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Ice Works

Three Portraits of Antarctica

A group portrait from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917. Mitchell Librayr, State Library NSW [Slides 22/138]
A group portrait from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917. Mitchell Librayr, State Library NSW [Slides 22/138]
Cover: March 2012March 2012Medium length read
 

Antarctica is a mirror on which centuries of human hopes, fears and desires have been projected. Early European maps imagined the continent as a marvellous place occupying much of the southern hemisphere; but when Captain Cook went searching in the Resolution in 1773, he returned disappointed. Instead of an Arcadia, he found only a perilous wasteland of pack ice. He surmised there was a continent even further south, but dismissed it as being of no use to man.

Some 40 years after Cook, sealers from Britain and the United States reached the waters off Cape Horn and found the islands brimming with unexpected and lucrative life. Fur seals crowded the ice-crusted shores in their millions. They were gone in little more than a year. The seals were bashed senseless, their skins sliced from their carcasses, salted and shipped to China. The handsome timber houses in New England sealing ports remain as monuments to the profits of this bloody industry.

Penguins held a particular fascination for Europeans. As a vaguely anthropomorphic approximation of an indigenous population, they provided something with which men could do battle. When the curious birds approached early explorers, they were regarded, only half in jest, as natives confidently approaching a modern Columbus. Penguins who came within reach were soon strangled and stuffed for display in the new museums of natural history. Later, penguin colonies would be corralled and fed into ‘digesters’ for their oil.

Cook and other early voyagers had commented on the whales that could be found in abundance in Antarctic waters, but they remained unmolested for more than a century. Only when the whales of the northern hemisphere had been hunted close to extinction, and new methods had been developed to kill and process these leviathans, did whalers begin to make the long voyage to the Antarctic each southern summer. More than a million whales were killed over the following 70 years, as new uses were found for their oil. The glycerin provided an ingredient for explosives in two world wars, while the hydrogenation of whale oil saw it used in foodstuffs.

More recently, the Antarctic has been treated with a new sensibility. Protection and preservation have increasingly become the watchwords since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. This brief document was touted as bringing an end to sometimes fierce territorial rivalries and ushering in a period of peaceful scientific cooperation. However, rivalry has continued among nations eager to secure the resources believed to exist beneath the ice that have not hitherto been exploited.

Back in 1773, Captain Cook could not conceive that it would ever be possible to make use of any continent that might exist at the South Pole. Writing in a secret diary that was rushed into print before Cook’s official version of the voyage could be published, seaman John Marra agreed that it would have been “fool-hardiness” for Cook to have pushed the Resolution further south than 68°S simply to discover a continent “where no European ever could have settled”. Marra’s account opens the somewhat quirky collection of Antarctic writings edited by Alasdair McGregor, Antarctica: That Sweep of Savage Splendour (Penguin, 352pp; $39.95).

Combining factual and fictional reactions to a continent that seldom leaves visitors unmoved, McGregor ranges widely to draw on some unexpected and insightful writing. One such piece is by American James Eights, the first naturalist to venture into Antarctic waters (though not to the continent itself). The gentleman scientist describes approaching polar lands “when the curtain of mist that enshrouds its glories, discloses the sublime spectacle, [and] all the feebler sensations of the mind are at once lost in the all-absorbing sentiment of delight”.

Some other pieces are more familiar. Shackleton’s account of his failed attempt on the South Pole in 1908 is well known, in which he describes the agony of approaching the Pole and having to retreat, rather than continue and face certain death on the return journey. Rushing without sledges on the last day southward, the four half-starved men quickly raised the Union Jack and claimed possession of the plateau before turning north to follow the disappearing impressions of their own footsteps. “Whatever regrets may be, we have done our best,” wrote Shackleton.

Scott wrote better, with greater pathos and without help, but his writing was presumably too familiar to be included here. Instead, he is represented by a fictional depiction of his last days in the blizzard-battered tent by Australian writer Adrian Caesar. Only two of the 26 extracts are by British writers, which is odd given the long history of British involvement with Antarctica. Fourteen pieces are by American writers, eight by Australians, the others by French explorer Jean Charcot and Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

Among the fictional accounts is a curious piece written by Mawson and printed in the Antarctic as a diversion for his companions during the long winter night. It is the story of a journey into the centre of the Earth, which clearly owes much to Jules Verne and also, perhaps, to John Cleves Symmes, Jr, who convinced credulous American audiences in the early 1820s that the Earth was composed of concentric spheres and entrances to an inner world could be found at the Poles. Just as Mawson’s fictional character is woken from his slumber to find himself back in the expedition hut, so did Americans wake up to Symmes and decline to join him on a journey to his imagined world.

