent. (Much later, further exploration confirmed their hypothesis by showing that Trinity Land forms the northern extremity of the Antarctic Peninsula.) This article sets out to survey the available sources and to determine whether the Bellingshausen expedition were in fact the first people to set eyes on the mainland (at least in the nineteenth century – see above) or whether that achievement belongs, after all, to British seamen.

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Recommended bibliographic description

, First sightings of the mainland of Antarctica: towards a critical analysis, Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki [Studies in History of Science and Technology], , p.  41–56

    © Studies in the History of Science and Technology: Quarterly scientific journal of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2015)
    ISSN 0205-9606. Индекс 70143