When Stephen Murray-Smith voyaged to Antarctica with the Australian Antarctic Division on the Icebird in the summer of 1985-86, he had moments of high excitement, profound boredom, homesickness, intellectual challenge, despair, unexpected patriotism, and deep professional satisfaction - and he also had this moment...
Sailing steadily through a placid sea towards Davis station, the sun low on the horizon as midnight approached, the Icebird came up against a great rampart of ice. A silent crowd of passengers and crew on the bridge watched tensely and full of wonder as the ship threaded its way between great bergs that they could almost reach out and touch, and the low sun flooded the parapets and ice floes with ‘a golden, refulgent light’ so that the shadow of the ship accompanied them along the icebergs.
They felt as if a brief window to the sanctuary had been opened for them, and that time and space and ice and light had conspired to allow them to pass. Stephen recalled that the normally noisy mob on board was still and quiet, like ‘philistine tourists silenced by the soaring columns of Chartres or Salisbury’. It was, he wrote:
the most moving and beautiful visual experience of my life. We’ve all stood and admired wonderful prospects, the memory of which stays with us even as it fades. But what happened to me between 9pm and midnight on 20 January 1986 has trailed clouds of glory about my life ever since, has taught me that it is possible for an atheist to have, in his own way, a transcendental experience, and completed any conversion I needed to humility in the face of the natural world. It was an experience which has not faded. Its joy was tempered only by sadness that those I would most have wished to share it with were not with me.1
Stephen was deeply moved by the awe-inspiring beauty of Antarctica and, by contrast, he was appalled by the recent, sordid mark of humanity on the continent. The ugliness of the human impact on the ice shocked him. He found that visiting Antarctica was an emotional roller-coaster: ‘if you were constructing a psychological drama in which people were dumped from elation into depression in a very short space of time, you couldn’t have done better’, he wrote.2 Nature and culture had never before seemed in such antipathy.
Antarctica has become, in the words of the American nature writer Barry Lopez, ‘a place from which to take the measure of the planet’.3 It is not only a region of elemental majesty; it is also a global archive, a window on outer space and a scientific laboratory. It is not only a wondrous world of ice; it is also a political frontier, a social microcosm and a humbling human experiment. It offers us an oblique and revealing perspective on modern history, an icy mirror for the world. To voyage to Antarctica is to go beyond the boundary of one’s biology towards a frightening and simplifying purity. It is a land of enveloping silence. How does life sustain itself in the face of such awesome indifference? In Antarctica, nature subjects society to a bracing and disjunctive seasonal rhythm. The human generations are annual. It is a peculiar civilisation where the workings of history might be laid bare. In Antarctica Stephen Murray-Smith had a professional interest in the way knowledge is preserved and passed on, how traditions and rituals are created and sustained, and how the sinews of public and private memory are exercised. What prevents human culture from dissipating each year with the sea ice?
Tonight I am going to talk about both Stephen Murray-Smith and Antarctica, using his memorable voyage in the third last summer of his life to think about our relationship to the continent of ice in the past, present and future.
The great southern continent, Australia’s cold Gondwanan cousin, was sensed long before it was seen. Just as the classical cartographers intuited Antarctica’s presence from arguments of earthly symmetry and elemental equilibrium, so did early voyagers divine the ice continent before they found it: they felt its breath. Antarctica has an aura. I don’t just mean its mystery, its magical otherworldliness, its implacable grandeur, and its capacity to haunt all who have visited it. I also mean that this land over the South Pole, which is covered by a single mineral, actually emanates ice, water and air well beyond its geographical boundaries. It took people a long time to realise that there was not just land down there but a continent, that it was high and dry and covered thickly in ice, that it was very, very cold, much colder than the Arctic, and that it constantly affects the climate of the rest of the world. Time-lapse photography from satellites now reveals to us that Antarctica is like a giant, breathing organism clamped to the base of the globe. Every winter as the southern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, so much sea ice forms that the size of the white continent appears to double, only to shrink again in the summer, like a billowing creature rhythmically expanding and contracting. When the surface of the sea turns to ice, it releases a dense brine that plunges to the ocean depths, and that thrust of salty water to the sea floor is the piston-stroke that drives the engine of ocean circulation, sending cold Antarctic bottom-water northwards, even infiltrating the northern hemisphere. Meanwhile, continental Antarctica, where ice forms kilometres thick on ancient bedrock, is an ice-making machine of prodigious dimensions. Slowly, inexorably, ice moves from the central heights of Antarctica towards the coast, where great chunks are launched as icebergs, some the size of countries, some big and fast enough to sail to the edge of the tropics. There is so much ice in Antarctica that it skews the Earth into a slight pear shape.