The fiction ranges from Edgar Allan Poe to a piece of memorable narrative verse by Melinda Mueller depicting Shackleton’s crossing of South Georgia. Helen Garner makes an appearance, not with fiction but an account of her voyage on a Russian tourist ship to the Antarctic Peninsula, when the shyness of her fellow travellers was broken down by a bout of public puking as the ship was beset by a force ten gale. While her companions went ashore to a penguin colony loaded down with cameras to take cute pictures for their grandchildren, Garner went just with pen and notebook. She was unmoved by penguins, with their overpowering stench of “shit and feathers, with an overlay of fish”. All she wanted to do, she writes, was “go out in the boats and look at ice. Seals, penguins and whales, to me, are only distractions from the bliss of this.”

After being pulled one way and then another by McGregor’s selection, it is like steaming into a sheltered harbour to open science writer Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent (Bloomsbury, 416pp; $29.99). Having visited many of Antarctica’s scientific stations, Walker writes with quiet authority about a continent that she has come to love. Her book has an ambitious aim: “to weave together all the different aspects of Antarctica in a way that has never been done before: what it feels like to be there; why people of all kinds are drawn to it; Antarctica as a place of science, political football, holder of secrets about the Earth’s past, and ice crystal ball that will ultimately predict all our futures.” In this, she partially succeeds.

Although patches of popular history hold the book together, it is mostly a scientific excursion that visits researchers as they dive into frigid seas to study marine life from the “unexpectedly beautiful” sea spiders to the ribbon worms that “can grow to three metres long, a writhing, revolting mass of toxic slime, like naked intestines squirming around the sea floor”. Walker calls in on a French scientist who studies male emperor penguins, which spend the winters huddled together hatching the eggs of their mates. When the females eventually return and find their partners, they “press their chests up against each other and stroke each other’s heads”. Watching her subjects for months, the researcher comes to regard them as her “friends”.

Then it is off to the interior, as Walker visits scientists at the South Pole itself, where the US plonked a base in the game of territorial chess it played with the Russians and others in the 1950s. Despite Walker’s denial that science is just “an excuse to plant a flag”, the jostling for territory still continues beneath the science. A very different sort of game takes place at the South Pole when the outside temperature reaches –100°F (–73°C): some scientists race for the sauna to boost its temperature to 200°F (93°C) and then run naked into the snow, thereby gaining admission to the ‘300 Club’.

Walker’s tour finishes in West Antarctica, where most of the bases are located and where most of the tourist ships from Argentina visit. While some of the tourists will surely be toting her book in their bags, it is unlikely any will be carrying the more specialised book edited by Marcus Haward and Tom Griffiths, Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System: 50 Years of Influence (UNSW Press, 352pp; $59.95). Though an interesting collection of essays by many of Australia’s leading Antarctic specialists, it is a one-sided study, and not always easy to read.

Australia has a lot to defend in Antarctica, having annexed 42% of the continent in 1933 with a series of flag-raising ceremonies performed along the coast by Douglas Mawson. Although this massive wedge of the continent, stretching all the way to the South Pole, was supposedly Australian territory thereafter, no Australians actually went there during the next two decades. The territorial claim was a figment of Australia’s imagination and, as Australia was secretly advised by the British government, would probably never have been upheld in any court of international law.

In 1939, President Roosevelt sent his old moose-hunting companion, Richard Byrd, on an official expedition to establish permanent bases, demolishing the long-held British contention that discovery could provide a strong legal basis for the possession of polar lands. Occupation now became the essential requirement for a territorial claim, which sparked a rush by the existing Antarctic claimants to establish bases of their own. Australia and New Zealand were among the last to do so, prompted by the Russians planning bases in Australia’s territory, and the prospect of many other nations heading south during the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58.

When the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated in 1959, Australia and the other six nations with territorial claims (some of them overlapping) agreed with other nations active in the Antarctic to suspend their territorial rivalry for the duration of the treaty. Nothing that was done while the treaty was in force would affect the strength of the existing territorial claims. In many ways, it was a diplomatic triumph for all concerned, particularly as it was negotiated during the depths of the Cold War. Of course, the rivalry continued: it was not by chance that the US chose the South Pole as the site for a base, although the shifting ice cap has since caused the base to move wholly into Australian Antarctic Territory. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union countered the American move with a base at the ‘pole of inaccessibility’, the point in Antarctica most distant from the ocean.

Haward and Griffiths showcase recent historical research and include some forceful arguments about the legality of Australia’s title to its territory. As a government-sponsored project, the book necessarily celebrates the success of the Treaty and Australia’s role in creating and sustaining it. It is sure to be widely distributed at the forthcoming meeting of Treaty signatories when they meet in Hobart in June, but it is disappointing that there is no debate within its pages about the future possibilities of Australia’s relationship with the Antarctic. Nor does it have much to say on Antarctica’s importance in relation to climate change or its role, as Gabrielle Walker notes, in predicting all our futures.

About the author David Day
David Day is a prize-winning historian and an Honorary Associate in the History Program at La Trobe University. His books include Antarctica: A Biography, Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia and Menzies & Churchill at War.