Slicing up the ice
Penguins on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. photographs: steven kazlowski/ barcroft/getty and rob jones/ national science foundation via getty images
ANTARTICA:After more than 150 years of claim and counterclaim, the question of who owns Antarctica is unresolved
Antarctica: A Biography, By David Day, Oxford University Press, 614pp, £25
It was a bizarre scene. A group of stiffly formal British naval officers in full uniform wading ashore and coming to a halt on a rocky beach ankle deep in penguin manure whose stench made them gag. In subzero temperatures, the wind chilled them to the bone as they proudly unfurled the Union flag and toasted the occasion with an “excellent” sherry. One of the officers was Francis Crozier from Banbridge, Co Down.
The year was 1841, and the scene was a small island, barely three kilometres long, in the remote waters of Antarctica. The only witnesses to the strange ritual of claiming the territory for the British Empire were thousands upon thousands of uninterested penguins. If only they could talk.
Appropriately enough, the island was called Possession Island. It was a ceremony repeated in many quarters of the world by a host of acquisitive imperial nations asserting their right over undiscovered lands. On Possession Island, the flag-raising ritual began more than a century of territorial claims and counterclaims involving Britain, France, the United States, Norway, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Japan and the Soviet Union. In many cases, the arguments over who owns Antarctica remain unsettled more than 150 years after the intrepid officers first waded ashore.
At least the British actually braved the appalling hardship of Antarctic to lay claim to the territory, even if the ceremony is faintly ludicrous and reminiscent of a comedy sketch. For example, some nations laid claim to thousands of kilometres of unexplored land by merely flying over the empty uninhabited territories and tossing flags out of aircraft windows.
The Nazis dropped swastikas attached to aluminium shafts with stabilising legs that were designed to land upright and add credence to the flimsy case for having “raised” the German flag in the unclaimed wilderness. Unhappily, there were no penguins on hand to verify the claims.
For most people, the story of Antarctica is bound up in the remarkable tales of adventure and hardship, triumph and tragedy of the first explorers. In this meticulously researched book, the Australian historian David Day reminds us that there is considerably more to the story than, say, the conquest of Roald Amundsen or the drama of Ernest Shackleton.
Antarctica has always held a special place in the imagination. The Greeks postulated the continent’s existence more than 2,000 years before anyone set eyes on the frozen land. It was not until 1820 that the Russian Fabien von Bellingshausen and Edward Bransfield, a native of Ballinacurra, Co Cork, made the first confirmed sightings of the territory.
Over the next century, the story of Antarctica was told through a series of gripping episodes involving men such as James Clarke Ross, Crozier, Amundsen, Robert Scott, Shackleton and Douglas Mawson. No other period of exploration produced such stirring drama, which helps explain why we are still mesmerised by Antarctica history.
But in Day’s hands, the story of Antarctica is less concerned with the explorers than with the more recent era of political rivalries and the fiercely contested territorial claims of imperial nations. Landing on the continent and exploring the ice fields, glaciers and mountains was less important than planting a flag.
Sovereignty over a wilderness, particularly after the first World War, changed the focus of Antarctica from heroic discovery to the far less dignified business of jostling for territory through surreptitious flag-raising ceremonies, intense behind-the-scenes lobbying and even old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Scientists, environmentalists and even big business, all of whom have their own clearly defined interest in the future of the continent, can only watch from the wings.