Professor Tom Griffiths, Australian National University, with introduction by Anthea Gunn, National Museum of Australia, 28 May 2013
ANTHEA GUNN: Hello everyone. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia’s 1913 lecture series. My name is Anthea Gunn. I am a curator here at the Museum. I would like to begin today by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present on whose land we meet today. I would also like to advise you that this lecture is being recorded. So if you could switch your mobile phones off, that would be fantastic. There will be a question and answer session at the end, and participation in that will be taken as consent to being recorded.
I am sure most of you have had a chance to see the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition. This exhibition is our contribution to Canberra’s centenary but of course looks beyond Canberra to what’s happening in Australia in 1913 and what are we doing beyond our own shores, both in Papua and Antarctica, which we will be focussing on this afternoon. There is only so much you can include in the exhibition. The research into this period became so rich and so engaging that we were inspired to include most of it into a book. Michelle Hetherington, the senior curator of the exhibition, edited this book, which is conveniently available in our shop today, and invited leading historians from around Australia to contribute essays relating to particular themes.
From this we have devised this lecture series where we can hear from some of the authors about their particular topics. We will be hearing from Tom Griffiths this afternoon about the fascinating topic of Antarctica. Just to give you an introduction to Tom Griffiths. He is the William Keith Hancock professor of history in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU) and director of the Centre for Environmental History at the ANU. His research writing and teaching are in the fields of Australian social, cultural and environmental history, the comparative environmental history of settler societies, the writing of non-fiction, and the history of Antarctica. Tom’s books and essays have won prizes in history, science, literature, politics and journalism. His most recent monograph, Slicing the silence: Voyaging to Antarctica, won the Queensland and New South Wales Premier awards for non-fiction and was the joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian history in 2008. Today he will be discussing Australia’s aspirations in Antarctica in 1913, and the endurance that was required for this scientific undertaking. [applause]
TOM GRIFFITHS: Thank you very much, Anthea, and good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming to the lecture today. History is famously a dialogue between the present and the past. All the history that we write, all our daily conversations about the past travel into past times with present questions. As we voyaged to that foreign country that is the past and even as we commit ourselves to learning its language and respecting its differences, we cannot leave ourselves entirely behind. When we look back to 1913 and see glorious days, our vision is of course coloured by what we know what happened next. That hindsight is both a gift and a burden: it’s a gift because it opens our eyes to trends that people at the time may not have fully experienced or observed; it’s a burden because it can make it harder for us to give back to the past all the possibilities of its own present. We run the danger of seeing it only as leading to us. We can straitjacket it with inevitability.
Historians have to use hindsight but they also have to think against the grain of it, trying to listen to the voices of the past on their own terms. So in today’s lecture I am going to talk about then but I am also going to talk about now. I am going to make that dialogue manifest. That’s what commemorations and exhibitions are about: they are public forms of history that enact the dialogue between the present and the past in ritual, ceremony and display. Therefore, I am going to begin in the present and I am going to take you on a voyage into the past. It is quite literally a voyage to Antarctica and to 1913.
Here we are then embarking on a voyage south across the Southern Ocean to the continent of ice. [image shown] It’s January last year and this group of expeditioners is boarding the Australian Antarctic ship Aurora Australis at Macquarie wharf at the Hobart docks. It’s the major marine science expedition of the summer. The ship is full of oceanographers and biologists who are studying ocean life, temperatures and salinity in a warming world.
But the voyage also has another commemorative purpose. It’s hoping to land a party at Commonwealth Bay in east Antarctica 100 years after the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) established its base there. That lonely stretch of coastline is still as remote and undeveloped as it was in early 1912 when Douglas Mawson landed his party on the rocks at Cape Denison and built the famous wooden huts that remain there today.
At the beginning of December 1911, the good ship Aurora was farewelled from Hobart by cheering crowds. In the preceding weeks the Hobart docks had been witness to much galvanic activity, a sight very familiar today as a ship is prepared from that place for the southern journey. The Aurora had made the voyage from Cardiff, arriving in early November, and Mawson had been enthusiastically busy overseeing the sorting, checking and loading of 5,200 packages of stores. The expeditioners and crew savoured their last visits to Hobart’s popular strawberry and cream shops.
On 2 December the Aurora departed, followed a few days later by the small steamer Toroa, both heading first for Macquarie Island and then beyond to Antarctica. Their purpose was to establish a weather station on Macquarie Island and then to investigate the practically unknown coast of Antarctica south of Australia, the area that Mawson referred to as ‘the Australian quadrant’. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition was the most adventurously scientific expedition of the heroic era and one that put geographical exploration ahead of the race to the Pole. This early unambiguous Australian commitment to the priority of science offers us a proud inheritance I think, one that has only strengthened in importance in the last 50 years of the Antarctic Treaty era. But Mawson also promoted the expedition as an investment in Australia’s long-term security and prosperity. When we visit the Glorious Days exhibition here and see the Antarctic relics displayed in close proximity to the celebrations of the First Fleet unit of the Royal Australian Navy in October 1913, we can appreciate that both of these endeavours were safeguarding the young nation’s regional security.
The leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was this man Douglas Mawson [image shown], already an Antarctic hero having been south with [Ernest] Shackleton in 1907 to 1909. He had turned down an invitation by Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition and even the opportunity to be a member of Scott’s South Pole party, because Mawson’s interests lay instead in scientific exploration and in representing his own country’s interests in Antarctica. Mawson saw the chance to demonstrate Australia’s frontier vigour on the world stage to prove, as he put it a few years later in his account of the expedition called The Home of the Blizzard that he hoped:
… 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 expedition was a contribution to the British Empire’s embrace of Antarctica but it was also a distinctive Australian tradition and 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 own backyard - to understand the shared world of stormy sea and swirling icy air that emanated from the neighbouring Antarctic region.
Mawson’s greatest trial at this moment was ahead of him. This expedition to Antarctica would test him to his limits physically and mentally. It would also test his character. In 1913 he would experience his greatest and lowest moments and, as a leader and as a man, all his flaws would become painfully apparent.
So that’s the expedition that was very much in our minds 100 years later as we voyaged south in comparative comfort on board Aurora Australis. For days this is what one sees: nothing but the Southern Ocean playing with the wind [image shown]. You feel small on a tiny bobbing ship, the earth feels vast and land seems rare and precious. In the roaring 40s and furious 50s you enter the albatross latitudes - these great birds that rule the wind and waves. A crowning wandering albatross may fly the open seas for seven years before returning to land to breed. A black-browed albatross follows our ship, as they love to do, looking for life churned up by the wake. Here is one of the Mawson expedition biologists, Charles Harrisson, holding a wandering albatross caught on the Aurora, its incredible wing span displayed for Frank Hurley’s camera [image shown].
As we headed south we, like Mawson, were conducting marine science, measuring ocean temperature and salinity at various depths, as well as dredging for sea life. The temperatures gathered at various depths by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition continue to provide essential benchmarks for oceanography and climate science today. It’s worth remembering as we debate climate change and climate science that Douglas Mawson would be today, if he were alive, a great advocate for that science.
And then you see the icebergs [image shown]. It is a much-awaited moment on the Southern Ocean. You enter an ethereal realm. You feel like you might have left the planet. You are journeying close to the greatest ice-making machine on earth where 90 per cent of the world’s land ice is to be found and 70 per cent of our freshwater locked in these jewels. The men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition raced onto deck the moment the first ice was sighted. As Percy Gray, the ship officer, put it in his diary:
Everybody is delighted with the ice. Personally it simply fascinates me. At present I am planning to spend most of the rest of my life down here.
Here is Frank Hurley’s famous photograph of an iceberg and you will see this in the exhibition [http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/australasian_empire]. This is how Frank remembered his first sighting. He wrote:
The first glimpse came one day when the breeze was blowing still and bleak from the south. Suddenly it grew calm. Grazing at the grey curtains of fog from the deck of our ship so tiny in the surrounding vastness, we felt like Argonauts whose quest had led to the world’s brim. Slowly we crept on filled with wonder and expectancy, the growl of the surf like breakers crumbling on a reef came to our ears. All hands mustered on the fo’c’sle head and peered in the direction of the sound. Through a rift we made out the glimmering sheen of a colossal berg.
But soon everyone lost their delight in the ice. It closed around them, preventing them from reaching the land they desired. Mawson and his captain JK Davis were disappointed to find the pack ice so far north. Mawson was in despair and thought that perhaps his expedition was on the brink of failure.
The hull of our modern ship also found the ice utterly forbidding. Like Mawson, we could not reach land. Adélie penguins wondered what we were doing there.
Suddenly, in early January 1912, a great tonne of ice loomed in front of the Aurora and as they sailed around it a way through clear water opened up and Mawson and his men rejoiced in relief. They nosed their way through the pack following its edge westward, ever westward, looking for an opening to the south and a way finally to reach the continent itself. They ventured around the edges of great ice shelfs always in search of precious rock where they might find a safe harbour and establish a base.
One hundred years later we, too, were wrestling with ice and time, and of course the ice won. Let’s look more closely at this screen on the bridge of Aurora Australis [image shown]. It shows a giant iceberg named B9B. That berg is the size of the Australian Capital Territory. That berg stood between us and Commonwealth Bay, where we were hoping to land, and it had hemmed in the sea ice around Cape Denison, normally a polynya, an open area of sea. But the sea ice was hemmed in by this great berg that had been broken off the Ross Ice Shelf.
