Edward Bransfield and the first Sighting of Antarctica

Bransfield Strait with Brunow Bay, Livingston Island in the foreground, and Antarctic Peninsula in the background, image by Lyubomir Ivanov

Bransfield Strait with Brunow Bay, Livingston Island in the foreground, and Antarctic Peninsula in the background, image by Lyubomir Ivanov

In January 1820, British Navy officer Edward Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland. However, the very first confirmed sighting of mainland Antarctica cannot be accurately attributed to one single person. It can, however, be narrowed down to three individuals, who all sighted the ice shelf or the continent within days or months of each other: Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy; Edward Bransfield, a captain in the Royal Navy; and Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer.

Edward Bransfield was born in Ballinacurra, Ireland around 1785. However, not very much is known about Bransfield’s early life. It is assumed that he received a decent education and was impressed into the Royal Navy in 1803. On the HMS Ville de Paris, Bransfield began as a regular seaman and was probably appointed to the 110-gun first rate HMS Royal Sovereign later on. In 1808, he was promoted as 2nd master’s mate in 1808 and three years later, Bransfield became midshipman. One year later, the seaman achieved the rank of second master and was made acting master on HMS Goldfinch, a 10-gun Cherokee-class brig-sloop. In 1816, Edward Bransfield was appointed master of the 50-gun fourth rate HMS Severn, leading it in the Bombardment of Algiers. One year later he was appointed master of HMS Andromache under the command of Captain W H Shirreff. It was during this tour of duty that he was posted to the Royal Navy’s new Pacific Squadron off Valparaíso in Chile.

The first to sail beyond the Antarctic Circle was probably James Cook in 1773. He proceded to circumnavigated Antarctica and dispelled the myth that a fertile, populous continent surrounded the South Pole. It took a while after another known sailor traveled as far south as James Cook.

Around 1820, William Smith, the owner and skipper of an English merchant ship, the Williams, was appointed by Valparaíso, Captain Shirreff of the Royal Navy to survey the newly discovered South Shetland Islands. Part of the surveying team was Edward Bransfield. Smith and Bransfield reached the Southern Shatland Islands and landed on King George Island. Bransfield further crossed Bransfield Strait and sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland. Approximately two days before, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen may have caught sight of an icy shoreline now known to have been part of East Antarctica. On the basis of this sighting and the co-ordinates given in his log-book, Bellingshausen has been credited by some with the discovery of the continent.

Bransfield charted a segment of the Trinity Peninsula and followed the edge of the icesheet in a north-easterly direction and discovered various points on Elephant Island and Clarence Island, which he also formally claimed for the British Crown. The charts from the journey were given t othe Admirality and on this day they are in the possession of the Hydrographic department in Taunton, Somerset.

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