The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage

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IN THE YEARS 1839—1843,



Victoria Barrier and Land.jpg

Victoria Barrier and Land. Lat. 78° S.Mount Erebus (active Volcano), and Mount Terror.

Published under the Authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.


Chart of the South Circumpolar Regions


Her Most Gracious Majesty,
















Royal Botanic Gardens,
Kew, May 1, 1843.




IN the beginning of the year 1839, the British Government having determined on fitting out an Expedition, for the purpose of investigating the phenomena of Terrestrial Magnetism in various remote countries, and for prosecuting Maritime Geographical Discovery in the high southern latitudes, H.M. Ships Erebus and Terror, commissioned by Captain Sir James Clark Ross, sailed from Chatham on the 29th of September 1839. In addition to carrying out the above-mentioned leading views, it was enjoined to the officers, that they should use every exertion to collect the various objects of Natural History which the many heretofore unexplored countries about to be visited would afford.

On the outward voyage we touched at most of the Atlantic Islands, making a longer stay at some of them than is usual, on account of the nature of the observations that were instituted. At Madeira, which was the first visited, we called in the middle of October, and remained eleven days; and then made Teneriffe and the Cape de Verds, whence we sailed for and landed upon St. Paul's Rocks,[1] under the Line, in long. 29° W. St. Helena was the next destination, and the course which it was found necessary to follow took us to the Island of Trinidad off the Brazilian coast, lat. 20° S.

After spending a week at St. Helena, the vessels sailed for the Cape of Good Hope, arriving there on the 4th of April 1840. The Cape may be regarded as the starting-point, whence the real object of the voyage, namely that which included South Polar Discovery, would commence. On the 6th of April 1840 we quitted Simon's Bay, and first entered a cold and inhospitable latitude (42° S.) on the 17th of the same month; then, only four days after, holding a westward course, we passed to the south of Marion's Island, formed of fiat terraces of black volcanic rock and cone-shaped mountains, often of a reddish tinge, and towering to a considerable height. Here occurred the first botanical phenomenon, the Macrocystis pyrifera (a remarkable gigantic seaweed), being exceedingly abundant. The ships were hove to between Marion's and Prince Edward's Islands, with the view to going ashore the following day; but during the night a heavy gale arose which drove them far to the westward, thus disappointing the hopes which had been formed of collecting objects of natural history on an island never previously explored by any scientific individual.

On the 28th, after a succession of storms, the Crozet Islands were gained: this group lies far to the westward of the position that had been assigned to it, namely in lat. 47½° S. and long. 46–48° E.; and here the same disappointment awaited us, for after being blown off, and again on the 1st of May beating up to Possession, the most eastern of the cluster, the threatening appearance of the weather forbade any attempt to land. The Crozet Islands are all volcanic, and of the wildest and most rocky aspect; the harbours are very few, and some of the islands are entirely inaccessible. The mountains rise in peaks and cones to an elevation of 4000–5000 feet, exhibiting patches of perpetual snow on the summits, while dense fogs frequently envelope their bases, borne from the sea, to such an elevation, that the highest points alone are visible. To all appearance the vegetation is equally scanty and stunted as that which Kerguelen's Island afterwards afforded, and the questions which were put to a party of miserable sealers who came off to the ship, elicited no satisfactory information as to whether the valuable "Cabbage" of the latter island also inhabits the Crozet group. Scudding before heavy westerly gales, on the 6th of May a remarkable conical rock, called Bligh's Cap, was descried; it lies off the north-west extremity of Kerguelen's Island; but thick weather prevented Sir James Ross from making the land, from which the ships were again driven to a distance of 150 miles and obliged to beat back, finally casting anchor in Christmas Harbour, on the 12th of May 1840.

At Kerguelen's Island, all the plants that had been originally detected by the illustrious Cook were gathered during the two and a half winter months that the "Erebus and Terror" staid there, together with many other species, a remarkable proof of the uniformity of the climate, and the comparative mildness of the winter season. The ships left Kerguelen's Island on the 20th of July, and arrived in the river Derwent, Van Diemen's Island, on the 16th of August 1840.

On the 12th of November 1840, we quitted Hobarton for our first voyage to the South Pole, during which the only places visited which yielded many plants were Lord Auckland's Islands, lat. 50½° S., long. 166° E., where we arrived after a week's sail from the last-mentioned coast, and staid there during the spring months of that latitude, and Campbell's Island, in lat. 52½° S., long. 169° E. Quitting that island again on the 17th of December, the ships finally sailed for an entirely unexplored region of discovery. The Macrocystis and D'Urvillæa were found in large vegetating floating patches, nearly as far south as any open water remained free of bergs, in lat. 61° S. The vessels entered the pack-ice in lat. 68° S., long. 175°.

During this voyage the vast extent of continent, since called "Victoria Land," was discovered,[2] together with the active volcano "Mount Erebus," the extinct one "Mount Terror," and that icy barrier, which, running east and west, in the parallel of 78° S., prevents all farther progress towards the pole.[3] Two small islets were landed upon: one in lat. 71° 49' S., long. 170° 52' E.; the other, Franklin Island, in lat. 76° S. and long. 168° 59' E.; but neither of these spots presented the slightest trace of vegetation. On the return voyage the Macrocystis again occurred, floating as usual in immense masses, in lat. 51° 10' S., and long. 137° E.

The expedition returned to Hobarton, Van Diemen's Island, late in the autumn (of that latitude), April 7th, 1841; on the 7th of July again started from Van Diemen's Island, and after a short visit to Sydney, cast anchor in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, August 18th, 1841, where we remained three months. This time was spent in collecting materials for a Flora of New Zealand, in which object we received great assistance from Mr. Colenso and many other gentlemen, by means of whose zealous cooperation our collections were rendered extremely valuable.

The second exploring voyage was commenced on the 15th of November 1841. It had been Captain Ross's intention to land on Chatham Island, in lat. 44° S. and 176° W., but the prevalence for several days of the densest fogs frustrated all attempts to sight the land. This was much regretted, for few[4] of the plants of that interesting group are known to botanists. After tracing the Macrocystis into the 57th parallel, the ships entered an ice-pack of immense magnitude on the 18th of December, in lat. 62° S. Here we were entangled till Feb. 2nd, 1842 (the midsummer of those cheerless regions), making no more progress during that time than from the latitude just mentioned to 68°, where we emerged into comparatively open water to the southward of a large body of the pack, which however trended to the westward. At this time the season was far advanced, and as, in the preceding year, the retreat had been commenced, through absolute necessity, on the 9th of February, so Captain Ross did not think proper now to re-enter the pack-ice, but proceeded along its edge to the westward, advancing so far as 187° W., and then to the southward and eastward. On the 20th of February a gale came on, which, though in open water, was sufficiently trying; the wind was very high, and the spray which beat over the ships became frozen ere it reached the deck, forming every object into a mass of ice; the coils of rope were covered by an icy incrustation several inches thick, and most of the running-gear about the bowsprits was carried away by the weight of ice formed on it.

On the 23rd of February the expedition came in view of the grand Victoria Barrier: the day being fine, the voyagers approached within a mile and a half of the Barrier, finally reaching 78° 10' S. lat. in the long. 162° W., having made six miles farther than in the preceding year, the highest latitude hitherto attained. Under all circumstances, this was more than had been expected; for after the long detention, the rapidly closing season rendered any progress very difficult; but it was a great object to verify the magnetic and other observations, and to ascertain still more positively the position of the pole. Unable to proceed eastward, the retreat was commenced, tracing the pack edge. Seaweed was again met with on reaching the parallel of 64°, and occasionally seen when running down the parallel of 60°, from 170° W. to 80° W., and thence in great abundance to the Falkland Islands, where the ships anchored in Berkeley Sound on the 6th of April 1842, not having seen land for 138 days, since leaving New Zealand.

A prolonged stay in the Falklands, though the season was winter (April to the beginning of September), afforded ample opportunities for thoroughly investigating the Flora of that interesting and now highly important group, which, though it had been partially examined by Admiral D'Urville, and previously by the officers of that unfortunate ship, the "Uranie," under the command of Captain Freycinet, still afforded considerable novelty.

