Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond.

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Debunking Mawson

3 December 2013

In his desire to find the evil in Douglas Mawson, David Day overlooks the awkward tenderness and vulnerability that may lie at the heart of this flawed and driven man, writes Tom Griffiths


Desperate journey: Douglas Mawson after his return from the 1911–14 expedition. E.W. Searle Collection, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4654358

Desperate journey: Douglas Mawson after his return from the 1911–14 expedition. E.W. Searle Collection, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4654358

Flaws in the Ice: In Search of Douglas Mawson
By David Day | Scribe | $32.95

WHEN discussing Antarctica with people of other nationalities, Australians often find themselves talking about Douglas Mawson. Mawson is a name to conjure with on the ice; he is a kind of passport to respect in the south. His name is so strongly associated with the establishment of Australia’s claim to Antarctic territory and our continuing influence in Antarctic affairs that he has come almost to embody the nation. Indeed, as geographer Christy Collis has argued, Mawson’s physical presence as a pioneer explorer was essential to the legal and emotional force of sovereignty rituals in the BANZARE voyages of 1929–31. In such a culture, Australians can be tempted to idealise him. Criticising Mawson (like criticising Don Bradman or the Anzac spirit) might even be portrayed as unpatriotic.

These political pressures have at times restrained a full and honest portrait of the man. All the more reason, then, for scholars to foster a robust, critical and balanced appraisal of his character and achievements. A thoughtful assessment of Mawson’s strengths and weaknesses is essential to Antarctic history as well as to Australian Antarctic policy and practice – and, of course, it is also fundamental to good Antarctic conversation.

This new book by the prolific biographer and history professor, David Day, demands our attention because it promises (according to the blurb) to “change perceptions of Mawson forever.” It “answers the difficult questions about Mawson that have hitherto lain buried,” and draws on “new evidence” and a “long-suppressed diary” to “challenge Mawson’s official story.” Book blurbs are not always drafted by the author, but in this case the book itself reiterates these claims throughout.

Readers of Inside Story may already have seen the two controversial advance extracts from Flaws in the Ice released to newspapers in October. One extract suggested that Mawson may have deliberately starved Xavier Mertz to death on their return sledging journey in the summer of 1912–13 to ensure his own survival, and the other argued that Mawson had a “mad summer of love” with Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen, in England in 1916. These two episodes of Mawson’s life have attracted scholarly attention before, but no previous historian has ventured such confidently judgemental conclusions. Are these claims convincing and founded on new evidence, or are they sensational gambits aimed at selling the book?

Before I address David Day’s interpretation of these two episodes, let me summarise the general argument and style of the book. Flaws in the Ice has grown out of Day’s long interest in “conquest” in modern world history. His history of Australia, Claiming a Continent, was structured around this theme, and his book Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others (2008) examined (in Day’s words) “how so-called ‘supplanting societies’ claim territories and make them their own over an extended period of time.” This was, he surprisingly argued, “a new way of looking at the history of the world.” With such a vision, it was natural that Antarctica would increasingly attract Day’s attention, and in 2012 his Antarctica: A Biography was released. Its central question was a political one about the claiming of remote territory, and its structure was a detailed chronology of exploration from Captain Cook to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, with a brief final chapter on the last fifty years. In that general history of the continent, Day gave an account of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, or AAE, of 1911–14 and ventured interesting criticisms of Mawson’s manipulation of his own legend. Flaws in the Ice elaborates those criticisms at book length and focuses on that expedition and its immediate aftermath, finishing at the end of the Great War.

At the beginning of Flaws in the Ice, Day carefully clears the ground of a hundred years of previous scholarship so that he can tell his story to the reader directly, without having to deal explicitly or specifically with other writers and historians. Day contrives an archival silence into which his book can be seen to enter afresh and alone. Much of the evidence of the expedition, claims Day, “has been hidden away for the last century” and “includes the diaries of Archibald McLean, Robert Bage, Frank Stillwell, John Hunter, Charles Harrisson, and several others.” But the diaries of these men have been available for decades in public libraries and archives and have been studied intensely by many people, including those “other historians.” How strange that a historical scholar should regard the carefully preserved and curated collections of public institutions, long available for research, as “hidden away.” What Day means is that many of those diaries have only recently, in these centenary years of the expedition, been edited for publication. There is a revealing sleight of hand here by the author – the phrase “hidden away” suggests something sinister, perhaps a conspiracy, and it is David Day who is going to bring it to light.

