BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Man Who Discovered Antarctica: Edward Bransfield Explained – The First Man to Find and Chart the Antarctic Mainland’


Reviewer: Michael  Keith

Title:  The Man Who Discovered Antarctica: Edward Bransfield Explained – The First Man to Find and Chart the Antarctic Mainland

Author: Sheila Bransfield MA

Total Number of Pages: 318

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7


While the names of the so-called ‘Great’ Explorers (De Gamma, Columbus, Cook etc.) are well-known, there were others, equally courageous and intrepid, who are, for unknown reasons, lost to history. Edward Bransfield is one of these, and this work is an effort by a distant relative to set the record straight and to bring his hitherto-unknown name back into the spotlight; to gain the recognition that she believes he deserves.

Within the volume a page titled List of Plates follows the Contents pages. The title is self-explanatory, with the section listing the captions and sources of the 16 images which appear within a dedicated images section in the centre of the volume. It should be noted that one image contains no source details. A Foreword (by HRH The Princess Royal) follows, and is in turn followed by a six page Acknowledgements section. Within this the author thanks the various individuals and organisations who have assisted in the creation of the volume. The section is followed by another titled Why Me? This is autobiographical in nature and provides background to the author’s interest in both the volume’s subject specifically and Antarctica and Antarctic exploration in general. The 21 Chapters which form the main part of the volume now appear. Within these the life of Edward Bransfield is narrated in copious and well-researched detail, with the reader being acquainted with innumerable details relating to not only Bransfield’s life, but the social conditions (both naval and shore-based) of Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. An Epilogue follows Chapter 21 (Merchant Commander and Beyond 1821-1852). Titled The Memory of Edward Bransfield Lives On it lists the various ways in which the name of Edward Bransfield has continued to be memorialised. These range from the naming of locations, geological formations and ships of various sizes, to articles, publications and productions in a variety of media. The author’s experiences and contributions to these activities is prominent! Where necessary, the volume uses Endnote citations to provide additional information and reference sources. These are numeric in format, and sequential and Chapter-specific. The relevant citations appear within a dedicated Notes section placed after the Epilogue. A Bibliography follows the Notes section, and lists the various print and electronic sources used within the work. It is in turn followed by an Index (the volume’s final section). As previously-noted, the volume contains a 16-image photographic section. This is placed in the centre of the book.

The images within the section are monochrome in format and in addition to diagrams, art-work and museum-related images, carry photographs taken by the author in the course of her quest to rehabilitate her ancestor.  Curiously, and despite the focal point of the volume being the fact that Edward Branson was the first individual to ‘Chart’ the Antarctic Mainland, the volume contains no Maps. It is an unusual and unexpected ommission, and to a degree serves to negate the point of the exercise. No Glossary is provided; What (for example) is a ‘Press Gang’? In the absence of an explanation, the average reader cannot be expected to know. This was but one of several such ommissions. An author’s familiarity with terminology does not guarantee that others will have the same degree of knowledge.

In addition to the above, for this reviewer, the volume’s Index proved problematic. It could be best-described as being ‘Patchy’ in its application. It is largely ‘name-focussed’ (and even then limited to only a relatively few individuals) to the exclusion of other items (especially those of a geographical nature) within the narrative. To use but one example (page 260), no Index entries were found for Rio de Janeiro, Valparaiso, Port of London Authority, or Sir Charles Price. As similar ommissions were also found on other pages, how widespread the  problem is can only be guessed at. There is no way to know.

There is however another aspect to this volume which should be noted; the subjectivity of its author and what could be described as a ‘tainting’ of the narrative. This reviewer has found that where an author writes about a relative (no matter how distant), there is inevitably an element of ‘Golly-gosh, Gee-whizz’ (aka, ‘My relative can do no wrong’) in what results and that subjectivity rules. Unfortunately, this volume follows this pattern, and although the subject (Edward Bransfield) is not apparently a direct relation, the author’s position is best summarised in her own words when she states ‘I had no idea…just how extraordinary and spectacular his contribution [to Antarctic Exploration] really was or that I would become obsessed with a fascination for his life and times’. This ‘obsession’ permeates the volume and as already noted, for this reviewer has resulted in a very evident lack of objectivity, best evidenced by the inclusion of Explained within the title’s subheading; justification of another’s actions is never wise, especially when they bear the same surname.

That detail and those previously noted notwithstanding, this is a well-written, highly detailed and quite readable volume. As it is unlikely that other works on Edward Bransfield will be written, it will inevitably become the ‘Standard Reference Work’ on its subject. As such it may find an audience amongst Historians of various persuasions, while readers with an interest in the Nineteenth Century Royal Navy, Military History and especially Antarctic Exploration may well find it of interest.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Man Who Discovered Antarctica: Edward Bransfield Explained – The First Man to Find and Chart the Antarctic Mainland’