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Below the Convergence: Voyages Toward Antarctica 1699-1839. Gurney, Alan. 2007 (first published 1997)


Carr 1983Below the Convergence: Voyages Toward Antarctica 1699-1839.
By Alan Gurney, and published in 2007 by Norton (first published 1997).

The convergence is located approximately 800 miles off the coast of Antarctica en-circling the continent, a wandering oceanic dividing line between 50oS and 60oS latitude where the warmer waters of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans meet the cooler waters from the South. Navigators recognize the convergence immediately by the presence of often freezing temperatures and associated winds and currents, salinity of water, fogs and mists, and other phenomena associated with Antarctica. During portions of the Second and Third Voyages, Captain James Cook sailed below the convergence in search of Terra Australis Incognita (1773-1774), achieving the first recorded crossing of the Antarctic Circle and the eventual circumnavigation of Antarctica. Cook's voyages also included discovery of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (1775), and confirmed the 1772 French discovery of Kerguelen Island (the "Island of Desolation") during a six day visit in December 1776.

In Below the Convergence, Alan Gurney, an English yacht designer and photographer as well as author, presents a useful context of "the South" before and after the explorations by Captain Cook. Cook's achievements were drawn upon by those who followed during the sixty years after his death at Kealakekua Bay. The first half of the book serves as the immediate background to and summarizes Cook's Antarctic voyages. Furthermore, Cook's achievements are intertwined in the second half of the book, serving as a standard against which later navigators measured themselves.

Gurney's account includes much useful background and explanatory information. He includes a section on the geography of the South, technology (such as the importance of accurate reckoning of longitude provided by the chronometer). A chapter is included on scurvy (the "plague of the sea"), which explains various methods to control the disease that began in the sixteenth century, and the author documents Cook's contributions to control scurvy. Sir Edmond Halley is associated not only with the comet that bears his name, but his voyage to southern latitudes in 1698-1700 to study magnetism and the compass. Halley, as well as all subsequent explorers, encountered the barriers of "islands of ice" that impeded their journey. Readers of Cook's journals will be familiar with his descriptions of "ice islands." Encounters by navigators with ice in many forms from freezing mists and fogs to rain, fierce winds, sleet, snow, pack ice, growlers, and often gigantic icebergs, and occasional gigantic waves unimpeded by the vast ocean are chronicled in Gurney's book.

The author summarizes the travels of navigators such as William Smith, (1819 first landing on the South Shetland Islands) and Thaddeus Bellinghausen (circumnavigation, 1818-1821). The Imperial Russian government did not follow-up Bellinghausen's exploration, preferring to concentrate attention on expansion in central Asia. In 1820, Nathaniel Parker and Edward Bransfield vied for the honours of the first landing on the Antarctic continent. In 1823 James Weddell's penetration into the sea and pack ice that bears his name and in 1838-1839 John Biscoe completed the third circumnavigation, after Cook and Bellinghausen. John Balleny's 1839 exploration identified passage through the ice to the heart of the continent, a route later used by Ross in Erebus and Terror, after a visit to Kerguelen Island to conduct magnetic readings. These explorers constitute only some of those navigators examined in this book who followed James Cook into the Antarctic. These were explorers as well as sealers and whalers (or those who sailed on behalf of investors such as the Enderby family) whose exploits encompass the initial heroic age of Antarctic discovery. These navigators and explorers established the foundation later built upon by James Clark Ross, Dumont D'Urville, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Roland Amundsen as well as many others.

Frequent observations about sea life, seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses and other birds noted by navigators are woven into the text of Gurney's book. The author recounts Weddell's three month stay (1823-1824) at Tierra del Fuego anchorages, while the South Shetlands were locked in ice, provided journal observations of the native population at Tierra del Fuego, paralleling Cook's journal entries fifty years earlier. Dangerous, turbulent seas and the ice barrier serve as common themes linking explorers from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Throughout his book, Gurney adds his own descriptions of sailing at high latitudes based on personal experience, which adds a useful and interesting dimension to his account.

Antarctic discovery and exploration proceeded piecemeal, navigators often building on information and charts (sometimes fragmentary) gathered by preceding voyages, including Cook's. Government sponsored endeavours alternated or coexisted with entrepreneurial ventures, especially the great short-term profit from sealing and later whaling. High achievement is mixed with difficulties, disappointments, tragedy and sometimes failure amidst the ever-changing ocean and ice. The book is not only a story of human navigators. The author also chronicles the rapid destruction of seal and whale population that followed in Cook's wake in retrospect, events that continue to stun today's reader. Another persistent theme is the hardship and deprivation encountered by those who sailed south, often for years at a time, and the persistence of those who would return season after season to pursue discovery or fortune. A few intrepid explorers became survivors and are themselves "discovered" after being marooned for months or years. Some never returned. Fortunately for historians, many navigators and explorers followed Cook's example by keeping useful journals.

Gurney's text does not contain footnotes. However, sources utilized are documented chapter by chapter at the end of the book. Gurney uses standard references and journals, including J.C. Beaglehole's edition of Cook's journals as well as the biography, Life of Captain James Cook. People familiar with Cook's journals will note the inclusion of Cook's 1775 entries regarding his sailing at high latitudes and proclaiming an end to the search for Terra Australis Incognita. Some correspondence from governmental and private sources is included as documentation. The book contains numerous maps showing routes followed by Halley, Cook, Bellinghausen, Weddell and others. In addition, more detailed maps of certain portions of the Antarctic region and also some sub-Antarctic islands are included, such as the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia Island, the Weddell Sea, and the South Shetland Islands. These maps are very useful references to the text.

This book does not reach new conclusions regarding Captain Cook, but places his voyages within the broader context of Antarctic exploration, making the book a valuable resource for Cook historians, students and enthusiasts. The book is written in a confident, vigorous, and clear style and demonstrates the author's command of the South and those who navigated the often dangerous waters. Especially valuable is Gurney's ability to place multiple events in context, frequently referencing Cook, and linking explorers who followed by pointing out useful parallel events, routes, and sightings. I did note a small error: Cook's landing on, and exploration of, Kerguelen Island's eastern coastline occurred in 1776, not 1774 (p. 260).

In this reviewer's opinion, Alan Gurney's Below the Convergence is a very useful reference both for readers interested in Captain James Cook and the broader context of Antarctic exploration.

Reviewer: James C. Hamilton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 41, volume 33, number 2 (2010).

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