But there is one diary that has indeed been kept mostly private for a hundred years and which has just been made available to the public in full. It is the diary of the geologist Cecil Madigan, published in early 2013 as Madigan’s Account (edited by Julia Madigan). But even this source has been partly available since 2000 in a book by Madigan’s son (Vixere Fortes: A Family Archive), and has been drawn upon in other historical studies. Day is right to call the full diary “explosive,” however, and I believe it does warrant the attention he gives it. It is the major source for his portrait of Mawson, and it is a vital and important one. But it is confusing to say that the diary has been “long-suppressed” – another phrase that suggests a conspiracy. Madigan and his family chose to keep it private. Madigan wrote in the diary in 1913 that he “will probably feel ashamed of some of the things I have written,” and his descendants protected him as much as Mawson from its frank expressions of resentment, anger and despair. Madigan and Mawson both built their academic careers in Adelaide and worked together throughout their lives.

There is another silence at the heart of Flaws in the Ice. Although Day draws on the work of many historians who have studied Mawson and the AAE – in particular Philip Ayres, Peter FitzSimons, Brigid Hains, Elizabeth Leane, Beau Riffenburgh and Heather Rossiter – he does not name them in the text or engage explicitly with their scholarship. They are referred to as “other historians” or “other writers,” generally dismissively. Flaws in the Ice claims to be a new history, but it does not provide a historiography by which we might judge that claim.

The benefit of this approach for Day is that he can position himself as an unmediated storyteller, unburdened by collegial obligations and free to fashion a simple and compelling narrative. Flaws in the Ice is well-written, full of telling detail, and evocative of the elemental drama and intimate agony of a famous Antarctic tale. The several summer sledging expeditions of the AAE are deservedly and attentively retold. Day carefully analyses Mawson’s cultivation and manipulation of his own reputation, during the expedition and afterwards. Readers will relish this fast-moving account with its driving ambition to see the worst in Mawson. All of Mawson’s well-known weaknesses are probed at length – his ambition, selfishness, coldness, competitiveness, meanness, lack of compassion and humour, propensity to dither, and other “flaws” in his icy character. It is surprising that Day does not draw on the fact that even his wife-to-be, Paquita, had fears about the emotional depth of her fiancé.

Mawson never commanded the kind of love or affection that Ernest Shackleton or Frank Wild inspired. He was very demanding of his men – he drove others as he drove himself – and he was both respected and resented, even sometimes disdained. But Day is so determined to find Mawson’s flaws that his portrait is two-dimensional, almost a caricature. He is so keen to find fault that we lose any sense of Mawson as a complex, conflicted human, or as a man attached to any greater purpose than self-justification and self-aggrandisement. Day seems like a warrior fighting against a century of legend-making, but because he does not introduce us to other scholarship we are left with an unbalanced account. This is compounded by his decision to concentrate only on the first half of Mawson’s life. For these reasons Day’s book does not supersede Philip Ayres’s biography, Mawson: A Life (1999), or Beau Riffenburgh’s history of the AAE, Aurora (2011).

As revealed in his general history of Antarctica, David Day continues to lack any interest in, or curiosity about, science. This political historian of empire, who casts a perceptive and tenacious eye on the politics of polar annexation, can only ever see science with cynicism. It is for “show”; it “acts as a cover”; it “buttresses scientific credentials”; it is always strategic, self-serving and “disguising” something else. Science is never given the dignity of its own dynamic. With such a view, Day is destined to be blind to Mawson’s core motivation, and he is unable to share the wonder and intellectual excitement that drew – and still draws – many expeditioners to Antarctica.

