John King Davis

Portrait of Captain John King Davis
Portrait of Captain John King Davis from an album held by the Australian Antarctic Division. Australian Antarctic Division

AAE position: Captain of S.Y. Aurora, Second-in-Charge AAE.

Born in England in 1884, Davis emigrated to South Africa with his father in 1900, but soon afterwards worked his passage back to England as a steward’s boy aboard a mail steamer. He served his seaman’s apprenticeship on the Liverpool-owned sailing-ship Celtic Chief, on which he visited Australia and obtained his second mate’s certificate. He then joined the barque Westland trading between England and New Zealand, and was subsequently second officer on the training ship Port Jackson.

In 1907 Davis met Ernest Shackleton by chance at a polar exploring exhibition in London. Shackleton recruited him for his British Antarctic Expedition in 1907 as chief officer of Nimrod, where he met a young Australian geologist named Douglas Mawson. Davis took over as ship’s master for Shackleton’s triumphant return to England in 1909.

Davis was in England helping Shackleton wind up the expedition’s affairs when in 1911 Mawson appointed him ship’s master and his own deputy as AAE second-in-command. Davis took possession of Aurora in England and sailed the ship to Hobart in time for the AAE’s December 1911 departure. Throughout the whole period of the AAE (1911–1914) Davis commanded Aurora during five cruises, serving both to transport expedition men and materials and also to gather scientific data on the Southern Ocean.

Davis spent the early years of World War I arranging embarkation of Australian troops and commanding Australian troop transports to the Middle East and Europe. His war service was interrupted with another southern journey in 1916, when he led the relief expedition that rescued marooned members of Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition from Ross Island, south of New Zealand.

After further service with the Royal Australian Navy, Davis was appointed the Commonwealth’s first Director of Navigation, a post he was to hold for 29 years. But regular duties again took second place when Mawson offered him another chance to return to Antarctica. He took leave to captain Discovery in 1929–30, on the first of two mammoth voyages along the East Antarctic coast which laid the groundwork for Australia’s later claim to Antarctic territory.

Before he retired in 1949 Davis again joined Mawson, this time as a member of the Australian government’s Antarctic Planning Committee, established in 1947. It gave him the opportunity to be involved in the modern national Antarctic program.

Davis, who early in his life had twice been awarded the King’s Polar Medal, was honoured twice more late in his life. Australia’s second permanent Antarctic station, established in 1957, was named Davis, and in 1965 he was made a C.B.E.

John King Davis was 83 when he died in Melbourne on the 7th of May 1967.

This page was last modified on July 1, 2014.