The stirring tale of Douglas Mawson’s epic trek across the Antarctic’s crevasse-ridden ice has been told to generations of Australians. Although it was Mawson who gave the story its authenticity, it was Archie McLean, the expedition’s doctor and an amateur writer, who breathed life into it.
McLean was there in February 1913 when the half-starved Mawson returned to his hut on Commonwealth Bay to tell of the deaths of his two companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. The young doctor tended to Mawson’s ravaged body and then spent more than a year working alongside Mawson to dramatise his story so that it might appeal to an audience transfixed by the race to the South Pole between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen.
Over the last century, Mawson’s official account has rarely been questioned. At least one of the expedition’s members had a very different view: Cecil Madigan, a 22-year-old science graduate taught by Mawson at Adelaide University. At 190 centimetres tall, Madigan could look the lanky Mawson in the eye. He had deferred a scholarship to Oxford to join Mawson in Antarctica, and planned to marry on his return.
On 19 November 1911, having just joined Mawson in Melbourne, Madigan began the first of eight notebooks recording his impressions of the expedition. This detailed and heartfelt diary has only recently been published (Madigan’s Account; Wellington Bridge Press, $75.00). It provides the greatest insight into the expedition since Mawson’s own 1915 account. The diary was kept private for a hundred years, evidently to avoid upsetting Mawson’s children. (Towards the end of the diary, Madigan confided that he would “feel ashamed” of things he had written about Mawson and that he would “probably be judged harshly by others”. He decided that it “need never go out of my sight”.)
Mawson had been south before. In 1909, at the age of 26, Mawson joined one of Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions and trekked almost to the South Magnetic Pole with Edgeworth David, his 51-year-old former geology professor. Mawson filled his diary with derogatory descriptions of David, finally declaring the professor “half-demented”. Only three years later, Mawson was the “old man” to the student Madigan, who was ambitious, physically fit and seven years his junior.
Initially, things went well between them. Madigan had hopes of making his reputation on the expedition and thought he would outshine his companions, whom he judged to be “very young and inexperienced”. Mawson fed those hopes by suggesting Madigan would have charge of navigation on the ice, accompanying him on a planned trek south to the magnetic pole and using a modified aircraft without wings to pull their sledge. In the event, there would not be much time to practise navigating in those first nine months ashore.
Mawson soon discovered that Commonwealth Bay, the site of the expedition’s base camp, was frequently beset with furious gales that blew a blinding wall of snow from the polar plateau. He largely abandoned plans to establish food depots along the line of the treks scheduled for the summer of 1912–13. His attempt in March 1912 to establish a depot with Madigan and Ninnis ended after just two days and 9 kilometres, with a sledge full of food and clothing abandoned high on the icy slope leading to the polar plateau.
After waiting out the winter, Mawson, Madigan and Ninnis set out on 9 August with a dog sledge, intending to reach the abandoned sledge before pushing on south. The trek did not begin well. Several vital items were forgotten, including a lantern for the long hours of darkness. As a result, Mawson decided privately that they would make no more than a brief journey.
Upon reaching the abandoned sledge on the second day, the trio began to build a cavern beneath the ice as a store and refuge from the wind and snow. While Mawson’s diary claims they all dug out the shelter, which they dubbed Aladdin’s Cave, Madigan suggests that only he and Ninnis worked on it. The resentment was exacerbated by spending 14 hours a day in a three-man sleeping bag. Madigan complained that “old Mawson made it very uncomfortable for us; he would crawl up against me for warmth and I gradually forced Nin against the side, so only half the bag was used and we could not move”.
On 13 August, they prepared to quit the cave and continue south. Madigan reported that he and Ninnis were keen to trek as far as possible and were “secretly trying to encourage [Mawson] to go on”, but were “surprised at his unwillingness to get out of the [sleeping] bag”. After covering about 5 kilometres, they were dismayed to hear Mawson announce that they should “turn round and go right back to the Hut that night”. He had taken fright at dark clouds on the horizon. The two younger men were “dumbfounded; you could have knocked me down with a feather,” wrote Madigan.
