Attaining the South for the progress of civilization

In 1910 Douglas Mawson began making preparations to lead an Australian Antarctic expedition. He proposed to explore the sector lying between 160° to 90° east longitude, known to geographers as the ‘Australian Quadrant’. He believed that Antarctica had a role to play in developing the sciences, which would lead to ‘the progress of civilization’. Unveiling the secrets that lay in the far reaches of the globe was the ambition of the adventurer-scientists and in the early decades after Federation, the acquisition of the Australian Quadrant became the ambition of the nation. 

Before the First World War, Mawson and the Australian scientific community keenly pursued their twin goals: conducting Antarctic science and persuading the Australian Government to bring the Australian Quadrant under its control. Australian scientists feared the need to appeal to a foreign power for permission to enter the region to Australia’s south. The scientists were well aware that French Adélie Land sat in the middle of the Australian Quadrant and that its boundaries had never been delineated. If the Australian Government did not act quickly, then Australia could forfeit its future opportunities in the region. 

The Australian Quadrant was almost unknown when Douglas Mawson began organising the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). No explorer had ever landed there, although American explorer, Charles Wilkes, had sailed around its coastline in the early 1840s and French explorer Dumont d’Urville had sighted and taken possession of a small piece of the coastline for France and named it Adélie Land after his fiancée. Mawson’s proposal for an Australian expedition received the backing of the Australian scientific community and was embraced enthusiastically by Australians generally, including the Australian Government. Popular support, however, had to be translated into funds to equip the expedition.

The Melbourne Argus, began promoting the expedition as ‘a national undertaking’, calling on all Australians to support it. At times enthusiasm reached dizzying heights, even amongst the most sober. In one instance, Professor Orme Masson, President of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, was reported by The Argus as saying that if the expedition were successfully organised, with Mawson in command, the results would be ‘something creditable to himself and Australia, or he would leave his bones at the South Pole’. Little did Professor Masson realise how close to the mark his words would become. While Mawson survived the expedition, his two companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, perished on the way back to Main Base at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, after discovering George V Land.

The Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, threw the Government’s support behind the expedition and stood together with Alfred Deakin, Leader of the Opposition, and the Governor-General, Lord Denman, in lauding the first Australian expedition. The Prime Minister believed in the aims of the expedition as a quest for knowledge and that Australia, as a ‘young nation’, should become engaged in scientific research in the Antarctic. The Australian Government provided the sum of £5000 and, together with donations from some of the State governments, the expedition received £23 500 in official funds.

The 1911–1914 AAE was the first Australian organised and led expedition. It sailed out of Hobart on the Aurora on 2 December 1911. The Aurora’s Captain was John King Davis who, like Mawson, was a veteran of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition (1907–1909). While the AAE comprised chiefly Australian science graduates, it had a distinctly international flavour. Mawson’s companions who discovered and claimed George V Land were not Australian: Xavier Mertz was a Swiss ski champion and Belgrave Ninnis was a lieutenant in Britain’s Royal Fusiliers. The expedition also attracted British and American donations as well as scientific equipment from continental Europe.

In March 1912, after completing the construction of the Hut at Cape Denison, Mawson flew the Union Jack and the Australian flag and took possession of the Australian Quadrant for ‘the Empire and for Australia more particularly.’ Mawson then organised seven teams to fan out across the Australian Quadrant to ensure that as much of it as possible was explored and mapped. Mawson and his companions claimed George V Land, which lay at the extreme east of the Australian Quadrant, while Frank Wild and his team, exploring from their base at the far western portion of the Australian Quadrant, claimed Queen Mary Land.

Mawson returned from Antarctica on the eve of the Great War and quickly began writing an account of the expedition and the results of the scientific research. The AAE would be hailed in 1932 by J. Gordon Hayes, a leading polar historian, as ‘the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed for Antarctica.’ In 2003, a modern British Antarctic explorer, Ranulph Fiennes, would declare that Mawson’s expedition ‘was one of great success in terms of geographic and scientific discoveries.’ Its results continue to inform contemporary science. Mawson and the AAE had achieved international fame and had given Australia an international profile that was not connected to war. By claiming the Australian Quadrant, Mawson had established the foundations for the future Australian Antarctic Territory.

After the Great War, Mawson and the Australian scientific community began their intensive lobbying of the government to bring Mawson’s claims under Australian control. With possible constitutional issues to be considered, it was not until the 1926 Imperial Conference that a recommendation was made that, in addition to the Australian Quadrant, Australia should also have under its control the adjacent ‘African Quadrant’ — portions of which had already been claimed by British whaling ships’ captains in the 19th century. Before that ambitious proposal could be put into effect, however, a formal three-step process had to be followed. The first step was to advise the world at large of the British Empire’s interest in the region. The second step was to send an officer with a Royal Commission to assert sovereignty on the spot, and the final step was to perfect the claims through the issuing of appropriate legal instruments in order to bring the area under Australian control.