On planet earth today it could be said that we inhabit the Antarctic moment. Each year now, tens of thousands of tourists visit a realm that, just a few generations ago, was virtually unknown. The physics and politics of global warming have turned our eyes towards the great southern ice cap because that’s where you find 90 per cent of the world’s land ice and 70 per cent of the globe’s fresh water. The last century of world history has seen Antarctica move from the geographical periphery of our consciousness to the centre of our scientific and intellectual concerns.
When Stephen Murray-Smith sailed south, the heroic era of Antarctic history – the world of Douglas Mawson, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – seemed far in the past. After ‘the Race for the Pole’ of the early twentieth century, there was a ‘Scramble for Antarctica’ that echoed the famous ‘Scramble for Africa’ amongst European powers in the late nineteenth century. By early 1939 an expedition from Adolf Hitler’s Germany had bombed Antarctic ice with hundreds of cast-iron swastikas, each carefully counterbalanced so that it stood upright on the surface. In the early 1940s, Britain and Argentina battled over the possession of the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands. Stamps, post offices, maps and films were weapons of war. In February 1952, Argentinian soldiers fired machine-guns over the heads of a British geological party trying to land at Hope Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. In 1946–47, a huge American expedition involving 4000 personnel, a dozen icebreakers and an aircraft carrier lay siege to the ice. In 1950, the USSR announced its renewed interest in Antarctic exploration, occupation and sovereignty. It seemed that the Cold War had found its way to the coldest part of the planet.
But at the height of the Cold War, a remarkable Cold Peace was negotiated. The launching of the Russian spaceship, Sputnik, on 4 October 1957 – an anniversary we celebrate tonight – seemed to many in the West a threatening symbol of escalating superpower rivalry. But in Antarctic skies it was welcomed as the culmination of a huge, cooperative human endeavour. Sputnik was the most visible efflorescence of the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58 (known as IGY). IGY was the single biggest cooperative scientific enterprise ever undertaken on earth, a hugely successful intervention of science into politics, and it was centred on Antarctica. It cut through the increasing cacophony of post-war territorial rivalries down south.
Nearly 30,000 scientists from 66 nations took part at locations across the globe, with the aim of studying the poles, the ocean floors and outer space – three regions made newly accessible by technology. During IGY, the summer population in Antarctica reached almost 5000. Free exchange of data between nations was part of the agreement, and there was a constantly expressed intention to put science before politics. For fifty years the main motives for Antarctic work had been national honour and territorial conquest, and scientific work was, in general, of secondary importance. As the Australian Antarctic leader Phillip Law said, ‘The IGY changed all this.’
IGY was such a resounding success that it cried out to be institutionalised. Intensive diplomatic activity in the late 1950s culminated in the drafting of an Antarctic Treaty which set aside territorial claims in the interests of common and peaceful endeavour. Led by Australia, military activity and testing of any kind of weapons were prohibited south of 60 degrees, so this became the first disarmament treaty negotiated during the Cold War. Scientific information was to be shared, and inspections of other nations’ bases allowed at any time. In November 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington by the twelve nations that had participated in IGY in Antarctica, including Australia. Science as an international social system had never before revealed itself to be so powerful.
Stephen Murray-Smith sailed south two and a half decades after the treaty was ratified, and at a time when it was it was coming under increasing pressure. The Antarctic Treaty had not dealt explicitly with resource politics, and from the mid-1970s this began to seem a fundamental and possibly fatal flaw. The twentieth-century world depended on fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, and in 1973 the OPEC countries restricted production. Oil and natural gas prices sky-rocketed, and exploration for alternative fields quickened. Knowledge of possible offshore oil and natural gas reserves in Antarctica was growing and, by 1980, experts believed that exploratory drilling down south was only a decade away.
From the late 1970s, therefore, there was a significant increase in the number of states acceding to the Antarctic Treaty. Krill and hydrocarbons were the chief riches expected of this icy ‘treasure island’. The Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir declared: ‘I have heard that the South Pole is made of gold and I want my share of it’. In 1982, treaty nations initiated negotiations over a Minerals Convention, which aimed not to instigate mining in Antarctica but to set down rules should it ever happen. Many environmentalists believed it was better to have a regime than no regime. Australia, keen to assert its 42 per cent territorial claim to the ice, embarked on a massive building program at its Antarctic bases. The heroic era of romantic and abstract ideals seemed very distant, and in 1985 Stephen arrived in an Australian Antarctica that looked like a building site and where the ice was dusty with cement.