Finally we were forced to anchor our ship on the edge of that sea ice 20 kilometres from Mawson’s huts. That is iceberg B9B behind the Aurora Australis [image shown]. For five days we lived in this incredibly remote and beautiful location sailing on a white sea, high on ice, waiting our chance with wind and weather to fly by helicopter to the huts. We weren’t lonely for we had delightful companions. The local population came out in numbers to greet us [image shown]. And being Australians and it being summer, we played cricket [image shown]. We made ice sculptures on the sea ice, including this commemoration of the 100 years since the Australasian Antarctic Expedition [image shown]. Adélie penguins are very obliging - they promptly stood guard - and they just couldn’t resist slipping through the zeros [image shown]. Cross-cultural communication took place; they put on their best suits; and we photographed them [image shown]. We interviewed them, too, because one day I hope to write the penguin history of Antarctica. It will be a joyous book. It has to be. It will be gleeful. And there will be conflict too. All colours and creeds will be properly represented. One of our crew placed a little soft toy on the ice, and it was soon lovingly adopted [image shown]. This photo, of all the photos taken on our voyage, was the one that went viral.
On 8 January 1912, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition excitedly found land and, the weather being clear, boats were sent ashore. It was a momentous day for the expedition, and perhaps for Australia. 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, Commonwealth Bay - a landing also hampered by adverse conditions, a landing of scientists rather than soldiers and a landing in Australia’s own region of the globe - also deserves our attention and was imbued with similar symbolism and sentiment.
Tents were quickly erected and soon the huts were being built. The prefabricated Australian design quickly took form between blizzards. Once the huts were established, the scientific infrastructure was also installed. The anemometer or wind gauge, the Stevenson screen, was crucial although actually getting to it to take measurements would prove an enormous challenge. Now, if you doubt me, have a look at the film in the Glorious Days exhibition of the men struggling to climb this hill and reach the Stevenson screen.
Let me introduce you now to Cecil Madigan, the man who so devotedly maintained these scientific records. [image shown]. This is Cecil Madigan suffering a bit from frost bite but definitely recognisable. Cecil Madigan would become one of Mawson’s severest critics during 1913.
Here is the hut built for the study of geomagnetism, a vital scientific inquiry of early polar expeditions [image shown] and the tide gauge. All these scientific instruments were installed as a priority before they even got around to raising the flag. Mawson was a scientist first and everything else, including his country and his men, came second. Once the main base at Cape Denison was established, the second continental party was landed much further westwards on the Shackleton Ice Shelf under the command of Frank Wild. Here is Charles Harrisson’s painting of their hut under snow known as ‘The Grottos’. The story of this particular party and its explorations are also a vital part of the achievements of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Back at main base, Mawson and his men began to realise that they had chosen as their home the windiest place on the planet. Frank Hurley’s famous photo of men chipping ice for water and battling the wind can be seen in the exhibition as part of his menu for the midwinter dinner of 1912. Against powerful katabatic winds flowing down relentlessly from the polar plateau, the men developed the art of what they called ‘hurricane walking’ or leaning on the wind. If the wind suddenly stopped, you fell on your face.
Meanwhile, here we are 20 kilometres and 100 years away, leaning on the wind and waiting for it to stop [image shown], and finally one morning it did. The helicopters were flown from the ship onto the ice and our landing party prepared for the pilgrimage to the huts. The helicopter comes in to land near Mawson’s huts to be greeted of course by a jaunty local [image shown]. Adélie penguins and humans are attracted to the same rare places: they both need rocks on which to nest. We made our way down towards the huts, a fleck of organic light brown among the whites, blacks and blues of the landscape. What a lean and delicate beauty the huts have - glowing with a fragile lustre, a surprisingly intimate and domestic feel about them still and easily imaginable as a beloved home, even 100 years later.
The walls are inscribed by wind and history. In the unexpected second year of the expedition, 1913, the walls were insulated with canvas which was held on by these makeshift cross panels of timber. When the wind dropped, we held a commemorative ceremony outside the huts. Dr Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division, read a speech by the Prime Minister, and the name of every original expeditioner was read out and honoured [image shown]. I read some of the words the men had written in their diaries from this very spot. Just outside this photo are a line of Adélie penguins who I assure you were very attentive. We had with us an original 1915 edition of Mawson’s account of the expedition, The home of the blizzard. Here I am consulting it beside the hut, always keen as I am to bring literature and place together [image shown].
