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An Italian Prince of Savoy might have conquered the Arctic

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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This edited article about Arctic exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 757 published on 17th July 1976.

Lieutenant Cagni, picture, image, illustration

Lieutenant Cagni attempting to reach the North Pole by Graham Coton

Towards the end of the 19th century, the attention of the world had been attracted to the expeditions of the polar explorers, such as Nansen and Peary.

One who is perhaps not so well known but deserves special mention is the one that was led by Prince Luigi of Savoy, a prince of Royal Italian blood, who was already famous as a fearless explorer, who had climbed the Ruwenzori Mountains, among the highest in Africa, and had also been the first to conquer Mount St. Elias in Alaska.

Having succumbed finally to the beckoning finger of the north, which had already summoned so many to the Arctic, he sailed from Archangel in 1899, bound for Franz Josef Land. His ship was the Stella Polare, a steam-driven Norwegian sealer.

As the weather and ice conditions seemed to be in their favour, an attempt on the North Pole itself seemed possible. The Stella Polare managed to get as far as Cape Fligeli and then the ice closed in on her. It was decided in the circumstances to spend the winter months in Teplitz Bay.

Prince Luigi had intended to lead a party northwards, but severe frost-bite, leading to the amputation of a finger, prevented him from taking part. He therefore gave over his command to Lieutenant Cagni of the Italian Navy, who was backed initially by two supporting parties. Tragedy struck when one of the parties, consisting of a lieutenant and two sailors, turned back – and was never seen again.

For forty-five days Cagni’s main group headed northwards, experiencing the same difficulties in travelling over the ice as Nansen had experienced.

Even so they managed in the end to travel 22 miles (35 km) farther north than the record previously set up by the great Norwegian. They were exactly 200 miles (321 km) from the North Pole, and not unnaturally Lieutenant Cagni was exultant. “We have conquered,” he exclaimed. “We have surpassed the greatest explorer of the century!”

But if the outward journey had been hard, the homeward journey was even more difficult, and certainly more hazardous. Their main problem was contending with a steady westward drift of the ice pack which was so steady and strong that it nullified all their desperate efforts to overcome it.

After a fight of immense proportions against fatigue and hunger and a nerve-wracking race over the floes, they barely managed to reach Harley Island, the most westerly land on a line with Teplitz Bay.

They had failed in their objective, but at least they could console themselves with the fact that by their courage and tenacity they had placed the Italian flag at the nearest point to the North Pole to date, an achievement which justified all their hardships.

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