Stephen was not there as a tourist, a seafarer, a historian or an editor; he was there as an emissary of his government. Barry Jones, then minister for science in the Hawke Labor government, had sent him south. Murray-Smith was called a ministerial observer. It was an astute move by Jones to send his friend to Antarctica. As minister, Barry Jones had inherited a building program in full swing and a concentration on the physical possession of the continent that left little room, financially or intellectually, for the science he so wanted to foster. Murray-Smith would be his eyes on the culture of this distant place at a time of critical strategic importance.
Since his return from World War II, Stephen had hankered after Antarctica. In 1945, recently back from New Guinea, he wrote from Melbourne to Douglas Mawson inquiring about a place on an expedition to the Antarctic. Mawson acknowledged the letter but explained that the plan to establish a permanent Australian research station on the continent was far from realisation.4 When, 40 years later, Stephen boarded the Icebird in late December 1985, he was fulfilling an early dream and had become an official assessor of Mawson’s legacy. He had already made himself an experienced voyager of the roaring forties, for he had been an explorer of sorts in his own backyard of Bass Strait. All his favourite holidays – at Port Fairy, Wilsons Promontory, and at Erith Island – played at the edges of the vast southern realm. Between 1966 and 1971, in the company of scientific friends, he made several short voyages of discovery amongst those peaks of submerged mountains on the vast plain that once connected the Australian mainland to Tasmania. They were nunataks in an ocean of meltwater. Landing on them, describing plants and animals, scaling them and investigating their intriguing human history, enabled him to make his own contribution to the literature and science of exploration. Stephen greatly admired all seafarers and lighthouse-keepers; he knew who was behind those guiding beams that swept across the ocean darkness. Murray-Smith may have been a roundtripper, a boffin and, even worse, a ministerial observer, but his Southern Ocean was already storied and peopled, and he settled into the Icebird with the relish of a man who loved messing about in boats.
Unpacking his typewriter in his cabin, he was about to renew a favourite form of writing. During the war in New Guinea, he had started a diary ‘as an exercise in contemporary history’, and afterwards he wrote it out as a way of preparing himself for scholarly study in history.5 In most issues of Overland, he wrote a thoughtful commentary on intellectual and literary life called ‘Swag’ because he wanted a personal, human presence in his journal rather than distant, authoritative editorialising. ‘Swag’ allowed him to be funny, complex and contradictory, to showcase evolving thought, rather than to be definitive. It is this organic concept of intellect that attracted him to the diary format. As he headed south, he felt that ‘[t]he story-books of generations were coming alive’, and that he was adding to them.
Sitting on penguins was the confidently opinionated book of an older man. In the judgment of his friend, John McLaren, Stephen, ‘while he may have become grumpier, is one of the few to whom age brought wisdom’.6 The book was not meant to be ‘a study in repose’ or ‘a disinterested history’. It is an argument with himself as much as others about what Australia was doing in Antarctica. He took the title of his book from an entry in the ANARE Field Manual on emergency sources of food. ‘Penguins may be killed’, the manual explained, ‘by breaking and cutting the neck or by squashing the air out of their lungs by sitting on them for a fairly long period. Penguin stew is very palatable...’ But for Stephen the term ‘sitting on penguins’ was a powerful metaphor for Australia’s giant territorial claim over Antarctica, and it conjured the worrying spectre of a country sitting in a proprietorial, indolent and purely strategic way on the life of Antarctica. It raised the question: is Australia intellectually and politically investing in Antarctica, or just sitting on it? Murray-Smith’s criticisms of the Australian Antarctic Division, some of which were first published as feature articles in The Australian, stirred official responses, even while he was still voyaging. ‘Don’t they see that, behind it all, I respect and believe in our commitments here?’ he mused. ‘That is the real message of what I’ve been writing. But I’m buggered if I’ll write publicity handouts for a government department.’7 He believed that all true societies should be involved in a perpetual apologia.8
