On This Day in 1936: Charcot

September 16, 2016

Jean-Baptiste Charcot was a French polar explorer and expedition leader. His two expeditions in the first decade of the twentieth century explored, charted and mapped areas of Antarctica such as the Antarctic Peninsula, Graham Land and the islands and coasts of the Bellingshausen Sea to the west of the peninsula. Charcot was not part of the great race to the South Pole involving Ernest Shackleton, Robert F. Scott, Roald Amundsen and others. In this regard, the French expeditions are perhaps alike the work of Douglas Mawson and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition–more concerned by the furthering of mapping and scientific observation than the dash to the pole.



Jean-Baptiste Charcot was born 15 July, 1867, at Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. His father, Jean-Martin, was a famous neurologist. Although Jean-Baptiste trained as a medical doctor and entered practice as was expected of him, he always had a strong passion for the sea and sailing. He purchased his first yacht, the Courlis, when he was in his early-twenties. When his father died in 1893, Jean-Baptiste used his large inheritance to have a vessel, the three-masted schooner, the Français, built for the use in a proposed scientific expedition to Greenland.

In early 1903, when news came of Otto Nordenskjöld’s ship, Antarctic, being missing, Charcot changed plans and was determined to use the Français to assist in the rescue missions in the south. His inheritance had been greatly depleted by the cost of the ship’s construction. However, he was successful in acquiring funding from French central government as well as national scientific institutions. His enterprise was entitled The French Antarctic Expedition and its aims were as follows:

take the Français to Antarctic waters,

explore the west coast of Graham Land from the north,

venture south to Adelaide Island and, if possible, Alexander Island, charting the coastline and gathering botanical, zoological, hydrographic and meteorological data along the way.

determine whether Antarctica was a continent or a group of small islands, surrounded by ice.

The Français was due to leave Le Havre on 15 August, 1903, but this was delayed to the death of Maignan, a sailor of the expedition. After a sad beginning, the expedition departed on 27 August and arrived at Buenos Aires on 16 November, 1903. Meanwhile, Otto Nordenskjöld and crew had been rescued and the Antarctic was crushed. The two groups of explorers met in Buenos Aires during December. Nordenskjöld was impressed by the French expedition and give the gift of five Greenland huskies.

The Français left Buenos Aires on 23 December, 1903, and by 1 February, 1904, the expedition was in the South Shetlands. Throughout February, the ship experienced much boiler trouble, but it reached Wandel (now Booth) Island where Charcot decided to stay for the oncoming winter. On the island, the men built structures to accommodate themselves and their scientific and exploration equipment. Scientific observations and collections began and continued in earnest.

Chilling outside the 'Français' with champagne on Bastille Day, 1904. http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/antarctic_whos_who_charcot_francais.htm

Chilling outside the ‘Français’ with champagne on Bastille Day, 1904. http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/antarctic_whos_who_charcot_francais.htm

Charcot thought it important that his crew should have personal privacy whilst on the island. He also put emphasis on a good variety of meals and, every now and then, something a little special. On 30 May, 1904, all free hands set off to Hovgaard Island to have a polar picnic!

On 24 November a mission set out from camp with a whaleboat loaded with camping and scientific equipment and twenty days’ rations. The intention of the mission was to travel to Petermann Island and then on to the Graham Land coast. In the five-day ordeal between Petermann Island and the coast of Graham Land, the men had to pull their boat over heavy ice, while walking through knee-high freezing water for at least ten hours a day. They climbed Cape Tuxen and spent a week surveying the coasts.

Penguins at Petermann Island during later expedition

Penguins at Petermann Island during later expedition

Christmas, 1904, was a moment of joy for the expedition—the ship was free from ice and had a clear path forward. Charcot took the gramophone ashore and played it for the penguins! However, on 13 January, 1905, with Alexander Island in view, the Français hit rock and began to flood water quickly. The crew had to operate the pumps by hand and further plans of exploration were abandoned. After almost round-the-clock pumping and monitoring, the ship reached Wiencke Island on 29 January, where they remained for ten days making temporary repairs. Charcot then brought the Français, struggling with a twenty-four-foot rip in the false keel, back to Puerto Madryn at Tierra del Fuego.

The expedition received a warm welcome in Buenos Aires and the Argentinian government offered to buy the Français; Charcot gladly agreed. The crew left Buenos Aires on 5 May, 1905. Though cut short, the expedition created maps, charts and sketches of 620miles of coastline and eighteen volumes of scientific reports would be published upon their return. Antarctic features named after the expedition’s vessel, the Français, include Français Cove, Français Glacier, Français Glacier Tongue and Mount Français. France welcomed home its new hero, Commandant Charcot, and this only drove Charcot to return south to continue his work.

Very soon after the conclusion of the first French expedition, Charcot was submitting plans for its successor. He received much goodwill and support from across the spectrum at home. Most importantly, he received the approval of the Academy of Sciences and financial support flowed in from the French government as well as scientific institutions and city governments from across the country. Armed with gifts from the Prince of Monaco and institutions, the second expedition was to have the richest scientific equipment collection for its use.

Some crew of the Pourquoi-Pas?