Instead of reaching the hut that night, they barely made it back to Aladdin’s Cave. Then, as they prepared to leave for the hut the following day, the onset of snowdrift persuaded Mawson to stay. All the stores had to be removed from the cave so they could re-occupy it. In the process, they were covered with snow, which made them thoroughly wet. There followed “another long night” with Mawson in the sleeping bag.
With the snowdrift continuing to obscure their vision, Mawson wanted to remain even longer. Though Madigan was used to taking daily meteorological observations regardless of the weather, Mawson protested that it was “against all Antarctic principles to move in a blizzard”. He was concerned that they might miss their bearing and be blown over the icy cliffs on each side of Commonwealth Bay.
Madigan’s diary describes a rebellion by himself and Ninnis, who packed the sledge and fed the dogs while Mawson stayed stubbornly below ground. After some time they persuaded him to emerge and join them on the dangerous downward slope. More fierce arguments ensued over direction until they finally fetched up safe at the hut.
The three then had to tell their “miserable tale” of reaching just over 13 kilometres. The experience changed Madigan’s view of Mawson. Whereas the men had often referred to Mawson as “Dux Ipse” (Latin for “the leader himself”), Madigan now mentioned him dismissively as “the Old Man” or “Old Dux Ipse”. He railed against Mawson’s reserved and authoritarian nature, complaining that “the Old Man … treats us like children as a rule”.
In September, when “the Old Man … pulled himself together, and picked three parties to do a reconnaissance lasting about a fortnight, and each to cover about fifty miles [80 kilometres]”, Madigan was “quite excited” to be made leader of one of the three-man parties, although he could not understand why Mawson assigned him “the most unsuitable men for sledging”. Anxious to prove himself, Madigan pushed them to the limit. While the other parties gave up within several days, Madigan’s party reached the 50-mile mark and returned right on time.
Madigan was pleased when Mawson subsequently named him to lead a three-man party on one of the main treks, following the coast to the east. Meanwhile Mawson would take Ninnis and Mertz on a longer, more inland easterly route. (Mawson’s plan for Madigan and him to go south to the magnetic pole had been abandoned because the modified aircraft could not be made to work.)
Mawson and Madigan were exploring on roughly parallel routes; it was turning into a contest between the two. Mawson would have the advantage, since he would be taking the 16 dogs to pull his sledges while Madigan’s party would have to pull their sledges themselves. Although Mawson was determined that his journey would be the main one, Madigan’s diary reveals that he hoped to make his own trek at least as long and scientifically significant as Mawson’s.
Madigan’s team left on 8 November, two days before Mawson’s, after smashing an empty sauce bottle on the prow of their sledge and dubbing it the MHS [Man-Hauled Sledge] Championship. He was due to meet Mawson at a food depot established by Ninnis in September about 30 kilometres from the hut. To Madigan’s annoyance, both teams were held up by a blizzard that kept them in their respective tents for three days. When the weather cleared, neither team was able to find the elusive food depot, but they did eventually find each other.
Mawson’s method of marking food depots – a flag atop a cairn of snow, vulnerable to winds and snowdrift – was inadequate, and this would not be the only time it led to a depot being missed. Amundsen had a much better system, using a line of flags perpendicular to the intended route.
In this case, Madigan’s diary claims that Mawson was off-course, although he does not make clear why he too missed the depot. By the time the teams met, Mawson had already given up finding it and had begun the 21-kilometre walk back to Aladdin’s Cave for the required food.
Fortunately for Mawson, a support party with extra food was accompanying Madigan. Once that food was off-loaded to their separate sledges, each team went its own way. Madigan complained that he “got away very late, being with the Old Man”.
