Jean-Baptiste Charcot was born on the 15th July 1867 at Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. He followed in his father’s footsteps; Jean-Martin Charcot into the medical profession, but his true love was with the sea.
Charcot purchased his yacht the “COURLIS” in his early twenties, and soon upgraded it to the “POURQUOI-PAS.”
In 1893 his father died, leaving him an inheritance of 400,000 gold francs. In 1896 he married the grand-daughter of Victor Hugo, but his wife did not share his interest for scientific exploration.
He commissioned Gauther Ship Builders to build the “FRANCAIS” a three masted schooner built of oak, measuring 150 feet in length with a 25 foot beam, and a reinforced bow.
The French Antarctic Expedition, raised 450,000 francs, and President Emile Loubet’s undertaking of an expedition for France.
He sailed south aboard the Francais into the Antarctic waters, exploring the islands, charting coastlines and gathering botanical, zoological, hydrographical and meteorological data along the way.
On the 27th August 1903, the Francais left LeHarve with Paul Pleneau, friend and supporter and Adrien de Gerlache a Belgium explorer on board. They stopped at Madeira, then on to Pernambuco in Brazil, where Gerlache left the expedition, and continued on to Buenos Aires, arriving in mid-November.
Two scientists; Turquet and Gourdon from the recently rescued Swedish exploration led by Otto Nordenskjold, joined Charcot’s expedition.
On the 23rd December they sailed from Buenos Aires to Orange Harbour, Tierra del Fuego and moved southwards.
In early February of 1904, they witnessed icebergs in the South Shetlands, moving slowly along the shore of Palmer Archipelago.
Their ships boiler pipes ruptured on the 5th February, which created a drop in pressure. They slowly hobbled, through iceberged landscapes into Biscoe Bay off Cape Errera, then onto Flanders Bay, where she remained until 18th February whilst repairs were carried out.
The Francais, reached the inlet of Wiencke Island on the 19th February, where they turned south, but engine troubles and ice blocked pipes, slowed them down. They hobbled on, pulling into a bay off the north coast of Wandel Island, now known as Booth Island, to see out the winter.
Structures were erected on the snow covered island, to house scientific instruments and the crew. In early April scientific studies were well on the way. Lieutenant Matha and Rallier du Baty were responsible for astronomical and topographical observations, Turquet collected zoological samples, Gourdon, the geologist classified minerals and rocks, and Pleneau worked his magic on the engines and created a photographic record of the expedition.
As winter set in, temperatures plummeted to -36° F. As they wrapped themselves in clothes huddling themselves round the fire … eager to retain some warmth in their bodies.
On the 24th November, they used the whaleboat to transport camping equipment, supplies and scientific equipment to Petermann Island. The next leg took them to Graham Land Coast, where they were forced to drag the whaleboat through the ice, for five hard labouring days. Finally reaching their destination, they climbed 2900 foot high crest of Cape Tuxen, spending seven days surveying Graham Land Coast between Booth Island and Biscoe Islands located to the south.
Come mid-December, much of the ice had been cleared from the bay by southerly winds. They cleared a channel through the ice, releasing the FRANCAIS from her prison to escape into open waters.
On the 26th December they weighed anchor, as the FRANCAIS sjowly chugged through packed ice, and navigated the channel between Adelaide Island and the Loubet Coast.
On the 13th January 1905, sixty miles to the south of Alexander Island, they struck a rock below the water line, and water flooded in. Pumps had to be operated by hand, as the engines had barely enough power to drive the ship.
To keep the ship afloat, Libois carried out temporary repairs to the hull, whilst the crew worked forty-five minutes out of every sixty minutes, twenty-four hours a day pumping handles with freezing hands, in an attempt to reach Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island.
On the 29th January they pulled in to Wiencke Island, where they made repairs. On the 15th February the FRANCAIS passed Smith Island on route to Puerto Madryn at Tierra del Fuego.
As the FRANCAIS limped into Buenos Aires, she was welcomed by the ships in port. In dry-dock a twenty-four foot rip to her keel was discovered.
The crew of the FRANCAIS along with seventy-five crates of scientific results, left Buenos Aires, aboard the ALGERIE, bound for France on the 5th May 1905.
