Histories of Antarctica

Antarctica has the shortest human history of any continent on Earth. Although speculation about the existence of a large southern landmass can be traced back as far as the ancient Greeks, the first recorded sightings of continental Antarctica did not take place until the year 1820. Some of the first explorers who sailed south took trinkets with them to give to the indigenous peoples they encountered. But instead of local populations, all they found was cold, ice, and terrestrial landscapes that appeared completely devoid of life.

The hostility of Antarctica’s environment has played a particularly explicit role in shaping its human history. In the nineteenth century, sealers struggled in miserable conditions to wrest some kind of profit from Antarctica’s marine ecosystems at the cost of rapidly declining fur seal and elephant seal populations. Early in the twentieth century explorers flocked to Antarctica in an attempt to prove themselves against the worst conditions that nature could offer. Around the same time, sovereignty claims began to be made upon Antarctica, often connected to a rise of the Antarctic whaling industry. Since the signature of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 – which suspended sovereignty claims, and proclaimed Antarctica to be a “continent dedicated to peace and science” – the history has been dominated by scientists attracted by what can be learned about the global environment from the bottom of the world.

Despite its short human history and lack of indigenous population, the southern continent has a fascinating historiography, which has expanded significantly over the past fifteen to twenty years. Traditionally, historical interest in Antarctica has focused on exploration, and in particular on the history of the so-called “heroic era” of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Much of the writing about the expeditions of men like Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton falls into the category of “armchair exploration” and often includes little analysis of the motivations for these enterprises. Although popular books on the history of exploration continue to be written, recent Antarctic historiography has seen a growth in more critical studies, which provide insights into the racial, class, and gender dynamics of these expeditions, the connections to imperialism and nationalism, and their scientific and literary outputs.

The last few years have also seen a number of historians move beyond the heroic era to investigate less studied periods of Antarctic history. Historical archeologists have been reevaluating the history of nineteenth century sealing in an effort to “voice the silences” of early Antarctic history. Sovereignty claims and geopolitical disputes have been the focus of a number of recent studies, with ongoing debates over the causes and consequences of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Rejecting the claim that “good science” triumphed over “bad politics” with the signature of the Antarctic Treaty, historians of science have begun to investigate the ongoing relationship between scientific research and political claims in the modern history of Antarctica. In many of these recent studies, a trend has been to think of Antarctica as an interesting place for integrating different historical fields in ways that may usefully inform historical research in other parts of the world.

Places to Start

Stephen J. Pyne, The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986)

Best known as an environmental historian of fire, Pyne wrote The Ice following his travels to Antarctica in the 1980s. Interspersed with meditative essays on the meaning of ice, its chapters give roughly equal weight to various aspects of the history of the southern continent, offering one of the most well-rounded introductions to the subject.

David Day, Antarctica: A Biography (2013)

Although comprehensive, Pyne’s The Ice tended to compartmentalize different elements of Antarctica’s human history. David Day’s Antarctica: A Biography attempts a more integrative, coherent narrative. He is particularly successful in showing the connections between the exploration of Antarctica and the continent’s political history in the period up to the signature of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

Digging In

Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1997)

Spufford’s I May Be Some Time was one of the first studies to take a much broader and more critical look at the history of Antarctic exploration. Although it combines both Arctic and Antarctic history and covers a fairly substantial time period, this book offers a nuanced interpretation of the “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration in the early twentieth century. Spufford’s book has helped to stimulate a trend in the scholarship away from a simple focus on the hardships and achievements of Antarctic explorers, and toward an analysis of the underlying motivations and cultural implications of these expeditions.

Edward J. Larson, An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science (2011)

By offering a detailed account of the British expeditions to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica in the early twentieth century, Edward Larsen’s Empire of Ice is in some ways a quite traditional account of the heroic era. But by focusing on the debate over the scientific content of these expeditions, the book engages with questions that connect the heroic era of Antarctic exploration to the modern history of Antarctic science.

