ANTARCTICA: A BIOGRAPHYBy David DayKnopf, $45
IN THE past few years, there has been a rise in public consciousness about Antarctica. In part, this has been a result of the annual summer clashes between the Japanese whaling fleet and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in the Southern Ocean. More broadly, this has been due to the enhanced profile of Australian Antarctic history, Antarctic governance and the importance of Antarctica to understanding climate change.
During the past year, the centenary of Sir Douglas Mawson’s historic voyage to and exploration of Antarctica – the first Australian expedition to the continent – has been celebrated. Peter FitzSimons’ Mawson biography helped reinforce that legacy, along with the exploits of the other explorers from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
The Antarctic Treaty celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, and in June the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting gathered in Hobart. This served as a reminder that the first treaty meeting was in Canberra in June 1961 at what is now the Old Parliament House.
Yet Australia’s human connection with Antarctica extends well beyond these events of the past century and goes back to Captain Cook, whose voyages of exploration not only encompassed Australia but also included the first circumnavigation of Antarctica, between 1772 and 1775.
While Cook never actually sighted the continent, he was nonetheless convinced there was a significant land mass in the vicinity of the South Pole. This proved to be the catalyst for subsequent explorers and the eventual discovery of Antarctica in the early 19th century.
In his latest book, noted Australian historian David Day seeks to capture the spirit of Cook and Mawson and the deeds of subsequent explorers, which eventually turned into a race for Antarctic sovereignty.
Unlike traditional histories of Antarctica, which almost exclusively focus on exploration and individual explorers, Day blends that narrative with the increasing politicisation of Antarctica as at first European powers, then the Americans, and eventually Argentina and Chile jostled for territory.
Day’s work focuses predominantly on the history of human engagement with the continent and some of its offshore islands. It begins with the early voyages of discovery, starting with Cook, and then in the early 19th century traces the voyages of the Russian explorer von Bellingshausen, Bransfield from Britain, and the American, Palmer.
All three have at times been credited with having been the first to sight the Antarctic continent, yet, as Day concedes, ”the history of the continent’s discovery remains a contested space”.
The narrative moves on to consider the heroic era, when the race to be first to the south pole inspired numerous explorers.
While there is no doubt Norway’s Amundsen first reached the pole in 1911, the significance of that achievement and the parallel loss of Scott and his companions in a British bid to be first there is not given exhaustive attention.
Rather, Day’s attention is upon the growing political interest in Antarctica, especially following the end of World War I, when the Americans gradually became active in exploration and the US government considered its options for asserting a territorial claim.
Day gives great attention to the American interest in Antarctica, detailing the exploits of the explorers Ellsworth and Byrd, and the interest in Washington in seeking to make Antarctica an American continent during the 1930s and 1940s.
Notwithstanding that by the end of World War II Antarctica had been subject to claim by seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway – it was not until the mid-1950s that the Americans finally accepted that their Antarctic dream would not be realised, by which time the Russians had also returned to the continent and the real spectre of Antarctica being caught up in the Cold War could not be ignored.
Day then turns to the American promotion of the Antarctic Treaty, which was eventually concluded in Washington on December 1, 1959, and has set the course for much of Antarctica’s modern history.
While Day devotes only a single chapter to the past 50 years of Antarctica’s human history, this is probably due to the relative stability and calm that have resulted from the treaty and the common purpose it has generated among the key players.
This stands in stark contrast with the previous 190 years of human engagement, during which rivalry was commonplace. Not only did this exist between explorers, who were keen to ensure that ”rights” to explore parts of the continent were respected, but also whalers of different nationalities who jostled for prime harbours. At times the rivalry nearly spilled over into conflict, such as in 1952, when Argentina fired warning shots when a British expedition arrived at Hope Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Eventually, scientific rivalry began to dominate, but even that had undertones of ensuring that science in some way provided further evidence of territorial claims.
There are intriguing snippets throughout, such as the importance of ”stamp diplomacy” as various territorial claimants issued postage stamps and established Antarctic post offices in an apparent bid to reinforce their territorial claims under international law.
There were also continual efforts by various countries – the Americans, British and Russians being most prominent – to produce not only authoritative maps of Antarctica, but also ones dominated by place names with connections to each country. Again, the catalyst for such conduct was the desire for territorial sovereignty.
Day’s narrative is a reminder that the continent remains a contested space – just as in 1911, when Mawson’s expedition left Hobart for Antarctica – and that Australia needs to give appropriate consideration to its future Antarctic endeavours, especially at a time when new powers are beginning to express serious interest in the frozen continent.
■Donald Rothwell is professor of international law at the Australian National University College of Law.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.