Edward Bransfield

From Academic Kids

Edward Bransfield (1785 - 1852) was a master in the Royal Navy and arguably the discoverer of, and the first person to set foot on, the continent of Antarctica.


Early life

Edward Bransfield was born in Ballinacurra, County Cork, in 1785. Very little is known about his early life; we do not even know what he looked like. In 1803, when he was just eighteen years old, he was impressed into the Royal Navy—the principal method of recruitment in those times.

Beginning as an ordinary seaman on the battleship Ville de Paris, he gradually rose through the ranks, becoming an able seaman in 1805 and a midshipman on the battleship Royal Sovereign in 1808. By 1812 he had achieved the rank of 2nd master, and in the same year he was made acting master on Goldfinch.

Some years later he was appointed master (i.e. navigator) of Andromache under the command of Captain W H Shirreff (or Shireff). It was during this tour of duty that he was posted to the Royal Navy's new Pacific station at Valparaiso in Chile.

Bransfield and his fellow crewmates must have considered their new post a remote and backward spot. Chile had just won its independence from Spain, but Valparaiso had been neglected during the colonial period and was a mean, uninviting place. Nevertheless, if it had not been for this commission, Bransfield would never have been able to take his rightful place in history.

In 1773 James Cook sailed beyond the Antarctic Circle—noting with pride in his journal that he was "undoubtedly the first that ever crossed that line.". The following year, he completely circumnavigated Antarctica and reached a latitude of 71 10', before being driven back by the ice. It was the furthest south anyone had ever gone.

Although he failed to catch a glimpse of Antarctica, Cook dispelled once and for all the fanciful notion of a fertile, populous continent surrounding the pole. Not surprisingly, the British Admiralty lost interest in the Antarctic and turned its attention instead to the ongoing search for the North West Passage. Almost half a century passed before anyone else travelled as far south as Cook.

The discovery of Antarctica

Then in 1819 while rounding Cape Horn, William Smith, the skipper of an English merchant ship, the Williams, was driven south by adverse winds and discovered what came to be known as the South Shetland Islands.

When news of his discovery reached Valparaiso, Captain Shirreff decided that the matter warranted further investigation. Williams was chartered and Bransfield was dispatched to survey the newly discovered islands. Smith remained aboard and acted as Bransfield's pilot.

After a brief and uneventful voyage into the Southern Ocean, Bransfield and Smith reached the South Shetland Islands. Bransfield landed on King George Island and took formal possession on behalf of the Crown, before proceeding in a south-westerly direction to Deception Island. Turning south, he next discovered and charted Tower Island and Ohlin Island.

Continuing south for a further twenty kilometres, he crossed what is now known as the Bransfield Strait, and on the January 30, 1820 sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland. A pinnace was lowered and Bransfield went ashore to take possession. Whether he was first to discover Antarctica is disputed by Russia and the United States.

Bransfield, who had no doubt in his mind that he was standing on the long-sought southern continent, made a note in his log of two "high mountains, covered with snow." One of these peaks has been named Mount Bransfield in his honour.

Having charted the peninsula, Bransfield then followed the edge of the icesheet in a north-easterly direction and discovered Elephant Island and Clarence Island, which he also formally claimed for the British Crown.

When Bransfield finally arrived back in Valparaiso he handed over his charts and journal to Captain Shirreff who delivered them to the Admiralty. The original charts are still in the possession of the Hydrographic department in London, but Bransfield's journal has been lost. The Admiralty, it seems, was still more interested in the search for the North West Passage. However, two private accounts of Bransfield's historic voyage were published in 1821.

Later life

The remainder of Edward Bransfield's life was passed in obscurity. He died in 1852 in his sixty-seventh year and was buried alongside his wife in Brighton, England. In 2000 CE the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in his honour, but as no likeness of the discoverer of Antarctica could be found, the stamp depicted instead RRS Bransfield, an Antarctic surveying vessel named after him.

See also


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