Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville

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Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville


French Naval officer and Explorer

Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville spent a great deal of his life on voyages of discovery for France. He is perhaps best known for his explorations near Antarctica, some performed in competition with the American vessel commanded by Charles Wilkes (1798-1877). He was also responsible for the French purchase of the statue known as the Venus de Milo and made several voyages of discovery to the southern Pacific.

Dumont d'Urville was born in rural France and by the age of 17 had entered the French Navy. He showed early talent, graduating at the top of his class and learning several languages as well as showing a talent in some of the sciences.

After several years of serving as an officer with French expeditions to the Black Sea and the South Pacific, Dumont d'Urville was given command of a voyage to the southern ocean. During this three-year voyage he charted many new islands, surveyed parts of the New Zealand coast, and circumnavigated the globe. However, on his return he was accused of undue harsh treatment of his crew and other faults. This led to his removal from command for seven years, assigned to shore duty until 1837. During this time, too, he returned with charts, maps, and large numbers of scientific specimens and sketches.

Dumont d'Urville was given command of a French expedition to the southern ocean by King Louis-Philippe, who was interested in countering English and American interests and voyages in that area. He charged Dumont d'Urville with voyaging south "as far as the ice permits" and then turning westward to continue exploring New Zealand, New Guinea, Western Australia, and the South Shetland Islands. Hoping to reach further south than any previous expedition, Dumont d'Urville promised his crew 100 francs each for reaching 70° south latitude and an additional 20 francs for each additional degree they penetrated southward.

After reaching pack ice, Dumont d'Urville and his ships followed it, attempting to penetrate within sight of the continent they felt lay to the south. They failed and, in fact, did not even reach as far south as had Weddell several years earlier. On a subsequent attempt, they did manage to penetrate some distance into the ice pack, only to have the ice close behind them. After five days of intense effort the crew succeeded in freeing the ships and their voyage continued. Finally, on January 19, 1839, he logged sighting land.

The rest of the voyage was a trial for the crew, who were beginning to develop scurvy, intense seasickness, fever, and dysentery. Several crew members died of these diseases before they could return to port and more died in Hobart, Tasmania, as Dumont d'Urville prepared for yet another attempt to reach the mainland in late 1839.

Dumont d'Urville finally succeeded in setting foot on land south of the Antarctic Circle on January 20, 1840, an island he claimed for France and named for his wife, Adélie. After this, he and his crew spent another eight months exploring the southern ocean before returning to Hobart, New Zealand, New Guinea, Timor, and, finally, France. When they pulled into the Toulon harbor, the expedition had been gone for over three years, during which they had accomplished an enormous amount of exploration and scientific observation for France. In recognition of this, Louis-Philippe promoted Dumont d'Urville to the rank of Rear Admiral in the French Navy, awarded him the highest honor of the French Geographical Society, and gave 15,000 francs to be distributed among the 130 surviving crew members.

Dumont d'Urville continued serving the French navy for another two years. In 1842, while on vacation with his wife and son, Dumont d'Urville was killed in a train accident near Versailles.