Antarctica: A Biography

David Day

Antarctica: A Biography
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Antarctica: A Biography

David Day

Read our Q&A with David Day about Antarctica: A Biography here.

For centuries it was suspected that there must be an undiscovered continent in the southern hemisphere. But explorers failed to find one. On his second voyage to the Pacific, Captain James Cook sailed further south than any of his rivals but failed to sight land. It was not until 1820 that the continent’s frozen coast was finally discovered and parts of the continent began to be claimed by nations that were intent on having it as their own.

That rivalry intensified in the 1840s when British, American and French expeditions sailed south to chart further portions of the continent that had come to be called Antarctica.

On and off for nearly two centuries, the race to claim exclusive possession of Antarctica has gripped the imagination of the world. Science was enlisted to buttress the rival claims as nations developed new ways of asserting territorial claims over land that was too forbidding to occupy. Although the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 was meant to end the rivalry, it has continued regardless, as new nations became involved and environmentalists, scientists and resource companies began to compete for control.

Antarctica: A Biography draws upon libraries and archives from around the world to provide the first, large-scale history of Antarctica. On one level, it is the story of explorers battling the elements in the most hostile place on earth as they strive for personal triumph, commercial gain and national glory. On a deeper level, it is the story of nations seeking to incorporate the Antarctic into their national narratives and to claim its frozen wastes as their own.


david-day4Chapter 11 of this epic biography of the frozen continent is titled ‘This bloody flag-raising business’ and this sentiment just about sums up the content of David Day’s latest work of historical investigation.

Beginning in the 1770s with Captain Cook’s failed mission to find the ‘missing continent’, each chapter covers a span of a few years and the book continues in this detailed fashion right up until the 1960s. The final chapter only briefly covers 1961 until 2012, so in this sense Antarctica is more a historical study of discovery rather than an up-to-date biography. Cook was in fact the first official explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle, and he unknowingly came within 120 kilometres of the Antarctic coastline but was turned back by the impenetrable ice-covered sea.

The race to sight and then set foot on Antarctica, and claim ownership of the various land formations and the surrounding seas and islands is painstakingly detailed by Day, who has trawled through an extensive collection of original diaries, letters and official documents.

Explorers claimed ownership for their country in a variety of ways (from firing shots from the ship to scrambling ashore to plant a flag). Disputes were inevitable with different nations keen to bring Antarctica under their control, not only for commercial gain but also for national glory. Once the continent itself had been fully mapped, the race was on to claim a ‘first’ – the first to the South Pole, the first to cross the continent, the first to fly an aeroplane and even the first child to be born.

I found the more recent scientific discoveries and international agreements to protect Antarctica’s resources from exploitation more engaging and these are covered interestingly in the final chapter, but if you like reading about human feats of discovery, this is an excellent and detailed summary.

kara-thumb Kara Nicholson is currently completing a masters in environmental studies and spends her time reading novels to avoid doing any of the actual study part. Her favourite book of all time is George Eliot’s Middlemarch and she urges anyone who hasn’t to read it to do so immediately.

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