Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was an era which began at the end of the 19th century, and ended after the First World War; the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition of 1921–22 is often cited by historians as the dividing line between the "Heroic" and "Mechanical" ages.[1][2][3] During the Heroic Age the Antarctic continent became the focus of international efforts that resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration, in which 17 major Antarctic expeditions were launched from ten countries.[4] The common factor in these expeditions was the limited nature of the resources available to them before advances in transport and communication technologies revolutionized the work of exploration.[1][5] This meant that each expedition became a feat of endurance that tested, and sometimes exceeded its personnel's physical and mental limits. The "heroic" label, bestowed later, recognized the adversities which had to be overcome by these pioneers, some of whom did not survive the experience; during this period 19 expedition members died.

During the course of these expeditions the geographical and magnetic poles were both reached. The achievement of being first to the geographical South Pole was a primary object in some expeditions, and was the sole rationale for Roald Amundsen's venture. However, this was not the only aspect of polar exploration during this time; other expeditions worked with defined objectives in different areas of the continent. As a result of all this activity, much of the continent's coastline was discovered and mapped, and significant areas of its interior were explored. The expeditions also generated large quantities of scientific data and specimens across a wide range of scientific disciplines, the examination and analysis of which would keep the world's scientific communities busy for decades.[6]


Terra Australis
Typus Orbis Terrarum drawn by Abraham Ortelius.jpg
"Terra Australis Nondum Cognita" is the large continent on the bottom of this 1570 map by Abraham Ortelius
TypeHypothetical continent

The exploration of the South Pole has been an off and on area of focus; this particular period, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, is not the first intensive period of Antarctic exploration. Curtailing what is commonly known as the Age of Exploration, British explorer James Cook would be one of the few explorers who would travel to that Southern region of the world. The discoveries of his second voyage (1772–1775) would change the global map forever.[7] Prior to his expedition it was believed that a large continent known as Terra Australis occupied the majority of the Southern hemisphere. However, Cook discovered that no such land mass existed though massive ice floes prevented his reaching Antarctica proper.[7] He did hypothesize that, based upon the amount of ice, there must be an originating land mass.[7] Subsequently, exploration of the Southern regions of the world came to a great halt. However, a period of interest arose again between 1819 and 1843.[8] As Europe settled after a period of revolution, war, and unrest, explorers Bellingshausen, Biscoe, Balleny, Charles Wilkes, Dumont D'Urville, and James Clark Ross sought greater knowledge of the Antarctic regions.[8] The primary goal of these explorers was to penetrate the ice walls that hid Antarctica proper, beginning with Bellingshausen's circumnavigation of the region, D'Urville's discovery of the first rocky land formation, and culminating in Wilkes's discovery of Victoria Land, featuring the volcanoes now known as Mt. Terror and Mt. Erebus.[8] These explorers, despite their impressive contributions to South Polar exploration, were unable to penetrate the interior of the continent and, rather, formed a broken line of discovered lands along the coastline of Antarctica.

Antarctic Region, 1848
The known Antarctic region after the 1819–1843 period of intensive exploration.
The known Antarctic region after the 1819–1843 period of intensive exploration.

What followed this period of Antarctic interest is what historian H. R. Mill called 'the age of averted interest'.[9] Following the expedition South by the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror under James Clark Ross (January, 1841), he suggested that there were no scientific discoveries, or 'problems', worth exploration in the far South.[9] It is considered that Ross' influence, as well as the loss of the Franklin expedition in the Arctic, led to disinterest in polar inquiry, particularly by The Royal Society: the British-founded organization that helped oversee many Arctic explorations, including those that would be made by Shackleton and Scott. However, in the following twenty years after Ross' return, there is a general lull internationally in Antarctic exploration.[9]

An old bearded man drawing or measuring with a compass.
Sir John Murray

The initial impetus for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is somewhat contested as it is a vague international movement. George von Neumayer of Hamburg, also an Antarctic explorer, worked to renew Antarctic exploration in 1861 onwards as he worked in an observatory in Melbourne.[8] His particular interests were the importance of meteorology and how more information of the South Pole could lead to more accurate weather predictions. This helps explain German involvement in Antarctic research. Another, particularly British, impetus more closely tied to the period is a lecture given by Dr. John Murray entitled "The Renewal of Antarctic Exploration", given to the Royal Geographical Society in London, November 27, 1893.[10] Murray advocated that research into the Antarctic should be organised to "resolve the outstanding geographical questions still posed in the south".[11] Furthermore, the Royal Geographic Society instated an Antarctic Committee shortly prior to this, in 1887, which successfully incited many whalers to explore the Southern regions of the world and foregrounded the lecture given by Murray.[8] In August 1895 the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London passed a general resolution calling on scientific societies throughout the world to promote the cause of Antarctic exploration "in whatever ways seem to them most effective".[12] Such work would "bring additions to almost every branch of science".[12] The Congress had been addressed by the Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink, who had just returned from a whaling expedition during which he had become one of the first to set foot on the Antarctic mainland. During his address, Borchgrevink outlined plans for a full-scale pioneering Antarctic expedition, to be based at Cape Adare.[13]

However, the Heroic Age was inaugurated by an expedition launched by the Belgian Geographical Society in 1897; Borchgrevink followed a year later with a privately sponsored expedition.[14][15] The designation "heroic age" came later; the term is not used in any of the early expedition accounts or memoirs, nor in the biographies of polar figures which appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. It is not clear when the term was first coined or adopted generally; it was used in March 1956 by the British explorer Duncan Carse, writing in The Times. Describing the first crossing of South Georgia in 1916, he wrote of "three men from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, with 50 feet of rope between them, and a carpenter's adze".[16]

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