In late February 1912 once Mawson had established his scientific infrastructure, he got around to raising the flag on a pole above the hut and declaiming this sector of Antarctica for the British Empire. The dialogue between past and present was ever in our minds on our pilgrimage, and also the way in which Antarctica in the 100 years since, especially under the treaty which has now operated for over 50 years, has become a different kind of international space but one where nationalism still does have a role.
Let us enter the hut now. The low door had been dug clear of snow by our advance party. Through the entrance where the verandah is choked with ice, that’s where we will go - and appropriately you need 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. Icicles glow, the air smelt musty and organic, and the walls gleamed faintly illuminated by the skylight.
The structure of the hut emerges from the gloom as your eyes focus. The ceiling and the walls are encrusted. The stove remains in the kitchen corner. Magazines and newspapers from 1911, 1912 and 1913 remain stacked on the shelves. You can read about the Titanic disaster. The Hound of the Baskervilles came out a decade earlier and the The Methods of Mr Aimes in 1908. Reading, as you can imagine, was vital and often reading aloud - it was a crucial part of the life of the hut.
A piece of frozen seal blubber remains on a shelf, and all around the walls are beds. The hut was insulated with a two-storey layer of people. You realise that you walked into a boys’ bunk room. Eighteen men slept here top to toe for a year and then seven of them in 1913, and it still feels private, intimate, domestic. You can see also that the men have signed their initials on their bunks for 1912 and for 1913. When there were fewer of them in 1913, those on the cold southern wall of the hut moved to the other bunks.
The door to the right takes us into Frank Hurley’s tiny darkroom. Let’s look in there. Some of his photographic plates remain, and you can see his motto inscribed in the wood: ‘near enough is not good enough’. There are his chemicals still on the shelf.
Two bunks that remained empty and mournful throughout 1913 are those of XM, Xavier Mertz, and Belgrave Ninnis. They occupied what was called Hyde Park Corner - you can still see that written there - called that because that was where the Europeans of the group congregated. Here is Ninnis’s bunk beside Xavier’s - Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis. [image shown] Here is Mawson’s bunk in his little office petitioned off from the other men [image shown] and this is one of the pictures left in Mawson’s room.
So the hut today feels like it has been left quickly and in some disorder. Of course, snow and the passing of years have intervened and changed it, but it still feels like a microcosmic concentration of Australia in 1913 for that’s the year the door was finally closed on it.
Let’s melt the ice and the time now. Let’s leave the twenty-first century behind for a short while and re-enter the world of the hut as it was 100 years ago. Well the washing up certainly needs to be done but, once that’s completed, we can gather together and smoke and yarn in Hyde Park Corner of course.
And during the day there is always work to be done. Look through that door into the adjoining workshop: things are being made and mended; science is industriously under way. Sometimes there are celebrations, such as this one on 25 February when the flag was raised and a proclamation ceremony held. You can see the Union Jacks and also the Australian flag furled around the post. Mawson attended this dinner wrapped in an Australian flag. These were the good times in the hut, the times of hope and they would be remembered with such fondness.
And then came 1913. 1913 was the unexpected year. It was a year of trauma and waiting and of nightmares more than dreams. On the first day of 1913, at the height of the Antarctic summer, Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz were sledging for their lives between two perilous glaciers in Adélie Land. Two and a half weeks earlier, their companion Belgrave Ninnis had been swallowed by the ice taking practically all the food and the best dog team down with him. Mawson and Mertz turned desperately for home.
Back at the coast, the ship Aurora had returned to Commonwealth Bay on 13 January 1913 to take home the men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. They had spent a whole year at Cape Denison and they greeted the ship with happiness and relief, reading letters, and feasting on the oranges, strawberries and pineapples on board. ‘How delicious they do seem to us now,’ they wrote.
The Aurora’s second officer, Percy Gray, ‘was amazed at the change in some of these shore fellows when I saw them last night - a harder, tougher-looking crowd I never wish to see’. Captain John King Davis anxiously awaited the return of all men from their summer sledging trips so that he could sail west and pick up the other Antarctic shore party of the expedition, those eight men at the western base led by Frank Wild.
‘There’s still no sign of Mawson,’ Davis wrote in his private journal on 22 January. The far-eastern sledging party of Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz was by now well overdue. Captain Davis went ashore after tea, inspected the wireless mast, and then climbed a snowy slope for review in the hope of seeing something. He found the site of the hut looking like a heap of stones in the boundless ice both wonderful and terrible. ‘As I stood looking south, I tried to tell myself,’ he wrote, ‘that Mawson and his party were all right but could not help wishing that I could march out myself and make sure.’ He felt terribly uneasy at the silence. ‘One does not know what to think.’ The anxiety was taking its toll on Davis who was inclined to be glum at the best of times. His nickname was ‘Gloomy’. Percy Gray recorded: ‘I must say I can feel for Gloomy in his responsibility. He absolutely resembles a walking corpse now.’