On the 6th of September, the early spring of the southern latitudes, the "Erebus and Terror," with a portion of the officers, sailed from Berkeley Sound for the neighbourhood of Cape Horn, and arrived there, after having been driven far out of their course by the equinoctial gales, on the 21st, casting anchor in St. Martin's Cove, Hermit Island, lat. 56°, within a few miles of the far-famed Cape Horn, which is immediately opposite the mouth of the Cove. This is the most southerly spot on the globe which possesses anything above a herbaceous vegetation. Here, in the sheltered bays, the two kinds of Antarctic Beech, the Evergreen and Deciduous, form a dense, though small forest, and ascend, in a stunted form, to an elevation of 1000 feet on the hills. Many of the plants gathered during Cook's first voyage, by Sir Joseph Banks and Solander, and by Forster during his second, as also those which Mr. Menzies had detected, when accompanying Vancouver's expedition, and which have not been hitherto published, were found again; and when the ships returned to the Falklands in November, Captain Ross transported many hundreds of young Beech-trees and caused them to be planted there, in hopes that the productions of so near a country might be found to succeed on these treeless islands. Some were also sent home and have since been distributed in England, from the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew.

The third cruise to the South Polar Regions was commenced on the morning of the 17th of December 1842, when the expedition sailed from Berkeley Sound. An opportunity was afforded again of tracing the southern limit of Seaweeds. The Macrocystis was lost in lat. 55° S., long. 57° W.; but on attaining lat. 63°, long. 54°, another species appeared which had been originally discovered by Webster during the stay of Captain Forster's ship, the "Chanticleer," in Deception Island, one of the South Shetland group, and again found by the expedition of Admiral D'Urville, and has since been published under the name of Scytothalia Jacquinotii. On the 28th land was made, a portion of Palmer's Land, to which the name of "Terre Louis Philippe" has since been given by D'Urville. The ships were already in the pack-ice, through which we penetrated, tracing the land to 64°, and seeing a small volcanic island, lying a few miles off the coast (Cockburn's Island), we landed upon it. The vegetable productions only amounted to twenty Cryptogamic species, three of them Seaweeds. Unable, after a series of fruitless efforts, to penetrate farther than 65°, and after having been more or less entangled in the ice for thirty-seven days, Sir James Ross finally bore up, and when, with great difficulty, the ships had been extricated from the pack-ice, we commenced tracing its edge to the eastward. A succession of easterly gales rendered the progress in the advancing season tedious, most uncomfortable, and hazardous. At last however, on the 22nd of February 1843, the pack was lost sight of, trending to the south-west. On the 28th the Antarctic Circle was recrossed, and in spite of the rapidly shortening days, dark nights, and continual bad weather (for throughout the month of February, corresponding to an English August, only one day elapsed without snow), the Commander persevered in holding a southerly course. On Sunday the 5th of March, the weather being very thick, with snow-squalls, white petrels were seen, a bird whose appearance affords a sure indication of the proximity of pack-ice, and on the afternoon of the same day a heavy pack was descried, only a few yards ahead, with a terrific surf beating on it. The ice here was such as not to allow of being "taken" (or entered), even under the most favourable circumstances, and the ships were accordingly put about in lat. 71° 30' S., long. 15° W.

The thickness of the weather made it impossible to ascertain the course and position of the pack, and the Northward Voyage was commenced under violent N.E. equinoctial gales. Beating to the northward, the ice occurred on both tacks, and the vessels were found to be in a bight of the pack, with the ocean loaded with bergs, and while the continued snow-squalls prevented the possibility of seeing any object ahead, the heavy seas and snow-laden state of the rigging rendered all human exertions ineffectual. From that date till the 11th of March, matters remained much the same, the ships beating to the northward with as much press of sail as could be exposed, trusting to Providence alone for guidance among the bergs. On the 19th the position assigned to Bouvet's or Circumcision Island was gained, but the weather rendered all endeavours, for three days, to discover land in this place of no avail. Both ships had a narrow escape of running foul of an iceberg, over which the sea was breaking, eighty feet high. The "Erebus," passing to windward, struck one of the floating masses from it; and the "Terror," to windward of her consort, did not discover the danger till almost too late, when bearing up, she ran along the edge of the berg in the wash of the surf. On the 24th D'Urvillæa and Macrocystis were seen in lat. 51° S., and the last berg on March 25th, in lat. 47° S., the ships finally gaining the Cape of Good Hope on the 4th of April 1843, within two days of three years after they had first quitted that port for the high southern latitudes.

