Home » Reviews

Today the penguins, tomorrow the world

5 August 2012 509 views No Comment

MEMBERS of the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition of 1929-31 led by Douglas Mawson claim Proclamation Island for Britain in 1930. Picture: Frank Hurley, courtesy of the National Archives. Source: Supplied

IT now seems clear that, on January 28, 1820, Russian captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and his colleagues were the first humans to sight the Antarctic coast.

“Words cannot describe the delight which appeared on all our faces, at the cry of ‘Land! Land!’ ” Bellingshausen wrote.

MNIR Story Ad

This after a “long monotonous voyage, amidst unceasing dangers from ice, snow, rain, sleet and fog”. But, as David Day points out in his fine book, Antarctica: A Biography, the hazy conditions left Bellingshausen somewhat uncertain of just what he had discovered.

Was it, as he hoped, the southern continent that James Cook had “so assiduously searched for, or just an uncharted island of little consequence”. In fact, it would be more than a century before geographers were certain there was a continent at the South Pole and confirmed that Bellingshausen’s expedition had been the first to see it.

Although Day’s writing is occasionally dense, his biography of Antarctica is a remarkable work of scholarship and sustained analysis, exhaustively endnoted and extremely well indexed. It is disturbing to read how the first traders to arrive at the vast southern continent engaged in wanton, large-scale destruction of seals and whales.

It is also instructive to be informed about how explorers, who made territorial claims for their respective nations, often described their expeditions in terms of conquest. Hence many wrote about launching “assaults” on the South Pole and even fighting “battles” with the penguins. As Day wryly puts it

There was an implicit suggestion that the dispossession of the penguins somehow justified the takeover of territory, although it was more often nature itself that was regarded as the foe that had to be defeated.

From an Australian perspective, the sections of Antarctica dealing with Douglas Mawson are fascinating. Unlike explorers such as Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the Yorkshire-born Mawson, who arrived in Australia at the age of two in 1884, was the first to make the claiming of Antarctica his primary goal.

A geologist by training, Mawson highlighted what Day terms the “nation-building potential” if Australia’s young men were able to achieve greatness in the Antarctic. Indeed, Mawson said, his expedition would “bring Australia to the attention of the world” and wrap the nation in “the prestige that comes from being strong enough to investigate and claim new territory”. But as Australia was then very much a dependant dominion, that claim was to be made on behalf of the British Empire, based on discovery, which would outweigh any claims that other nations, including France or the US, might make.

In his expedition on board the Aurora, which departed Hobart in December 1911, Mawson employed two innovations to help him generate worldwide publicity. One was the use of the radio which, as Day explains, would “allow instant reports of [Mawson’s] activities and achievements to be printed”, sometimes within hours, at most by a day or two. The other was newly invented colour photographs, taken by the remarkable young Australian Frank Hurley, who was given the task of bringing the Antarctic to life for distant audiences.

Landing at the unrelentingly bleak Cape Denison in January 1912, Mawson established his main base there in dire conditions. Soon after, a second camp was located on an ice shelf further west.

Mawson and his men endured almost unimanginable physical and mental privations in exploring large areas of the Antarctic coast, in the process endeavouring to describe its geological, biological and other characteristics.

When Mawson finally made it back to Cape Denison — without his companions, former British soldier Belgrave Ninnis and Swiss skier Xavier Mertz, who had died in December 1912 and January 1913 respectively — the Aurora had left only a few hours before. Mawson and six men who remained behind were not evacuated until December 1913. Mawson’s experiences, including the achievement of more closely defining the location of the South Magnetic Pole, were outlined in his remarkable book Home of the Blizzard, published in 1915, and in a subsequent extensive lecture tour beginning in the US.

Although the Antarctic Treaty, ratified a year after Mawson’s death in 1958, was supposed to put a stop to national rivalries on the continent, in some ways these have continued nevertheless. Fortunately, these days Antarctica is also an area of increasing international co-operation.

While this felicitous situation should be encouraged, what needs to happen on the continent is an absolute prohibition, forever, on all mineral extraction, including oil. This will secure the future of this remarkable place for generations to come.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.

Antarctica: A Biography
By David Day
Knopf Australia, 624pp, $45 (HB)

The Weekend Australian
August 4-5, 2012, Review, BOOKS pp24-25