Antarctic Discoveries: The Russian Exploration Legacy

Bellingshausen Expedition: Concluding the Age of Discovery

The Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration, took place from the 15th to the 17th century. During this time, sailors from various European countries ventured out to explore, colonize, and conquer new territories around the world.The Age of Discovery was kick-started by three key factors

Firstly, the decline of the Mongol Empire disrupted land trade routes, prompting the search for new ways to reach valuable goods. Secondly, the control of Mediterranean trade routes by the Ottoman Turks and Venetians spurred Europeans to seek alternative maritime routes. Lastly, the emergence of new Atlantic coastal nations in Europe fueled a desire for overseas trade and exploration. These factors converged, setting in motion an era of extensive exploration and discovery.


Explore in Antarctica
Image Credit: Creazilla, Explore in Antarctica


Henry the Navigator, a prince of Portugal, spearheaded the initial significant undertaking of the Age of Discovery: the quest for a southern sea route to Cathay (Northern China). In 1415, King John I embarked on a strategic expedition to Ceuta, accompanied by Prince Henry. Their mission had two main objectives: to quell pirate attacks that were plaguing the Portuguese coastline and to establish dominance over the maritime trade routes along the African coast.


💻 Table of Contents:

  1. Motivation Behind the Russian Expedition
  2. Antarctic Discoveries: Bellingshausen and Lazarev's Historic Expedition
  3. Closing the Age of Discovery: The Epic Voyage of Bellingshausen and Lazarev
  4. Legacy of Russian Adventurers: Pioneers of Antarctic Exploration


On the other hand, The exploration conducted by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, known as the Bellingshausen expedition, is often regarded as one of the expeditions that concluded the Age of Discovery. According to historical accounts, the Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev is believed to have made the first verified sighting of Antarctica on January 27, 1820. It is noteworthy that the final significant landmass yet to be explored was Severnaya Zemlya, a challenging archipelago of polar desert located near Siberia's coastline. It was discovered in 1913 but wasn't fully explored until 1930. 

It is also worth noting that there are no native Antarcticans and no permanent residents in Antarctica. Before its discovery, the continent was largely unknown to the rest of the world. But scientists do live there temporarily throughout the year. According to Aurora Expeditions, there are over 60 scientific stations across the continent, which are usually more populated in summers than winters. As there are no people permanently living in Antarctica but those who stay for an year or so, are called Antarcticans.

This article explores the remarkable voyage of Antarctic exploration undertaken by Russian explorers. It delves into their motivations, the challenges they faced, and the enduring impact of this significant expedition.

Henry the Navigator
Image Credit: Flickr, Henry the Navigator


Motivation Behind the Russian Expedition:

In the early 19th century, multiple Russian expeditions were undertaken to explore the polar regions. In the Arctic, Mikhail Vasilyev and Gleb Shishmaryov led an expedition on the sloops Otkrytie and Blagonamerennyi. In the Antarctic, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev led an expedition. 

In 1818, after the return of Otto von Kotzebue's expedition, Adam Johann von Krusenstern presented a project to explore the Pacific region to the president of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences. He proposed a joint venture between the academy and the Ministry of Sea Forces to explore undiscovered archipelagos and conclude the Age of Discovery.




The exact origins and planning of the expeditions remain unclear. Emperor Alexander I of Russia was said to have an interest in the results of previous voyages, and Krusenstern played a role in presenting the idea of a scientific expedition to Antarctica. Traversay, a minister in the Ministry of Sea Forces, also influenced the expedition's objectives. The expeditions aimed to explore the polar regions and investigate theories about the existence of a southern continent. 

Antarctic Discoveries: Bellingshausen and Lazarev's Historic Expedition

In 1819, Emperor Alexander I of Russia authorized an expedition to the South Polar region. The experienced captain and explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen was chosen to lead the expedition, with Mikhail Lazarev as his second-in-command. Their backgrounds and expertise in navigation and exploration set the stage for this ambitious undertaking. The two ships, Vostok and Mirny, were prepared for the journey by Lazarev.

On 4 June 1819, the expedition set sail from Kronstadt, stopping briefly in England where Bellingshausen met with Sir Joseph Banks, who supplied them with books and charts. On 5 September 1819, they departed from Portsmouth and crossed the Antarctic Circle on 26 January 1820, becoming the first to do so since Captain James Cook.