Respecting the climate of the various regions visited by the expedition, and especially that which prevails within the Antarctic Circle, little need here be said; except that the vast proportion which water bears to land, tends to render the temperature uniform throughout the year, and the farther south is the position, the more equable does the climate seem to be. No analogy can prove more incorrect than that which compares the similar degrees of latitude in the north with those of the south. The most casual inspection of the map suffices to show the immense proportion of sea to land in the southern hemisphere, the mass of the continents terminating to the north of lat. 40° S., America alone dwindling away to the fifty-sixth degree. The scattered islands discovered to the south of this are therefore removed from the influence of any tracts which enjoy a better or continental climate. The power of the sun is seldom felt, and unless in the immediate neighbourhood of land, and accompanied by a comparatively dry land-wind, that luminary only draws up such mists and fogs as intercept its rays. After entering the pack-ice between 55° and 65°, the thermometer seldom, during any part of the summer day, rises above 32° or falls below 20°; and while the southerly winds bring snow, the northerly ones transport an atmosphere laden with moisture, which, becoming at once condensed, covers the face of the ocean with white fogs of the densest description.

All islands and lands to the southward of 45° partake more or less of this inhospitable climate, which, though eminently unfavourable to a varied growth of plants, still, from its equable nature, causes a degree of luxuriance to pervade all the vegetable kingdom, such as is never seen in climates where the vegetable functions are suspended for a large portion of the year. The remoteness of these islands from any continent, together with their inaccessibility, preclude the idea of their being tenanted, even in a single instance, by plants that have migrated from other countries, and still more distinctly do they forbid the possibility of man having been an active agent in the dissemination of them. On the contrary, the remarkable fact that some of the most peculiar productions are confined to the narrowest limits, is a strong argument in favour of a general distribution of vegetable life over separate spots on the globe. Hence it will appear, that islands so situated furnish the best materials for a rigid comparison of the effects of geographical position and the various meteorological phenomena on vegetation, and for acquiring a knowledge of the great laws according to which plants are distributed over the face of the globe. These subjects are however foreign to the present sketch, the author of which hopes, ere long, to have an opportunity of dwelling upon them at large and in a different form.

Those persons who have spent a series of years on the ocean, in pursuit of a favourite science, know how little can be effected by the unaided efforts of one individual, and where much is accomplished, how large is the debt of obligation incurred, not only to the facilities afforded by shipmates, but to the accommodating disposition of those with whom he comes in daily contact, and with whom he literally shares one cabin and one table. The author may here be allowed to say, that no man can be more deeply sensible than he is of the rare privilege he enjoyed, in having messmates who were ever ready to sacrifice their own convenience for his accommodation. Most especially does he feel it incumbent on him here to return his thanks to the commanding Officer of the expedition (as is his first duty) for the opportunity afforded of accompanying him, for the kindness always shown during this the most important and interesting scientific voyage that has been accomplished since the days of Cook, and for the generous manner in which that officer's private cabin and library were unreservedly placed at his disposal during the whole time the expedition was afloat. Attached as Sir James Clark Ross has ever been to the various branches of Natural History, he took a pleasure in promoting the interests of the collections at all times, and himself gathered many of the plants here described.

There were few of the officers of either ship who did not contribute something to the collection of plants; but the botanist feels it peculiarly imperative on him here to enumerate and return his especial thanks to Mr. Lyall, Lieut. Smith, and Mr. Davis. Mr. Lyall indeed, as appointed to take charge of the botanical collections on board the "Terror," formed a most important herbarium, from which great assistance has been derived, amounting to no less than 1500 species.


  1. For an admirable description of these remarkable rocks, distant 350 miles from the nearest land (the Island of Fernando Noronha), see Mr. Darwin's Journal, p. 8.
  2. Vide Chart.
  3. Vide Vignette.
  4. These few were collected by Dr. Dieffenbach, and are now deposited in the collection of Sir W. J. Hooker.