NOBODY on board the sturdy little ship Williams that day in January, 1820, could possibly have realised the historic significance of what was unfolding before their eyes.
The little knot of weather-beaten sailors, struggling to keep upright in the squally seas, looked on in awe as the clouds and mists parted to reveal towering mountains, sprawling glaciers and endless fields of ice.
Although not fully appreciated by the onlookers, they were thought to be the first humans to ever set eyes upon the mainland of the Antarctic continent.
It was a discovery that would open the epic era of Antarctic exploration, which over the next 100 years created Irish legends like Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton, and began the race to the South Pole featuring Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott.
And the person at the very heart of this historic discovery on the Williams 200 years ago was its proficient navigator Edward Bransfield, from Cork.
A 34-year-old Ship’s Master in the Royal Navy at the time, he should be famous, lauded for his discovery, which ended centuries of speculation dating back to the Ancient Greeks. Since their time, scholars had believed land existed somewhere in the cold south, but no-one had ever seen it with their own eyes. Bransfield answered the question.
Sadly, fame eluded him. Indeed, so obscure is he that there are no photographs or paintings of him.
Only now, two centuries after the historic voyage, is he finally receiving proper recognition.
The most tangible example of this was the unveiling of a special memorial to Bransfield in his birthplace of Ballinacurra, near Midleton, on the last Saturday in January, 2020, to mark the 200th anniversary of his discovery.
The monument was made possible by local enthusiasts, led by Antarctic guide Jim Wilson, of Cobh, who raised funds from numerous sources, including Cork City Council, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, Antarctic tour specialists and Irish Distillers, owners of Jameson of Midleton.
The monument, made by Cork sculptor Matt Thompson from five tonnes of local limestone, is the first of Bransfield anywhere in the world, and Wilson hopes it will put him in his rightful place as the man who wrote the first chapter of Antarctic discovery.
Bransfield’s history is far from clear. Born in Ballinacurra around 1785, he appears to have enjoyed a reasonable education. He probably worked on his father’s fishing vessel in the waters off the coast of Cork.
In 1803, a seminal moment in his life occurred, when 18-year-old Bransfield was snatched by brutal Royal Navy press-gangs, who raided coastal towns regularly in search of able-bodied men to fight in the bloody war with Napoleon’s fleets. Bransfield, with his probable knowledge of the sea, was a good catch.
Although 90,000 sailors were killed in that war, Bransfield survived and rose through the naval ranks. By 1812 he was a Ship’s Master, with the key responsibility for navigation.
He was later awarded a special medal for coolness under fire during the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816 — an attempt by Britain and the Netherlands to end slavery there.
Fate intervened in Bransfield’s life in 1819 when he was stationed in the port of Valparaiso in Chile. Out of the blue, the merchant vessel Williams arrived with dramatic news of finding unmapped islands while sailing around Cape Horn from Buenos Aires to Valparaíso.
In line with protocol, Captain William Smith of the Williams reported the discovery to the naval authorities.
Initially, the Navy was not interested in the discovery. On a further voyage around the Horn, Smith made a brief landing on an island and finally persuaded the Navy to act. Bransfield was given command of the small 216-ton Williams and ordered to sail south to investigate.
Sailing alone, without a support vessel, he left Valparaíso in December, 1819, and duly located Smith’s unmapped islands, which sit about 500 miles south of Cape Horn and were later named the South Shetland Islands.
Buoyed by his discovery, an inquisitive Bransfield turned south into the unexplored icy seas that lay between the South Shetlands and the coast of Antarctica. The 60-mile stretch of water is today called the Bransfield Strait and carries tourists on holidays of a lifetime to the frozen grandeur of Antarctica.
On January 30, 1820, the haze and clouds lifted to reveal a stunning panorama of mountains, glaciers and ice. Bransfield had found the Antarctic Peninsula, which he named Trinity Land. A peak, which rises to 2,500ft, was later named Mount Bransfield.
Midshipman Charles Poynter, who kept a diary of the voyage, recalled of the historic moment: “We were unexpectedly astonished by the discovery of land.”
It was the moment which changed our understanding of world geography, confirming the existence of a new continent.
Unfortunately, the rest of Bransfield’s life is shrouded in mystery and controversy, which helps explain why he has drifted to the margins of history.
The controversy arose because of a dispute over who actually first saw Antarctica.
A Russian expedition under the experienced naval commander, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, was exploring Antarctica at the same time and made several important sightings, but was unable to distinguish between land and icebergs. Bellingshausen never claimed to have seen land and in interviews at the time firmly declared: “There is no southern continent.”
In line with this, the author, Rip Bulkeley, recently made an exhaustive study of the Russian expedition and concluded: “Bellingshausen was not the first commander to see the Antarctic mainland.”
Despite their adventures, the voyages of both Bransfield and Bellingshausen failed to generate interest in Europe and further modern research into both expeditions has been hampered by the loss of important records.
Bransfield requested a second voyage to confirm his discovery, but the authorities rejected the idea. Perhaps disillusioned, he left the Navy in the 1820s and went back to sea as a merchant mariner. He gravitated towards England in later life and married three times. Bransfield retired to Brighton, on England’s south coast, in the 1840s and died a forgotten man in October, 1852, aged 67. He is buried in Brighton.
However, the Ballinacurra monument will finally allow him to come in from the cold.
Michael Smith is author of An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean and Great Endeavour — Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers. He is an authority on Polar history. See www.rememberingedwardbransfield.ie for more.