Tuesday, January 17, 2012

100 Years On: Douglas Mawson and Australian identity forged in the Antarctic

Today, Prime Minister Gillard invoked “the spirit of Mawson” when she visited the site of the University of Tasmania’s new state-of-the-art Marine Research institute today. The site is due to open in 2014 and Gillard timed her visit on the celebrations of Douglas Mawson’s 100th anniversary as leader of Australia’s first Antarctic exhibition. Gillard said the Tasmanian facility committed Australia to the Antarctic in “a history 100 years old but with a great future in front of it.”

Leaving irony at the future of history aside, Mawson is a man well worth commemorating as a great Australian scientist and explorer. Gallipoli is commonly the moment when the newly-formed white commonwealth of Australia was supposed to be forged in battle. Certainly the number of dead that forlorn Turkish campaign caused was enough to invoke nationwide mourning, but Mawson’s earlier and less deadly adventure did much also to put a young nation on the map - and expand Australian thinking about the map and its place on it. His 100th anniversary celebrations in the Antarctic were delayed a few days due to bad weather, another irony that would not have been lost on the intrepid explorer.

Douglas Mawson like most Australians of the time (except the Irish) Mawson considered himself an Englishman. Mawson was of gritty Yorkshire stock born in Shipley in 1882. The family were cloth merchants who moved to Sydney while Douglas was still a toddler. He was educated at Rooty Hill and at Fort Street Model School. He attended the University of Sydney during the tumultuous change of century (1899-1902). While Australia federated and fought the Boer War, he studied mining engineering.

After graduating he was appointed as a junior demonstrator in chemistry at the university. He went into the field and did a six month geological survey of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) under the island’s deputy commissioner Captain E. G. Rason. Mawson’s ‘The geology of the New Hebrides' was one of the first major works of its kind on Melanesia. Back in Australia he resumed studies in geology and was appointed lecturer in mineralogy and petrology in the University of Adelaide. It was here he became interested in glacial geology, particularly of SA. Mawson cemented his reputation by coming up with new classifications for the mineralised Precambrian rocks of the Barrier Range.

In November 1907, Ernest Shackleton met him in Adelaide. Shackleton was there as leader of the British Antarctic Expedition heading south. Shackleton wanted to be first to the South Pole, something that did not interest Mawson particularly. Yet Mawson immediately wanted to join him so he could explore the glaciations of the southern continent. Shackleton was impressed and made him physicist.

By March 1908 Mawson was on top of the volcano Mt Erebus in Antarctica, in the first group of men to climb the continent’s highest peak. While Shackleton and his team pressed onto the pole, Mawson and Edgeworth David travelled 2000km to be the first to reach the south magnetic pole. They survived the return trip despite lack of food, exhaustion and Mawson’s fall into a deep crevasse. Shackleton failed in the main exhibition and they returned to Australia chastened, but with Mawson’s reputation enhanced.

Cooling (or more likely warming) his heels back at the University of Adelaide, he heard Scott was planning another assault on the pole. Mawson asked for a ride to explore the coast west of Cape Adare. Scott refused but invited him to go to the pole with him. That did not interest Mawson so negotiations foundered. After Scott left for the south in 1910, Mawson launched his own exhibition to be called the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

He set sail in December 1911 and made three crucial stops in the name of Australia. At Macquarie Island he established a base where they would be the first to relay radio messages from the Antarctic. Then on the continent itself, he established a Main Base at Commonwealth Bay and a Western Base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. All three sites were dedicated to science: geology, cartography, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism, biology and marine science.

The Base at Commonwealth Bay was ready by February 1912. Mawson went exploring in the Far East of Antarctica but both his fellow explorers died on the harsh journey. Though Mawson seriously debilitated, he cut his sledge in half, discarded everything except his geological specimens and records and dragged it 160km over 30 days to get back to Main Base. He was forced to stay the winter and continued explorations to 1913.

Back home in 1915, Mawson told his story in “The Home of the Blizzard”. It was a sensational read but a Great War meant Australian attention was preoccupied elsewhere and Mawson did not get the credit his extraordinary adventures, exploration, innovation and scientific work deserved. Mawson served in that war as embarkation officer for shipments of high explosives and poison gas from Britain to Russia.

After the war he worked for the White Russians before returning to Adelaide when the Communists won the revolution. Mawson returned to the University of Adelaide to spend 30 years researching South Australian Precambrian rocks of the Flinders Ranges. He also pored through his polar findings. He collected so much data from the trip, it took him that same 30 years to complete his "Scientific Reports", in twenty-two volumes. He led two more southern journeys for the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition in 1929-30 and 1930-31 which were both sea-based only. His mapping work was crucial to the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act of 1933 and the Australian Antarctic Territory three years later.

Mawson retired in 1952 to Melbourne and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at his Brighton home six years later on 14 October 1958, aged 78. By then Australia’s first permanent Antarctic base was established at Holme Bay in Mac Robertson Land. The base was Mawson’s idea and after World War II he convinced foreign minister Doc Evatt to set one up. The base was founded in 1954 and named for Mawson. It was an obvious but deserved honour for a man many see as the greatest polar explorer ever. By 1984, Mawson’s reputation was secured with his place on the $100 Australian note. It was something you could put your money on: Mawson was a great Australian and a man who always put science first.

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