Carte des Terres Australes, click for larger image

Detail, Carte des Terres Australes, 1739. BNF

The Last Place on Earth

Bouvet Island

In Oddities, A Book of Unexplained Facts Rupert Gould wrote:

“Around Bouvet Island, it is possible to draw a circle of one thousand miles radius (having an area of 3,146,000 square miles, or very nearly that of Europe) which contains no other land whatever. No other point of land on the earth’s surface has this peculiarity.” 1

Indeed, the tiny uninhabited island – a glacier-covered volcanic shield lying at the far southern end of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – is literally the most remote place on Earth. Perhaps then it’s no wonder that it proved so elusive to 18th and 19th century polar explorers.

Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier was educated in Paris then studied navigation at St. Milo. He joined the French East India Company and by 1731 had reached the rank of lieutenant. At the young age of 30 he petitioned his employers with a plan for an “exploratory mission” of the southern seas for land that could accommodate French trading vessels on route to the Far East.

On 19 Jul 1738, outfitted with the Aigle and Marie he set sail for Brazil. After repairs and provisioning on Santa Catarina Island he sailed south, crossing the 44th parallel in early December. By the end of the month the expedition was some 1600 miles from inhabited land sailing in increasingly difficult, uncharted polar waters.

At 3:00 pm on New Years Day, 1739 he spotted “a very high land, covered with snow, which appeared through the mist.” He spent 12 days attempting to harbor but found that conditions made it impossible. With his crew nearly freezing to death and suffering from scurvy he was forced to turn north, eventually reaching the Cape of Good Hope on Feb 24.

Bouvet was convinced that the land he found was a promontory of the fabled Terra Australis and named it Cap de la Circoncision (Cape of Circumcision).2 It was, according to his calculations, 54°S, 11°E, making it the southernmost point of land ever sighted. The map of his voyage (above) prepared by Philippe Buache, a leading polar theorist, became immediately influential, adding to the scant cartographic knowledge below the 50th parallel.

In 1754 Buache prepared a second edition of the map showing the Cape of Circumcision attached to his fanciful rendition of Terres Antartiques:

Carte des Terres Australes, click for larger image

Carte des Terres Australes, 1754. BNF

Accurate reckoning of longitude was the fundamental problem of 18th century navigation and Bouvet’s calculations placed his discovery considerably too far east. James Cook, on the Antarctic leg of his 1772 and 1776 expeditions, attempted locate Bouvet’s Cape with no success.

The Cape was next sighted in 1808 by James Lindsay, captain of the British whaler Snow Swan. He, too, was unable to land, although he did recognize the promotory as an island which he circumnavigated and named after himself – Lindsay Island. The first landing occured in 1822 by the American Benjamin Morrell aboard the seal hunting ship Wasp. Morell named it Bouvettes Island, in honor of its discoverer. Three years later George Norris, master of the British whaler Sprightly, landed on the island, claimed it for the British Crown and named it Liverpool Island.

Then the island simply disappeared. Subsequent explorers, such as James Clark Ross in 1843 or Thomas Moore in 1845, all failed to again locate it. As Boudewijn Büch famously wrote “[they] knew it existed, but that’s all [they] knew.” 3

The island was rediscovered by the marine biologist Carl Chun during his 1898 German Deep-Sea Expedition aboard the steamer Valdivia. On 3 Nov 1898, at the exact same time of day Bouvet recorded his sighting 159 years earlier, he spotted the island and made the first accurate calculations of its size (19 mi2) and position (54°26'4"S. 03°24'2"E). The accounts of the expedition included the first photographs and map:

Bouvet Island, click for larger image

Bouvet Island, southeast side, as seen at sunrise, eight miles distant, Nov 26, 1898. From ref. 4

Bouvet Island, click for larger image

Bouvet Island, south side Nov 26, 1898. From ref. 4

Bouvet-Insel, click for larger image

Bouvet-Insel. From ref. 5

Although remote and inhospitable, Bouvet was still of interest to 20th century whalers. The Norwegian entrepreneur Lars Christensen identified the island as a potential site for a whaling station and in 1927 sent his research vessel Norvegia to investigate. Although the island, with its nearly vertical cliffs, was a poor choice for a station, the crew under captain Harald Hornvelt landed on Bouvet, built a hut (the Villa Haapløs), and claimed the island for King Haakon VII. Despite British objections, this claim has stood.

