Flaws in the Ice

David Day


Encased in an ice cave on the edge of the polar plateau, Douglas Mawson pondered the tragedy of his situation. With the muffled sound of a blizzard blowing overhead, the exhausted explorer had reached his underground refuge with its welcome store of food, including freshly deposited pineapples and oranges. He was just five miles from his hut, and could be confident that his life was safe. However, his reputation might well turn out to have been ruined. After all, having set out with two companions on a 300-mile trek with dog sledges along the Antarctic coastline in November 1911, the thirty-year-old leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition had staggered back alone. One of his companions had fallen to his death down a deep crevasse, while the other had died a slow death from starvation and the bitter cold.1 Instead of returning in triumph, with their sledges full of scientific curiosities and carefully noted observations, Mawson had barely returned with his life. It was a terrible end to an expedition that had begun full of promise and eager anticipation.

From the late-nineteenth century, there had been several proposals for an Australian-financed expedition to the Antarctic. But sufficient money had never been forthcoming from either official or private sources. Australians aspiring to go south had to attach themselves instead to a British expedition, which is what the young Douglas Mawson did when the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton arrived in Australia in late 1907. Tall, handsome, and ambitious, Mawson was then a recently graduated geologist from Sydney University who had completed a geological survey of the New Hebrides before being hired as a lecturer by the University of Adelaide. Mawson was interested in the ancient glaciation of South Australia, and was keen to see active glaciation at first hand. He also wanted to make a name for himself. When he learned that Professor Edgeworth David, his academic mentor from Sydney University, was going south with Shackleton, Mawson offered to go, too.

The Yorkshire-born Mawson had arrived in Australia as a two-year-old with his parents in 1884. His father was the son of a farmer, but had turned to running a drapery business in a nearby town. Now he was taking his young family to the other side of the world, hoping to turn a small fortune into a larger one. He was destined to be disappointed. Mawson’s father was a failure at the various businesses he tried in New South Wales, from raising pigs to canning fruit. Whether it was due to his personal shortcomings, or simply resulted from the vicissitudes of the 1890s depression, he abandoned his businesses and worked as an accountant for a timber merchant in inner Sydney. The family were also forced by their straitened circumstances to take in lodgers at their rented accommodation in the inner suburb of Glebe. It was a humiliating position for young Mawson, who was admitted to the engineering faculty at Sydney University in 1899, and graduated with reasonable results in 1902. He did best in geology, and came under the tutelage of the Welsh-born professor Edgeworth David, who helped secure a position for Mawson as a geology lecturer at the University of Adelaide. The sorry spectacle of his father had made a deep impression upon Mawson; he was determined to achieve the fortune and social standing that had so eluded his father. An expedition to the Antarctic provided him with an opportunity to earn both fame and fortune, and quick promotion at his university. For the rest of his life, Mawson would have an absorbing interest in science, and an unrequited desire to make his fortune from it.

The leader of the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, shared Mawson’s interest in making a fortune. His father had also left Yorkshire, becoming an unsuccessful farmer in Ireland before training as a doctor and returning with his large family to England. Young Shackleton was a restless go-getter who was acutely conscious of his relatively low social standing. He joined the merchant marine as a boy, and rose through the ranks to become a master mariner before volunteering to join Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica in 1901. He so impressed Scott that he was chosen to accompany him and Edward Wilson on a dash with dog sledges towards the South Pole. As it happened, they wouldn’t even get off the Ross Ice Shelf, but they would set a new record for travelling furthest south at 82°15ꞌ. It would come at a cost. All were starving and affected by scurvy, and Shackleton was coughing blood. To maximise the distance, they abandoned the dog food and used a scalpel to butcher the dogs, one by one, to feed to the surviving animals. Long after they should have turned back, and with his relations with Shackleton souring, Scott insisted on pushing further southward. When they did finally stop, Shackleton was ordered by Scott to remain behind while he and Wilson continued for an extra few miles to claim the record. The relations between the two men worsened beyond repair when Scott sacked the ailing Shackleton and sent him home with the relief ship. As a weeping Shackleton sailed out of Antarctica’s icy grip, Scott stayed on for another year.

