Sir Douglas Mawson
An Australian Antarctic Legacy
Knighted in 1914 for his leadership of the AAE, Mawson was Australia’s greatest Polar explorer.
His legacy includes Australia’s territorial claim to 42 per cent of Antarctica and the Australian Antarctic Division which operates three scientific and research bases on the continent and one on Macquarie Island.
Yorkshire born Mawson moved to Australia with his family at the age of three and was educated at Rooty Hill and Fort Street Model School in Sydney before studying geology and engineering at the University of Sydney.
Mawson knew Antarctica .His first visit to the Antarctic was with the British explorer Ernest Shackleton who led the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09 and was in the first party to climb Mt Erebus and also reach the South magnetic Pole.
Declining an invitation to join the other British Polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott in his endeavour to conquer the South Pole, Mawson organised his own expedition, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911-14. He wanted Australia to be there on its own terms
His survival after losing two companions during a sledging journey is one of the world’s most remarkable stories of survival
Mawson did not know it at the time but in 1912 he was the first person to discover gold in Antarctica. This was confirmed years later when his geological samples from Cape Denison were examined in detail. What he did know, however, was that Antarctica held great potential for Australia. Before Mawson left for Antarctica, he had said that “the geographical position of this land privileges Australians in taking advantage of its products and renders the collection of scientific data therefrom obligatory upon us”. He was right.
Mawson had originally trained as a mining engineer and then, as a geologist, was aware of Australia’s proximity and geological connections to Antarctica. He saw great strategic potential and economic potential for Australia and used this vision to plead support for an Australian expedition. He also wanted to take possession of the land for the British Empire, and linked sovereignty in Antarctica with access to its resources.
Mawson’s 1929 to 1931 expedition traversed the coast of East Antarctica and led to the 1933 claiming of land that is now the Australian Antarctic Territory. That is now the largest claim in Antarctica – some 42% of the continent – a vast parcel of wild lands carrying the Australian flag and approaching the size of the Australian mainland itself. In terms of the national interest, Mawson’s legacy is immense. It led to a substantial interest in Antarctic affairs which continues today in the modern Australian Antarctic scientific program. Australia thus achieved a permanent place in Antarctica and a place at the table of any international deliberations about Antarctica’s future.
This was the realisation of Mawson’s bold national vision. But he his legacy goes beyond that. Behind this towering figure was a man of great intellect, leadership skill, and tenacity. As a polar explorer, his exploits match those of any of his peers in the heroic era of Antarctic discovery. And his heroic fame came not from reaching a symbolic geographic goal (as did Amundsen), or a death march on failing to get back (as for Scott). His came from a remarkable story of lone survival against the odds. In late 1912 he led a small overland coastal party to explore the region between East Antarctica and the area discovered by Scott. Tragedy struck over 500 kilometers into the outward journey when a dog sledge carrying Belgrave Ninnis and most of the team’s food and equipment disappeared into a crevasse. The long return to base at Cape Denison, eating the starving dogs, took the life of his companion, Xavier Mertz. Mawson was left alone to return to tell of the disaster. The story of his journey, exhausted and ill, was a breathtaking tale of endurance, made poignant with his return to base in time to see his relief ship disappearing over the horizon. He was forced to spend another winter in Antarctica with a small search party that had been left behind. His account is a classic of Antarctic exploration literature – The Home of the Blizzard – named after their discovery that their Cape Denison base had been built on what has since been shown to be the windiest place on earth.
On Mawson’s return to Australia in 1914 he was hailed as a hero and knighted for his achievements. He also married the love of his life, Paquita Delprat. He was 32. He went back to Antarctica twice, in 1929 and 1930, cementing Australia’s place in Antarctic geographical discovery and science, and claiming our territory. Then, until his death in 1958, he was closely involved with government in setting up Australia’s Antarctic program, now based in Hobart. Mining engineer, geologist, scientist, expedition leader, explorer, survivor, family man, visionary – Mawson left behind a story unmatched in Australian Antarctic history.
Hobart also has its place in that history. It was significant in the early opening up of the continent. Because of Hobart’s sheltered harbor and ample provisions, several heroic era expeditions visited the city. Mawson used Hobart as his departure point because it was the closest port to East Antarctica – head south and you sail straight into Commonwealth Bay and Cape Denison, Mawson’s chosen site. Hobart’s position also allowed Mawson to be the first to use radio in Antarctica, with a relay station set up on Tasmania’s Macquarie Island, halfway to the ice.
Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition sailed from Queens Pier Hobart over 100 years ago, on 2 December 1911. There was a grand farewell by an excited throng of Hobartians, thrilled at the prospect of the expedition and proud of Hobart being temporary home to Mawson’s men. Little did they know of the adventures that Mawson would face, or Hobart’s modern role in the enduring legacy of his expedition. Sullivans Cove now sees fewer ships and Queens Pier has since been removed. Look across the Cove – MACq01 is the closest you can get in Hobart to where Australian Antarctica began.
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The Foundation is a not-for-profit charity seeking funds to promote and encourage public interest in the nation’s Antarctic history, including the conservation of Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison, East Antarctica.
The Mawson’s Huts Foundation is a registered Deductible Gift Recipient with all monetary donations tax deductible.
The Australian Antarctic Expedition was made up of a group of young men from scientists, engineers & medics to dog handlers and artists, who set sail to one of the most remote regions in the world in order to advance science and our knowledge of the white continent.