Mawson was chosen to lead the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, which became known by its acronym, BANZARE. He was given a commission from King George V that would allow him to extend British sovereignty over an area that stretched from 160˚ to 45˚ east longitude, an area that would later be titled the Australian Antarctic Territory. The British Government provided Scott’s old ship the Discovery as the research vessel. There would be two cruises.  The first would depart from Cape Town in the Antarctic Summer of 1929–1930, to take possession of the African Quadrant and conduct scientific research.

Having sailed some distance around the African Quadrant, the BANZARE ascertained that the coastline of the entire Quadrant was unbroken. Therefore, Kemp Land and Enderby Land, both 19th century British discoveries, were all part of the same territory. On that basis, Mawson felt confident about extending British sovereignty over the entire African Quadrant, since it already possessed an informal British title. On 13 January 1930, a group of men, led by Mawson, landed on Proclamation Island and claimed full sovereignty of the region, including a new stretch of coast that Mawson named Mac. Robertson Land. Macpherson Robertson, known generally as MacRobertson, the Melbourne chocolate ‘king’, had been the BANZARE’s generous benefactor, making a contribution of £10 000. The men erected a flagpole and secured it by stacking rocks around its foot. They attached a tablet to the pole, facing south, and Mawson read the proclamation. Three cheers were given for the King and ‘God Save the King’ was sung. All posed as Frank Hurley took a photograph.

Mawson had taken an aeroplane with him in order to conduct aerial reconnaissance. However, he could only use it when the weather conditions allowed. When land was seen from the air, the appropriate rituals were observed, as when he and Lt Campbell of the Royal Australian Air Force flew over the Enderby Land ice cap on 25 January 1930 and dropped a flag attached to a short mast a few miles inland, reading a proclamation at the same time. Mawson later recalled that ‘we could see the flag lying extended on the ice slopes below.’ The first BANZARE cruise had fulfilled its goal, despite the Discovery sailing in heavy ice and considerable wind, forcing it to travel ‘slowly up and down’ or to remain in the cruel and heavy hummocky ice, which reminded Mawson of a miniature model of New York.

Despite the onset of the Great Depression, the Prime Minister James Scullin had made it clear that Australia was glad to have been involved in the expedition because it had ‘done so much to add to the world’s knowledge of those remote regions.’ But, if another cruise was to be sent, MacRobertson’s generosity would have to be called upon again. Despite the evidently straitened times, he did not disappoint. Donations from other Australian manufacturers also bolstered the Government’s contribution. The principal tasks of the second BANZARE were to complete mapping the Australian Quadrant and to investigate the area between Adélie Land and Queen Mary Land, to conduct science and to investigate the extent of the fauna, notably whales and seals, for possible future exploitation.

Smooth sailing in the Antarctic could never be guaranteed, no matter how well planned the itinerary might be. But Mawson was not particularly concerned that the ‘unusually heavy pack-ice’ would make it ‘impossible to hoist flag’ on land already defined by him in 1911. On 4 January 1931, however, Mawson was able to land at Cape Denison, the site of his old Main Base, at Commonwealth Bay, and on the morning of 5 January he took formal possession of the entire territory that had been explored by the AAE. A copy of the proclamation was sealed in a metal container and deposited at the foot of the iron flag pole. Mawson’s published diary entries reveal the terrible conditions under which the BANZAREs achieved an astonishing feat of geographic and scientific investigation.

The final step of the process to bring the Australian Antarctic Territory under Australia’s control was concluded in 1936 after the proclamation of the 1933 Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act. The Sydney Morning Herald published a commentary on its significance, which hailed the prospect of ‘commercial riches’, whaling being one of them. However, the article went on to suggest that of ‘even greater importance than the whaling industry to Australia is the key which meteorologists believe lies in the Antarctic to the vagaries of the weather’.

The passing of the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act also saw the passing of an era of exploration led by Douglas Mawson, who had dominated Australia’s Antarctic ventures. Australian explorers had provided a special service to their nation by facilitating a sovereignty claim over the Australian Antarctic Territory. Mawson and his fellow scientists had recognised the strategic importance of the region south of Australia and its potential for scientific research that would benefit human kind.

It now became the job of the Government to take over the reins and to establish institutional mechanisms and set goals for Australia’s Antarctic program. On 6 April 1948, Cabinet approved that ‘some permanent machinery be set up for handling all arrangements for Antarctic expeditions’ — and ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition) was born.

Today Australia, through the Australian Antarctic program, continues to explore the role of Antarctica in the progress of civilisation from its three continental stations — Mawson, Casey and Davis; all named after men who spent much of their lives realising Australia’s ambition to be in Antarctica.


Dr Marie Kawaja is an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian National University, Canberra. She is currently writing the political and diplomatic history of the Australian Antarctic Territory.