Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 was the most adventurously scientific expedition of the ‘heroic era’ of Antarctic history. The ‘heroic era’ describes the two decades when Antarctica became the focus of intense private and patriotic endeavour, from the final years of the nineteenth century until the Great War. At the Sixth International Geographical Congress inLondonin 1895, scientists resolved that ‘the exploration of the Antarctic regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken’. Belgium, Britain, Germany, Sweden, Scotland, Argentina, France, Norway, Japan and Australia launched scientific expeditions south, and there was a simultaneous quest for the northern pole. Funded more from private than government sources, these expeditions were nevertheless inspired by nationalism. The age was ‘heroic’ because it generated tales of extraordinary individual achievement and sacrifice, represented by the feats of Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Douglas Mawson. But it was also ‘heroic’ because these explorers were driven by a desire to establish national pride and personal honour on the world stage.
Mawson’s expedition was unusual in putting geographical exploration ahead of the attainment of the South Pole. One had to be resolute and original to resist ‘the Race to the Pole’ when fund-raising and planning an expedition in 1910-11. But this is what Mawson did, for he had another vision. He wanted to explore new territory, and especially that vast and relatively unknown stretch of Antarctic coastline directly south of Australia. Mawson promoted the expedition as an investment in Australia’s long-term security and prosperity. He argued that ‘the Australian Quadrant’ of Antarctica had untapped marine and mineral wealth which would lead to its eventual colonisation, for it was easier to reach than the Klondike goldfields in Alaska. Mawson also saw an opportunity to demonstrate Australia’s frontier vigour on the world stage, ‘to prove’, as Mawson put it a few years later in his account of the expedition, The Home of the Blizzard, ‘that the young men of a young country could rise to those traditions which have made the history of British Polar exploration one of triumphant endeavour as well as of tragic sacrifice.’ So the expedition was a contribution to the British Empire’s embrace of Antarctica, but it was also a distinctively Australian endeavour, a proud initiative of the recently federated nation, driven by this newfound nationalism and by a southern hemisphere sensibility about the need to know one’s backyard, to understand the shared world of stormy sea and swirling, icy air that emanated from the neighbouring Antarctic region. This early, unambiguous Australian commitment to the priority of science offers a significant inheritance, one that has only strengthened in importance in the last 50 years of the Antarctic Treaty era.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition sailed south from Hobartin the Aurora on 2 December 1911. Its purpose was to establish a weather and wireless station on Macquarie Island and then to land three parties of men to spend the winter of 1912 at different locations along the practically unknown coast of Antarctica south of Australia. In the coming summer of 1912-13, sledging parties would radiate out from each of the bases with the aim of strengthening geographical and scientific understanding of this neglected sector of the continent of ice. As well as establishing and retrieving these landing parties, the crew of the Aurora would continue mapping work and oceanographical investigations in the Southern Ocean.
Douglas Mawson had launched an ambitious and adventurous scientific exploration of new lands south of Australia, lands which he was convinced it was Australia’s responsibility to comprehend and manage. In the 1920s, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was judged by the polar historian, J Gordon Hayes, to be ‘the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed for Antarctica’.