Masses of Beautiful Alabaster

Johann G. A. Forster, Ice Islands with ice blink, 1773, gouache on paper. Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Painted during Cook’s second voyage.

At noon on February 21, 1773, as the Antarctic sun glittered on the decks of the HMS Resolution, a cry of “land” ricocheted through the tiny world of wood, water, and ice. Captain James Cook examined the slate-gray smudge on the southern horizon, and his crew eagerly followed his gaze. For two months they had been seeking the terra australis incognita—the unknown southern continent—first proposed by Aristotle in 350 B.C. Satisfied by what he saw, Cook ordered his men to “work up” to the land, watching its contours sharpen to jagged mountains as they tacked toward it. Two hours later, they were confounded. The land had grown hazy again and seemed to drift away from them, as if dissolving. In his narrative of the voyage, Cook would write, “We thought we saw land to the S.W. The appearance was so strong, that we doubted not it was there in reality, and tacked to work up to it accordingly … We were, however, soon undeceived, by finding that it was only clouds,” which disappeared by evening.

Cook had begun by seeking Cape Circumcision, a spit of land sighted by the French captain Bouvet de Lozier in 1739. He found instead a realm of bewildering mirage. Along with capricious cloud formations, icebergs also baffled Cook’s men, who were “deceived by the ice hills, the day we first fell in with the field ice.” These “floating rocks” of ice were such masters of disguise that Cook believed they had fooled the French captain as well. In his journal, he confided his “opinion that what M. Bouvet took for Land and named Cape Circumcision was nothing but Mountains of Ice surrounded by Field Ice.” Fields, hills, rocks, islands, mountains—the icy formations resembled every land formation imaginable to Cook, with “ponds” or “narrow creeks” of water running among them. Yet solid land itself was nowhere to be found. 

Architectural fantasies also gave legible shape to these icy masses. An astronomer onboard, William Wales, described a picturesque berg like “an old square Castle, one End of which had fallen into Ruins,” and part of which “so exactly resembled the Gothic arch of an old Postern Gateway that … it would have puzzled an Architect to build it truer.” Meanwhile, Cook lamented his inability to render the “very curious and romantick” scene, “which can only be described by the pencil of an able painter and at once fills the mind with admiration and horror.” Of these two warring reactions, elements of the romantic sublime, he explained: “the first is occasioned by the beautifullniss of the Picture and the latter by the danger attending it, for was a ship to fall aboard one of these large pieces of ice she would be dashed to pieces in a moment.”

The next year, Cook once again ventured into high southern latitudes to seek the continent. On January 30, 1774, after a month sailing in the Antarctic, his men counted nearly a hundred “Ice Hills or Mountains” in sight, and found that they “could not proceed one Inch father South.” They were in latitude 71º10′ S, the highest southern latitude ever reached by man. George Vancouver, then a young midshipman, claimed the honor of being the southernmost man when he strode to the bow of the ship and waved his hat over the dark waters beneath the bowsprit, crying, “Ne Plus Ultra!”—Latin for “no further beyond.”

That day, Cook confessed in his journal, “I whose ambition leads me not only father than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions.” There might be land to the south, he thought, but no one would ever reach it. He commanded the ship to turn north.

The imaginary monument Cook etched on the water at 71°10′ South, 106°54′ West became known as Cook’s Ne Plus Ultra. It echoes the message supposedly carved on the Pillars of Hercules in the Spanish Straits of Gibraltar, marking the edge of the known world in ancient times. Its opposite, “Plus ultra” or “more beyond,” became the motto of Spain’s royal family after Columbus reached the New World. At the opening of the 1800s, the “ne” or “no” in Cook’s Ne Plus Ultra looked similarly vulnerable to young mariners, especially as the winds of scarcity drove American whalers and sealers farther south.