As a passenger on a routine resupply ship, Stephen was about to observe what is known as ‘the changeover’. The changeover is the most crucial operational exchange in Antarctica, a period of urgent refuelling in every sense, a passing-on of learning and wisdom in a matter of days. It is the frantic turnover of generations in Antarctica. What other societies may do in years, Antarctica has to achieve in hours. Anticipation, experience, memory and history are telescoped into one frenetic moment and become indistinguishable. At Casey, Stephen watched with wonder as 2300 tons of supplies were unloaded efficiently and safely in near-freezing conditions and with good humour by his shipmates: ‘We were in danger of not realising that the greatest marvel of all was right under our noses; that we had the privilege of observing, and for many of us taking part in, the major annual resupply of an Antarctic base.’ Everyone on board, he noted, suddenly had a place to go and a job to do. Stephen was an unusually keen and learned observer of this Antarctic ritual. He was an expert on technical education and deeply admired practical intelligence. But he also had an intimate understanding of the logistics. Each year, when re-establishing his own isolated camp in Bass Strait, Stephen masterminded the stores and their stowage, always bringing more than anyone else thought was needed and expecting their help to unload it. So, here at anchorage in Antarctica, in the calm between blizzards, he knew that he was witness to the climax of years of work. It was hair-raising watching it all, but the job was done and done with speed and grace. In spite of himself, Stephen felt a surge of embarrassing patriotism: ‘I was moved, very moved. I began to feel well of my own countrymen. All this immense labour, carried out without complaint, without shouting, in good humour, without congratulation. Could anyone else do it as well?’9
Murray-Smith was not usually an admirer of bureaucracy. When he was a commando in New Guinea, he had been contemptuous of the arrogance and stupidity of the members of the officer class he encountered, and the way they interfered with the decisions of the men on the spot. His years in the Communist Party had left him disillusioned with the whole formal process of politics and deeply suspicious of ideology and bureaucracy. But Stephen remained grateful for those years in the Party, for they cultivated his international political conscience and helped him strive for the integration of ideas and action. He felt that membership of the party, together with his marriage into a Jewish family, had prevented him ‘from being just another middle-aged, middle-class ex-public schoolboy’.10 His political energies became directed towards education in the broadest sense. Through his editorship from 1954 of the literary magazine, Overland, Murray-Smith invested in intelligent popular culture. Therefore, Stephen took to Antarctica social democratic ideals that were also pragmatic, a distrust of authority and bureaucracy, a sympathy for the ordinary worker, a commitment to international cooperation and the politics of peace and disarmament, and a belief that good policy must be embedded in a knowledge of local history and culture. His democratic temper left room for educated wisdom and his Australian bias demanded stringent national self-criticism.
Stephen was also drawn to Antarctica by his interest in the social life of isolated communities. He was, after all, the emperor of one. During summers on Erith Island he had learnt all about what he called ‘incestuous island patter’, and the Tasmanian government had appointed him warden of the islands. The year he went to Antarctica, Stephen had completed a historical study of the three remote communities of Tristan da Cunha, Pitcairn Island and Cape Barren Island. Each of them, he noted, was democratic in style but dependent on individuals with ‘authority of character and vision’. His academic and practical interest – with Stephen they were always fused – was in the emergence of a moral order in such communities. And he wanted to know: what is it that caused some communities to self-destruct?
So when Stephen arrived at Casey station in the summer of 1985–86, he was intrigued to find himself in the middle of a coup. Casey had become a dysfunctional community. The previous officer-in-charge [they were known as oics] had been isolated by his fellow-expeditioners and there had been an ‘effective takeover’ of the base during winter. Stephen reflected that:
It can happen so easily, it seems. A wrong word here, a suspicion of too much clubbiness among a few there, a decision to go out bivouacking in the old Antarctic way, then when the weather blows up a bit a call over the radio to be collected in the search-and-rescue Hagglund. Suddenly authority has crumbled - the oic’s authority can only be based on his personality, anyway - and the tough guys are getting up in the mess at dinner time announcing that there will be a public holiday tomorrow, while the oic eats by himself, shunned even by his friends, in a corner.11
