Antarctica Day: Portugal in Antarctic History (special edition)

A few months ago we were asked: What does Portugal want with Antartica?

Thinking about it, Portugal is situated on the northern hemisphere, thousands of quilometers away from the south pole. When and how did the connection between the two begin? Come back in time with us…

During the marine descovery era, a lot of ideas were out of date. In fact, Portugal and Spain contributed significantely to the globe geographic knowledge. Because of it, a competition began, with ended up with the descovery of new comercial trade routes and territories.

One of the main accomplishments of the time was the circum-navigation of the globe. The masterpiece was performed by the portuguese Fernão de Magalhães, who as the service of the spanish crown managed to travel around the globe by sea. The adventure started in 1519, and even though Fernão de Magalhães lost his life during the trip in 1521, he was the first navegator to pass the strait between the american and the antarctic continent, today known as Magalhães Strait. This accomplishment had a major importance on the way that the southern hemisphere region was known as. The antarctic continent was, until then, only idealized as a counter part to the north pole. It had been proposed by Aristótele’s antique greek (4 bC) and Ptolomeu (1 aC) that this land was named as Terra Austral Incognita, meaning southern unknown land. After the Magalhães Strait was charted, the name for Antarctica was revised and changed to “Magellanica”, in honor of the portuguese navegator. The defenition was used in charted maps until the 18th century (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Map of Antartida, formerly known as ‘’Magellanica’’.

Later on, early in the 18th century, Captain James Cook discovered a high abundance of seals in South Georgia Island, in the sub-Antarctic region. The seal hunting started taking place, for it was a valuable live marine resource. On the way back from the voyages to the northern hemisphere, one of the main intermediate ports was in Macau, back then under portuguese administration.

Fur seals (Arctocephalus spp.) were the first species of comercial interest due to their pelts, and after over-exploitation of their populations, the Southern Elephant seal became the main target for their oil. When returning home to England and to the United States of America, which took a long time, a significant quantity of salt was needed to preserve the resources captured. As a solution, the ships would stop at islands such as Cape Verde, Azores and Madeira, where the lands were arid with a big availability of salt and people ready to the recruted.

Some of the comments by people abord the ships mention the cheap food on the portuguese islands and the loyalty of the portuguese people, who were willing to get aboard under an american flag. For example, some of the food provided by the Flower Island in Azores included potatoes, onions, pumpkin and domesticated birds. However, portuguese names were badly registered on the jorneys because, as a british biologist mentioned, the americans had a hard time understanding portuguese names, and therefore these would be spelled wrong, illegible or even in an ”americanized” way.

The voyages to the islands around the Antarctic continent were almost, if not always, frequented by at least one portuguese person. The islands visited during the hunting, that lasted decades, include: Prince Edward Islands, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Amsterdam and Saint Paul Islands, Heard Island, Macquarie Island, Auckland Islands, South Shetland Islands, South Georgia Island and Gough Island (Figure 2). 

Figur2 2: Map of Antarctica and the islands were seal hunting took place.

Seal hunting in Antarctica ended in the early 20th century. Since then, in 1984, Portugal has joined SCAR (Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research) and implemented a scientific research station, Comandante Ferraz, in King Jorge’s Island. Portugal’s most recent involvement in Antarctic research intensified during the 2007-09 polar years. From the beginning of the early 00’s, Portugal was also a member of the countries which supported diplomatic organizations and investigation teams who coordinate activities regarding the hunting of seals and whales in the polar regions. In January 29th 2010 Portugal signed the Antarctic Treaty.

Portuguese citizens were directly involved with the Antarctic continent for centuries, from the maritime discoveries, through navigation and exploration of the territory, up until the hunting period, which included animals like seals and whales. The reason for their involvement is due to the Portuguese people and their unique marine patrimony, which have become, and still remain, indispensable elements of the South Pole.

Reference: Headland RK. Portugal in Antarctic History (2022). Polar Record 59(e11): 1–9. 

Authors: Débora Carmo, Graça Sofia Nunes e Santiago Villalobos