Nick Smith’s review of Bob Headland’s ‘A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration’ as appeared in Bookdealer magazine (full text)

A few people mentioned to me yesterday at the Antiquarian book fair at the RGS that they’d not seen my review of Bob Headland’s new Chronology in Bookdealer. Here is the full text, but remember words look better in print so please subscribe to the magazine… 


Cold hard facts from the bottom of the world

Nick Smith reviews

A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007–09

By Robert Keith Headland

Quaritch, HB, £110 · ISBN 978-0955085284

Ever since Pythagoras postulated that the Earth was spherical the possibility of there being Polar Regions has intrigued philosophers and explorers alike. In the 8th Century a Northumbrian monk conjectured that the poles were places of eternal cold: in the north he thought there was an ocean, while in the south a great land mass. The Venerable Bede was of course spot on, but it was to be well over a thousand years before the likes of Robert Peary or Roald Amundsen would be able to see that for themselves by setting foot on the geographical poles. In 1366 pioneering travel writer Sir John Mandeville was the first to use the word ‘Antartyk’, while in 1487–88 a Portuguese naval expedition commanded by Bartholomeu Díaz de Novaes discovered the Cape of Good Hope. In 1516 the earliest printed description and illustration of the Southern Cross Antarctic constellation appeared in a work by Andrea Corsali, an image that adorns the front cover of Robert Keith Headland’s monolithic A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.

In the 1600s the southern seas were getting positively crowded, with Dutch, English, French and Spanish expeditions all contributing to the exploration and mapping of the region. In 1736 the lighting of London streets with whale oil lamps created ‘great impetus to the whaling industry’. In 1762, John Harrison claimed the Board of Longitude’s £20,000 prize for the invention of an accurate chronometer for the determination of longitude at sea. By the 1800s the sub-Antarctic islands were starting to see the slaughter of marine mammals on an industrialised scale, when barely a year went by without a whaling or a sealing voyage setting forth to plunder the biodiversity of the South.

But it is the 20th century – starting with the Heroic Age of Polar exploration and ending with the dawn of an age of environmental responsibility ­– that forms the bulk of Headland’s Chronology. In a tome of well over 700 pages, the 20th century begins on page 231. To express just how intense this surge in activity in the region is, the first two millennia of the Chronology are dealt with on just one page. Political issues such as territorial sovereignty, international accords and the Antarctic Treaty weave their way through the latter part. These threads are supported by a wealth of scientific, expeditionary and tourism-related material that will be of inestimable value to researchers, academics and anyone with more than a casual interest in polar affairs.

Since the Second World War there have been several compilations of chronological lists of Antarctic expeditions, but this title is essentially a third edition of the author’s Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events (CUP, 1989). There are major structural changes. For instance, its historical extent now includes up to the International Polar Years 2007–09 (for some reason I’ve never managed to work out, International Polar Years are considerably longer than the more conventional calendar year). This means that there are some 1,500 new entries, while a tenth of the original entries have been significantly amended. Headland is nothing if not thorough: in his introduction he notes that there are some additional minor voyages of discovery, several hundred more sealing voyages, corrections to dates and notes, better indexing of subjects, revision of the histograms and bibliography, and ‘similar improvements in completeness and correctness.’

One of the most curious effects of reading a linear chronology such as this is how dispassionate academic history can be compared with its so-called ‘popular’ counterpart and as a consequence it is sometimes hard to gauge the relative importance of historical events. While the polar community celebrates the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s iconic British Antarctic Survey of 1907–09 (otherwise known as the Nimrod expedition), Headland allocates what seems to be a rather measly 22 lines to the subject (although in fairness he allocates fewer to the 1982 Argentine invasion of South Georgia, during which he was captured, and even fewer to the invasion of the Falkland Islands.) And yet within those 22 lines salient points for the academic historian are rattled off in a prose style that has a taciturn beauty all of its own. Here’s one sentence from the Nimrod entry:

‘Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley.’

Somewhere in here is the human drama of the Boss’s decision to turn around a tantalising 97 miles from glory. He could have pushed on and claimed the pole but his men were in bad shape and he needed to get them home safely. This has been called one of the greatest decisions in exploration, and one that defines Shackleton as an icon of management leadership a century later. But this category of interpretive analysis is not what the Chronology is about – it is about cold, hard facts from the bottom of the world. There’s even one for antiquarian bibliophiles: ‘Book, Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made.’

Bob Headland is of course a legend in Polar circles, having held the post of Archivist and Curator at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge until late 2005, when he left in order to pursue his research and to get his Chronology finished. During his career he has spent probably as much time as anyone else in the Polar Regions. He spent two winters at Grytviken on South Georgia involved in biological research with the British Antarctic Survey in the late 1970s. In 1982, a third winter of study was cut short by the inconvenience of having to spend time at the Argentine forces’ pleasure (a ‘Galtieri: his part in my downfall’ moment if ever there was one). South Georgia not only provided Headland with masses of field experience, but also resulted in studies on the biogeography of the peri-Antarctic islands and an interest in their history, which in turn led to his 1984 book The Island of South Georgia.

In his introduction Headland admits that there’ll probably be no fourth edition to his Chronology. Improved access to the White Continent means that the sheer volume of data will become unmanageable in book form. As commercial flights and tourism cruises increase in frequency, the maintenance of such a project will become more difficult and will inevitably be handed over to the online environment. Which means that for those preferring their reference works to be made out of paper and board the time has come to invest. At first glance £110 might seem like a tall order, but for that you get the definitive work. Bob Headland has produced a monumental work of scholarship based on a lifetime’s dedication to his subject, and if his Chronology does not become the final court of appeal for all factual matters to do with the events and activities in Antarctic exploration, then nothing ever will.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York


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