The Paris Review

Masses of Beautiful Alabaster

Johann G. A. Forster, Ice Islands with ice blink, 1773, gouache on paper. Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Painted during Cook’s second voyage.

At noon on February 21, 1773, as the Antarctic sun glittered on the decks of the HMS Resolution, a cry of “land” ricocheted through the tiny world of wood, water, and ice. Captain James Cook examined the slate-gray smudge on the southern horizon, and his crew eagerly followed his gaze. For two months they had been seeking the terra australis incognita—the unknown southern continent—first proposed by Aristotle in 350 B.C. Satisfied by what he saw, Cook ordered his men to “work up” to the land, watching its contours sharpen to jagged mountains as they tacked toward it. Two hours later, they were confounded. The land had grown hazy again and seemed to drift away from them, as if dissolving. In his narrative of the voyage, Cook would write, “We thought we saw land to the S.W. The appearance was so strong, that we doubted not it was there in reality, and tacked to work up to it accordingly … We were, however, soon undeceived, by finding that it was only clouds,” which disappeared by evening.

Cook had begun by seeking Cape Circumcision, a spit of land sighted by the French captain Bouvet de Lozier in 1739. He found instead a realm of bewildering mirage. Along with

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