The discovery of the Antarctic Continent was a culmination of pioneering efforts by a number of international explorers. Just like the first assent to the summit of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953 was made possible by the research and intelligence gathered by those who went before them, so too was the discovery of the Antarctic Continent. Was this Corkman the 1st person to set foot on the continent of Antarctica?
What is often overlooked however is the fact that the actual discoverer of Antarctica- the first man to navigate a ship to the mainland of the world’s most desolate Continent- was Edward Bransfield, originally from the small village of Ballinacurra in Co. Cork. While there are no existing visuals of Bransfield, two private accounts of his historic voyages were published in 1821. Bransfield’s original charts, which he handed over to the British Admiralty, are today in the possession of the Hydrographic Department in London and are definitive proof the Antarctica was indeed discovered by a Cork man.
Bransfield was born in Ballinacurra in 1785 and was recruited into the Royal Navy at the age of 18. He began as an ordinary seaman on board the Ville de Paris. Displaying outstanding skills he rose speedily through the ranks becoming an able seaman within two years. After a further two years- in 1808- he was appointed midshipman on the Royal Sovereign. By 1812 he had risen to the rank of 2nd master and in the same year he achieved the rank of acting master on board the Goldfinch. Between 1813 and 1814 he was enlisted for military service, taking part in the ‘Blockade of Brest’ during the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1815 – at the age of 30 – Edward Bransfield was appointed to the highest rank available to him, that of master on board the Andromache under the command of Captain WH Shirreff. The role of ‘master’ entails sole responsibility for the navigation of a vessel and it was in this role that Bransfield would make his mark on history. During his first tour of duty as master Bransfield was posted to the Royal Navy’s new Pacific station at Valparaiso, Chile which had just won its independence from Spain.
Before we look at Bransfield’s voyage into Antarctica, lets for a moment take a step back and consider the contribution of two pioneering Antarctic adventurers who went before Bransfield. In 1774 James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica, reaching a latitude of 71 degrees, 10 minutes. Unfortunately he failed to glimpse Antarctica as he was driven back by the ice. Yet it was the furthest south any explorer had ever traveled at the time. Then in 1819 while rounding Cape Horn William Smith- a skipper of an English merchant ship, the Williams, was driven south by violent winds and inadvertently discovered the South Shetland Islands.
When news of Smith’s discovery reached Captain Shirreff in Chile, he dispatched Bransfield to join Smith on the Williams to further navigate the vessel around any possible surrounding islands. Smith was to remain on board as pilot, Bransfield as navigator.
Upon reaching the South Shetland Islands off the North Antarctic Peninsula, Bransfield navigated the Williams to the undiscovered King George Island and took formal possession of it for the Crown. Bransfield decided to continue on in a southwest direction which brought the men to what is now known as Deception Island. Turning south he next discovered and charted Tower Island and Ohlin Island. Continuing on for a further 20 kilometers, the men crossed what is now known as the Bransfield Strait. On January 30th 1820, Bransfield navigated the vessel towards Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Antarctic mainland. Upon reaching the peninsula, the two men went ashore and became the first two men to ever set foot on Antarctica.
Having charted the peninsula, the men followed the edge of the ice sheet in a north-easterly direction, further discovering Elephant Island and Clarence Island.
Edward Bransfield died in 1852 at the age of 67 and was buried alongside his wife in Brighton. The Antarctic surveying vessel RRS Bransfield, as well as Bransfield Island, Bransfield Strait, Bransfield Rocks and Mount Bransfield were all named in honour of the most significant navigator in Antarctic exploration.