Portraits of the queen and Lord Casey hanging in the station were damaged and taken down. There were explosive tensions between scientists and the building workers supplied by the Department of Housing and Construction. Boffins and builders were not only out of sympathy with one another; they worked for different institutions and did not share a mission. Newcomers were ‘intimidated by the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed crew’ who gathered in the mess every evening.’ These men, it was recorded in the logbook, ‘seemed malicious in intent’.12 The decision was made to send home all those building workers not attached to the new wintering party, and to despatch them on the next available ship – which happened to be Murray-Smith’s Icebird. The ship’s volley-ball court, where the beer was stored, would be locked. There was discussion of permanently closing the bar. The troublemakers were split up among cabins. But on the voyage home, Stephen, always politically sympathetic to the worker, grew to respect these ‘hard cases’ or ‘animals’, as they had been called. ‘I was in the army as a private soldier’, he wrote, ‘and I know how they feel.’13
But the men Stephen enjoyed talking to on the ship home were not the same men who had rampaged at Casey. Something strange had happened to them down there. ‘Polar madness’, especially in the darkness of mid-winter, is an acknowledged phenomenon. It can erupt without warning. You can get it when someone sits in your chair. You can get it while they are combing their hair. It can come at any time... dishing up chow or telling them how! As a matter of fact, some have it right now. It might be as trivial as the way you dress. It might be as provocative as being served a glass of chilled urine at dinner. It might just be the sound of your voice. All these vexations have caused conflict in Antarctic communities, especially the usurpation of favourite chairs and the slurping of soup. In the 1950s an Australian had to be kept in a storage room for much of the winter after he had threatened people with a knife. In the 1960s a Soviet scientist killed a colleague with an axe because he was cheating at chess. In 1983 the doctor at Argentina’s Almirante Brown station burnt it down to force an evacuation home. But most of the harassment and hurt we don’t even know about because if it can be suppressed, it will be. Open conflict is too damaging. On the ice, minor disagreements can easily snowball. The never-ending polar night, the claustrophobia of a small community, the boredom of isolation: such an environment of forced intimacy can make the personal habits of your companions irritating and unbearable.
Stephen, the humanist, urged the Antarctic scientists and managers to pay more attention to the people of Antarctica, to their traditions, their history, their culture, their morale. He was also fascinated by the deeper structural tensions that precipitated the Casey crisis. Australia’s massive building program, he found, had undermined the old moral order of Antarctic life. First there was the physical impact, which was dramatic. ‘Yes,’ sighed Stephen, ‘we’ve gone a long way towards buggering up one continent. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t start on another.’ Walking from old Casey to the site of the new station was, he recorded, ‘the crossing of a divide between the old way of doing things in Antarctica and the new.’
Stepping into the new living quarters, the Red Shed, caused our mouths to drop open...Not all the talk we heard on our way down about our building program in Antarctica prepared us for this...It was all so bewildering in its way, such a treacherous attack on what had been my mental image of Antarctica...Our foreign observers were as taken aback as I was: what we saw could only be interpreted one way, as a massive statement by Australia that it was in Antarctica in a big way, and there to stay.14
A senior member of the British Antarctic Survey commented to Murray-Smith: ‘You [Australians] do seem to go a bit hard at making your mark. Wander around on shore and try to find the science all this is supposed to serve.’ Stephen decided that ‘these fantasy buildings we are putting up are for aggression-display, not accommodation for scientists’. He was bemused by the imperial ambitions of his nation. His extended analysis of the relentless logic of possession is well worth quoting:
Obviously the first thing you do, on landing on an isolated Antarctic coast for the first time, is to put up a flagpole. All the more so if you are an Australian, sitting on nearly half of Antarctica with the guilty look of the schoolboy who has hidden the chalk. To put up a flagpole you need a carpenter, a rigger and someone to dig the hole. To service the pulley at the top you will need an engineer. You will also need a painter, a sailor who can handle the ropes, and a seamstress to mend the flag when it gets tattered, as it soon will. You will of course need houses for these people to live in, a radio operator to send wedding anniversary messages to their spouses, a doctor to patch them up when the flagpole falls on them, a cook to feed them, a storeman for all the gear and someone to look after the generator which will warm them and light them. By this time the organisation is so big that you will need an officer-in-charge.
By now your base is a microcosm of the human condition. The flag continues to fly, and Australians at home and abed sleep more soundly knowing it is there. A country unable to organise a decent taxi service in its national capital now has an empire.
