James Weddell


James Weddell joined the Navy in 1796 and by 1815 had risen to the rank of Master earning him high marks from his superiors in the process. In 1819 he joined the Merchant Service and was introduced to a shipwright named James Strachan who, along with several other partners, owned a 160 ton brig. Weddell persuaded Strachan to give him command of the ship for a sealing expedition to the newly discovered South Shetland Islands. Even though Weddell was new to sealing, Strachen went along with the plans due to Weddells Antarctic training while in the Navy. Little is known about this voyage other than Weddell actually visited the group as well as the South Orkney Islands recently found by Powell and Palmer. Weddell returned in 1821 but it was an unprofitable venture due to insufficient cargo.

The following year a second voyage was planned, again primarily for sealing, but this time it was agreed that Weddell would attempt to search beyond those efforts of earlier sealers. On September 17, 1822 the JANE, manned by 22 men along with the 65 ton BEAUFOY, with 13 men under the command of Matthew Brisbane, departed from England.

Due to the inadequate size of the ships, along with poor provisions, the task ahead was a formidable one indeed. Between 1820 and 1822 no less than six sealing vessels had shipwrecked in the South Shetlands. The JANE, in particular, received significant damage to her planking and stem due to the severe weather. There was plenty of rum for the sailors (3 glasses a day), but the food was inadequately supplied from the onset. Rations had to be halved while wintering in the Falkland Islands and scurvy was a constant threat although only one crewman died.

Weddell was an explorer at heart. The accuracy of his observations and the charts prepared of the South Orkneys proved he was a man who admired accuracy and despised the wild and unsubstantiated claims made by some of the earlier explorers. Even though there were tremendous problems confronted by the expedition, Weddell, much like Cook before him, was a great leader of men. The men were cheerful and willing to work despite all the hardships.

After stopping at Madeira and Bona Vista, Weddell crossed the equator on November 7 and sailed on to the Falkland Islands for repairs arriving on December 19. On December 30, both ships sailed south and reached the eastern end of the South Orkneys on January 13, 1823. Finding few seals Weddell decided to search further south. Slowly the two vessels made their way south experiencing difficulties with fog and icebergs along the way. By January 27, Weddell turned north once again as, after all, he was to hunt for seals and thus far his cargo hold was essentially empty. Hoping to find land between the South Orkneys and South Shetlands, Weddell sailed to within 100 miles of Sandwich Land where he came close enough to Cook's route to know he would not find land where he had hoped to. It was on February 4 that Weddell decided to head south once again. Brisbane bravely agreed and in the dark and foggy weather the two ships began their historic journey.

Both crews suffered from the intense cold and fog. Weddell did what he could for them but the small ships were constantly battered by the gales which kept them in a perpetual state of dampness. The weather eventually cleared and at noon on February 20 Weddell determined his position to be some 214 miles further south than Cook had achieved. The weather was now extraordinarily clear and mild. Four icebergs were sighted but there was no land in sight. Due to the lateness of the season, along with Weddell's possible doubts of there being any land at the pole, Weddell took advantage of the favorable winds and headed north. The crew was naturally disappointed in his decision but Weddell gave a speech to the crew praising their efforts and congratulating them on penetrating further south than anyone before them. Weddell named the waters King George IV's Sea. After sheltering at South Georgia and wintering at the Falklands, the ships sailed for the South Shetlands in October 1823. They were struck by a violent hurricane and upon reaching the islands they discovered a thick ice pack surrounding them so on the 18th of November, Weddell turned to the west to search for seals around Cape Horn. Both ships eventually returned to England in July 1824.

It is sad to note that no other ship has successfully sailed the same route as Weddell to substantiate his claim but there seems to be no reason to disbelieve him. It was a record southing that would not be broken until Wilhelm Filchner succeeded nearly 100 years later in 1911.


Jane and Beaufoy in the Weddell Sea

Weddell continued as Master of various trading vessels, but in 1829 was wrecked in the Azores and was only saved by lashing himself to a rock. His last voyage was to New South Wales and Tasmania in 1830-32. He died in London in relative poverty at the age of 47.



Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839

by Alan Gurney.

Antarctica: The Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.

British Polar Explorers, by Admiral Sir Edward Evans.


Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, published by Reader's Digest, second edition.