An Antarctic library inspires adventure

Don at the Proclamation flagpole at Mawson's Huts Historic Site, Antarctica
Don at the Proclamation flagpole at Mawson’s Huts Historic Site in 2004. (Photo: Don Howell)
Don standing in front of a penguin colony on Macquarie IslandThe cover of the facsimile reproduction of Mawson’s forgotten newspaper, The Adelie Blizzard, published by the Friends of the State Library of South Australia

Don Howell, an avid reader and collector of Antarctic books and Member of the Friends of Mawson, describes some of the books that inspired him to undertake his own Antarctic adventures.

I cannot recall when I purchased my first book on Antarctica. But I do remember my first interest for gathering information and experience in the southern polar continent was when a visiting expeditioner from Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) came to my school in 1959 to give an illustrated lecture. I was also fortunate to have a great geography teacher and mentor at Kings College in Adelaide, who set my thirst for Antarctica.

Unfortunately, ANARE did not need or want a Bachelor of Commerce graduate; only scientists and diesel mechanics, so my interests were subdued. But in the early 1980s I did purchase Verdict on Erebus by Peter Mahon (QC) and, years later, I found a copy of the 1981 NZ Royal Commission into the Air NZ DC 10 crash into Mt Erebus in a second hand bookshop. Some 25 years later I sailed past Mt Erebus and whilst at McMurdo Station I was able to look into the active caldron of that volcano via a live video camera.

One book leads to another to collect and read. If you read Mawson’s The Home of the Blizzard, you can then read his first book (off-prints of his first papers bound together) Geology of the New Hebrides (1904). Other related books by Mawson include the scientific papers of his three expeditions – the volumes on geography, birds and animal are beautifully illustrated with Frank Hurley's photographs. Then you discover that The Home of the Blizzard was printed in colour and in German, with a leather cover in two volumes, in 1921.

In 1915, only 200 volumes of Mawson’s first edition of The Home of the Blizzard were sold in Australia. More were sold in the UK and USA. This led Mawson to publish cheaper, abridged, popular editions in 1930 and a small pocket edition in 1938. The Soviets had great respect for Mawson, perhaps more than Australian citizens, as the USSR published their version of The Home of the Blizzard in 1935, with more reprints later. Today, a two volume first edition set of The Home of the Blizzard costs around $1200. A signed copy for the eighth Prime Minister of Australia, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, cost over $5000.

In 1960 a Soviet journalist, E. M. Suzyumov wrote a biography of Mawson, A Life Given to the Antarctic. Paquita Mawson wrote her biography of her husband in 1964, but it was not until some 50 years later that others were published – why was Mawson such a forgotten hero in his own country? Mawson a Life, by Philip Ayres (1999), is a good biography, but is light on Mawson’s later career in mining and directorships (he was a Founding Director of Santos – an Australian oil and gas company).

Other Mawson books of interest include: his great, great granddaughter Emma McEwin’s book An Antarctic Affair; Nancy Flannery’s (ed) This everlasting silence: the love letters of Paquita Delprat and Douglas Mawson, 1911–1914; Harold Fletcher's Antarctic days with Mawson: a personal account of the British, Australian, and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition of 1929–31; With the Aurora in the Antarctic, by ship’s Captain and best man at Mawson’s wedding, John King Davis; and of course the facsimile reproduction of The Adélie Blizzard – Mawson’s forgotten newspaper (1913), published by the Friends of the State Library of South Australia in 2010, in time for the centenary of Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–1914).

During this centenary period, more diaries of Mawson’s fellow expeditioners are being published, giving further insights into the true history of Antarctic expeditions and adventure. There are also books on earlier Australian expeditions: Carsten Borchgrevink’s 1898 Southern Cross Expedition – the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica; the early 1928 pioneer aeroplane flights of Hubert Wilkins; John Rymill’s British Graham Land expedition in 1934 in the Penola, and Phillip Law’s expeditions to establish Australia’s three Antarctic stations.

Earlier readings give one the impression that Britain dominated polar exploration, until you discover books about expeditions by the Japanese, Norwegians, French, Argentines, the Third Reich of Nazi Germany, the USA and the USSR.

One of the most exciting books for me was about the USA project in 1957 to build the South Pole base, using aircraft to land and drop building equipment and men at the inhospitable pole, some 2800 m above sea level. The brave Americans did not know if an aeroplane could land and take off again, what extreme temperatures they would experience, or even if humans could survive a long, dark winter. You can read about it in Paul Siple’s excellent book 90 degrees South.

Another interesting biography is the life of Bertram Armytage, titled Body at the Melbourne Club. Armytage was an Australian and a member of Shackleton’s 1907 expedition. He decided to take his own life at 41 years old, but he first dined at his club, put on his Polar Medal and then shot himself there.

My books have inspired me to go on four ‘tourist’ expeditions to Antarctica on Russian ice breakers – to Mawson and Davis stations, South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula, Elephant Island, Macquarie Island, Mawson’s Huts and to McMurdo and Scott bases. I travelled with heroes like the late Phillip Law of ANARE, Dr David Lewis – first to sail a yacht solo to Antarctica – and Everest climber Greg Mortimer… but that is another story.

Don Howell
Friends of Mawson

Australian Antarctic Division staff are enthusiastic readers of polar fiction and non-fiction. Read more about the polar books that inspired a small sample of staff members in Polar Bookshelf.