Davis had to decide how long he’d wait for the return of Mawson’s party before leaving Cape Denison and heading west to the Shackleton Ice Shelf where Wild’s party urgently awaited his return. The western base had stores for just one year and was perched precariously on a fragmenting ice shelf. Their survival depended on the return of the Aurora, and the summer was already slipping away.
Inland on the glacier, the last entry in Mertz’s sledging diary was 1 January 1913. From the following week, he slipped quickly into convulsions, dementia and death. On their race for survival back towards Cape Denison, Mawson and Mertz lost their hair and skin and suffered crippling stomach pains and dizziness, for they were unwittingly poisoning themselves by eating the livers of the huskies they butchered and boiled.
On 8 January Mawson solemnly buried Mertz, marked his grave and then tore the remaining blank pages out of Mertz’s diary, including the back cover, because he could now carry only the bare minimum. There was still more than 100 miles to go. On his lone trek back to the main base at Commonwealth Bay, Mawson fell down so many crevasses that he tied himself to his sledge with a rope ladder so that he could make his own rescues. The glacier and the blizzards ambushed him daily.
On 28 January he miraculously found a cairn of snow with a cache of precious food left for him that very morning by a rescue party. Mawson had missed his men by only a few hours.
On 1 February he reached Aladdin’s Cave, an excavated ice cavern just nine kilometres from the hut. For the next week high winds trapped him there.
Meanwhile, at Commonwealth Bay, Captain Davis could wait no longer and had determined to leave by the end of January. But the same blizzard that delayed Mawson in the cave made it impossible for the shore party to reach the ship.
When the wind finally relented on 8 February, Mawson was able to leave the cave, and the shore party was able to reach the ship. Thus, as Mawson picked his way down the final steep, slippery slope to the hut, he saw the Aurora steaming out of the bay for another whole year. Six men had stayed behind in case he returned, and one, Frank Bickerton, rushed to greet the lone figure glimpsed on the ice above the hut. Staring into the emaciated face, Bickerton cried out, ‘My God! Which one are you?’
Once in the hut, Mawson gave instructions to recall the ship by wireless, and Captain Davis turned the Aurora around and steered it back within sight of the hut. But the wind again made it impossible for the motor launch to ferry people from the shore and, after six hours of vexation, Davis weighed anchor once more. The wind dropped again the following afternoon and remained calm for several days, but it was too late, the ship had gone, and a second long year at Cape Denison stretched ahead for the seven men left behind. On 23 February the Aurora picked up the eight men of the western base and set sail north for Australia.
1913 was not just a significant year in Antarctica for Australians, it was also the year that the greatest Antarctic story burst upon the world. Mawson staggered back to his hut just three days before the news of Robert Falcon Scott’s death broke. Scott and his four companions had died on their return from the South Pole a year earlier, but their bodies had to be found and the journals with them and the ship had to return to civilisation before the story could be told. Mawson and his companions shared in the global grief in their lonely hut. They learned the news quickly because the expedition had finally secured radio contact with Australia via the weather and wireless station at Macquarie Island. It was the first piece of radio news they received from the outside world. Although separated by a year, Mawson’s epic tale was overwhelmed by Scott’s tragedy.
Facing another long and unexpected winter, coping with a leader who was an invalid and grieving deeply for their lost companions, both those who had died and those who had been able to return home, as they had all hoped to do, the remaining men turned to science to maintain their sanity. It’s worth saying again that, as well as asserting the sovereign interests of the British Empire in Australia, Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 was the most impressive and earnestly scientific expedition of the heroic era of Antarctic exploration.
We have already seen that science and survival were more urgent priorities than flagraising. It was science that justified their presence on this remote alien continent and that helped secure them to this windy place. The young men of the expedition - mostly Australian, mostly in their 20s, mostly university educated - were eager to apply their fresh scientific curiosity and training to new and challenging terrain. Science was the intellectual sustenance, their emotional anchorage, their daily heroic discipline, and perhaps it might keep them sane.
That battle for sanity became so much harder in this second unanticipated year. The lively, busy, hopeful community of the year before had been reduced to a melancholy rump afflicted by tension, heartache and depression. An unaccustomed slackness settled on the hut. For a time after his ordeal, Mawson could do little but eat and sleep. He would follow people around the small interior just to be near them.
Mawson must have been haunted by questions about the loss of his companions: Had Ninnis broken through the lid of the crevasse because he was on foot and not on the sledge? Could Mertz, the ski champion, have skied home himself? Why had they loaded most of the food on just one of the sledges? Would it have been safer to return along the coast where there was wildlife rather than across the dangerous inland glaciers?