Some crew of the Pourquoi-Pas?

The ship built for the expedition was the Pourquoi-Pas? (Why Not?) and it was completed in May, 1908. Mill wrote in the introduction to Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic that the ship was named ‘with a dash of humour and a flash of hope’. She was rigged as a three-masted barque and she was made three times as strong as any other vessel of her tonnage. The second French Antarctic Expedition, aboard the Pourquoi-Pas?, left Le Havre on 15 August, 1908. The crew was twenty-two men strong, including eight who had served with the Français, so was the loyalty to Charcot they held. The ship left Punta Arenas on 16 December and sailed for Deception Island. A thriving Norwegian whaling trade had developed there thanks to the maps that the Français expedition had created. Charcot and crew stayed with the grateful Norwegians until 25 December and reached Booth Island on 29 December, 1908.

Departure of the Pourquoi-Pas?

Departure of the Pourquoi-Pas?

The ship came to Petermann Island on 1 January, 1909, and an exceptional harbour was found—Charcot named it Port Circumcision, as that day was the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. He explained in his book:

In memory of the date on which we discovered it we laughingly christen it Port Circumcision, its name in future. The great French navigator Bouvet gave the same name, for the same reason, to the remarkable island and cape which he discovered on this day.

On 4 January, Charcot and two men sailed from Petermann Island to the coast to explore. The channel was clear on their departure, but it was blocked by floes and pack-ice when they intended to return. On short supplies, it was three days before the men were discovered and rescued by the Pourquoi-Pas?.

Within a day of the rescue of the three men, the Pourquoi-Pas? ran aground, a déjà vu of the Français. The newer vessel was more solidly constructed, only minimal damage was sustained and repairs were carried out at Petermann Island. Towards the end of January, 1909, the expedition sailed the length of Adelaide Island and charted the island, recording evidence that it was much longer than previously thought. Charcot named a large bay Marguerite Bay, after his wife. The Pourquoi-Pas? returned to Circumcision and made winter camp. The crew constructed four huts and protected the ship from ice as best they could.

Spring, 1909

Spring, 1909

They also needed fun to keep themselves amused and, to this end, they celebrated Mardi-Gras on 23 February. As the Antarctic seasons changed, more activities were started—Charcot and the officers gave lectures and courses on grammar, geography and first aid; Sub-Lieutenant Jules Rouch’s romantic novel provided much fun; the Antarctic Sporting Club ran ski and sledge races.

Jules Rouch

Jules Rouch

During these months, Charcot was suffering badly from swollen legs and had difficulty breathing. Although other missions occurred, Charcot remained static until October. In November, the expedition left their base and returned to Deception Island, arriving on 27 November. Despite Norwegian advice to return home due to damage to the hull of the ship, Charcot turned south again on 7 January, 1910. Sailing near Alexander Island, on 11 January, Charcot spotted an island that was previously unknown. As he wrote:

Those are not icebergs which lift their pointed summits to the sky; it is a land, a new land, a land to be seen clearly with the naked eye, a land which belongs to us!

Although they could not reach it due to the surrounding ice, Charcot claimed to have discovered the new island and named it Charcot Island—apparently after his father and not after himself. The expedition continued to chart and map the coastlines of islands and coast that they encountered, but turned north towards the end of January. Perhaps Charcot was satisfactorily contented with their find of a new island to head for home.

After coming through Punta Arenas, the expedition sailed for home and was greeting at Rouen by two torpedo boats on 5 June, 1910, and met by Admiral Boué de la Peyère. As Charcot wrote:

We felt the movement of the hearts of the whole population of this beautiful and famous town, which by its enthusiastic emotion proved that it knew how to appreciate disinterested scientific work and to reward the efforts of those engaged in it.

Charcot’s second expedition was warmly greeted and its achievements were praised. Their surveys covered 1,250 miles and their maps were very valuable. Their scientific research and photography filled twenty-eight volumes. Robert Falcon Scott referred to Charcot as the polar gentleman, a nice thing to be said about oneself.

Penguins and the Pourquoi-Pas?

Penguins and the Pourquoi-Pas?

During the First World War, Charcot commanded a Q-ship in the British Royal Navy and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, which is given for gallantry during active operations against the enemy at sea.

Charcot died on 15 September, 1936, when the Pourquoi-Pas? went down during a storm off the coast of Iceland. The crew comprised forty-four men; one survived. Captain Charcot went down with his vessel. The name of Charcot’s ship, Pourquoi Pas? (why not?), is, according to Gabriella Walker, ‘as good a way as any to explain the motivations of many of the early heroic adventurers.’

A translation of Charcot's book, The Voyage of the 'Why Not?'

A translation of Charcot’s book, The Voyage of the ‘Why Not?’


Charcot, J. The Voyage of the ‘Why Not?’ in the Antarctic: The Journal of the Second French       South Polar Expedition, 1908-1910. Trans. P. Walsh. Originally published 1910.

Mill, R. H. ‘Introduction: South polar exploration in the Last Hundred Years,’ in Shackleton,       E. H., The Heart of the Antarctic, Vol. I. Philadelphia, 1909.

Walker, G. Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent London,   2012.


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