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Discovery of Antarctica by Russian sailors is more important than Gagarin's flight

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Discovery of Antarctica by Russian sailors is more important than Gagarin's flight


Svetlana Smetanina

The 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica is celebrated in 2020 – 2021. However, its history still has some unknown pages. For example, few people know about a person, without whom both the expedition and the very discovery of the ice continent might not have taken place. We are talking about Ivan Ivanovich de Traversay (French: Jean Baptiste Prevost de Sansac, marquis de Traversay), Minister of the Navy. Vitaly Sychev, a member of the Russian Geographical Society and expert of IOC UNESCO, has shared some interesting details.

- You have been studying history of the discovery of Antarctica by Russian seafarers for many years. And it turns out that some interesting and important details of that expedition have been still unknown to the general public - in particular, the role that Ivan Ivanovich de Traversay, Minister of the Navy, played in the discovery of Antarctica.

Marquis de Traversay was a rather interesting person. However, his merits in our history were not recognized. And there were certain reasons behind that, such as absence of worthy heirs, attitude of Emperor Nicholas I, and then the Crimean War, which made negative feelings towards the French, even if they were Russian subjects, stronger. Yet, he was a man of worth who defended Russia during Napoleon’s invasion. By the way, Napoleon offered him to return to France, but he refused and did a lot to make our countrys achievements even greater.

Admiral Ivan Ivanovich de Traversay (17541831), Minister of the Navy of the Russian Empire. A lithograph by Alexander Julius Klünder., the 1840s

But the main thing is that he was the one who came up with the idea to send an expedition to the South Polar Region to discover new lands. He prepared instructions, which were originally intended for one ship campaign only.

Those instructions were based on the documents of James Cook, a famous British explorer. Traversay turned them into specific directions. Their draft in French together with notes on Cook's voyage in 1772-1774 from the Russian State Naval Archives, which Traversay used to make the instruction for Bellingshausen, are still there. The Academy of Sciences had failed to draw up such instructions.

Moreover, he wrote a 20-page document with to do list, what observations to make. Famous Antarctica discoverers Faddéj Bellingshausen (German: Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen) and Mikhail Lazarev, carried out his instructions precisely. They headed to South Georgia Island, then to the South Sandwich Islands, and afterwards, as indicated, to the southern continent. Literally ten days later they came to the first point to see the 'ice mountains' described in their report. This took place on January 16, 1820.

At first, a one ship expedition was planned, but it quickly became clear that one ship would not cope with such a task since there was no experience of sailing under such harsh conditions. Then two ships were considered, and finally four.

Why was the expedition to the South Pole so important for de Traversay? What did it mean for him and for Russia in general?

It was 1818 to begin with. Russia dominated Europe having achieved victory over Napoleon. Alexander I of Russia kind of reigned in the political arena. Our ships sailed to Russian America, which also raised Russias standing. And Traversay was already a middle-aged man - at that time he was 64 years old. At the same time, the Russian Navy, which had lacked money for ship building for a long time, got funds that could be used to organize an expedition.

The expedition to search for the southern continent cost Russia about two million rubles, while the entire Navy budget was less than 20 million. This fact was hardly ever mentioned. That is, the amount was enormous. But the plan was also extremely ambitious - what if new lands would be discovered! And Traversay wanted to leave his mark in history, which would be a dignified ending of his career in Russia. He always said that Russia was his Fatherland; it gave him prosperity, a wife, and fortune.

It is interesting that having met the Emperor, Faddéj Bellingshausen, one of the expedition leaders, dared to say that everything had already been discovered in the South Polar Region after Cooks campaign, and it would hardly be possible to find anything else. The Emperor replied: "We shall see."

Immediately after the new continent was discovered by Russian sailors, Minister de Traversay made a very wise move he published the report on expedition in the Son of the Fatherland magazine. After all, later it became the main evidence that Russian sailors had been there first, didnt it?