Looking back on 1913, Mawson confessed to his fiancée Paquita that ‘most of my time during this winter was occupied in keeping myself and others sane’. Mawson noticed that his own nerves were seriously affected by his trial and wrote in his diary in March, ‘I may go off my rocker very soon.’
In the first year, Cecil Madigan and Frank Bickerton had shared their corner of the hut with Ninnis and Mertz, Hyde Park Corner. Now the corner was forlorn, and those bunks we have seen were empty - even accusing. Bickerton sobbed under his blanket at night over the loss of his friends, and the men knew also by now that the katabatic winds that blasted their hut were the winds of Scott’s death.
As the polar night deepened, the new wireless operator, Sydney Jeffryes, slipped into madness. Sydney Jeffryes had begun the year well. He replaced Walter Hannam as wireless operator and soon established successful radio communication with Australia via the relay station at Macquarie Island. The AAE became the first Antarctic expedition to use this technology. We might say then, as Antarctic curator Mark Pharaoh has suggested, that ‘1913 was the year the silence of Antarctica was broken’.
If I were going to select two material objects to show in a museum to represent Australians in Antarctica in 1913, a section of the wireless mast would be one of them and, remarkably, you can see it there in the Glorious Days exhibition and contemplate it. I will mention the other essential object at the end of my talk.
During the early months of 1913 radio messages provided ‘the real event of the day’, as they put it, and brought the outside world and loved ones closer. There was a constant battle to keep the wireless masts upright in the home of the blizzard.
Jeffryes was the only newcomer in a small group of men that had already spent a year together, and his work further isolated him. He seldom went outside and often slept during the day, for his evenings were spent tuned to the wireless with his headset on, straining to hear signals, real or imagined. He was listening for voices in his head. In early July, though curiously logical at times, Jeffryes became paranoid, delusional and violent, suspecting that his companions were plotting to murder him, believing that Mawson had cast a magnetic spell on him and threatening to expose these machinations to those at home.
On 27 July, in the depths of the winter, he tendered his resignation from the expedition. Determined to isolate the madness in case it might catch, Mawson assembled his men around the table and publicly ridiculed Jeffryes with a carefully written speech, pointing out that: ‘The accommodation houses are few and far between in the Antarctic.’ Jeffryes’ madness waxed and waned but he had to be kept under constant watch. He was admitted to an asylum on his return to Australia in 1914.
Jeffryes later claimed his own troubles had started when he defended Mawson from Cecil Madigan who ‘made a scurrilous insinuation against Mawson with regard to Mertz’. Whatever we think of this testimony, the evidence of a madman, it does identify a likely taboo - a subject of disquiet in the polar night - in a hut where Mertz’s bunk lay empty and Mawson still lived. Once suspicions had been voiced, there was no escaping them. They infiltrated the very fabric of the hut and, like ice setting in the crevasses, set hard. Mawson did not eat Mertz. But there in the dark winter of 1913 it is reasonable to suggest that Mertz was eating away at Mawson.
Mawson, an Australian hero and icon in the making, was emaciated and broken as he faced this unexpected year of isolation, angst and reflection. His men had always admired him for his energy and tenacity, for leading from the front, but he never commanded the kind of love or affection that Shackleton or Wild inspired. Mawson could be very demanding of his staff. He drove others as he drove himself and he was sometimes sarcastic and lacked compassion and humour. But in this second year he became a figure of disdain to some of his companions, especially Madigan and Bickerton.
Madigan had been understandably reluctant to stay another year. He had to defer his Rhodes scholarship again, and during periods of depression he became deeply resentful of his leader. Among Madigan’s grievances was the sense that Mawson spoke of Ninnis and Mertz in an offhand way. It may have been Mawson’s way of coping with the tragedy. But even Paquita, Mawson’s fiancé, wondered about the emotional depth of her beloved. ‘It seems like writing to a wall,’ Paquita declared to Mawson in September, 22 months into their separation and without a letter from him for a year and a half.
‘There is no reason why you shouldn’t like me as much as before. But this everlasting silence is almost unbearable.’ Paquita continued: ‘I wonder why I feel so sad tonight. Am I afraid there is not room in your heart for the expedition and I? … Oh Douglas don’t don’t let Antarctica freeze you.’
At the midwinter dinner on 22 June 1913, the Polar celebration that marks the beginning of a son’s journey back, the menu was headed by a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer…’ They had kept some of their discontent at bay by writing an expedition newspaper which was another polar tradition. Five numbers totalling 217 pages of The Adélie Blizzard were produced in the hut edited by the doctor Archibald McLean on a typewriter. Although it has been described as often reading like ‘the in-house publication of a boys’ boarding school or residential college, with its fair share of in-jokes and doggerel verse,’ the Blizzard also included serious essays, stories and scientific articles and in the words of its editor ‘aimed to voice the spirit of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition’. When producing its final issue in October, McLean wrote, ‘I must say the work has given me diversion and a tremendous amount of pleasure.’
