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Mawson and the perils of science on the ice

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Before Douglas Mawson led the Australian Expedition to Antarctica he had previous Antarctic experience having been a member of Shackleton’s expedition that aimed to reach both the Magnetic South Pole and the Geographical South Pole.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Mawson and the perils of science on the ice

Before Douglas Mawson led the Australian Expedition to Antarctica he had previous Antarctic experience having been a member of Shackleton’s expedition that aimed to reach both the Magnetic South Pole and the Geographical South Pole. During his time on the expedition Mawson was one of two Australians that made the first ascent of Mount Erebus as part of Shackleton’s desire to secure tangible geographical achievements before he along with other members ascended the Victoria Land plateau towards the Magnetic South Pole.

Mawson’s desire for an Australian Antarctic Expedition

In 1911, Mawson attended a meeting of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science in Sydney (AAAS) where he proposed an Australian Antarctic Expedition. The AAAS gave its approval with members voting to financially support 1,000 pounds: one-third of the total funds required for the expedition. Mawson then travelled to London to put his plans of an Australian Expedition before the Council of the Royal Geographical Society. The Council was unanimous in funding 500 pounds towards the Expedition, which spurred public interest and support with wealthy, interested and public-spirited members of the community making donations towards the expedition’s costs.

Advancing Australia’s Antarctic exploration profile

Announcing his plans for the Australian Antarctic Expedition, Mawson wrote that

Preliminary arrangements are being made for the equipment and dispatch of an Australian expedition to explore the Antarctic continent between Cape Adare and Gauss Berg. For many years expeditions from Australia have been contemplated but never realised: Australian support has, nevertheless, from time to time greatly aided British exploration in…Antarctica. Australians are just as well fitted constitutionally to stand the rigorous conditions of life in high altitudes as are people originating from colder climates…The Australian contingent accompanying Sir Ernest Shackleton on his recent expeditions showed what could be done by Australians with no previous experience of Polar work. Now we have gained this experience of Polar work it would be a pity for Australia to lose this advantage of it’.

Mawson had to work hard in ensuring the Australian Expedition went ahead with the explorer, besides giving routine lectures at university and accompanying students on field excursions, having to write articles, travel to other states of the British Commonwealth giving lectures on the proposed expedition and interview government officials and private citizens to raise money.

On 2 December 1911, the Aurora set sail from Hobart, Tasmania with Mawson and his crew farewelled by the Governor of Tasmania and a large number of friends along with a message of best wishes from King George V. In support of Aurora was the small vessel the Toroa, which carried extra coal and equipment for members of the Expedition as far as Macquarie Island. This vessel left a few days after the Aurora so that she could arrive after the site of the headquarters, Macquarie Island Station, was chosen. The Aurora was under the command of Captain J.K. Davis whom Mawson described later in the preface of Davis’ book as a man that

I had every trust and confidence. He entered upon the enterprise with enthusiasm tempered with prudence and sound good sense. Therefore the burden upon me was greatly lifted and his companionship was much appreciated not only during the conduct of the exploration itself, but also in the trying months of preparation’.

The Toroa returned to Hobart while all the expedition members worked to establish the Macquarie Island Field Station for the coming year. From Macquarie Island, Mawson had planned to land three parties in Antarctica with wireless installed on the ship should it be frozen in the pack ice. By 27 December the ship was already steaming through unchartered waters to begin unloading the landing parties. However, the ship, encountering icebergs and floes, was prevented heading south and so continued west. Mawson was anxious not to head too far west before establishing the first landing party as he did not want too large of a distance between it and the South Magnetic Pole or Macquarie Island, on account of the wireless range. After looking for a suitable site for a possible land base for one of the parties the ship finally came to a wide sweeping bay, and this was chosen for the site of the Main Base. By now Mawson had decided it was wiser, seeing how far west they were, to land two stronger parties instead of the three as planned.

The Main Base, Commonwealth Bay

The Main Base was established in Adelie Land on the wide bay named Commonwealth Bay. The first thing needed to be done at Main Base, Commonwealth Bay was to erect the living quarters. Despite the hut being prepared and assembled in Australia and the parts marked it was extremely cold job to put it together. One case had even fallen into the harbour when being unloaded. On the lost case, Mawson wrote that

When the parts of the stove were being assembled, several important items were found to be missing, and it was thought they might compose the contents of the unknown case lying…at the bottom of the bay…Laseron and I went on board the whaleboat one day at low water, and located the box with a pole, but though we used several devices with hooks, we were unable to get hold of it. At last I went in (naked) and, standing on tiptoe, could just reach it and keep my head above water…following which I established a new record for myself in dressing. The case turned out to be full of jam, and we had to make a new searching for the missing article’.

The perils of science on the ice

From 1 February 1912, regular magnetic observations began following the establishment of two huts, one for ‘absolute’ determinations and the other for housing the magnetographs. These huts had to be erected on flat ground far from any magnetic disturbances from the main hut. Outside there were two large screens for a number of instruments including a thermometer and a nephoscope for determining the motion of clouds. Further away on a rocky ridge was a sunshine meter and anemograph for recording wind direction. All the instruments had to be checked regularly and record paper changed daily, in summer or winter, snow or wind, darkness or low temperatures. On one occasion, the nightwatchman, whose job included reading the instruments, went out to do his job but could not find his way back to the hut due to the wind blowing like a hurricane and thick snow. He thought it was wise to sit down where he was and wait till the worst was over otherwise there was a risk of being blown across the frozen boat harbour into the sea. Someone woke up in the hut feeling a bit colder than usual and found the fire was low and the nightwatchman absent. The call was made to look for him and he was found sitting on top of the hut, just beside the chimney, with no idea where he was! Once the instruments were set up attention then focused on preparing the equipment and stores for various sledging journeys with sledges, clothing, tents and food being allocated to various groups and also to the depot-laying parties.

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