Fabian Gottlieb Von Bellingshausen
Image Credit: Flickr, Fabian Gottlieb Von Bellingshausen


On 27 January 1820, the expedition discovered the Antarctic mainland. They observed ice-fields and documented their findings. The expedition's records, including Bellingshausen's diary and report to the Russian Naval Minister, were compared to other claimants' logs by historian A.G.E. Jones, who concluded that Bellingshausen was the true discoverer of the sought-after Terra Australis.

During the voyage, Bellingshausen and Lazarev circumnavigated the continent twice without losing sight of each other, disproving Cook's assertion that land could not be found in the southern ice fields. They also made discoveries and observations in the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to their Antarctic explorations, the expedition visited Meretoto/Ship Cove in New Zealand and the South Shetland Islands. They discovered and named several islands, including Peter I, Zavodovski, Leskov, and Visokoi Islands, as well as a peninsula on the Antarctic mainland that Bellingshausen named the Alexander Coast, later designated as Alexander Island.

Closing the Age of Discovery: The Epic Voyage of Bellingshausen and Lazarev

The expedition's accomplishments, including the discovery of the Antarctic mainland and disproving Cook's theories, contributed significantly to the understanding of the polar regions and their geographical features.

The exploration conducted by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, known as the Bellingshausen expedition, is often regarded as one of the expeditions that concluded the Age of Discovery. The expedition took place from 1819 to 1821 and aimed to explore the Southern Ocean and find land in the proximity of the South Pole.


Admiral Lazarev
Image Credit: Picryl: A USSR stamp, Admiral Lazarev


During their voyage, Bellingshausen and Lazarev circumnavigated Antarctica, twice proving that it was a continent and not just a group of islands. Their discoveries and observations in the Antarctic and the Pacific Ocean contributed significantly to the understanding of the polar regions and the completion of geographical knowledge in the era of exploration.

The Bellingshausen expedition, along with other exploratory voyages of the time, marked the closing chapter of the Age of Discovery, a period characterized by extensive maritime exploration and the mapping of previously unknown territories around the world. These expeditions played a crucial role in expanding geographical knowledge and paving the way for subsequent scientific research and global interactions.

Technically the Age of Exploration drew to a close in the early 17th century as a result of remarkable technological advancements and the accumulation of extensive geographical knowledge. These developments empowered European navigators to traverse the vast expanses of the globe with ease, utilizing the sea as their highway to distant lands.

Legacy of Russian Adventurers: Pioneers of Antarctic Exploration

The Russian expedition led by Bellingshausen and Lazarev left an indelible mark on Antarctic exploration. Their success garnered global recognition, influencing generations of explorers. Their groundbreaking discoveries shaped our understanding of the continent's unique ecosystem and geography, contributing to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Research Vessel in Antarctica
Image Credit: Creazilla: Research Vessel in Antarctica


Navigating the harsh conditions of the Antarctic, Bellingshausen and Lazarev overcame extreme weather and icy waters, adding depth to their narrative. Contrasting their expedition with others provides insights into diverse exploration approaches and collaborations, enriching historical context.

The annual observances and commemorations underscore the lasting contributions of these pioneers, emphasizing their pivotal role in shaping our understanding of Antarctica. Delving beyond well-known facts, journals and documents reveal intriguing aspects of their historic journey, shedding light on personal experiences and challenges faced by the explorers.

The enduring significance of the Russian expedition in the global exploration context prompts reflection on the courage and vision of those who ventured into the unknown. Bellingshausen and Lazarev's discoveries have not only impacted scientific knowledge but also found resonance in literature, art, and popular culture, contributing to the romanticized image of Antarctic exploration.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, the 1820 Russian expedition led by Bellingshausen and Lazarev stands as a testament to human curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge. Their achievements have left an indelible mark on our understanding of Antarctica, shaping the course of scientific exploration for centuries to come. 

Their historic expedition not only discovered the Antarctic mainland but also shattered preconceived notions, disproving Captain Cook's theories and establishing Antarctica as a distinct continent. The comprehensive documentation of their findings and observations significantly contributed to our understanding of the polar regions, enriching geographical knowledge and paving the way for future scientific research.

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