By mid-October the Adélie penguins had returned, the snow was thinning to icicles on the rocks and sea birds were again flying along the shoreline. By November, McLean recorded, ‘I am afraid we think of nothing but that ship.’ At the end of that month the men solemnly erected a cross on Azimuth Hill among the penguin colonies at Cape Denison. It was in memory of their lost friends Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz.
The ship did finally arrive on 14 December. The hut was cleared, its windows battened down. As we have seen, it remains today much as it was when the men left. On 30 December the Aurora was sailing for the final time across Commonwealth Bay. McLean wrote:
We shall not be sorry to see the last vestige of our home of two years. I tried to feel sentimental but couldn’t. This unexpected Australian year in Antarctica is like a flaw in the mirror, a fissure in the ice, a year of regret waiting in anticipation.
Mawson later felt it may have saved his life, this time of enforced quiet in the blizzard, so fragile had been his health. There in that hut at the bottom of the world was a marooned microcosm of Australian society, of transplanted, independent Australian Britons tenaciously launching another colonisation.
To finish, I return now briefly to our century and to my own visit to Cape Denison. After the commemoration ceremony at the hut, I climbed Azimuth Hill where the memorial cross to Ninnis and Mertz stands clearly on the skyline. You can see it there surrounded by penguin colonies [image shown]. Beyond it the ice cliffs of Commonwealth Bay take your breath away, and amongst the rocks I found a place to sit and think about the expedition. There’s a wooden plaque at the base of the rock and it honours the two men and their ‘supreme sacrifice in 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 ‘in the cause of science’ etched in wood - words which seemed so emblematic of how the member 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.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition was interested not only in discovery but in exploration, in the detailed investigation of unknown territory and in the comprehensive scientific measurement and assessment of an extensive an area as possible. Mawson employed more scientists, explored vastly more territory, compiled more data and published more findings than any other Antarctic expedition of the early twentieth century. ‘The AAE’, concludes polar historian Beau Riffenburgh in a recent scholarly study, ‘became the model upon which many future expeditions in the Antarctic would be based and helped establish the form that Antarctic science would eventually take.’
One hundred years later, when fine science is the currency of influence under the Antarctic Treaty, this is a remarkable and enabling inheritance. As I sat there in Antarctica contemplating this wooden plaque, I guessed it had been recently renewed and I wondered where the original might be. On the opening night of the Glorious Days exhibition when I walked into the area of the Antarctic display, I was shocked and delighted to discover the answer to that question. I went to Antarctica in search of that plaque but you can see it just next door. I recommend the journey. Thank you very much. [applause]
ANTHEA GUNN: Tom, I am sure I speak for everyone when I thank you for that insight into both the contemporary and history of the Antarctic expedition in 1913. I would now like to invite your questions.
QUESTION: I was just curious to know: have you any idea how they selected the six people that were willing to stay for a second year? Would they have just called for volunteers or did they select particular professions?
TOM GRIFFITHS: That’s a terrific question, and you can imagine what a vexed issue that was. The person who had to do that was the captain of the ship who was effectively second in command of the expedition, John King Davis, ‘Gloomy’ himself. It was a bit of a mixture. He called for volunteers but he also had to apply a little bit of pressure on certain people that he felt should be there. Madigan was one of them. Madigan was, like all of them, very keen to return home - understandably so, and he had deferred his Rhodes scholarship for a time. He was very keen to get back to loved ones and to family. But he had a great sense of duty, as they all did really, and just a little bit of pressure applied by Davis secured his willingness to stay in Antarctica.
There is no doubt that Madigan was one of the unhappiest people and also one of the most literate - and he wrote about it. His account has just been published by his family, and it’s an important new account of 1913 and of 1912 too. I recommend it to you all. It’s called Madigan’s account: The Mawson Expedition. Those words have been effectively private for 100 years. One can understand the reticence of the family to publish some words which are really critical of our esteemed hero, but it’s important that we see Mawson’s flaws as well as his great virtues. I hope in what I have presented to you that you can see both sides of the man. It’s very important that we do see him as a fully-rounded individual. We have, as we have been celebrating and commemorating the centenary over the last year or so, noted a bit of debate in the press about just what kind of person Mawson was. But, yes, that decision to stay in 1913, what a difficult one for all the men concerned, and for Davis in selecting them.