Making those publications was a very wise move indeed. The expedition report was published in the magazine within a month after receiving the statement. Even exact locations visited by the Russian ships were indicated. That meant that now any ship, having reached the indicated coordinates, would be sure to see the same places that were described by Russian sailors.

Vitaly Sychev with the Bellingshausens atlas in the Russian Geographical Society

Why did the British later claim to be the first in the discovery of Antarctica?

The British became aware that the Russians had gone to the South Polar Region and sent their sailors there as well. There were also unscrupulous people who attempted to prove that they had also been there by deceptive means.

All those things had to be made sense of. But the coordinates of locations discovered by Russian seafarers were indicated very accurately. Annenkov Island was the very first island discovered by our expedition. At first it had a different name given to it by Cook. But the truth is that Cook indicated inaccurate coordinates of its location, and our sailors calculated them much more accurately. So even the British agreed to keep the Russian name, which was nearly the first such case in the world. It still has the same name.

Was that the reason for expedition to be prepared under enhanced security?

It was not quite so. Other famous explorers, such as Krusenstern, Golovnin, knew about it as well. The latter also helped in its preparation. Moreover, that expedition was not the first one.

It was during the years when Ivan de Traversay was in charge of the Naval Ministry that the borders of Russia in the northeast (at the Bering Strait) and of Russian America were recorded. The northern islands were also discovered back then. It means that the largest number of such expeditions was sent during that period. A lot of geographical atlases (50 by 70 cm) were published with all borders and new islands, as well as ethnographic materials. Those atlases are still referred to.

As to marquis de Traversay, he came to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great at the invitation of the Empress. Then, during the reign of Paul I, he was considerably promoted it was apparently done to oppose the British influence. De Traversay also managed to fight for the independence of the United States, where he was bestowed rather high ranks. He was not prone to theft and also engaged people who did not steal. I am saying so not because I have some special regard to him, but because I always feel to support unheralded people.

I am sure that if those four ships had not been sent to explore the South Polar Region in 1819, then such an expedition would simply not have taken place. And it immediately and significantly raised profile of Russian navigation in the world.

Nobody knew about Antarctica. Just imagine - you come to a 16-storey building, and that would be the lowest iceberg in front of you. It is very difficult to assess what you have discovered - an island or a mainland. By the way, the very first map of Antarctica was published on September 24, 1821. But the fact that it had been actually the mainland discovered and not the island became clear only in the 1850s.

Our seafarers sailed 240 degrees out of 360 (2/3 of the distance) around the Ice Continent to the south of 60th degree of south latitude. What does it mean? This means that they all the time tried to be at the edge of the ice formations leaving only a third of the arc unexplored. And they were at the closest to the mainland position during their entire voyage. They wrote in the report: "There were blocks of ice 100 meters high in front of us."

Read also:Sailing to Antarctica

De Traversays grave in the village of Romanshchina, 110 km from St. Petersburg

Then, at that time it was an event like Gagarin's flight into outer space?

It was even more awesome. Because before the flight into outer space, we already knew what the Moon looks like. But they had not known anything about Antarctica at all. There was fog, snow and ice. And they didn't even know if melt-water from an iceberg could be drunk. Bellingshausen was first who tried to use water from an iceberg top to make tea. Moreover, it was very difficult to climb those steep-sided icebergs.

And for the first time they approached Antarctica in the hardest-to-reach area of the entire coast. Ships managed to approach this place for the second time only a hundred years later! That is, it was a completely unconventional expedition. They were assigned the task to find an unknown, and they did find it and made the greatest discovery. So, how Cook can compete with them!

De Traversay left service in 1821 following the expedition return from Antarctica. But after his resignation, the Emperor visited his estate more often than he visited Moscow. The Traversay estate was located 110 kilometers from St. Petersburg, and Alexander I visited it on intention, always stayed overnight and spoke to his former minister.

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