In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica to the uncharted continent of Antarctica. Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica's crew and the ship's logbook, Sancton tells a story of human extremes, one that even today NASA studies for research on isolation for future missions to Mars.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth—Julian Sancton’s exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing account of the Belgica’s disastrous Antarctic expedition—is a narrative of cascading system failures ... The crew of the Belgica kept diaries of the expedition, which provide an extraordinary treasure trove for Madhouse. Sancton uses the explorers’ personal accounts to tease out the personalities and fears and rivalries of his subjects ... There’s more scope in Madhouse for dark humor than for general levity, and Sancton knows when to employ it ... Although Sancton devotes the latter portion of his book to the post-Belgica exploits of Cook and Amundsen, it’s the blinking, confused return of the crew to civilization that really brings the narrative home.
Bringing forward the release of Madhouse at the End of the Earth before Covid restrictions were eased on the grounds that it was the ultimate lockdown read. Or maybe now is the perfect time to publish it as, venturing gingerly out again, we find ourselves succumbing to lockdown nostalgia ... Sancton’s own prose serves the reader well as he negotiates a path through what must have been a submerged mass of research documents ... he coaxes his material into a watertight narrative. One member of the crew goes completely mad, the rest are exhausted, enervated, listless, forced to reassert themselves against their captivity when the sun reappears and the slow thaw brings hope and a new set of dangers. We’ll leave them there, two-thirds of the way through this utterly enthralling book. Some of them, we know, will survive – and we also know that by 1926 Cook will be locked up in Kansas. How on earth, we wonder, does he wind up there?
In graphic and meticulously researched detail Sancton describes the countless impediments that pushed these men to the brink of insanity ... filled with historical facts, astonishing detail, and firsthand narratives of the Belgica’s crew. Sancton does a brilliant job of transporting the reader to a far-off place and time. In its most basic structure, this work is a study of human nature under horrific conditions and how leadership, professionalism, and compassion ultimately prevailed over madness and disease. The use of primary sources and Sancton’s unique, almost novel-like writing style is captivating. One can almost feel the sting of the Antarctic coldness and imagine the endless darkness and despair as it wraps its brutal shroud upon the crew. The endless monotony of not knowing whether they would survive and the toll it took upon their psyche is profound and gut-wrenching. Anyone who appreciates historical narrative in which the boundaries of human endurance are examined will wholeheartedly appreciate this book.