TOM GRIFFITHS: Yes, they had a radio operator on the ship, Sydney Jeffryes, who was willing to remain behind whilst Hannon, the previous operator, went home. That’s why there were six men who knew one another very well - one of whom was Mawson when he came home - and a further one, Jeffryes, who was a newcomer to that community. That added to his isolation, without doubt.
QUESTION: When the radio operator lost his sanity, were the other people able to continue communication?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Yes, they were, although it was more the radio masts which in the winter eventually were overwhelmed by the katabatic winds. It was a constant battle just keeping those masts up and operating. Eventually it was that which effectively cut communication again, but at the same time Jeffryes had slipped into madness. For a while there he was very paranoid and delusional but still in charge of communication with Australia via Macquarie Island. Mawson began to get very concerned indeed as to exactly what messages were getting out about this expedition, particularly plots to murder Jeffryes and so forth. Indeed, some very strange messages got out during that period, but later others trained and came to use the radio.
In remembering Jeffryes, I think we should honour him for the remarkable effort that he made in early 1913 to establish successful radio communication. We remember him too much as the man who went mad; we should also remember him as the man who, after a year down there, had the tenacity and the determination to really get that new technology up and operating. It was partly his devotion to that that must have exacerbated his condition.
QUESTION: I recall there have been various attempts to ‘conserve’, if I can use that word, Mawson’s huts. Are there any ongoing attempts to bring them back to something like their original condition or are people responsible for their management now going to let the ice stay and nature take its course?
TOM GRIFFITHS: This is a really interesting issue. Thank you for raising that. Mawson’s Huts Foundation [http://www.mawsons-huts.org.au/] do a fantastic job and anyone interested in the huts and learning about the conservation management and history of them should contact Mawson Huts Foundation. Indeed, they are always looking for support, and it’s great work that they do. They do it in association with government, with the Australian Antarctic Division.
If you go to Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts - you will have seen photos of them - you will know that you enter into those and they really are like kind of reverent shrines that are made as if they have literally just walked out the door. It can be a bit creepy in a way. They are beautifully restored Edwardian interiors. Whereas the philosophy in the case of Mawson’s huts is to not interfere over much. Certainly there has been a gradual attempt to ensure the stability of the building, the renewal of the roof and so forth has gone ahead and there has been the gradual clearing out of ice which became so packed in the middle of the hut that for a time it was very difficult to even enter it. What those photos I showed you are as a result of us now being able to enter the hut, and I think that’s a wonderful step forward, but how much further one wants to go in terms of restoring, unearthing artefacts which are embedded in the earth and the ice on the floor of the hut is an issue for debate.
My own feeling is that I value some of the organic archaeological work in progress that you participate in when you visit Mawson’s huts. In other words, it’s not trying to fool you into being a time capsule, it is also marked by subsequent time. There are still discoveries to be made, and I quite like that air of mystery. But there are different views on this. Some people think the huts should be brought home to Australia. I don’t agree with that. I think it is where it has most meaning.
QUESTION: Tom, if there had been no Mawson, if Australia’s scientific ambitions in Antarctica had been say delayed for a decade, how do you think the history of Antarctica would have played out?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Thank you, Mike, for that challenging counterfactual. Of course we have to factor in the war: the war would have intervened and the Great War changed Australia. It changed a lot of the innocence of heroism too, we have to say. The war dictated the end of the heroic era of Antarctic history. The expedition I have described, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was in that innocence and in that heroism was very much pre-war. So ten years later there was already much more strategic geopolitics going on in Antarctica. We know what Mawson did in the late 1920s was he participated in what was a much more strategic intervention in Antarctic territorialism than was his earlier Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
In 1911-14 he could still be a geographical explorer and a scientist first. By the late 1920s, he had become very uncomfortably a politician first. Whilst Mawson felt very strongly that Australia should be in Antarctica and he pushed Australia’s presence constantly with politicians and in public culture, he nevertheless felt slightly uncomfortable with that role. I am referring to what are known as the British Australia New Zealand Research Expeditions or BANZARE in the 1929-31 period. We can see Mawson fighting with Davis, feeling he cannot get enough science done, frustrated he can’t get to the coastline and that he can’t do science, let alone fly the flag as much as he wants to either.
It would have been ten years later whoever was leading it - and I think someone would have stepped into the breach in Mawson’s absence even though he was such a strong figure and a leader - Australia wanted to be there, needed to be there and it became an ongoing commitment of Australians that goes beyond Mawson’s individual strengths. Whoever was leading it, it would have been a much more strategic and less scientific first expedition to Antarctica. I think the great pride we can have, particularly in the twenty-first century, is to realise what a priority science was in our first national adventure on the ice. Science was the reason we were there above all others.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018