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Edward Bransfield (1785–1852) was a master of the British Royal Navy and arguably the discoverer of the continent of Antarctica.

Contents

Early life

Edward Bransfield was born in Ballinacurra, County Cork, Ireland, in c.1785. Very little is known about his early life; we do not even know what he looked like. In 1803, when he was just eighteen years old, he was impressed into the Royal Navy.

He began as an ordinary seaman on the 1st rate ship of the line (110 guns) Ville de Paris, and was rated as an able seaman in 1805. He was appointed to the 1st rate ship of the line (110 guns) Royal Sovereign (which had taken part in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805) in 1806 as an able seaman, then 2nd master's mate in 1808, midshipman in 1808, clerk in 1809 and midshipman again in 1811. By 1812 he had achieved the rank of second master, and in the same year he was made acting master on the Goldfinch (brig-sloop of the Cherokee class with 10 guns and commanded by The Rt Hon Sir William Cornwallis).

Between the years 1814 and 1816 he served briefly, as master on many 5th rate ships and, on 21 February 1816, was appointed master of the ship Severn a 4th rate with 50 guns, where he participated in the Bombardment of Algiers.

During September 1817, he was appointed master of the Andromache under the command of Captain W H Shirreff. It was during this tour of duty that he was posted to the Royal Navy's new Pacific Squadron off Valparaíso in Chile.

Chilean republicans were fighting for independence from Spain, but Valparaíso had been neglected during the colonial period and was a mean, uninviting place. Nevertheless, if it had not been for this commission, Bransfield would never have become famous.

Antarctica

During 1773 James Cook sailed beyond the Antarctic Circle—noting with pride in his journal that he was "undoubtedly the first that ever crossed that line.". The next year, he circumnavigated Antarctica completely and reached a latitude of 71° 10', before being driven back by the ice. It was the furthest south anyone had ever gone.

Although he failed to see Antarctica, Cook dispelled once and for all the fanciful notion of a fertile, populous continent surrounding the pole. Not surprisingly, the British Admiralty lost interest in the Antarctic and turned its attention instead to the ongoing search for the Northwest Passage. Almost half a century passed before anyone else travelled as far south as Cook.

Then during 1819 while rounding Cape Horn, William Smith, the owner and skipper of an English merchant ship, the Williams, was driven south by adverse winds and discovered what came to be known as the South Shetland Islands. When news of his discovery reached Valparaíso, Captain Shirreff decided that the matter warranted further investigation. The Williams was chartered and Shirreff appointed Bransfield, two midshipmen and the surgeon from the ship HMS Slaney, who were dispatched to survey the newly discovered islands. Smith remained aboard, acting as Bransfield's pilot.

After a brief and uneventful voyage into the Southern Ocean, Bransfield and Smith reached the South Shetland Islands. Bransfield landed on King George Island and took formal possession on behalf of King George III (who had died the day before on January 29, 1820), before proceeding in a south-westerly direction past Deception Island not investigating or charting it. Turning south, he crossed what is now known as the Bransfield Strait (named for him by James Weddell in 1822), and on January 30, 1820 sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland. "Such was the discovery of Antarctica," writes the English writer Roland Huntford. Unknown to Bransfield, two days earlier, January 28, 1820, the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen logged the sighting of an icy shoreline at a point that is now known to have been East Antarctica. Based on this sighting, a claim has been made on behalf of Bellingshausen that he should be credited with the discovery of the continent. However, Bellingshausen's journal (2 volumes translated by Frank Debenham OBE MA, Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge) records the sighting of "ice mountains" (suggesting icebergs) and did not mention that it may be land. He did not produce any charts of land and Bransfield's chart (reproduced by the Admiralty's Hydrographic Department in 1822) still remains the first recorded chart produced.

Bransfield made a note in his log of two "high mountains, covered with snow", one of which was subsequently named Mount Bransfield, by Dumont D'Urville, in his honour. Unlike Bellingshausen, Bransfield discovered unambiguous geological formations that could not be confused with pack ice.

Having charted a segment of the Trinity Peninsula, Bransfield then followed the edge of the icesheet in a north-easterly direction and discovered various points on Elephant Island and Clarence Island, which he also formally claimed for the British Crown. He did not sail around Elephant Island and did not name it (it is named for elephant seals), although he charted Clarence Island completely.

When Bransfield arrived finally back in Valparaíso he gave his charts and journal to Captain Shirreff who delivered them to the Admiralty. The original charts are still in the possession of the Hydrographic department in Taunton, Somerset, but Bransfield's journal has been lost. The Admiralty, it seems, was still more interested in the search for the Northwest Passage. However, two private accounts of Bransfield's historic voyage were published during 1821.

During recent years the journal of one of the midshipmen, Charles Poynter, was discovered in New Zealand and an account has been published by the Hakluyt Society, edited by Richard Campbell, RN.

Later life

The remainder of Edward Bransfield's life was obscure. He died in 1852 in his sixty-seventh year and was buried in Brighton, England. His wife survived him and was buried in the same grave during 1863.

During 2000 the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in his honour, but as no likeness of the discoverer of Antarctica could be found, the stamp depicted instead RRS Bransfield, an Antarctic surveying vessel named after him. In 1999 Edward Bransfield's grave, discovered in a deteriorated state in a Brighton churchyard, was renovated (funded by charitable donations) by Sheila Bransfield, who aspires to be Edward Bransfield's official biographer. The event was marked by a ceremony attended by numerous dignitaries.

See also

References

  • Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (April 1821)
  • London Literary Gazette (November 1821)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th edition, 1962)
  • Geographical Journal (October 1939)
  • Mariner's Mirror (July 1941)
  • Huntford, Roland (1985). The Last Place on Earth. Pan Books Ltd., London. ISBN 0-330-28816-4.  
  • "The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands 1819-1820: The Journal of Midshipman C W Poynter" (Hakluyt Society, London 2000) R J Campbell (Editor)
  • "The Antarctic Problem: An Historical and Political Study" (George Allen & Unwin, London 1951), E W Hunter Christie.
  • "Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica 1699-1839" (W W Norton Co Ltd, London, 1977), Alan Gurney.
  • "Antarctica Observed - Who Discovered the Antarctic Continent?" (Caedmon of Whitby, North Yorkshire, 1982) A G E Jones

"The voyage of captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic seas 1819-1821". Translated from the Russian, edited by Frank Debenham, OBE MA, Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, MCMXLV. London, printed for the Hakluyt Society (W Lewis, University Press, Cambridge)

  • "The Bombardment of Algiers, 1816" from 'History Today' January 1978, Derek Severn. Also "Gunfire in Barbary - Admiral Lord Exmouth's Battle with the Corsairs of Algiers in 1816" by Roger Perkins and Captain K J Douglas-Morris RN (Kenneth Mason, Homewell, Havant, Hampshire, 1982)
  • "The Role of Edward Bransfield in the Discovery of Antarctica", Greenwich Maritime Institute, (Dissertation submitted towards the MA in Maritime History, 2002), Sheila Bransfield MA
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