For millennia humans believed there was a landmass south of the tip of Africa. Even Aristotle speculated about this undiscovered country. Centuries later, in the 1500s, the hypothetical Terra Australis (South Land) began appearing on maps.
Despite this, no one had actually seen it. That is, not until Nathaniel Palmer, a 22-year-old Stonington captain, glimpsed the last undiscovered continent from his sloop the Hero, on Nov. 18, 1820, 197 years ago this month. Or at least that’s the Connecticut version of events; two other explorers may have glimpsed the icy land around the same time. But Palmer was certainly among the first to lay eyes on it.
A sailor at 14, Palmer worked on a blockade-running vessel that avoided British patrols while transporting goods between New York and New England during the War of 1812. In his 1922 biography Captain Nathaniel Palmer: An Old-Time Sailor of the Sea, John R. Spears writes that to avoid giving navigational aid to the British, every lighthouse along the shore had gone dark and marker buoys had been removed. Palmer ultimately operated the tiller, a lever used to turn the rudder to steer. The position required great skill, Spears writes. “In fair winds and foul; in gentle airs and in roaring gales, he had to stand his trick at the tiller, noting the while not only the influence of the wind but the influence of tidal currents, which were sometimes favorable and sometimes adverse. More important still, consider the work he was to do later, he had to do all this at night and when the fog was so thick on the water that he could not see the jib when he stood at the tiller.”
Palmer’s skill at the tiller helped him become master of the schooner Galena at 19, thus, in Spears’ words, maintaining “the reputation of his home port, for Stoningtonians made boast of the ability of their boys to secure command before they were of an age to vote.”
In 1819, with the war having ended a few years earlier, Palmer took a step back in rank, signing on as a second mate on an expedition to explore the unknown waters south of Cape Horn. The goal of the mission was not scientific; instead, it was motivated by a quest to find new hunting grounds for seals. Seafarers had long speculated there were extreme-southern islands that served as the summer home for seals.
Seal oil was comparable in cost to whale oil at the time, and like the whaling industry, sealing was wiping out its prey through overly aggressive hunting practices.
During the 1819 voyage, Palmer and his shipmates sailed to the South Shetlands, a group of islands 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost tip of the Antarctic continent. At the South Shetlands, Palmer’s crew found and hunted vast numbers of seals.
The following year, Palmer was given command of the Hero and returned to the area with a fleet of seal ships under the command of Capt. Benjamin Pendleton. By the time the fleet arrived in the Shetlands, word had already gotten out about this previously untouched seal hunting ground, and much of the seal population was depleted.
Because of his experience in the region, Palmer was dispatched to look for new hunting grounds even farther south. It was during this scouting expedition aboard the Hero that Palmer first laid eyes on Antarctica. Palmer spotted mountains initially and then land stretching in both directions. According to Spears, it was “a most desolate region, and yet, as seen when the sun was shining, with the green waters along shore dotted with gleaming ice cakes, and with the air filled with thousands of gray and black petrels and white cape pigeons, it was strikingly beautiful.” Spears adds, “[T]here were sea leopards on its shore but no fur seals.”
Unable to find any seal habitats, and perhaps not understanding the importance of his discovery, Palmer returned to the fleet in the South Shetlands.
His sighting of Antarctica is often overlooked by history.
This is in part because there is a dispute over whether it occurred in November or later that winter (the ship’s log is unclear) and because Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen of Russia and Edward Bransfield of England both claimed to have spotted the continent prior to Palmer.
Regardless of claims superseding his own, Palmer had the last laugh. A portion of the peninsula he happened upon is named Palmer Land. More recent explorations in the region have paid the young Stonington captain tribute with Palmer Station, a U.S. research station in Antarctica; Hero Bay in the South Shetland Islands is named for his sloop, and in the 1980s the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.
After this voyage, Palmer became an even more accomplished seaman and then a boat builder. He helped develop the mid-19th-century clipper ship which was known for its speed. Those wishing to learn more about the storied captain and explorer can visit the Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer House Museum in Stonington, a national historic landmark and a great resource on all things Capt. Palmer.