Inside Story

Thus began the Australian occupation of Antarctica…

On board the Aurora Australis as it sailed to Commonwealth Bay to commemorate the centenary of Douglas Mawson’s historic expedition, our correspondent witnesses a complex interplay of science and sovereignty

Tom Griffiths 24 February 2012 4848 words

The two colonies at Cape Denison. Tom Griffiths

In Antarctica, you can’t just select a date, waltz in, and perform a ceremony. Ice and weather cannot be commanded. You have to submit yourself to the control of the continent, just as Douglas Mawson’s expedition did a hundred years ago. Antarctic logistics are ruled by what is called “the A-factor,” the destabilising ingredient in all Antarctic planning. But commemorations are about nothing if not dates; they are about precision in time and place. They book into our crowded calendars an exact moment for reflection. What happens, then, when you plan a historic commemoration in the continent of uncertainty?

Uncertainty and waiting are the warp and weft of Antarctic history. The men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition spent a lot of time waiting… waiting for the wind to stop so they could work outside or hear themselves think, waiting agonisingly for the Far Eastern sledging party of Mawson, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz to return, waiting for the black speck of their ship, the Aurora, to appear on the horizon to take them home. They were not the first Australians in Antarctica – several including Mawson himself had participated in earlier expeditions – but this was the first Australian expedition and the first of any kind to set foot on the Antarctic continent directly south of Australia.

In Antarctica, it can feel like time has not only skipped a beat, but has lost the beat altogether. Time there assumes different rhythms. There is the deeper pulse of the ice ages, the seamless months of eternal light or night, the transcendent otherworld of a blizzard, the breaking up of the sea ice, the exciting return of the Adélie penguins in spring, the schedule of the summer ships, and the intensity of the annual “changeover” at Antarctic stations. A century might signify a hundred generations in Antarctica or just one tick of the glacial clock.

It therefore seemed entirely appropriate that Antarctica itself should dictate the timing of the centennial visit to Mawson’s Huts. Blizzards at Casey station in late December had delayed the return of our ship, the Aurora Australis, and its subsequent departure from Hobart. And there was an added complication. For possibly the first summer in a century, Commonwealth Bay was filled with ice.

Just to the east of the Bay there once existed the huge tongue of the Mertz Glacier (named after Xavier, who died on Mawson’s sledging journey and still lies, perfectly preserved, somewhere on its inland slopes). That tongue of ice had seemed a constant attribute of this coastline, a dominating geographical feature that was discernible even on small-scale maps of the continent. In the lee of the glacier tongue, furious katabatic winds funnelled down onto Commonwealth Bay and maintained a polynya, the beautiful Russian word for the belts of open water found within the ring of ice that surrounds Antarctica. In February 2010 a huge iceberg from the Ross Ice Shelf – the size of the Australian Capital Territory and named B9B – was drifting steadily westwards. It collided with the Mertz Glacier tongue and sheered it off, sending it slowly spinning westwards. B9B itself became grounded about twenty-five kilometres offshore from Commonwealth Bay and corralled the sea ice near the coast. Cured hard by the wind and fastened to the land, the sea ice made it impossible for ships to reach Mawson’s Huts this summer. However, the Australian Antarctic Division, keenly conscious of the summer’s historical significance, willing to await its moment and equipped with three helicopters on board Aurora Australis, was determined to take on the A-factor.

Members of the Australian Arctic Expedition in Mawson’s Huts, Commonwealth Bay, 1911–14. Frank Hurley/Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

As well as making the pilgrimage to Commonwealth Bay, our voyage was also the most significant Australian marine science expedition of the season. Douglas Mawson would have thoroughly approved. He was first and foremost a scientist and was always trying to fit a bit more science around urgent logistical or strategic goals. Even though he was very anxious to establish his base on the continent as early as possible in 1912, he still found time to gather sea temperature and salinity data on the way south. Just along the edge of where the Mertz Glacier tongue used to lie, our voyage revisited a collecting station of the original Aurora. The sea temperatures gathered at various depths by the expedition using reversing thermometers continue to provide illuminating insights today.

Our voyage leader Robb Clifton reported that It feels like history is all around us as we do this work. And we made history ourselves by sailing where no one had ever sailed before – over the vast tract of sea floor liberated by the calving of the Mertz Glacier. By colliding with the glacier tongue, iceberg B9B has initiated what the physical oceanographer Steve Rintoul calls a “natural experiment” in sea-ice production. The Mertz polynya, as one of the prime Antarctic sites of sea-ice production, releases salty, dense “bottom-water” that plunges to the ocean depths and drives the engine of ocean circulation. Was it the presence of the vast glacier tongue that made this polynya so active? What might now be the impact of the glacier’s calving on salinity, circulation and biodiversity? And how might it relate to a general trend – observed since the 1970s, possibly as a result of increased glacial meltwater – for Antarctic bottom-water to become less salty and less dense? In other words, how might global warming affect ocean circulation? I have no doubt that, if he were alive today, Douglas Mawson would be out there defending the future of his beloved ice. He would be at the forefront of the scientific effort to explain to the general public the dire implications of the climate crisis.

But his ice was not so beloved as Mawson tried to find a way through it to make a landing on the Antarctic coastline in early January 1912. He and the captain of the Aurora, J.K. Davis, were disappointed to find the pack ice so far north. As it grew heavier, they were forced to follow its edge westward, ever westward, looking for an opening to the south and a way finally to the continent itself. By the night of 2 January, Mawson was in despair: his whole expedition seemed in jeopardy, and he was facing personal failure and humiliation. Things looked so bad last night, he wrote to his fiancée, Paquita, that I could do nothing but just roll over and over on the settee on which I have been sleeping and wish that I could fall into oblivion.

Suddenly on 8 January 1912, following further days of hope, anxiety and disappointment, they gained a clear prospect of accessible land! It was a day of brilliant sunshine and a party was sent ashore in the whaleboat. Mawson later described it in The Home of the Blizzard: We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked. The sun shone gloriously in a blue sky as we stepped ashore on a charming ice-quay – the first to set foot on the Antarctic continent between Cape Adare and Gaussberg, a distance of about 2000 miles. What did our revered expeditioners do the moment they set foot on the ice? As Archie McLean recorded, Mawson and [Frank] Wild explored and the others had a snowball fight.

A century later we had hoped also to land at Commonwealth Bay on this day, but due to the blizzards that delayed the start of our voyage, we were still in the middle of the Southern Ocean surrounded by wheeling albatrosses. There was some concern expressed in the media about missing this day of the landing. But we felt the commemorative aptness of dealing with ice and weather and also remembered that the original landing was not on one day but twelve. From the 8th to the 19th of January, Mawson and his men struggled to land the stores for their first and main base at Cape Denison. Late on that gloriously sunny and calm day of 8 January, the true character of the place – its defining elemental essence – had revealed itself. Winds such as no one had ever known before swept down onto the natural harbour they had found and forced them to retreat frozen to the ship, where they hoped that the Aurora’s anchor would hold.

Over the next few days it dawned on them that they had decided to build their home in an unusually windy corner of the windiest continent on earth and that some of the generating factors were quite local – and further, that the open water that had attracted them there was also to some extent a creation of the relentless offshore winds. A ship is naturally lured into the home of the blizzard. It was no accident that Mawson should land in such a place and thereby condemn his expedition to heroic daily scientific recording in one of the most forbidding places on earth. But harbours and bare rock were so precious, and finding that place had been so hard, that the men were determined to secure their fragile foothold with their canvas and planks and nails.

Throughout mid-January, the men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition laboured between the blizzards, shuttling between ship and shore to land the stores and the Baltic pine timbers of the hut. On the night of 12 January, the expeditioners spent their first night sleeping on the continent. I find that moment as moving and meaningful as the first landing a few days earlier. “Night” doesn’t have much meaning in Antarctica in high summer; the sun, if you can see it, gently bounces on the horizon. But sleeping on the continent itself signals a commitment. One makes oneself vulnerable, becomes a resident, begins to inhabit the place and starts to become (if one ever can) a local. Lying down on the scarce available rock and submitting to sleep in such an alien and threatening place is to begin that transformation. So, as a storm brewed again on the evening of 12 January, Mawson and Wild went ashore to join the five men working there, pitched the tents, unpacked the reindeer sleeping bags and fired up the Nansen cooker. The seven men spent the first night ashore at Cape Denison, warmed by soup and cocoa. Thus began the Australian occupation of Antarctica.

By 16 January 1912, they were still waiting out storms and unloading stores. And this was the day, a century later, that we finally landed our own party. For five days we had waited on the edge of the sea ice twenty kilometres off Cape Denison for weather that would allow our helicopters to fly. That morning of the 16th, the cloud lifted and the white cliffs of East Antarctica sparkled in the sunlight. The wind was slight, the air crystal clear. We could see the exposed granites of the cape and, a few hundred metres inland, the dark outcrops of the moraine. Brooding above everything was the white brow of the polar plateau that climbs and recedes into a pure infinity against the light blue of the sky. And somewhere in the middle of this small coastal patchwork of white ice, black rock and aerial blue could be seen something else… At first I registered it as a different, surprising, organic colour, a pinpoint of warmth. It was the wind-bleached wood of a hut.

From a distance it seemed like a piece of driftwood scoured pale, lean and delicate by the wind and snagged between ice and rock. It glowed with a fragile lustre. I was immediately struck by its homeliness, even from the outside. Mawson’s book about this place is called, of course, The Home of the Blizzard, which honours (or laments) the ferocious katabatics that are the essence of this bay. But this was the home also of eighteen men. This was their cosy, beloved refuge, and one hundred years later it is still an inviting and reassuring presence. The swale in which it sits is also quite intimate, and the men made this their own, too, inscribing it with the daily religious duty of their scientific observations. I was surprised to find that the place felt to me like a part of Australia, not just in a patriotic sense because of its history, but also because it could almost be a winter hut in the Australian Alps among familiar granite pinnacles.

An aerial view of Mawson’s Hut on 14 January 2012. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

The low door had been dug clear of snow by our advance party. Appropriately, we needed to bow to enter the darkness of this shrine. Inside on this calm day was the Antarctic silence. But more than that, there was stillness. The air smelt musty and organic and the walls gleamed faintly, illuminated by the skylight. There were half-familiar shapes and structures to discern in the gloom: Frank Hurley’s photographs reconstituted themselves before my eyes in ageing wood, metal and paper, half-encrusted with ice. The stove stood in one corner, the acetylene generator that produced lighting sat on a high beam, and all around the walls were the beds. The hut was insulated with a two-storey layer of people. I had walked into a boys’ bunkroom! Eighteen men slept here top to toe for a year, and it still feels private, intimate, domestic.

Outside the huts we gathered for a ceremony. In number we were similar to that which landed a hundred years ago. Surrounded by a voluntary audience of Adélies, the Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Tony Fleming, read a statement by the prime minister, Julia Gillard. The names of all the men of the AAE were then read out and honoured: the nineteen who served in Adélie Land (this included Sidney Jeffryes who joined them in the second year), the eight who established the Western Base, the five who maintained the station at Macquarie Island, and the men of the Aurora. Tony reminded us of the pre-eminence of science in the planning and practice of the expedition, and of the foundation it thus laid for a modern Antarctic Treaty System where good science is the currency of influence. “I am frequently asked,” explained Tony, “what is the enduring legacy of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition? My answer is unequivocal – an entire continent devoted to peace and science, where nations work together in a spirit of collaboration. What a wonderful legacy they have left us!” Deborah Bourke from the Antarctic Division and David Ellyard, president of the ANARE Club (formed in 1951 by veterans of the first Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions), raised the Australian flag to applause from the people and squawks from the Adélies. I said some words about the original landing and the way it was recorded in the diaries of the expeditioners.

After the ceremony, we walked across ice and granite scree to the small eminence of Proclamation Hill for another ritual – this time the laying of a time capsule in which Australian schoolchildren had written their visions of Antarctica in one hundred years time. Thus our commemoration turned to the future – and we wondered, as the children do, about how the southern ice cap will fare in a warming world. This hill was so named when Mawson returned to Commonwealth Bay in 1931, raised the flag again and asserted British sovereignty on 5 January. Almost twenty years after his expedition, Mawson had already become a tourist to his own history. He was proud to find the huts still standing even though the ice had penetrated them. Inside they were like a “fairy cavern.”

In my history of Antarctica, Slicing the Silence, I made a bit of fun of proclamation ceremonies in front of audiences of Adélies on windy, remote Antarctic coastlines. After all, claiming something as slippery as ice is laced with comedy, and narrow nationalism appears inapt on a continent of ice where just being human is so marginal and vulnerable. There’s a slightly irreverent chapter in my book called “Planting Flags.” And now, in January 2012, I was suddenly involved in the ritual myself…

Why would Australians today raise the flag in this international place? There is no doubt that by doing so we are quietly affirming Australian sovereignty over 42 per cent of Antarctica and that the penguins are not the only creatures with a colony here. But this was also a deliberately modest ceremony. No anthem was sung, no cheers called for, no proclamation made, no mention of “territory” by the prime minister, and the emphasis of the speeches was on the science of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition and its continuities with the scientific priorities of the Treaty era. Attention was given to all the young men who were excited by this last frontier, not only Mawson. The two men who died were especially remembered. With typical Australian bashfulness at ceremonies, the formalities were completed quickly and simply. The real commemorative act, we all felt, is in continuing to do science and history in Commonwealth Bay – and across East Antarctica – and helping researchers from other nations to do it too.

When speaking internationally and cross-culturally in Antarctica there is no word more powerful for Australians than “Mawson.” Uttering that word creates a significant space for us in the conversation. Our international Antarctic colleagues expect us to be the leading researchers and custodians of that history. Curiously, perhaps, the scholarly commemoration of Mawson and his legacy has become a critical part of our international obligation in Antarctica. Nationalism is not contrary to the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, for national endeavour is the means of contributing to the treaty system and there is national pride in becoming an influential party. Quiet, reflective nationalism is the fabric of Antarctica’s successful international governance.

While our ship was still on the Southern Ocean, the historian David Day wrote an opinion piece for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in which he questioned such expressions of nationalism in Antarctica. Entitled “Antarctica is no place for politicking: Mawson’s expedition was about territorial gain, not science,” Day’s essay was critical of the commemorative ceremony of 2012 that I’ve just described and argued that it fell into a familiar pattern of Antarctic behaviour: “From Mawson in 1912 to Monday’s ceremony, it has all been done in the name of territorial acquisition and retention, with science acting as a cover.” Science, argued Day, was only “the supposed purpose” of Mawson’s expedition; its real aim was territorial acquisition and economic gain.

As symbolic proof of this priority, David Day offered the following evidence: “As soon as Mawson had erected his huts at what he named Commonwealth Bay, he gathered his companions together on a nearby hill for a formal ceremony on January 30, 1912. Curiously, the ritual received no mention during the commemoration this week.” Thus Day’s commentary perceived a consistent sleight-of-hand across the past hundred years. Just as Mawson’s real strategic priorities allegedly hid behind the “cover” of science, so did this year’s commemoration underplay the true imperial dimensions of Australia’s endeavours down south.

Although I think David Day’s interpretation is wrong in both detail and analysis, as I will explain below, he is right to identify the constant tension between science and politics as characteristic of Antarctic history. The process of commemoration itself took us to the heart of that question about the importance of science in Antarctic affairs, both a century ago and today. A commemoration should be more than a symbolic gesture. It can draw the past and present into a meaningful and active dialogue, and it can thereby become a way of doing history. The very process of commemoration can demand such a detailed engagement with the day-by-day fabric of past experience that it can furnish new insights and understanding. It challenges our ethnographic eye to consider the larger meaning of everyday action. So our commemorative voyage taught us quite a bit about the priorities of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition through a close and sympathetic engagement with their words, actions and setting.

After the ceremonies, I climbed Azimuth Hill just west of the huts where the memorial cross to Ninnis and Mertz stands clearly on the skyline, surrounded by penguin colonies. Beyond it, the ice cliffs of Commonwealth Bay take your breath away. Belgrave Ninnis was swallowed by a crevasse on 14 December 1912 and Xavier Mertz died very early on 8 January 1913 in the sleeping bag next to Mawson during their desperate return from the Far Eastern sledging journey. In November 1913, after their unexpected second winter at Cape Denison, Mawson and the six other remaining men solemnly erected this wooden cross to the memory of their dead friends and their “supreme sacrifice… to the cause of science.” As I sat there among the nesting Adélies, gazing out across the sea ice to the tiny black dot on the horizon which was our ship, I was moved by this choice of words etched in wood which seems so emblematic of how the men of the expedition saw their endeavour. Their friends died not for “the glory of empire” or for “pride of nation,” but in “the cause of science.”

Are these mere words or do their actions support them? Pondering that question beneath the cross, I felt that they rang true. Ninnis and Mertz died on a crazy, unheroic but earnest quest to understand more about Antarctic geography. And the last year of their lives, like those of their companions, was devoted to the daily discipline of survival and scientific recording. The priorities of the expedition were clear, and our commemorative mapping of their daily activities had revealed them to us. No sooner had the huts been built and a “house warming feast” held on 30 January 1912 than daily meteorological recording began – on 1 February. Ninnis and Mertz built two Stevenson screens to house the recording instruments, work began on the construction of the Absolute Magnetic Hut and Magnetograph House, a tide gauge was installed, biological and geological work begun, and seals and penguins were butchered for winter stores of meat and blubber. On 6 February, geologist Frank Stillwell recorded that Bickerton spent the afternoon erecting a 5′ flag pole on top of the main hut and it gives a nice swanky appearance to the homestead. But it was not until the summer was almost over, not until the scientific infrastructure was in place, not until 25 February that Mawson set aside the time to raise a flag on that pole above the hut. The ceremony would have taken place even later had not weather delayed the departure of the exploratory sledging parties Mawson was so keen to despatch.

Therefore Mawson did not conduct his flag ceremony “as soon as [he] had erected his huts,” as David Day suggested. Nor did he “[gather] his companions together on a nearby hill for a formal ceremony on January 30, 1912.” Neither the date nor place is correct in this account. Day was misled, as many others have been (including Peter FitzSimons in his recent book, Mawson) by a quirk in the historical record. We are lucky to have so many surviving diaries of the men of the Main Base at Commonwealth Bay and the only flag ceremony they mention that first summer took place on 25 February – and it was held next to the huts, not on the nearby hill. (The proclamation ceremony on the hill took place nineteen years later, in 1931, as mentioned above.) None of the expeditioners mentions a ceremony on 30 January. The 30th of January was a memorable day for a different reason – it was the day the men had their first sit-down meal in the hut (their “house warming feast”), and also the first day they could play the gramophone.

The reason the mistake has often been made is that biologist Charles Laseron conflated the dates in his memoir, South with Mawson, which was written thirty-five years later, in 1947. The words he used in his book describing a ceremony on 30 January correspond exactly with those in his unpublished diary for 25 February. Scholars who have not been able to consult the primary sources have compounded the error by understandably relying on the easily accessible published account.

The difference in dates is not trivial or pedantic; rather, it goes to the heart of the argument about symbolism and about whether or not science was only “the supposed purpose” of the expedition and a mere “cover” for territorial behaviour. David Day remarked in his article that “Curiously, the ritual [on 30 January] received no mention during the commemoration this week.” But this was not due to some dark historical suppression of Mawson’s political behaviour; it was because the ritual did not take place until later in the establishment of the expedition. In the day-to-day challenge of gaining a physical and emotional foothold on the ice, flag planting was a less urgent priority than survival and science. At the Australasian Antarctic Expedition’s Western Base, a proclamation was not made until almost a year later, on 25 December 1912.

Of course I am not arguing that claiming sovereignty wasn’t important to Mawson. His whole career is testimony to his lifelong conviction that Australia must secure its political and economic interests in Antarctica. The expedition was unusual in putting geographical exploration ahead of the attainment of the South Pole. One had to be resolute and original to resist “the Race to the Pole” in 1910–11. But this is what Mawson did, for he had another vision. He wanted to explore new territory, and especially that vast stretch of Antarctic coastline directly south of Australia. He promoted the expedition not only as a scientific mission but also as an investment in Australia’s long-term security and prosperity. Mawson also saw an opportunity to demonstrate Australia’s frontier vigour on the world stage, “to prove that the young men of a young country could rise to those traditions which have made the history of British Polar exploration one of triumphant endeavour as well as of tragic sacrifice.”

So the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–14 was a contribution to the British Empire’s embrace of Antarctica, but it was also a distinctively Australian endeavour, a proud initiative of the recently federated nation, driven by this newfound nationalism and by a southern hemisphere sensibility about the need to know one’s backyard, to understand the shared world of stormy sea and swirling, icy air that emanated from the neighbouring Antarctic region. Exploring Antarctica was Australia’s duty, Australia’s “preserve,” Australia’s destiny.

It has often been claimed that the Australian nation was born in 1915 on a war-torn beach far away in Turkey on the other side of the world. But the heroic landing a few years earlier at Cape Denison, Antarctica – a landing also “hampered by adverse conditions” and a landing in Australia’s own region of the globe – deserves our attention and was imbued with similar symbolism and sentiment.

During that ceremony at Commonwealth Bay on 25 February 1912, Mawson used the ritual to express this complex mixture of imperial, national and scientific loyalties. The Union Jack and the Commonwealth (Australian) flag were both raised above the hut. But what the men most savoured in their diaries was not so much the flag or the proclamation but the first church service that Mawson nervously held in the hut, the celebratory dinner that followed, and the speech that Mawson gave that evening. What did he say on what Archie McLean called this day of days in so far as the history of our stay in this place is concerned? Cecil Madigan recorded: He said we were snug & comfortable etc. – we were in a much worse place than any Antarctic expedition had ever landed in – the weather was far worse – it looked as if these winds were constant and sledging would be most difficult. No other expedition had been game to land here. Perhaps it was a terrible region – we were going to prove it. The meteorological results would be very valuable – the magnetic work – the biological work – but of more practical value at present was the geographical work – we must explore.

When the Aurora sailed away from Cape Denison on 19 January 1912, Captain Davis wrote: They are a fine party of men but the country is a terrible one to spend a year in. The proclamation of territory and the assertions of nationalism were vital to strategy and morale. They had named their new home Commonwealth Bay and at dinner on 25 February Mawson wrapped himself in the Australian flag. But the science was vital, too, for its own sake – and also because, even more than planting the flag, it justified their presence for at least a year on this remote, alien continent and helped secure them to this windy place. These young men, mostly Australian, mostly in their twenties, mostly university-educated, were as eager as Mawson to explore and to apply their fresh scientific curiosity and training to new terrain. Science was their emotional anchorage, their intellectual sustenance, their daily discipline – and perhaps it might keep them sane. •