France had a new hero; “Commandant Charcot.” His expedition was hailed as a success, for they had charted some 620 miles of coasts and islands…
The success of his expedition, left a thirst, he was eager to return to the Antarctic and complete his life’s work.
He put forward his plan to the Academy of Sciences, and it was also approved by the Museum and Oceanographical Institute, which helped him in his effort to raise the capital through the government and scientific institutes. In all 710,000 francs in financial aid was received, and the Prince of Monaco, offered an oceanographical outfit of vessel used for said expedition.
In September of 1907, construction began of the POURQUOI-PAS, similar design to that of the FRANCAIS, but much stronger by design, which also included an inner-hull. The engine was built by Labrosse and Fouche of Nantes, capable of producing 450 horse power.
On the 15th August 1908, the expedition left Le Harve, with twenty-two crew members and his new young wife Meg, whom he had married on the 24th January 1907, after his first wife had divorced him on the grounds of desertion. She would stay with the expedition until they reached Punta Arenas, then return home to France.
On the 12th October the POURQUOI-PAS reached Rio de Janeiro, and then onto Buenos Aires and Punta Arenas.
The POURQUOI-PAS departed Punta Arenas on the 16th December, arriving at Smith Island on the 22nd, turning south-east to Deception Island. Here they were greeted by a colony of Norwegian whaling ships. They left on the 25th December 1908, and reached Booth Island on the 29th, where the FRANCAIS had moored up for the winter months.
On the 1st January 1909, Charcot renamed the harbour at Petersen Island to that of Port Circumcision in honour of Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier, the French explorer.
History was to haunt them, yet they didn’t see it coming… Charcot, Gourdon and Godfrey took the launch out, to view the area close to Cape Tuxen. Memories were still fresh, when they had to drag the whaleboat from Petermann Island to the coast, during the FRANCAIS expedition.
The water’s were ice free, thus no supplies were required, and they had intended returning in a few hours. They sought out a route to the south, once observations of the area near Bertholet Islands had been completed; they started back to the ship.
Snow had started falling, and the channel was blocked by freezing ice floes. They spent three days and three nights, before being rescued by the POURQUOI-PAS.
History repeated itself once again, the POURQUOI-PAS ran aground and the stern deck was under water. The engine was undamaged, and on the next high tide, she was floated off. She headed to Petermann Island for repairs.
By the end of January 1909 the POURQUOI-PAS had crossed the Antarctic Circle and sailed the length of Adelaide Island. They charted the coastline, and entered the Bay of Adelaide Island, mapped it and named it Marguerite Bay after Charcot’s wife Meg. At the end of January the ship headed for Port Circumcision harbour, where they made camp for the winter.
By March of 1909, the Antarctic autumn was drawing to a close, only to be replaced by April snow storms, as temperatures plummeted. Charcot was struck down with polar anemia, his legs swelled and each breath was painful. An expedition headed to Graham Island and by mid-October Charcot showed signs of improvement in his health.
By early November the POURQUOI-PAS had left their winter quarters arriving at Deception Island on the 27th November 1909.
Inspection of the hull; history had repeated itself once again, the hull was damaged, and part of the keel had been torn away.
On the 7th January 1910 the POURQUOI-PAS sailed south, and crossed the 69th parallel. They sailed westwards and on the 11th January 1910, sighted land at 70° south and 76° west within the Antarctic Circle and named it “Charcot Land” in memory of his father. On the 11th February 1910, they arrived at Punta Arenas, continuing north and by the early part of June had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
The POURQUOI-PAS sailed up the River Seine, to crowds of cheering on-lookers.
The second expedition by French Explorer; Jean-Baptiste Charcot had surveyed some 1250 miles of coastline and undiscovered territories. Maps created were still being used some twenty-five years later. Over 3,000 photographs and scientific data had been collected; equalling twenty-eight volumes.
During World War One, Charcot commanded a British Royal Navy Q-Boat, and was awarded the (DSC) Distinguished Service Cross.
On the 15th September 1936, the POURQUOI-PAS, met her end off the coast of Iceland during a storm. Jean-Baptiste Charcot aged 69, went down with his ship.