History - The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration 1897 -1922
Great things are done when men
and mountains meet;
They are not done by jostling in the street
- William Blake
Sir Ernest Shackleton
the beginning of the 20th century, Antarctic exploration
was the The Space Exploration of the day.
Antarctica was (and still is) a distant
place visited by few, largely unknown and only recently
brought to public awareness. Photographs were rare,
moving pictures even more so and radio was in its infancy.
Exploration of this "Terra Incognita"
was at the limit of possibilities, at the limits of
logistical support, of physical endurance and technological
Unlike space exploration however,
determined individuals with relevant experience and
the ability to generate and draw on support, particularly
sponsorship, could mount an expedition. Any kind
of scientific study was like dipping into a bran tub.
You didn't know what you'd find, but you'd
find something, it would be useful to science and probably
The curtain was opened on the "Heroic
Age" when in 1895 the Sixth International Geographical
Congress meeting in London adopted a resolution:
"That this congress
record its opinion that the exploration of the Antarctic
Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration
still to be undertaken. That in view of the additions
to knowledge in almost every branch of science which
would result from such a scientific exploration the
Congress recommends that the scientific societies throughout
the world should urge in whatever way
seems to them most effective, that this work should
be undertaken before the close of the century."
Adventurous men were drawn to this arena like
a magnet and over the period of just a few short years Antarctica
was where some of the bravest and most worthy of explorers ever
to have lived, met some of the harshest conditions ever endured.
Some of the expeditions succeeded in their
aims, some didn't but succeeded in something that they hadn't
set out to do. It was also of course the era that popularised
the concept of the "heroic failure".
scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency
but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get
down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."
Antarctic exploration has been blessed with a whole host of
men who were able to write about their experiences with eloquence
and sensitivity. Uniquely in any field of exploration there
was a coming together in a short period of a concentration of
character, bravery and literary ability.
This is one of the reasons that the history
of Antarctic exploration remains so popular and well known.
The wealth of good quality records and original writings also
makes the subject a rich one for researchers and historians.
Photography too is well represented in
the early expeditions by Herbert Ponting with Scott's
1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition and
Frank Hurley with Shackleton's 1914-1917 Trans-Antarctic
expedition aboard the Endurance. Their photographs
not only provide us with an excellent and comprehensive
historical record, but are superb examples of the photographers
art, particularly when it is considered that they were
accomplished with relatively primitive equipment in what were
still very much the early days of photography.
Thus the subject becomes accessible and understandable.
While distant, the early 20th century is still comfortably recent
so that it doesn't seem like so "foreign" a time
that is being described.
Contrast this for instance with space exploration
and the moon landings that haven't resulted in a single
quality piece of writing. Apart from seeing the video footage,
we the public really know nothing of it, we don't understand
the hardships, comradeship, rivalries or even the mundane day
to day routines.
A final tragic chapter to many of these stories
of the "Heroic Age" was that they took place in the
years just before the First World War. Many of the adventurers
and members of the exploratory parties joined their countrymen
on the battlefields of Europe on their return from Antarctica.
The Great War then took a terrible toll on their numbers. Despite
their heroism and fortitude in the frozen south, many were due
to die in the appalling industrialized waste of life that characterized
The close of the Heroic age is generally taken
coming with the death of Ernest Shackleton in 1922 from a heart
attack while aboard the ship Quest at anchor at South
Georgia. After this time Antarctic expeditions were fundamentally
different, usually being much larger in scale and with back
up if necessary able to summoned by radio. No longer would men
set out completely alone and self contained on their adventure,
the tale to be told either on their return or by the finding
of their remains by later parties.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic
exploration, though it happened a century ago now is still very
real and very accessible thanks to the efforts and talents of
the men who chronicled and photographed the events as they happened.
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