The seeds of an idea

Fifteen months in Antarctica as a scientist with Ernest Shackleton’s 1908–09 British Antarctic Expedition was a life-changing experience for the young Douglas Mawson. As soon as he returned to Australia he began planning another Antarctic excursion — but this would be his own, and his country’s. A truly Antipodean adventure.

Mawson was intrigued about the vast stretch of unexplored coastline lying directly south of Australia between Cape Adare in the east and Gaussberg in the west — an area which he had touched during the BAE, searching for the South Magnetic Pole.

At the core of Mawson’s planned expedition was the concept of science integrated with discovery. ‘Discovery’ meant not simply knowledge of the planet (including geographical knowledge), but also knowledge for an economic or political purpose, such as mineral resources or territorial acquisition.

In keeping a weather eye on politics, Mawson was far from alone. Attainment of the South Pole — a principal aim of British, Japanese and Norwegian expeditions in the years from 1910 to 1914 — was for national glory: the attainment of the South Pole. But no expedition of the era gave to science so pre-eminent a position as did Mawson.

When he went to Europe early in 1910 he couldn't get the idea out of his mind. He met with Robert Scott, who was planning his next (and last) expedition. Scott expressed interest in linking Mawson’s plans with his own and offered him a position with his expedition.

But Mawson, unlike Scott, was a scientist. He wanted to conduct a detailed scientific examination of the East Antarctic coast and immediate hinterland, to do this in his way, and to do it for his own country, Australia. While he respected Scott, he had no wish to be first to the South Pole.

When he put his plans before Shackleton, his former leader grew enthusiastic enough to suggest he lead the expedition himself and raise the necessary capital, with Mawson in charge of scientific work and taking over leadership if Shackleton was unable to do so.

As it happened, within a few months Shackleton withdrew, diverted by private business affairs. This left Mawson needing to organise everything — including the money — if his dream was to be realised.