Klaus J. Dodds, Pink Ice: Britain and the South Atlantic Empire (2002)

Klaus Dodd’s Pink Ice offers a detailed analysis of Great Britain’s various strategies for making political claims to the Antarctic continent. The British labeled the Antarctic Peninsula region directly to the south of South America the “Falkland Islands Dependencies,” and the ongoing tension over the ownership of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas meant that Britain’s political dispute with Argentina would extend all the way to the South Pole. This is a pioneering work on the geopolitics of Antarctica, which has helped to lay a foundation for other studies on the continent’s political history.

Peder Roberts, The European Antarctic: Science and Strategy in Scandinavia and the British Empire (2011)

Whereas Dodds’ Pink Ice focuses primarily on one country, Roberts’ The European Antarctic takes a more international approach to the geopolitical history of Antarctica in the first half of the twentieth century with an investigation of British, Swedish, and Norwegian Antarctic policy. All three of these countries had a strong interest in the Antarctic whaling industry and Roberts shows how whale science played a central role in the politics of Antarctica during this period. This was epitomized by the inter-war Discovery Investigations, which utilized Captain Scott’s former Antarctic ship to track the movement of whales and learn more about whale biology.

New Moves

Elizabeth Leane, Antarctica in Fiction: Imaginative Narratives of the Far South (2012)

Antarctica in Fiction offers both a literary history of Antarctica, and a critical analysis of the novels, poems, plays, and movies that have been written, performed, and produced about the southern continent. Leane’s contributions to a “cultural turn” in Antarctic studies help to reveal that fiction has played an important, if underappreciated, role in shaping the continent’s history. Science fiction, for example, has been responsible at different times for helping to construct Antarctica as a place of limitless possibility (for example, George McIver’s Neuroomia), a place of existential foreboding (for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and John Campell’s Who Goes There?) and as a place of eco-terrorist conflict (for example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica).

Elena Glasberg, Antarctica as Cultural Critique: The Gendered Politics of Scientific Exploration and Climate Change (2012)

Glasberg visited Antarctica as part of the US National Science Foundation’s “Artists and Writers” program, but her book is scathing about ongoing links between science and imperialism. She demonstrates that far from being a benign “continent for peace and science” contemporary Antarctica has strong connections to the military-industrial complex and US expansionism. Glasberg’s interpretation of Antarctic history focuses on gender politics, and she offers a wonderful analysis of Ursula Le Guin’s short story Sur, about a group of South American women who became the first people to reach the South Pole but decided not to tell anyone about their experiences.

Andrés Zarankin and María Ximena Senatore, Historias de un pasado en blanco: arquelogía histórica antártica (2007)

Some of the most interesting work on the nineteenth century history of Antarctica is currently being done by a team of Argentine and Brazilian historical archeologists working in the South Shetland Islands in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Historias de un pasada en blanco is part of an ongoing effort to “voice the silences” in Antarctic history through a focus on the experience of sealers working in the region (a group that left few written documents). Through innovative archeological research they show how sealers worked in tremendously difficult conditions to incorporate this part of Antarctica into the expanding capitalist world of the early nineteenth century in ways that were longer lived and more nuanced than traditional boom-bust narratives suggest.

Voices and Lives

Bill Green Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes (1995)

Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, science has been the dominant human activity taking place on the Antarctic continent. Ice, Water, Stone offers one of the most engagingly written descriptions of the nature of scientific work in this part of the world. The book focuses on Green’s experiences as a geochemist investigating the ice-covered lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, and provides a real sense of how scientists can become so attracted to working in the extreme environments of the southern continent.

Tom Griffiths, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (2007)

Griffiths is an Australian environmental historian, and he visited Antarctica with the Australian Antarctica Division. Part history, part travelogue, Slicing the Silence offers a beautifully written account of daily life in contemporary Antarctica alongside a discussion of how we came to be where we are today. The book is particularly effective in showing the strength of national attachment that countries such as Australia feel for Antarctica.

Adrian Howkins is an associate professor in the history department at Colorado State University. He has recently published The Polar Regions: An Environmental History with Polity Press.