As Madigan’s party adjusted their harnesses around their hips to begin the long haul, Madigan watched Mawson’s two dog teams pull his rival out of sight. “Old Mawson was sitting on a sledge with cap off,” wrote Madigan, “yelling and waving like a boy.”
Madigan successfully negotiated the difficult coastal route, much of it across sea ice and two huge glacial tongues. He did not achieve the 300 miles (480 kilometres) he wanted to reach, falling short by just 30 miles (48 kilometres). He was back at the hut by 16 January 1913 and was overjoyed to see the Aurora, the ship that would take them home, in the harbour. However, there was no sign of Mawson and Madigan’s two friends, Ninnis and Mertz.
Weeks passed and the ship prepared to leave. Madigan agreed to stay behind with McLean and four others to search for Mawson’s party, knowing that the Aurora would not return for another year. On 8 February 1913, just hours after the ship had left, he “looked up towards the plateau, and stared amazed: a man was coming down!” It was Mawson. Madigan was inconsolable once Mawson told him about the deaths of Ninnis, who had fallen down a crevasse, and Mertz, who had starved.
It took Madigan a month to set down his opinion of Mawson. By then, he had a fuller understanding of Mawson’s trek and had read Mawson’s radio messages to the outside world “which make him appear a hero”. Rather than heroic, wrote Madigan, the “journey was a most unexpected failure, against every principle of sledging in this country”. He accused Mawson of recklessly endangering Mertz and Ninnis by “travelling for 300 miles along the ice falls close to the coast, which everyone knows is the worst crevassed area one can find down here!”
He went on: “[Mawson] only saw the coast I did, visited no rocks, has no reliable astronomical observations, and in fact, his work is absolutely of no value after mine, which does the whole thing in detail; his merely is an outline of my work!” Yet he had to resign himself to seeing Mawson’s trek “appear before the limelight as the principal journey”. As another long, tedious winter loomed, his anger at Mawson simmered.
In mid April, Madigan claimed that the five other men in the hut shared his opinion of Mawson. “I did not record before,” wrote Madigan, “but I do now, that the way he talks of Ninnis and Mertz has disgusted us all from the first.” Madigan was sick of the expedition and sick of the hut. “If Nin and Mertz were safely back, I would feel different.”
It gnawed away at Madigan that Mawson had robbed him of the chance to make his own reputation, and that he had caused him to further postpone his studies in Oxford as well as his marriage. He also feared that the expedition’s accumulating debts would prevent him being paid his promised salary. He was particularly frustrated that Mawson on his lone return had stopped at Aladdin’s Cave to fashion a pair of crampons to get him safely down the icy slope to the hut. The resulting delay had led them all to miss the ship. Madigan was particularly annoyed because he and his party had needed no crampons to descend the slope.
The diary shows that Madigan continued to blame Mawson for the deaths of his friends. Not only had Mawson chosen a known crevasse-ridden region to cross, but he had watched the unroped Ninnis approach the fatal crevasse on foot and not instructed him to spread his weight by getting on the sledge or take the precaution of testing the wide crevasse before crossing it. Mertz’s death from starvation followed from also losing most of the dog and human food down the crevasse with Ninnis. Shortly after Madigan’s long summer trek began, one of his own party had fallen into a crevasse and was hauled out by the rope that attached him to his companion. “This is the first real fall down a crevasse we have had,” wrote Madigan. “We have crossed hundreds already, some wider than the sledge. I always test them first.”
Despite persistent speculation to the contrary, there is no direct evidence in Madigan’s diary that Mawson confessed to the men in the hut that he had cannibalised Mertz’s body. Although Madigan could not stand being with “that blighter Mawson”, he eventually accepted his situation in the hut. “I can never respect Mawson,” he wrote, “for many reasons which I cannot put down in this book, but I must grin and bear his authority for the present. It will not be for long, and it will be for the best.” Finally, in December 1913, his mood turned into “a trance of joy” when he saw the Aurora on the horizon, steaming to get them.
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