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Nearly seventy years later, on January 16, 1840, Passed Midshipmen William Reynolds and Henry Eld balanced in the masthead against the swaying of the U.S.S. Peacock, holding their posts high above the frigid Antarctic water. They were officers in the United States Exploring Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.), a government-sponsored voyage of discovery that circumnavigated the globe from 1838 to 1842, and they were seeking the terra australis incognita. Due north, there crowded icebergs and fields of smaller floes, which could embay and crush them at the whim of wind and current. To the south strode a colossal rampart of ice—now known as the Shackleton Ice Shelf—whose perimeter they had stalked for weeks, seeking a crack in the defenses guarding the South Pole.

But something else attracted the officers’ interest. Squinting into the stinging air, Reynolds and Eld kept their eyes trained on a dark smudge beyond the icy barrier. They descended for a spyglass to confirm their suspicions before reporting to the ship’s commander, Captain William L. Hudson. By then they were convinced: there were mountains south of the great ice wall.

Other officers were not persuaded. Seeing only icebergs, Captain Hudson reportedly declared, “Our land has turned to ice!” In fact, Reynolds and Eld were looking at the mountains that now bear their names: Reynolds Peak and Eld Peak on the Matusevich Glacier. But it would take three days to persuade officers and crew. Even then, they could not tell if the conical mountains were islands, or if they belonged to the fabled terra australis. Proof was locked behind the massive icy barrier.

U.S.S. Peacock in Antarctica. Narrative of the U.S. Ex. Ex. 2:318 (1845). Image from Smithsonian Libraries.

The United States Exploring Expedition was the only government-sponsored naval squadron to circumnavigate the globe under American auspices. In the waning days of wooden ships, it was also the last all-sail squadron in the world to do so. Among his instructions, the squadron’s leader Lieutenant Charles Wilkes was commanded “to explore the southern Antarctic … endeavouring to reach a high southern latitude.” Then, on a second foray south, they were to “stretch towards the southward and westward as far as the Ne Plus Ultra of Cook.”

Reynolds and Eld’s discovery of the Antarctic continent gave Wilkes a new goal. Determined to prove the discovery and land on the continent, he sailed for two months along the coast. In the process, his men mapped fifteen hundred miles of the Shackleton Ice Shelf, which stood between them and the region now known as Wilkes Land. When the medical and wardroom officers petitioned to turn north in late January, Wilkes stood alone. In his Narrative, he defends his decision, declaring his belief “at whatever hazard to ship and crew, that it was my duty to proceed, and not give up the cruise until the ship should be totally disabled, or it should be evident to all that it was impossible to persist any longer.”

Fortunately for his crew, Wilkes’s instructions forced him to turn north in late February. He never set foot on the continent. (Indeed, Wilkes’s sublime failure may have been an inspiration for that great hero-villain Captain Ahab, who hunts the inscrutable “snowy whale,” Moby Dick.)

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Like Cook’s crew, the U.S. Ex. Ex. explorers were misled by icy will-o’-the-wisps as they sought land within the Antarctic Circle. Even the language used to describe massive ice forms reflects—and strives to tame—their ambiguities. Metaphoric terms such as “field ice,” “ice island,” and “iceberg” (from the German Eisberg, or “ice mountain”) ground the protean, imitative fantasias of frozen water in recognizable land features. Of the words available to Wilkes, only the relatively recent word “floe” makes no reference to land features. Often Wilkes uses “iceberg” and “ice island” interchangeably, as if reminded of the mountainous, volcanic Pacific islands he had just visited.

Today an iceberg refers specifically to a chunk of ice more than five meters (sixteen feet) across. Icebergs are divided in two categories: tabular (flat-topped) bergs, whose surfaces can exceed the size of small countries; and less expansive non-tabular bergs, often boasting chiseled and architectural formations. While glacial terminology has been honed, it retains its metaphoric character. For instance, the low-lying, flat bergs that blocked Cook’s path are still known as “field ice.” Antarctic icebergs form when masses of ice break from the ancient glacial ice shelves ringing the Antarctic continent, a process known as “calving.” As the bergs drift northward, warm air and water carve them into fanciful shapes that seize the imagination.

