Antarctica: A Biography

  • David Day
Oxford Univ. Press: 2013. 624 pp. £25 9780199670550 | ISBN: 978-0-1996-7055-0

From James Cook's circumnavigation of Terra Australis Incognita in 1772–75 to today's shifting international population of researchers, Antarctica's history is stamped by the continent's remote isolation, extreme climate and scientific importance. Its strategic and economic potential have not escaped government attention. Behind the scenes, nations have long plotted to win sovereignty and control resources. And that is where David Day's Antarctica: A Biography takes us, into a two-faced world of public and covert intentions where personal and national rivalries abound.

Antarctica is the first comprehensive history of the continent, spanning the centuries since Cook's voyage. The heroic expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and other luminaries are all there, as are many that are less well known. Day couches these throughout in political contexts — how they served the motives of the colonial offices or state departments back home. The dramas, played out in secret memos and in published statements in newspapers, give the book a slow, even glacial, pace at times.

One of the vessels captained by US explorer Richard Byrd in Antarctica in the 1930s. Credit: CORBIS

At every turn there is hesitancy on the part of diplomats and leaders: to claim or not to claim, to recognize others' claims or not, to offend trading partners or not, to respond to official memos or to let them go unanswered. In this way we have collectively backed into today's Antarctica, where all territorial claims are held in abeyance, a 50-year moratorium prohibits exploration for mineral and energy resources, and tourists flock in droves.

Day has done a remarkable job of collating information from rich and varied international sources. He draws from original accounts, newspaper articles, the recently released papers of US naval officer and polar explorer Richard Byrd, and numerous national archives with their copious committee reports and memos, some recently declassified.

The concealment of who made what claims where and when, and how different versions were presented to the public, dominate the book. One example is what Byrd told reporters in Dunedin, New Zealand, after his first Antarctic expedition (1928–30). Although he said he was “not the least concerned with claiming the land for America”, he had recently photographed miles of mountains and coastline in Marie Byrd Land with just that intent. He had also instructed Laurence Gould, his second in command, to leave a note in a cairn claiming the territory for the United States when Gould's ground party traversed beyond the boundary of New Zealand's Ross Dependency.

Although I am familiar with the history of exploration in the Peninsula and Ross Sea sectors of Antarctica, Day expanded my horizons to the 'African' sector, the section of East Antarctica facing the tip of Africa. Here, between the world wars, Norwegians led the last great slaughter of Antarctic whales and mapped major sectors of the coastline, infringing on claims by the ever-vigilant Australians. During the 1929–30 summer season, for instance, the Norwegians and Australians converged on Enderby Land intent on extending their claims to the same territory and forestalling the other's.

I also enjoyed the account of the jostling at Deception Island during and immediately after the Second World War, when Argentina painted its colours on the abandoned British station. After the British removed them, subsequent claims were made by Chile and Argentina, ultimately leading to 'Operation Tabarin' — a secret UK mission charged with building and maintaining permanent British stations on the Peninsula. Following the war, scientific activity increased and responsibility was transferred to the Falkland Island Dependencies Survey, which in 1962 became the British Antarctic Survey.

Each chapter covers a specific period in dense detail. There is grist here for the ruminations of historians, although a more casual reader might find it hard to digest at times. But the final chapter, covering the period since the 1961 signing of the Antarctic Treaty, breezes through the turning points.

I was reminded of how, in June 1988, the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities had been adopted and was poised for ratification by the treaty nations. Then, in January 1989, the Argentinian ship Bahia Paraiso ran aground off the Antarctic Peninsula, spilling oil into the surrounding waters. Two months later, the Exxon Valdez went down in Prince William Sound, Alaska, emptying 260,000 barrels of crude oil into similarly frigid waters. Countries that had quietly endorsed the convention scrambled to withdraw their support, and within two years the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (the Madrid Protocol), was in place, prohibiting the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources on the continent for 50 years.

But marine resources remain a contentious issue, as witnessed by the failure in Hobart last year of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to establish proposed marine reserves in critical areas in the Southern Ocean.

Day ends by saying, “For centuries, the Antarctic defied man's approach. Now its dangers and its terrors have been largely conquered. Only its future remains unknown.” I would add that, thanks to Day, the intrigues and posturing that saturate the history of this distant land have now been exposed. We are left to wonder what continues to be plotted behind the scenes.