As Stephen was surveying Casey, the minister for science, Barry Jones, was admitting at home that Australia’s research effort in Antarctica was ‘falling behind’ that of other nations. Australia was on ‘thin ice’, admitted the minister, because it had devoted so much of its energy and resources to the building program at the expense of scientific research and logistical support.16 In 1984, a year after he took over ministerial responsibility for Antarctica, Barry Jones wrote himself a memorandum acknowledging that ‘We do face a massive credibility gap in Antarctica, claiming so much (42 per cent of the whole) and performing so little.’17 In the period of his ministry, 1983–87, only ten per cent of the Australian Antarctic budget was left for research. By the mid-1980s, it was commonly accepted that Australia had slipped in the scientific prestige stakes. ‘Once a pre-eminent presence in Antarctica, Australia is now heading for the second division’, wrote Jeffery Rubin in Time magazine in 1988.18
The problem was not just that the buildings exhausted the budget; they also represented a different philosophy, as Stephen had observed. Glaciologist Ian Allison considered the buildings to be ‘almost an aggressive statement that we can conquer the environment’.19 The new stations used energy inefficiently and were not well designed for waste management. The buildings made scientists a minority on stations and seemed to be monuments to distant managers. Some expeditioners felt they were too comfortable, cutting people off from the environment and the ideals that had attracted them to Antarctica, severing any last continuities with the heroic era. They discerned an Antarctic culture that was becoming more superficial and less elemental, one that was insulated from responsibilities as well as dangers, where station conversations were less about science and more about maintenance and logistics. As Stephen foresaw, the station itself demanded constant attention. As one biologist noted in 1988, ‘With the present system expeditioners can spend the year cleaning, fixing, repairing, painting, burning and rearranging things simply to sustain the station.’20 Meanwhile, outside, the silence was calling.
Murray-Smith felt he was observing a changeover of a larger kind, the loss of vital continuities of knowledge and tradition. He was moved to ponder the nature of historical consciousness on the ice. Stephen depicted Australians in Antarctica as ‘the ultimate existentialists’. He was shocked in the 1980s by the poverty of the Australian Antarctic Division’s historical imagination, and by the severity of the annual discontinuity between past and present. He found that working data was lacking for every aspect of Antarctic operations. There were no records of the extent of fast ice in the bays, no easy access to information about ground covered by field parties in earlier years, no way even that a plumber could find out the age of a building, no history books or videos available at the stations, little popular knowledge of even the most famous of Antarctic heroes, and the officer-in-charge’s daily logs of activities and achievements were, for a time, officially discontinued. And the logs, even where they did exist, remained unopened, disorganised and therefore practically inaccessible. At the start of every year, at the breaking up of the ice, the accumulation of knowledge began anew, but then only for a few months.
This is a remarkable portrait of a society without history or memory, frozen not just by temperature and energy gradients but also by a challenging information gradient, by a severe disconnection between the past and the present, a disjunction of time in a place already severed in space. While Stephen marvelled at the technical competence of the changeover, he also wondered about the meaning of it all. In the 1960s, he had written a PhD on the history of technical education in Australia, an academic inquiry that built on his radical political activism through an interest in social equity and practical knowledge.21 In Australian Antarctica of the 1980s he discerned a profound failure of technical education, because he felt that technology had outstripped the politics that had given it birth and had become disconnected from its environmental and social consequences. It was a prime example, he declared, of ‘a rogue technology’, technology that had got out of hand. He found that people were trained to perform their tasks, but not educated to understand the context in which they were working.22 Australia was building a vast edifice down south. Where were those 2300 tons going and why? During a heated debate in the ship’s bar on his return voyage, Murray-Smith challenged his companions: ‘Don’t you think ideas and ideals are important? I tell you this, if this country has a future in Antarctica it will be because people have ideas about it.’23
Something surprising was about to happen in Antarctica. It can be seen as a triumph of idealism, and Australia was to play a leading role. Tragically, Stephen did not survive to see it happen, although he was aware of its groundswell. Throughout the 1980s, with growing international pressure towards a resource regime in Antarctica, treaty nations had moved steadily towards adopting a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (known as CRAMRA). Meanwhile, an alternative vision of the future of the ice had been gathering political momentum. In January 1987, the summer after Stephen’s voyage, the international pressure group, Greenpeace, established a station on Ross Island in Antarctica called ‘World Park base’. It was the first long-term non-governmental base to be established there, and it aimed to document and expose the environmental effects of humans on the ice. Greenpeace photos of the giant rubbish dump at the US station, McMurdo, swiftly led to a revolution in waste management practices and strengthened international pressure for an environmental protocol.
