The Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an engrossing account of a journey to Antarctica in 1897. One thing after another goes wrong for the crew of the Belgian whaling ship the Belgica, and they get stranded for the whole of the winter darkness, their ship frozen in a sea of ice.
Among those on board is a doctor, Dr Frederick Cook, who will later be imprisoned in his native USA for fraud. But as those on the ship suffer the effects of cold, dark, and malnutrition, his innovation and care keeps his colleagues alive. As things get worse, and the Captain withdraws, Cook seems able to turn his hand to anything. One part of the story that stayed with me was Cook creating a treatment for crew members suffering from scurvy and depression (among other things) of standing unclothed and in private in front of a fire. As Sancton notes: “His wild idea to have his ailing shipmates stand naked in front of a blazing fire is the first known application of light therapy, used today to treat sleep disorders and depression, among other things.”
The Madhouse at the End of the Earth works in many different ways. It’s a story of adventure and survival, failures of leadership, and physical and mental courage. It contributes to the history of medicine, as Sancton discovers that Cook’s case study is still used by Jack Stuster, a behavioural scientist who works with NASA, among others. As a study of how people cope, or don’t, under extreme strain, it is fascinating.
Also on the unlucky ship is Roald Amundsen, later famous as an epic Antarctic explorer in his own right. The insight given here into his early life is intriguing. He emerges as stoic in himself, and unbending in his attitude to others.
Sancton evokes the harshness of the Antarctic landscape and the claustrophobia of the trapped ship very well. “Where the water ended, the snow began, as if the ocean had risen half way up the Himalayas”. The descriptions of sounds of rats eating the crew’s limited food are suitably revolting. His impressive use of archive materials including the ship’s logs, crew diaries, and accounts published later by those who had been on board lends credibility to his review of the psychological states and emotions of those he is writing about.
He notes the colonial context to this journey, namely Belgium’s grotesque history in Africa at the time of the expedition. I was troubled by the title, uneasy about the use of ‘madhouse’, but I eventually felt it made sense for the time Sancton was writing about.
I read it over two days while on holiday, and felt lucky to have the chance to race through it. Because the story was unfamiliar to me, despite my having read a lot about Antarctic exploration, I tensely awaited each new development. It held me till the last page.