CLOSE
iStock
iStock

Read One of the First Eyewitness Accounts of Antarctica

iStock
iStock

Stupendous icebergs, live volcanoes, and delicious (if slightly too rich) penguin soup—just a few of the details recorded on one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Antarctica. Written in the 1840s by the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, the Antarctic Journal introduced the southern continent's natural wonders to the world. Now, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project and the Biodiversity Heritage Library have preserved and digitized it for a new generation of exploration junkies.

Born 200 years ago in Suffolk, England, Hooker would become one of the greatest naturalists and explorers of the 19th century. He was a close friend of Charles Darwin and was director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1865 to 1885. But before that, at just 22 years old, he embarked on an epic voyage of discovery to Antarctica.

Chalk portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker by George Richmond, 1855
Chalk portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker by George Richmond, 1855
Public Domain

Hooker served as the assistant surgeon and botanist on the adventure under the command of Captain James Clark Ross, a veteran of seven previous Arctic expeditions. Like all of the Royal Navy’s voyages of discovery at the time, this one had specific orders: confirm the existence of the southern continent, find the south magnetic pole, collect flora and fauna, and chart new geographic features.

Armed with 25 reams of paper for preserving plants, glass greenhouses for live specimens, natural history books, and microscopes—plus a trunk of polar clothing—Hooker set up his tiny field laboratory in the HMS Erebus, the larger of the expedition’s two vessels.

The Erebus and the HMS Terror left England at the end of September 1839 and arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in August 1840. From there, they sailed south and soon were in view of a rocky land ringed with pack ice and icebergs. Hooker recorded the incredible sights in his journal. "Saw a shoal of whales, and for the first time an iceberg, a most magnificent flat topped mass of ice about 160ft high, and a quarter of a mile long," he reported on December 28, 1840.

The ships skirted ice floes and inched closer to the continent. Mountains funneled massive glaciers toward the sea (which Ross named after himself), while a huge barrier of floating ice—later named the Ross Ice Shelf—created a perpendicular wall rising more than 160 feet above the ocean's surface, extending to the horizon. Hooker noticed rafts of penguins, white petrels, and gulls heading toward a hilly island at the northern end of the ice wall.

"At 8:45, observed the smaller hills on the Island … emitting small puffs of smoke, a discovery which interested us all very much," Hooker wrote on January 28, 1841. "4:30, observed the volcano emitting immense clouds of black smoke rising perhaps 300 feet above it; its margins tinged white by the sun, with a distinct red tinge from the fire below; it was a magnificent spectacle and a most extraordinary one."

The crew had discovered Antarctica's two largest volcanoes, which Ross named Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after their ships.

In addition to the southern continent, the expedition visited Australia, New Zealand, and smaller subantarctic islands. Whenever the ship anchored, Hooker went ashore to collect mosses, lichens, algae, and vascular plants. At sea, he deployed a tow net to capture plankton and other sea life. If the plants were frozen into the rocky soil, Hooker would chip them out of the earth and sit on them until they thawed. "The observations Hooker recorded in this [Antarctic Journal] and numerous other notebooks formed the basis of a flora of Antarctica and also of the wider regions visited," writes Cam Sharp Jones, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project officer at the Royal Botanical Gardens, in a blog post.

Botanical illustration in Joseph Dalton Hooker's 'Flora Antarctica'
Hooker's drawing of Nothofagus betuloides, the Magellan beech, which he collected on the Ross expedition.
Public Domain

The most colorful passages in Hooker's journal recount the antics of the ubiquitous penguins, which provided the only fresh meat for the crew during the voyage. "At first we had a dozen on board running wild over the decks following a leader … until one day the leader, finding the hawse hole [a small hole in the ship's hull for cables to pass through] empty, immediately made his exit & was followed by the rest, each giving a valedictory croak as he made his escape," Hooker wrote.

Penguins that didn't escape were made into all manner of entrees. "Their flesh is black & very rich & was much relished at first for stews, pies, curries, etc.," Hooker mused. "After a day or two we found it too rich with a disagreeable flavour … except in the shape of soup, which is certainly the richest I ever ate, much more so than hare soup which it most resembles."

After four years in ice-strewn seas, the entire crew was surely sick of penguin soup and longing for home by the beginning of 1843. The Ross expedition returned to England on September 4, having achieved most of its goals. Ross inferred the position of the south magnetic pole, confirmed the existence and character of the southern continent, and charted huge stretches of its coastline. Hooker recorded plant and animal life that was entirely new to science, which he published in his six-volume Flora Antarctica, a catalogue of more than 3000 descriptions and 530 illustrations of plants species he found on the voyage. The Erebus and Terror were freshened up and put back into naval service on the doomed Franklin expedition in 1845.

To commemorate Hooker's roles in exploration and science (and to mark the bicentennial of his birth), the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew is hosting an exhibition of his letters, paintings and prints from his travels, photographs, journals, important botanical illustrations, and even his own belongings. On display through September 17, 2017, Joseph Hooker: Putting Plants in Their Place demonstrates how, through exploration and curiosity, he transformed the study of plants into true science. In doing so, he brought us closer to one of Earth's most remote places.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios