LAUNCH OF “ANTARCTICA: A BIOGRAPHY”
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA, CANBERRA
15 AUGUST 2012
As a child growing up in country Queensland, I became fascinated with Scott of the Antarctic.
It was something of both the truth and the tragedy of the Queensland education system at the time (under an earlier benign, and at times non-benign, dictatorship of Queensland Liberal National Party) that I knew a lot about the official hagiography of Scott, the late lamented hero of the British Empire, but knew nothing whatsoever of the Mawson who led the first Australian expedition to the continent at virtually the same time.
At school, we were required to do a project on Scott.
I got a special merit award for colouring (mind you I’ve always had a problem keeping within the lines) because I surrounded the borders of my patriotic rendition of Scott’s derring-do with a brilliant array of Union Jacks that would even have made Boris Johnson proud.
I was particularly taken by the story of Oates bravely walking out in to the snow.
This was a puzzling image for Queensland school kids in a still sweltering, summer classroom where your arms always managed to get stuck to the pages of your exercise book, which then encouraged the ink to curdle when it came time to write on the offending spot on the paper.
None of us had ever seen snow.
In fact, I don’t’ think any of us knew what it was like to be all that cold.
But we all solemnly concluded that “to walk out into the snow” was the right thing to do when you were really in a tight spot.
I remember a little while later evoking a very puzzled reaction from a cricketing umpire, having been hit on the pads right in front, when I solemnly pronounced that I should take a walk into the snow.
Enter David Day’s magisterial account of the history (or as he would call it, the biography) of Antarctica which I’m delighted to launch here today at the National Library of Australia.
David has a different take on Scott where he conducts a forensic vivisection of Scott’s incompetence as expedition leader in his fateful mission precisely 100 years ago.
Day tells us how Scott’s mission was launched in London by the President of the Royal Geographical Society with the imperial mission statement that
“Scott would prove once again that the manhood of the nation is not dead, and that the characteristics of our ancestors, who won this great empire, still flourish among us”
Scott was engaged in a great rivalry first with his compatriot Shackleton, then the Norwegian Amundsen, and also with the Australian Mawson.
Day tells us that only having reached Melbourne on his way south in 1910 did Scott discover Amundsen was also on his way to the South Pole.
Then in New Zealand discovering that Mawson was launching an expedition of his own to explore the continent.
Of course Amundsen won the race, himself also courting disaster to deliver victory to the newly established Kingdom of Norway.
But David Day tells us Scott risked the lot, “Scott’s poor planning and execution had them approaching the pole as the summer was coming to an end”
Later, as the defeated Scott struggled back across the ice with his team, Day says he then set out “gathering 14kg of geological specimens, helping to seal their doom, but it was done to embellish their scientific credentials ... and if they died, it would be in the cause of science, rather than in the pursing a pointless adventure”.
Having lost Oates, Day then tells us Scott “convinced his companions to stay in their tent to die because it offered more hope that their bodies and their records would be found”
“It took 9 days for the 3 men to die ... Scott scribbling away with his pencil, writing a bundle of letters and messages that absolved himself of blame, and (here is Day’s core accusation) self-consciously created a heroic portrait of himself and his men”.
In Scott’s own words: “It would show that Englishmen can still die with a bold spirit, fighting it out to the end ... making an example for Englishmen of the future.
Day’s conclusion (building on an earlier work by Huntford): “that the bumbling incompetence of Scott” was overlooked in Scott’s official apotheosis in England’s search for heroes as the Great War descended on the British Empire.
Of course here in the Antipodes (or at least the Queensland branch of the Antipodes) Scott’s hagiography was still uncritically accepted nearly 60 years later.
One curious footnote in Day’s account: neither Amundsen nor Scott never actually stood at the South Pole – both had missed it by a couple of kilometres due to the difficulties of taking accurate sightings at the Apex of the earth.
Perhaps David is too harsh on Scott given the times in which he lived.