Shackleton’s sacking proved to be a blessing. In the absence of Scott, whose expedition was being attacked and derided as an expensive adventure in some sections of the British press, Shackleton became somewhat of a celebrity in Britain. He even stood unsuccessfully for parliament before becoming secretary of the Scottish Geographical Society. That position allowed him to enlist wealthy Scottish patrons for an expedition of his own. With his recent celebrity, and after his experience with Scott, Shackleton was determined to be the leader and to reap all the spoils. He would do what Scott had been unable to do: he would find a way off the Ross Ice Shelf and onto the polar plateau and beyond to the South Pole. If he was the first to reach the South Pole, the feat would set him up for life. It would also satisfy Shackleton’s desire to overshadow his former commander and avenge his treatment by Scott.

Although Shackleton wanted celebrity, and the wealth it would bring, he needed to protect himself against those critics who were dismissive of so-called ‘pole hunting’ expeditions. Such critics argued that it was not a good use of public money to finance an expedition with no serious purpose other than to reach the South Pole. While racing to the South Pole might amuse readers of the popular press, others wanted polar expeditions to have a scientific purpose if they were going to be financed by the British government and by scientific institutions. They should settle some important geographical question, collect valuable specimens, or gather important observations about polar phenomena. Shackleton belatedly pandered to these critics by employing a handful of scientists to provide a veneer of science for the expedition. He took a biologist and geologist from England, and, when he reached Australia in late 1907, offered jobs to local scientists. This had the added advantage of increasing his chances of getting financial support from the Australian federal or state governments. Shackleton agreed to a request from the politically well-connected professor Edgeworth David to go south on the return voyage of the expedition ship, Nimrod, with the forty-nine- year-old David helping to convince prime minister Alfred Deakin to contribute £5,000 to the expedition.

Mawson had already met with Shackleton in Adelaide, and proposed that he go on the relief voyage of the Nimrod in 1909, when Shackleton was being collected from the Antarctic at the end of the expedition. Imagine his surprise then, when he received a telegram from David appointing him as the expedition’s physicist, departing within weeks. Mawson was bemused by the offer, but accepted nonetheless. He had no family obligations, and needed only to get leave from the university. Although he would have preferred being appointed as the expedition geologist, that position had already been taken by the young English geologist Raymond Priestley. Mawson went on the understanding that David was not staying in the Antarctic and that Mawson could therefore consider himself as the most senior scientist. It was only after sailing to New Zealand to join the Nimrod that Mawson discovered that David was going to stay for the entire expedition. Mawson was not amused. Any scientific work that he did was likely to be over- shadowed by David’s. But he could hardly complain to his former professor and mentor, whose support had been crucial in getting him the job in Adelaide.

Shackleton had no interest in the scientific results of the expedition. He just wanted to be lauded as a polar hero by becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. He was also on the lookout for any valuable deposits of gold or precious stones that might be found. After his experience with dogs on the Scott expedition, Shackleton would rely on horses to pull the sledges, and took an automobile to pull sledges on the Ross Ice Shelf. However, neither mode of transport would perform well in the extreme cold: the automobile quickly shuddered to a halt, while his horses had all died by the time Shackleton found a way up the Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau beyond. There were still another 375 miles to the Pole, and 1,125 miles to return, during which Shackleton and his three companions would have to man-haul the sledges.

With the pole almost in sight, Shackleton realised that they would run out of food before they completed the return journey. So he turned back, claiming that the pole was just 97 miles away. He would later say that it was better to be a live donkey than a dead lion. It has since been argued that Shackleton was further from the pole than he let on, and chose the figure of 97 miles because it was less than 100 miles and therefore had more public appeal. He was right about that. It turned out not to matter that he failed to reach his goal. As an imperial power confronting its relative decline, Edwardian England needed heroes, and the rough-and- ready Shackleton would have to suffice until someone better came along. He would be showered with riches and a knighthood.

Flaws in the Ice David Day