Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, a life at sea
Belgium has a coastline of less than 70 kilometres and can hardly boast a maritime tradition. However, this did not stop Adrien de Gerlache braving the waves and making countless discoveries, particularly around the poles. His expedition was also the first to spend an entire winter in the Antarctic. In doing so he became one of the most famous explorers in Belgian history.
Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery was born in Hasselt on 2 August 1866. He studied at the Polytechnic School at the ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles) before moving on to the maritime school in Oostende. After completing his studies de Gerlache began working for the ferry running between Oostende and Dover and later for the fishing patrol. Yet he had little enthusiasm for such employment. He wanted a more adventurous life.
By the end of the 19th century the entire world had been discovered and most of it had already been exploited by humans. The entire world? In fact no! One continent was still putting up a good fight and that was Antarctica. Only a handful of people had ever set foot on this continent, and Antarctica was still very much terra incognita. Adrien de Gerlache was unable to resist such a challenge. He raised the funds, bought the three-masted vessel the Belgica and sailed south with an international crew. This expedition with the Belgica (1897-1899) was to go down in history as the first fully scientific expedition to Antarctica and the first to remain in Antarctica throughout the winter. Also on board were the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the American Frederick Cook, who would later become important figures in the history of the polar regions.
Adrien de Gerlache gave a total of 87 names to his geographic discoveries. Family members, famous people and particularly cities and provinces who had provided the most financial backing were consequently immortalised. Thanks to this, the 30,000 tourists who visit the Antarctic Peninsula every year are reminded of Belgium wherever they go. Among other places, visitors sail through Antwerp Island, Brabant Island, Ghent Island, Liege Island, and through Flanders Bay. The expedition also discovered the only insect which can survive the whole year in Antarctica: the Belgica antarctica (Antarctic Midge).
In 1902 Adrien de Gerlache's book about his adventure called Fifteen Months in the Antarctic, received an award from the Académie française.
Adrien de Gerlache would never return to Antarctica, but, together with Duke Philippe of Orléans, he undertook a few scientific expeditions to Greenland, Spitsbergen and the Frans Jozef archipelago.
In 1914 the First World War broke out and Adrien de Gerlache moved to Christiana in Norway. Not with the intention of escaping the war, but to make the Norwegian population aware of Belgian wartime suffering. His book, Le pays qui ne veut pas mourir (The country that does not wish to die), dedicated to his brother Gaston, who was killed in action on 2 August 1915, became a bestseller in Scandinavia.
One year later Adrien de Gerlache headed off to Sweden to continue his propaganda campaign there. With his exhibitions featuring Belgian artists, among other things, he focused predominantly on reaching the high society.
After the war Adrien de Gerlache became a technical advisor to the government. His work included a plan to train marine officers. In 1934 he became seriously ill (with paratyphoid) and passed away on 4 December. His son Gaston was later to follow in his footsteps, leading a number of expeditions to Antarctica.