27 January: On this day in history
What events happened on 27 January in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…
27 January 1820: Explorers catch sight of Antarctica for the first time
A Russian expedition ventures far into the frozen south
In January 1820, some eight months after it had sailed from the naval base at Kronstadt, the first Russian Antarctic expedition approached its goal. Its commander, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, a Baltic German nobleman, was an experienced sailor, having served in the first Russian voyage around the earth from 1803–06. But this was a mission unlike any other, sailing in desperately cold and dangerous conditions to find Antarctica. People had long known that a southern pole, surrounded by ice, must exist. But could they get there?
Von Bellingshausen commanded the first ship, the Vostok, while his second-in-command, Mikhail Lazarev, took charge of the Mirny. For safety, the two commanders had pledged never to lose sight of one another’s vessels: a resolution to which they stuck throughout the voyage.
By November, the two ships were in Australia, where they stopped for repairs before heading south-east. On and on they sailed, the weather ever colder, the mist ever thicker, a “long monotonous voyage, amidst unceasing dangers from ice, snow, rain, sleet and fog”, as von Bellingshausen put it. On 21 January, he spotted land, the first ever seen south of the Antarctic Circle: an island, as it turned out, which he named after Peter the Great. To celebrate, he handed out glasses of punch to his men, who gave three cheers. But still they had not seen the great southern continent itself.
For the next few days, von Bellingshausen and Lazarev picked their way carefully along the edge of a great ice sheet, conscious that any mistake could be fatal.
Then, on 27 January, the fog lifted. It was, von Bellingshausen remembered, the “most beautiful day”, icily cold but with clear skies and bright sunshine. And then he saw it: a headland away to the north, which “ended in a high mountain which was separated by an isthmus from another mountain chain extending to the south-west”. This was no little island; this, he told his men triumphantly, was Antarctica itself. He called it Alexander I Land, after the tsar he served.