Notable in the material legacy of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition are the diaries kept so loyally and carefully by expeditioners. These documents help us to understand the significance of the surviving huts, as well as of artefacts such as the cut-down sledge constructed by Mawson during his desperate journey home alone in early 1913, now exhibited in the South Australian Museum. The diaries of the AAE constitute a remarkable heritage. They contain precious evidence built up day by day, while the story of the expedition was still unfolding and before the ending was known. They also embody the personality of the diarist himself – his observing eye, emotional journey and sense of humour. Often on an expedition, a personal diary was written with a view to posterity and the distant public – or perhaps it was destined to be handed around amongst loved ones on the return home. But they were also intimate documents that could not help but become the confidante of the author.
As well as repositories of words, diaries and journals are also artefacts in themselves, often beautiful. They are works of art constructed over a year or more. They are companions, generally kept close and tucked in the bunk; they travel with the author on sledging journeys when every ounce of weight was begrudged; they are preserved and admired in later life, sometimes shown off. On the voyage south in the Aurora in December 1911 and January 1912, the ship’s second officer, Percival Gray, shared a cabin with Frank Wild, a veteran of Shackleton’s 1907-09 Antarctic expedition. Gray was surprised to find that Wild had ‘the actual diary’ of the Southern Journey with him on the Aurora, his record of the dramatic and near-fatal sledging trip he shared with Shackleton to the South Pole. I have not read it yet, but the outside looks decidedly interesting, all worn and battered about, writes Gray – in his own diary, of course.
In this account of our centennial pilgrimage to Commonwealth Bay, I am drawing on several of the diarists from the original expedition.
Douglas Mawson (1882-1958)
Known to the men of the AAE as Dux Ipse (the leader himself), Mawson was indeed the indisputable and inspiring leader, always leading from the front. His men were impressed that he did not ask them to anything he would not do first. When they needed to retrieve a case that was lost overboard during unloading, it was Mawson who stripped off and dived into the Antarctic waters to salvage it.
During the voyage south and the landing and unloading at CommonwealthBay, Mawson was so anxious and busy that he made few diary entries. But we also have his letters to his fiancée, Paquita Delprat, and his later account of the expedition, written with assistance from Archibald McLean, called The Home of the Blizzard (1915).
See Fred Jacka and Eleanor Jacka, Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008; and Nancy Robinson Flannery (ed.), This Everlasting Silence: The Love Letters of Paquita Delprat and Douglas Mawson 1911-1914, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000; and the entry on Mawson by F J Jacka in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mawson-sir-douglas-7531
John King Davis (1884-1967)
Known as ‘Gloomy’ because of his pessimistic (and in dangerous Antarctic waters, realistic) outlook, J K Davis was Master of the Aurora and second-in-command of the expedition. In the absence of Mawson, Davis was leader, and so there are long and significant periods during the AAE when Davis guided its fortunes. In spite of his stern and critical temperament, he won respect from the men through his devotion and skill. He also served as chief officer and later ship’s master of the Nimrod for Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09.
His diary records the difficulties of negotiating an unknown and perilous coastline, and reveals how close the expedition repeatedly came to disaster and failure. His papers are available in the State Library of Victoria, and Louise Crossley has edited and published his diaries under the title of Trial by Ice: The Antarctic Journals of John King Davis, Bluntisham Books, Erskine Press, Norfolk, 1997. See also the entry on Davis by John Béchervaise in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Charles Laseron (1887-1959)
Taxidermist and biologist, Laseron was a member of the AdélieLandparty at CommonwealthBay. After his return from the AAE he was wounded at Gallipoli just three days after the first landing at Anzac Cove. In later life he wrote two popular and influential books on Australian geology and geomorphology, The Face of Australia (1953) and Ancient Australia (1954). Laseron, as well as keeping a diary which is now held by the State Library of NSW, wrote an engaging published account of the expedition called South with Mawson, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1947. See also the entry on Laseron by T G Vallance in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Frank Stillwell (1888-1963)