Cape Circoncision, click for larger image

Depot at Cape Circoncision on Bouvet Island, 1927. Norsk Polarhistorie

Here is the expedition’s map of the island:

Bouvet-Insel, click for larger image

Bouvet-Insel, 1927

Since the Norwegian annexation the island has been visited sporadically by scientific expeditions. For the International Geophysical Year and again in the 1960s the Royal South African Navy conducted meteorological expeditions. They performed the first true surveys and the RSA Hydrographic Office produced a map in 1955 and a bathymetric chart in 1967. For two decades these were the best maps of the island available. Here is a sadly 2-bit version of the 1955 map:

Bouvet Island, click for larger image

Bouvet Island, 1955. From ref. 6

The 1977/78 Norwegian Antarctic Research Expedition performed a completely new survey, including helicopter photogrammetry, doppler satellite geodesy and echo sounder hydrography. Their maps, although the most detailed to date, were nevertheless incomplete; constant low cloud cover prevented mapping of the eastern slope of the island. In his description of the map Sigurd Helle wrote “A future, more complete surveying may indeed give a new map which may deviate from the enclosed.” 7

Bouvetoya 1:20 000, click for larger image

Bouvetøya 1:20 000, 1981. From ref. 7

Bouvetoya 1:60 000, click for larger image

Bouvetøya 1:60 000, 1981. From ref. 7

The 1985/86 Norwegian expedition, blessed with a unusual period of cloudless weather, was able to photograph the entire island, establish new control points and complete the earlier surveys.8 Their new topographical map was published in 1986 and updated several times. It may very well be the last great paper map of the island

Bouvetoya 1:20 000, click for larger image

Bouvetøya 1:20 000, 2000. Norsk Polarinstitutt

Today, in an era of high-res remote sensing, no place is truly too remote – its all just a satellite photo away:

Bouvet Island, click for larger image

Bouvet Island from the ISS, 13 Sep 2008. NASA

Bouvet Island, click for larger image

Bouvet Island from Landsat 8, 26 May 2013. NASA

1. Gold, Rupert. “The Auroras, and Other Doubtful Islands” in Oddities, A Book of Unexplained Facts. London: Philip Allan & Co., 1928 (WorldCat).

2. Bouvet named his newly-discovered cape after the 1 Jan Catholic Feast of the Circumcision.

3. See: Büch, Boudewijn. Eilanden. Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 1991 (WorldCat).

4. Chun, Carl. Aus den Tiefen des Weltmeeres: Schilderungen von der Deutschen Tiefsee-expedition. Berlin: Gustav Fischer, 1903 (online).

5. Die Deutsche Tiefsee-Expedition auf dem Schiff “Valdivia,” 1898/1899: Nach Amtlichen Berichten. Berlin: 1899 (online).

6. Burdecki, Felix. Errichtung einer Wetterstation auf Bouvet Oya? Polarforschung. 1965 35 (1/2): 38–41 (online).

7. Bouvetøya, South Atlantic Ocean: Results from the Norwegian Antarctic Research Expeditions 1976/77 and 1978/79. Skrifter 175. Oslo: Norsk Polarinstitutt, 1981 (online).

8. Report of the Norwegian Antarctic Research Expedition (NARE) 1984/85. Rapportserien 22. Oslo: Norsk Polarinstitutt, 1985 (online).

21 Jul 2013, updated 26 Feb 2014 ‧ Cartography

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