Antarctica History -  1897 -1922
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

Great things are done when men and mountains meet; They are not done by jostling in the street  - William Blake

At 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 telecommunications were in their infancy.

Exploration of this "Terra Incognita" was at the limit of possibilities, at the limits of logistical support, of physical endurance and technological capability.

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 hitherto unknown.

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."

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen
Douglas Mawson
Douglas Mawson
Robert Falcon Scott
Robert Falcon Scott
Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton


Four names are pre-eminent in this era representing adventures that at times would be discounted as too fantastic if they had been written as works of fiction. In alphabetical order, they are:

Roald Amundsen   Douglas Mawson   Robert Falcon Scott  Ernest Shackleton

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".

Scott for 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.
Sir Raymond Priestly

Fortunately 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 this war.

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.