Frank Stillwell was a quiet, reserved and distinguished scientist who served as geologist at the Main Base and led two sledging parties to the east along the coast. He was unusual in not being given a nickname by his fellow expeditioners and was known simply as Frank. After the AAE, his scientific career continued to flourish and he was elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1954, where his Antarctic diary is kept in the Basser Library. Antarctic scholar Bernadette Hince, who kindly provided the quotes from Stillwell presented here, is producing an annotated edition of the diary, to be published in May 2012: Bernadette Hince (ed.) Still no Mawson: the Antarctic diaries of Frank Stillwell, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra. See also the entry on Stillwell by Arthur A Wilcock in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stillwell-frank-leslie-8671
John Hunter (1888-1964)
Hunter was a biologist and a member of the AdélieLandparty at CommonwealthBay. Like all Antarctic scientists, he felt the frustrations of asserting the priority of his scientific work over the daily practical challenges of Antarctic logistics. ‘Biological work is thus absolutely “up the spout” as they say’, he exploded in his diary in early 1913 as oceanographical work was sacrificed again. On his return from the AAE he served in the Australian Army Medical Corps in the Great War and had a distinguished career as a medical administrator. His diary and sketches are held by the National Library of Australia. See also the entry on Hunter by Brenda Heagney in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hunter-john-george-10578
Belgrave Ninnis (1887-1912)
Ninnis was 23 when he joined the expedition and a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. The son of a British Arctic expeditioner, he was very excited to have his own polar experience. He and Xavier Mertz took care of the sledge dogs on the voyage as well as inAntarctica. Ninnis was a beloved and popular member of the expedition, known as ‘Cherub’ for his young, angelic face. Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis formed the Far Eastern sledging party that left Commonwealth Bay in November 1912. On 14 December, Ninnis was swallowed by a deep crevasse, taking most of the party’s food and the best dog-team with him. Ninnis’s letters home are preserved in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.
Charles Harrisson (1866-1914)
Biologist and artist, Harrisson was a member of Frank Wild’s Western Base party and the only Tasmanian member of the AAE. He lived with his wife and two children at Sandy Bay and took a tram to the Hobart wharf to catch the Aurora south. His diaries are impressive and beautiful documents, the pages tidily crowded with his thoughtful record. His words offer valuable insights into the experiences of the other wintering party of the AAE, which spent a year in a perilous location on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. His fine artistic work was greatly appreciated during the expedition and J K Davis, who gave praise grudgingly, commended his work.
Harrisson returned from Antarctica in 1913, but at the end of 1914 he joined the Australian government’s fisheries research vessel on a brief resupply voyage to Macquarie Island. On its return voyage toHobartin early December the ship was lost without trace.
Harrisson’s original diaries may be consulted in the Mitchell Library of the State Library of NSW, and there is also now a very fine and sympathetic published edition of the diary available: Heather Rossiter (ed.) Mawson’s Forgotten Men: The 1911-1913 Antarctic Diary of Charles Turnbull Harrisson, Pier 9, Sydney, 2011.
Morton Henry Moyes (1886-1981)
A member of the AAE’s Western Base party, Moyes took part in several sledging journeys and, most notably, spent nine weeks alone at the winter quarters on the Shackleton Ice Shelf in the late spring and early summer of 1912. A science graduate from the Universityof Adelaide, Moyes had been impressed by the lectures of his geology teacher, Douglas Mawson. In Antarctica, meteorology became his duty and specialty. After the expedition, Moyes returned to Antarctica with J K Davis in late 1916 as navigating officer on the Aurora when Ernest Shackleton sailed to the Ross Sea to rescue the other marooned men from his Trans-Antarctic Expedition. And Moyes returned again in 1929-30 with Davis and Mawson as a member of the first of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) voyages. Moyes’ AAE diary is held by the State Library of NSW. See also Antarctica: ice, aloneness, ice, by Morton Moyes as told to his nephew John Layton Moyes, Gosford, 1994, and the entry on Moyes by Denis Fairfax in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moyes-morton-henry-7673
Percival Gray (b. 1889)
Gray joined the AAE as the Aurora’s second officer, aged 22, and he remained with the ship throughout its five cruises between 1911 and 1914. Captain Davis came to rely on him heavily, especially when the ship’s chief officer on the first voyage, Norman Toutcher, proved to be (inDavis’s words) a ‘hopeless fool’. Gray recorded that ‘I go everywhere and do everything with the old man’. He was referring toDavis who, although just 6 years older than Gray, bore his Antarctic experience wearily. Gray’s voyage diaries are long letters home and superbly capture the atmosphere of the ship and the view from the bridge. They are preserved in his papers at the State Library of NSW.