In 1988, after Treaty nations had formally agreed to adopt the Minerals Convention, the Australian government invited community debate on the issue. The Department of the Environment received thousands of letters and postcards against signing the convention, and the governing Australian Labor Party began to explore alternatives. Stephen’s book must have helped swing opinion. It was published posthumously in 1988 and launched its literate and provocative self into the middle of these debates. Stephen’s intelligent voice was remarkably resonant at just the moment we needed him. In April the Australian Democrats called on the government not to sign CRAMRA. On 2 May 1989, the leader of the opposition in Australia, John Howard, announced that the Coalition parties would not support mining in Antarctica. A few weeks later, at a Cabinet meeting on 22 May, prime minister Bob Hawke committed his government to what he called ‘mission impossible’: to reject CRAMRA and argue for the protection of Antarctica as a nature reserve and province of science.
This was a huge political gamble. Management of the treaty is by consensus, and so a single dissenting nation is enough to derail an agreement. By refusing to sign, Australia was committing itself to an international diplomatic mission. Other treaty nations responded to Australia’s stance initially with disbelief and then with bitter opposition. Andrew Jackson, a policy manager in the Australian Antarctic Division, recalls that Australia was cast as a spoiler, a nation prepared to walk away from the consensus principle and threaten the stability of the treaty. Hawke’s change of mind was firmly and publicly rejected by US president George Bush (senior) and Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and it was subject to attack in his own Cabinet.
But, over a period of 18 months, the Australian government mobilised its best diplomats and won support from France, and then Italy and Belgium, and gradually built a new consensus against mining and in support of a new environmental regime. The oil spills in 1989, of the Exxon Valdez in the Arctic and the Bahia Paraiso in the Antarctic, with their dramatic images of slicked polar seas and suffering wildlife, strengthened the hand of the environmental campaigners. In mid-1991, President Bush announced that the United States, the last government to hold out against the Australian and French campaign, would finally support the no-mining position. And on 4 October 1991 (another anniversary) a Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed by the treaty nations in Madrid. It included a ban on mining in Antarctica and put into place comprehensive and legally binding measures to protect the Antarctic environment. The negotiation of the Madrid Protocol was a successful test of the robustness of the Antarctic Treaty and represented a dramatic shift from a resources view to an environmental view of the continent of ice. It was also an impressive measure of Australian influence in Antarctic politics.
In just a few years after Stephen’s death, the white continent had become green. We can read his book as a barometer of the change, recording the growing pressures and concerns. Stephen would have found the increased bureaucracy of the era of the Madrid Protocol infuriating, but he would have welcomed the new priority given to environmental protection, for environmental issues had become increasingly important to him throughout his life. And he would have relished his country’s effective and independent stance in world politics. It was proof that Australians were not just sitting on penguins.
It is a great honour to be asked to give the Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture, and to give it here in the State Library of Victoria, this wonderful centre for research, this powerhouse of ideas. Both Stephen and the Library have been kind to me. Both helped me to find my way as a historian and a writer. This is a happy condition I share with thousands of others. In the early 1980s I met Stephen in his role as editor of Overland and I also joined the Library staff as field officer. I knew then of Stephen’s interest in Antarctica and was entranced by his keen awareness of the southern ocean and its icy heart. In 2002 I had the blessed opportunity to sail south myself, also with the Australian Antarctic Division, and I was delighted to find myself even on Stephen’s old ship, renamed the Polar bird in 1996 when it passed from German to Norwegian ownership. Stephen sailed on it during one of its first summers in Australian service, and I voyaged in its final summer. I took Sitting on Penguins on board with me and lent it to some of my shipmates, most valuably to the late Peter Cook, a former minister in the Hawke and Keating governments, an advocate of environmental regulation and a wonderful conversationalist about Antarctica and world history. I took pleasure in thinking that Stephen’s book had come home, not just to his ship, where it was a stimulant of debate, but ultimately to the ice itself.
Stephen’s challenge to his shipmates in the bar of the Icebird remains powerful today. Don’t you think ideas and ideals are important? Another way of framing his question is: can strategic idealism triumph over short-term politics in ‘the last continent’? I want to end this lecture by suggesting that the international history of Antarctica offers at least these three hopeful insights:
First, that we shouldn’t underestimate the political power in Antarctic culture of excellent research. Australia cannot lose by investing in science in Antarctica. And I mean ‘science’ in the broadest sense of ideas, knowledge, wisdom and disciplined understanding. In other words, it includes the humanities, which will become an increasingly important part of understanding Antarctica. Stephen’s book recorded a moment of crisis in this commitment. Australia needs to listen to Murray-Smith’s critique and continue to build its cultural engagement with Antarctica.
