Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Louis Bernacchi: Saga of the 'Discovery'

I never knew Louis Bernacchi, my great-uncle, because he died five years before I was born, but I met his widow in 1966 when she visited my grandmother, Louis's sister, in Cambridge.

She was a formidable lady, visiting from Hong Kong with her son, Brook. It was mid-summer and a fine day and we all went to lunch at the Garden House Hotel down Mill Lane because they had a large dining room overlooking the River Cam.

When we got there the dining room was almost empty and the head waiter led us to a dark corner far away from the tables by the window. My grandmother said, "Can't we have one of those tables by the windows?". The head waiter replied, "Madam, we have people coming all the way from London to eat here!" "Well," said Mrs Bernacchi, "we've come all the way from Hong Kong." With a bad grace, the head waiter ushered us to a table in the middle of the dining room. As the first course was being served he came and said to the waiter who was doling out the soup, "Do look after our distinguished guests from overseas!" and abruptly disappeared.

(Incidentally, I went back to the Garden House for dinner about two months later as a guest of a famous London caterer. This time the obsequiousness of that same head waiter was a joy to behold.)

After lunch we walked down to the Scott Polar Research Museum in Lensfield Road, where Louis's diaries are housed. They got out a diary from his first visit to Antarctica in 1898 as a member of the Carsten Borchgrevink expedition. Brook read out at random, aloud, a very forthright entry about an altercation Louis had with Borchgrevink, ending up "well if the cap fits, let him wear it!" The truth of the matter is that this expedition was the first to realise that the six month black out of perpetual winter can have a drastic effect on personalities confined together for so long. (The expedition lasted until 1900 and was the first in which humans overwintered on the continent.)

It is because of his membership of this expedition that the Australians regard Bernacchi as the first Australian antarctic explorer because, although born in Brussels of Italian and Belgian parents, the family emigrated to Australia where his father rented the whole of Maria Island off the coast of Tasmania.

Maria Island is now an uninhabited national park and a luxury four day hike of the island culminates in a night in what was Louis's family home. (see Maria Island Walk)

Louis went to school in Hobart, where he lodged with Field Marshall Montgomery's parents. Montgomery's father was Bishop of Tasmania. (I do not know how Louis got on with the Montgomerys but Field Marshal Montgomery so hated his mother that he refused to go to her funeral.)

There is a marvellous modern statue of Louis on the harbour front at Hobart, (of him taking a self-portrait - the first selfie?), surrounded by dogs and packing crates.

Louis got back to London from Antarctica in 1900 (by that time the family had relocated to England). He published an account of his trip, To the South Polar Regions in 1901, in which he displays an astonishing ability to describe the beauty and awesomeness of this unexplored landscape.

When I first read Sara Wheeler's bestselling travel book, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica I was slightly surprised to see that many of her chapter headings held quotations from Bernacchi's unpublished writing. Several years later I read that, having studied Bernacchi's diaries at the Scott Polar Research Museum, she regarded him as her favourite diarist of the heroic age.

In 1901 Louis was invited by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to join his first expedition to Antarctica on board the RSS Discovery, to replace the physicist who had to drop out due to ill health. Louis made haste to join the expedition in New Zealand. There is a bit of a mystery about this replacement referred to in this brief video of Sir Clement Markham's personal scrapbook. (Markham was the patron of the expedition who appointed Scott to lead it).

The RSS Discovery returned to the United Kingdom in 1904 and in 1906 Louis married Winifred Harris. Captain Scott was the best man at his wedding and during the reception said to him, "Well, Louis, I am looking forward to you coming on my next expedition!" Upon which his formidable bride said "He's not coming," which, under the circumstances, is perhaps just as well.

Louis's book, Saga of the 'Discovery' was published in 1938, a year before war broke out, and Louis died in London in 1942. The book sank almost without trace, and for several decades after the war there was very little interest in books about Antarctica.

In 2001 my family and I were lucky enough to be invited by Discovery Point in Dundee, where the RSS Discovery is now housed as part of a magnificent museum, open 364 days a year, to take part in the Centenary celebrations.

I decided to reissue my great-uncle's book, with the permission of his descendants, in time for the Centenary and took a lot of copies to Dundee the week before the celebrations. Selling the book was a revelation to me, because every single bookshop took stock, even the bargain bookshops. The fine academic shop James Thin, took a dozen copies and the buyer said to me, "How nice to subscribe a book that I know I am going to sell!"

The book has been reissued this year in regular and ebook editions, now with photos and maps from the original edition which, for technical reasons, we were unable to incorporate in our 2001 edition.

But the good news for our large print customers is that we have authorised ReadHowYouWant to do a large print edition which you can find on our website here.

It is a surprisingly good read: our local book group read it, not at my instigation, and I was gratified to find how many enjoyed it so much, and recommended it to friends outside the group.

Guy Garfit