To be fair to David, neither Amundsen nor Mawson emerge as perfect saints either.
But what none of us can challenge a century on, in the comfortable age in which many of us live, is the sheer naked courage of those who sought to conquer nature’s last earthly frontier.
This history of Antarctica is replete with a hundred such stories of which Scott is perhaps the most dramatic.
But it is also replete with enduring themes which emerge from the tales of individuals and nations and their efforts to conquer the continent.
The spirit of the Enlightenment and the relentless pursuit of scientific discovery, that saw navigators and explorers as the new missionaries and saints of a secular age, thereby transforming the very idea of the west, so that faith and reason could perhaps become more comfortable bed fellows, rather than mortal enemies as they had been in the days of Galileo and Copernicus.
Then there’s the spirit of Empire, in all its creative and destructive force, as Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Norway, Argentina, Chile and others engaged in a race to claim an area and occupy this vast continent.
- The U.S, under Roosevelt, having approved a plan with the aim of, in the words of one official US report, the “US Government Colonisation of the Antarctica”.
- Even Hitler ordered Swastika flags planted on the continent.
Then there is the vastness of the continent itself. Twice the size of Australia. 1.3 times the size of Europe. At 14 million square kilometres, the 5th largest continent.
Then the pursuit of potential economic gain; Whaling, Sealing and the lure of mineral and energy resources.
And now the equal imperative to protect the Antarctic environment
And now, the Antarctic, this great environmental barometer of the future of the planet, its ice core containing the evidence of earlier ages of non-anthropogenic global warming, and the future of the ice cover itself (in some places 4 kilometres thick), also containing within it a large part of the future of the planet itself in an age of demonstrable anthropogenic global warming, despite the crazed bleatings of the dwindling divisions of climate change denialists, including our very own alternative Prime Minister, Mr Abbott.
And, this brings us to the Australian part of The Antarctica story.
I have mentioned Mawson’s formidable contribution, also well documented in David Day’s book.
Mawson was an Australian nationalist, a geologist and quite a reasonable polemist, challenging a meeting of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science in January 1911 whether “they were content to allow distant countries to poach on their inherited preserves”, declaring that Australia had to act before “foreign nations... step in and secure this most valuable portion of the Antarctic continent for themselves”.
The British Government refused to give Mawson’s 1911 expedition its official sanction.
The Fisher Labor Government did, but in a curious role reversal of Commonwealth – State relations, the feds kicked in £5,000 and the states between them £18,000!
Mawson lost men and he too was fortunate to survive.
But it is absolutely right to attribute to him recognition for triggering our national engagement with the continent this last 100 years.
Australia was one of the 12 original Antarctic Treaty parties of 1951.
We are party to a raft of environmental obligations to protect the continent – the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
We continue our scientific effort on the continent through the Antarctic Division with 300 staff, 110 projects 100 dedicated scientists and some 300 research papers published, (including one last week in the journal “The Climate of the Past” analysing the implications arising from the melting of the previous ice caps 19,000 years ago).
Australia, because of our historical engagement, has a significant voice in the future of Antarctica.
And with that significant voice comes significant responsibility.
Significant responsibility for the proper protection of the continent’s Southern Oceans bird life and marine life (hence our legal challenge against Japan in the International Court of Justice on the future of so-called scientific whaling).
Significant responsibility also for the proper protection of the physical continent consistent with our treaty obligations.
But particularly our significant responsibility for spearheading scientific research into Antarctic and broader polar research on the impact of global warming and climate change.
Quite apart from the rich reservoir of knowledge contained in its ice sheets of previous episodes of global warming, it has been calculated by NASA that the melting of the Antarctic ice cap would increase global sea levels some 60 metres.
For these reasons alone, Australia’s Antarctic enterprise, both in science and in policy, must continue into the future with the continued support from the Australian Government.
For all of us, the stakes are very high indeed.
I thank David for his book which boosts our national knowledge of this vast continent.
And I am honoured to launch it today.