AAE update and Mawson’s original expedition (Part 1)

Everyone is well and settling in to their new home. The whole team have spoken warmly of the friendly and open welcome we have received on board the Aurora australis. It’s a majestic ship. We also learnt this morning the Xue Long is hopeful they can breakout from the ice so we are now out of the pack ice and safely en route to the Australian Antarctic Division base at Casey.

Although we were caught by a major breakout of sea ice that prolonged our stay in Antarctica, Mawson had it considerably worse. I have posted a short excerpt about the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition from my book 1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica.  I do hope you enjoy it. They were an amazing team.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914: Mawson’s tale

Returning from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic ‘Nimrod’ Expedition an Australian hero in April 1909, the scientist and explorer Douglas Mawson soon resolved to go back south. But he felt the South Geographic Pole was a highly dubious proposition in scientific terms. Instead, the 27-year-old opted to lead a team to a largely unknown part of Antarctica south of his newly federated homeland.

After Robert Scott’s failed attempt to recruit Mawson in London in late 1909, Shackleton became excited by Mawson’s ideas and proposed an alternative arrangement. Mawson recalled: ‘Shackleton came in early to the office one morning and said to me, “I have decided to go to the coast west of Cape Adare and you are to be Chief Scientist. I hope you will agree to this. I can get the money and that will be your trouble were you taking it yourself.” I was rather taken aback. Apparently he had fully realised the value of the expedition and now wished to run it. It was tempting. Shackleton was offering to support the whole shebang. Mawson agreed, and visited possible supporters with him, extolling the virtues of scientific research and mineral exploration in the south. They soon had a commitment of more than £10,000.

Shackleton could not leave get-rich-quick schemes alone, though, and he soon directed his efforts towards other endeavours. While waiting on Shackleton to chase down further Antarctic funding, Mawson was dispatched with a former Nimrod colleague, John King Davis, to investigate Hungarian gold mines for a possible Shackleton investment. The mines proved a non-starter—and, more worryingly for Mawson, no further money had been secured for the expedition south.
By May 1910 Shackleton had gone quiet on Antarctica. Frustrated, Mawson challenged the Anglo-Irishman about his intentions. An agreement was reached: if Shackleton would not lead the expedition, it would fall to the Australian. Reassured, Mawson returned home and informed the press he was going south—but whether Shackleton was joining him remained unclear. ‘In desperation,’ Mawson remembered, ‘I cabled early December asking if he had decided to go in charge of the expedition, if not I would. He cabled that he could not go but would support me.’

The timetable for getting to Antarctica in 1912 was now very tight. ‘It was then so late,’ the new leader wrote, ‘that I decided to put the matter before the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at the Sydney meeting, 7th Jan. 1911.’ There, Mawson appealed to people’s growing sense of nationhood: on Australia’s doorstep was a vast new southern continent waiting to be discovered. This was an opportunity to follow up the success of Shackleton’s expedition with a largely Australian and New Zealand team.

The call was warmly received. The president of the association was especially supportive, wrapping up Mawson’s appeal with the words: ‘because we are part of the British nation, which has always taken such a leading part in geographical discovery, and because we happen to be that section of the British nation which rests nearest to the proposed field of investigation, it is surely—if I may use an Australian phrase which is rather expressive—it is surely “up to us” to assist.’

A committee was swiftly formed, headed by Mawson’s old mentor Edgeworth David, and an announcement made in the national press. Extolling the valuable fishing and mineral potential in the Antarctic, whose exploitation was apparently ‘less formidable than the exploiting of the goldfields of Alaska’, the statement also stressed the scientific value of an expedition, particularly in meteorology—‘for it is from the icy regions to the west and south that we may look for an extension of our knowledge of Australia’s weather and of our power of forecasting it; and who shall estimate the value of such knowledge in a country like ours?’

The promise of riches was a drawcard. Mawson wrote to Scott about economic resources, advising him that ‘Australia will be the gainer should anything eventuate’, while at a citizen’s meeting in the Sydney Town Hall, David described Antarctica as ‘a new El Dorado’. It was an age-old balancing act, refined by Shackleton and now perfected by the Australians: dangling profit alongside science.

Funds began to flow in, including a commitment from the prime minister, Andrew Fisher. But the expedition finances remained in a parlous state. Until now, Mawson had restrained himself from making a public call for support in Britain, for fear of Scott accusing him of being ‘a usurper of funds’. Now needing a massive investment, Mawson returned to London in early 1911 to raise capital. The Australian was shocked to find the money apparently already secured with Shackleton had vanished into the Anglo-Irishman’s shadowy finances. Mawson never really forgave Shackleton. Years later he would write, ‘when it comes to the moral side of things S. [Shackleton] and I part brass rags, as they say in the navy.’

Things were now pretty desperate. ‘Mrs Scott had asked me to live at her house in London if it would assist me in any way— although very friendly on her part, still the Scottites resented me asking for subscriptions in England...I pointed out however that I really did not intend calling for money from English people. I wanted to see wealthy Australians in London. Now however that things were going badly I told her that I anticipated having to call through the press for aid. I gave her one month grace, so that she could make a public appeal before me.’

Shackleton stepped forward and honoured his agreement to support Mawson. Weaving his magic, he convinced the newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe to agree to a free appeal in the Daily Mail for the proposed Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Not everyone was pleased. Despite Mawson’s offer to Kathleen Scott, the former president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham was particularly angry and wrote to the newspapers, arguing any money should go to Scott’s British expedition, known to be short of funds. But the old man’s call was not enough to dampen enthusiasm for the new endeavour. Shackleton’s name secured nearly £10,000, alongside a cornucopia of donated supplies—condensed milk, chocolate, gramophone records and enough tobacco for the men ‘to smoke to their hearts’ content’—helping defray the money pledged earlier and then mysteriously lost. The expedition looked like it now had a chance.

An excerpt from 1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney (http://textpublishing.com.au/books-and-authors/book/1912/)

Learn more about the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition tomorrow.
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