The Race to the White Continent: Voyages to the Antarctic

Alan Gurney, Author
Alan Gurney, Author W. W. Norton & Company $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-05004-2
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-393-32321-4
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Though much less well known than the famous Antarctic expeditions of Amundsen and Shackleton, the three pathbreaking national expeditionsDAmerican, French and BritishDthat explored the southern ice pack between 1837 and 1842 are equally memorable, albeit not cast in quite so heroic a mold. Gurney's (Below the Convergence) spellbinding chronicle of these three exploratory voyages, in which the sponsoring countries vied for supremacy in commerce, geopolitics and science, combines swashbuckling scholarship and marvelous historical adventure. The U.S. expedition, a maelstrom of clashing egos, lobbying and incompetence, was plagued by desertions of seamen who got drunk at every opportunity. The American squadron's four-year odyssey, with side trips ranging from Tahiti to Australia, included a surveying stopover in Fiji, where the ruthless U.S. admiral Charles Wilkes burned two villages to the ground, killing 100 Fijians, in retaliation for the natives' killing of two officers. James Ross, who led the British expedition, tried in vain to plant the Union JackDthe very same flag he had raised over the north magnetic poleDover the south magnetic pole. Scurvy and dysentery decimated the crew of the French expedition, led by aloof, brusque Dumont d'Urville, who suffered from severe gout. Little fanfare attended the return of the expeditions, even though they added immensely to the knowledge of Antarctica, building on Capt. James Cook's circumnavigation of the continent in 1775. Told with sparkling wit and a keen eye for telling detail, Gurney's superb narrative is a great drama of passionate men battling each other and the elements. Illustrated. (Sept.)
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