THESE strictures sometimes prevent David Day from telling a more interesting story. I can best illustrate this by referring to the two extracts with which he chose to advertise his book – one about Mawson and Xavier Mertz, and the other about Mawson and Kathleen Scott. In his desire to find the evil in Mawson, Day overlooks the awkward tenderness and vulnerability that may lie at the heart of this flawed and driven man. On that desperate sledge journey, Mawson stayed with Mertz just as Mertz stayed with Mawson, each making a risky sacrifice in the hope that both could make it home. Mawson rationed the food so that they both might have a future. He tried to carry Mertz on the sledge, who found that too painful, and he nursed him in his final days. Yes, we only have Mawson’s testimony for all this, and of course he wanted to survive. He probably carried the guilt of his survival all his life.

Kathleen Scott relished the company of men, especially polar heroes, the manly icons of the age. In 1916, Douglas and Kathleen found a curious solace. Her husband had been entrapped by the ice and he (Mawson) had barely escaped it. They were united by grief and a shared fascination with the whiteout of Antarctica. Such a unique meeting of emotional needs propelled them to spiritual intimacy. They clearly enjoyed one another’s company and liked to be alone together, and probably even savoured the frisson of gossip. With Mawson, Kathleen could be close again to the world that had animated her husband, perhaps even imagine what it would have been like if he had returned. With Kathleen, Mawson could possibly glimpse his own death and sense the erotics of sacrifice.

In the newspaper “extract” about this relationship (The Australian, 26 October 2013), the sensationalism of the story is sharpened (the book is a little more careful). To say, as Day does, that Mawson was “smitten,” wanted to show off his “smart uniform,” and relished the “chance to chase after thirty-eight-year-old Kathleen” with whom he shared “a mad summer of love” misses the emotional depth of their probably platonic and very real romance. Furthermore, it is disappointing that Day cannot resist claiming that he has brought to light “a hitherto hidden chapter in his life.” This is quite false, and continues his conspiratorial theme of “hidden,” “buried” and “suppressed” revelations. It has long been an intriguing part of Mawson’s biography, and Day brings little new evidence into play.

In 1979, the biographer Roland Huntford wrote an iconoclastic book called Scott and Amundsen that rocked the British establishment by exposing Robert Falcon Scott – that model of British moral and physical courage, that tragic, frozen hero – as a vain and incompetent fool. Every hero invites a debunking (especially one whose diaries had even been censored for publication), but few have suffered as Scott did at Huntford’s hands. Scott, argued Huntford, was a poor leader with little foresight who endangered men in his charge, a reckless and careless planner who trusted to luck, and an ambitious naval officer who was sentimental and competitive. Huntford was so keen to destabilise the legend of Scott that he was careless with facts and also careful about which facts he revealed. He went beyond the boundaries of good scholarly practice. But he also perceived some neglected and unpalatable truths about Scott’s character and leadership, insights that have shaped views of Scott ever since.

David Day is trying to do a Huntford on Mawson and I hope his work will promote thoughtful debate. Huntford was one of the few historians to rate a mention in Day’s book about Antarctica. Following Huntford’s interpretation, and with breathtaking assurance, Day tells us that Scott’s famous account of Captain Oates’s suicidal exit from the tent in 1912 was “probably invented for posterity.” Like Huntford, Day is leaning so relentlessly into attack mode that he sometimes falls on his face. But, also like Huntford, there is much truth in his portrait, and I hope the fact that Day has overreached does not just elicit a defensive backlash. We need to be able to debate Mawson’s failings as well as his virtues and not be cowed by his geopolitical prestige.

I can summarise the flaws in Day’s book with words from its author. In reporting heroic age rivalry, Day says, “Anything that belittled Scott was attractive to Shackleton.” We might say the same of Day with regard to Mawson. And of the AAE raconteur, Herbert Dyce Murphy, Day writes that Murphy had “a great fund of incredible stories, most of which were true (albeit embellished), and some untrue. The problem was knowing which was which.” •

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