The second insight is that nations at tension with one another have found that in Antarctica they could foster dialogue, cultural exchange and mutual understanding. For example, during the Cold War of the 1950s when Australia and the Soviet Union had suspended diplomatic relations, Antarctica offered one of the few arenas for normal, respectful interaction between citizens of the two nations. The cooperative relations that were quickly and easily established on the ice must have helped moderate, even if only in a small way, the scaremongering on both sides at home. So, with the political tensions of the early twenty-first century in mind, Australia could make a policy priority of assisting Muslim nations to conduct science in Antarctica.
And a third hopeful message is that Antarctica is a part of the world where strategic idealism has sometimes triumphed over short-term politics. I take heart from the fact that over the last century, Antarctic politics has surprised us on at least two occasions. One was the crystallisation of the Antarctic Treaty in the midst of the Cold War and after a period of escalating territorial rivalry. The other was the rejection of a Minerals Convention in the late 1980s and the rapid negotiation of an alternative – the Madrid Protocol. Looking back, we can see that each of those outcomes, although unexpected, grew from a groundswell of history. But neither of the outcomes was inevitable and neither was confidently foreseen by a majority of players, even on the eve of fruition. Greenpeace activists establishing World Park base in Antarctica in 1987 had goals that in some ways look modest and conservative now that we know what was about to happen so quickly.
In conclusion, then, two simplified alternative future scenarios might be envisaged down south. One is that Antarctica, ‘the last continent’, will slowly but surely follow the paths of the others. Inexorably, it will be colonised and compromised, thereby reducing its difference. Protocols are just pauses along the way. Humans, greedy, competitive and driven ultimately by market forces and raw need, will be unable to stop themselves ‘racing to the Pole’ for whatever material resources it has to offer. The other scenario is that, as the twenty-first century globe becomes more intensively inhabited and utilised, ‘the crystal desert’ will become even more highly valued as another world where different rules apply. Antarctica might become a kind of secular shrine (as Stephen Murray-Smith found it to be) where nature is humbling and remains utterly in control, and where the finest human values are given space and voice. The idealism of the second scenario is not impractical – it has so far proven to be politically powerful in Antarctica. I hope that Australia will strengthen the opportunities for it to flourish.
This lecture draws on my book, Slicing the silence: voyaging to Antarctica (UNSW Press and Harvard University Press, 2007), and fuller references can be found there.
1 Stephen Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins: people and politics in Australian Antarctica, Hutchinson Australia, Sydney, 1988, pp 163-65.
2 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, pp 100-101.
3 Barry Lopez, ‘The gift of good land’, Antarctic Journal, vol xxvii, no 2, June 1992, pp 1-5.
4 John McLaren, Free radicals: of the Left in postwar Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2003, pp 48, 350.
5 Response to a military interviewer, 1944, quoted in McLaren, Free radicals, pp 48, 350.
6 McLaren, Free radicals, p 330.
7 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, p 195.
8 Stephen Murray-Smith, Indirections: a literary biography, Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland, Townsville, 1981, p 60.
9 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, p 113.
10 Murray-Smith, Indirections, p 14.
11 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, Hutchinson Australia, Sydney, 1988, p 105.
12 Barry Martin, ‘Casey Station, Antarctica – report of the 1986 officer-in-charge’, internal report, AAD, Commonwealth of Australia, p 17.
13 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, p 234.
14 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, pp 91-2.
15 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, p 116.
16 Editorial, ‘Australia in thin ice’, Canberra Times, 5 January 1986; Editorial, ‘Thin ice’, West Australian, 31 December 1985; ‘Australia is falling behind in Antarctic’, The Examiner, 31 December 1985; Jane Ford, ‘Lack of research could freeze us out of Antarctic Treaty’, The Australian, 13 January 1986.
17 Barry Jones, Getting Antarctica on the domestic and global agenda, Second Annual Phillip Law Lecture, Hobart, 2003. Dr Jones’ lecture quotes his 1984 memo.
18 Jeffery Rubin, ‘White Australia’, Time, 30 May 1988.
19 Allison is quoted in Keith Scott, ‘A presence first, and science comes later’, Canberra Times, 22 March 1989.
20 Graham Robertson, ‘Report on the biology program at Mawson’, 1988, internal report, AAD, Commonwealth of Australia, 1989, p 37.
21 McLaren, Free radicals, p 230.
22 Stephen Murray-Smith, Behind the mask: technical education yesterday and today, The 1987 Beanland Lecture, Footscray Institute of Technology, Melbourne, 1987, pp 11, 18.
23 Murray-Smith, Sitting on penguins, p 125.