Right now, one such berg is edging into the Weddell Sea. Identified only as A-68, this trillion-ton mass of ice calved last week, between July 10 and July 12, from the Larsen C ice shelf, along a tendril of land that reaches out from Antarctica towards Cape Horn. While cameras snap up data and scientists puzzle over causes, writers have tried to wrestle the iceberg into perspective. It is roughly the size of Delaware. Four times the size of London. A quarter the size of Wales. These comparisons draw Antarctica from the frozen margin of our world into the blazing spotlight. But more than anything, they put us into perspective. Humans discovered Antarctica less than two centuries ago, and already it is vanishing into the sea.

We are fortune that some imaginations have captured these unpredictable formations for those of us who have never—and may never—set eyes on them. Even the usually prosaic Wilkes marvels at their mystic grandeur. He compares the bergs to icy gemstones, “showing all the shades of the opal, others emerald green,” and observes the way sun refracts within their translucent bodies. Although solid, the ice remains open to light, sparking endless variations in its aspect. The ice forms are so versatile that some mimic the opacity of a cliff face in shades “of a deep black, forming a strong contrast to the pure white.”

Wilkes also turns to architecture as he sails through a veritable city of “bergs.” Their “perfectly smooth” sides seem “chiseled,” while some “exhibited lofty arches of many-coloured tints,” where petrels dive and swoop as though among the “pinnacles and turrets” of a “gothic keep.” The shapes “recalled the recollection of ruined abbeys, castles, and caves.” Wilkes writes with strange redundancy, as if echoing through the past. He builds with fervor:

These tabular bergs are like masses of beautiful alabaster: a verbal description of them can do little to convey the reality to the imagination of one who has not been among them. If an immense city of ruined alabaster palaces can be imagined, of every variety of shape and tint, and composed of huge piles of buildings grouped together, with long lanes or streets winding irregularly through them, some faint idea may be formed of the grandeur and beauty of the spectacle.

Alabaster is most often used for very small objects, and famously for tomb decorations; these ruined alabaster palaces are the stuff of dreams. Wilkes had stepped into a world and a time apart.

“Ice-Island.” Narrative of the U.S. Ex. Ex. 2:357 (1845). Image from the Smithsonian Libraries.

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Even after the Ex. Ex. confirmed the existence of Antarctica, the environment exercised its disorienting power. Looking back on the cruise, Wilkes pauses his defensive bombast about “the public good,” “national pride,” and “the honour of our flag” to contemplate the Antarctic and its icy forms. He muses that “the time and circumstances under which we were … threading our way through these vast bergs, we knew not to what end, left an impression upon me of these icy and desolate regions that can never be forgotten.”

“We knew not to what end.” And what end could there be? At the axis of the world, where latitude tightens into ever-smaller circles, and lines of longitude converge to a point; where winds like lost souls howl at a hundred miles an hour in an endless ring, never touching land—what end could be found by a man starving for glory? So Wilkes’s men may have asked in 1840, as their zealous commander held them in orbit around the South Pole.

As the Antarctic winter approached, the strange ice forms closing in around them contrasted with the solid land the men were seeking—the “end” that could be readily identified. The contrast was borne out when real mountains were sighted. Just as Reynolds and Eld had been wary of deceitful mirages, so another lieutenant on the Ex. Ex., Cadwalader Ringgold, sought to distinguish the distant mountains from unpredictable ice or atmospheric forms. He did so by watching for changes in coloration over time. The icebergs “were all light and brilliant,” Ringgold wrote, whereas the mountain “remained the same” throughout an hour’s observation, and “at sunset the appearance remained the same” still.

The mountain’s consistent solidity—of shape, aspect, and identity—was alien to the translucent forms of frozen liquid. Seeking land, the men had found a city, an archipelago, almost a continent of ice. Susceptible to wind and water, changing shape and color, and resembling a wild array of images, these ice forms are metaphoric through and through. And they defeated “verbal description” even for Wilkes, who passed among them in search of land he could call land, where a mountain is a mountain.

“Iceberg.” Narrative of the U.S. Ex. Ex. 2:351 (1845). Image from the Smithsonian Libraries.

Marissa Grunes is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University, where she focuses on nineteenth-century American literature.

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