Fabian Gottlieb Benjamin von Bellingshausen is said to have been born on 20 September 1778 (9 September, Old Style) at Hoheneichen, on the island of Ösel (Saaremaa), in Estonia, the son of Fabian Ernst von Bellingshausen and his wife, Anna Katharina von Folckern (or Fölckeren). The Russian version of his name was Faddei Faddeevich Bellinsgauzen. He came from a landowning family of Baltic Germans with a tradition of service to the Russian government. At the age of 10 he enrolled in the Russian navy. From 1803 to 1806 he took part in the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe. He then commanded ships in the Baltic and Black seas and was made a captain in 1816.
In 1819 Bellingshausen was appointed commander of the southern polar expedition which left the Russian naval base of Kronstadt in the Gulf of Finland in July 1819. He had charge of two ships, the Vostok and the Mirny. His orders were to explore as far south as possible and to engage in scientific work. The Vostok's library included editions of all three of James Cook's voyages. In December 1819 South Georgia was mapped, and discoveries made in the South Sandwich Islands. Sailing further south in January 1820, Bellingshausen sighted the coast of Antarctica, but did not realise the magnitude of his discovery. The expedition then made for Port Jackson (Sydney), which Bellingshausen reached on 11 April 1820.
Leaving Port Jackson on 20 May, Bellingshausen tried to go north in the Vostok to spend the winter exploring the Pacific. Winds drove him eastward and he arranged a rendezvous with the Mirny at Queen Charlotte Sound. Both ships passed through Cook Strait and anchored in Ship Cove on 9 June 1820 (28 May, Old Style), where two canoes rowed out to them. An old man standing in the leading canoe made a speech and was invited on board. Bellingshausen used the Māori vocabulary compiled by Cook to request fish, which was bought in large quantities. Trading took place over the following days and the Russians acquired carved artefacts, greenstone ornaments and woven flax clothing. The Māori Bellingshausen met were familiar with Europeans: they requested nails and axes and showed fear of guns. Comparing what he observed with Cook's description of the same area, Bellingshausen found potato gardens where there had been no food cultivation 50 years before. The Māori Bellingshausen observed were probably Rangitane: he noted their tattoos and their distinctive wearing of nose sticks. Their society was subsequently destroyed by tribes from the north armed with muskets.
Bellingshausen left the sound on 16 June 1820 (4 June, Old Style), but a storm drove the vessels back. Leaving again on 21 June, they sailed past Cape Palliser. A great fire was observed, which Bellingshausen thought was intended to attract his ships. Te Rauparaha, who was in the Cook Strait area at the time with a large war party, is said to have seen European ships, which were probably Bellingshausen's.
Bellingshausen then sailed to the Tuamotu archipelago, where he made many discoveries. He returned to Port Jackson for supplies in September 1820, and in November headed south again. The expedition discovered Peter I Island and Alexander Island, and explored and mapped Macquarie Island. Bellingshausen then returned to South Georgia, completing his circumnavigation of the Antarctic. In July 1821 he returned to Kronstadt. His detailed and meticulous account of the expedition was published in St Petersburg in 1831.
Probably in 1826 Bellingshausen married Anna Dmitrievna Baykova. The same year he was made a rear admiral, and in 1828–29 took part in the Russian campaign against Turkey. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1831 and in 1839 became military governor of Kronstadt. He is reported to have died there on 25 January 1852 (13 January, Old Style). In the southern hemisphere Bellingshausen's exploration is commemorated by placenames in the Tuamotu group, French Polynesia, the South Sandwich Islands and Antarctica. His account of his brief visit to New Zealand is a unique and valuable description of Māori life in Queen Charlotte Sound.