Hot heads, cool relations on the Antarctic track
Madigan’s Account: The Mawson Expedition: The Antarctic Diaries of CT Madigan 1911-1914
Edited by JW Madigan Wellington Bridge Press, 608pp, $75
HISTORIAN and author David Day recently has questioned the judgment of Douglas Mawson while leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14. Among other things, Day suggests the two fatalities among the men and Mawson’s own near-death were ‘‘ largely the result of [Mawson’s] ambition and relative inexperience. The caution that he should have shown was thrown to the wind.’’
At least one man on the expedition, Cecil Madigan, expressed similar sentiments in his private diaries, now published in one volume as Madigan’s Account.
Educated at the University of Adelaide, 22-year-old Cecil Madigan chose to defer a Rhodes scholarship to accept an appointment as meteorologist with Mawson’s Antarctic expedition in 1911. The young scientist must have been excited by the possibility of establishing his professional reputation on this large expedition, which was to involve intensive scientific activity, including geology, biology, cartography, on a relatively unknown continent. His diary reveals something of a personality clash with Mawson. With all the unrealistic expectations of an ambitious young man, Madigan seems to view Mawson’s leadership role as being ‘‘ first among equals’’.
Mawson, on the other hand, appears to believe in a more aloof style of leadership that is less egalitarian and informal than many of the men would have preferred.
The relationship between the two men sharply declined in early 1913, when Mawson’s three-man trekking journey failed to return in time for the ship home. Madigan agreed to lead a small group that stayed behind to wait or search for the Mawson team. When Mawson soon returned to camp bearing the news of the death of his two companions (one through falling into a crevasse along with vital supplies), Madigan became sick with grief and resentful of the survivor.
According to Madigan, Mawson ‘‘ made the inexplicable mistake of travelling for 300 miles along the ice falls close to the coast, which everyone knows is the worst crevassed area one can find down here!’’
Understandably devastated at having to remain in Antarctica for several more months,
is Madigan was furious: ‘‘ in this show Mawson first and the rest nowhere’’.
The reader should be cautious in interpreting such passages, written in dire circumstances. It is clear from the diaries that Mawson did care for his men, while being a little temperamental and bossy. His concern is shown in Madigan’s diary entry of April 16, 1913, which details the aftermath of a row between Mawson and himself: ‘‘ He [Mawson] asked me to come to his room, and talked a long while, and apologised in a way . . . I felt I would like to get a few things off my chest, so I gave him a few home truths, and finally we shook hands.’’
Madigan returned to civilisation in 1914, serving in World War I and subsequently becoming a geology lecturer at the University of Adelaide. Mawson and Madigan worked at the same institution: the pair even went on a car journey together in the outback and published a joint paper in the Geological Society Journal. Whether Madigan, as an older, more experienced man, held the same views about Mawson as he did in 1913 is open to question.
Madigan’s Account is a handsome hardback book, with many fine photographs from the expedition and more recent photos from the remains of Mawson’s hut. We also are presented with copies of letters and expedition ephemera such as menus, making the experience more real for the reader.
As is the nature of regularly kept diaries, there is a certain amount of repetition and long stretches where not a great deal is happening except routine work, hanging about and ‘‘ skylarking’’ to ease the boredom. It would have been appropriate to edit out a lot of this material, as it will be of limited interest to the general reader.
The overly comprehensive treatment of Madigan’s diaries also means there is little space for providing context. Unfamiliar terms and references employed by Madigan are not explained, there is little to help us understand the planning, purpose and achievements of the expedition, and the diary undoubtedly would be easier to digest if the reader were made more fully aware of the social and political nature of Australia in the 1910s.
Nevertheless, the publication of Madigan’s diaries in this well-produced book is a credit to the publisher and the tireless of work of the editor. They are to be congratulated for helping us discover fresh perspectives on the pioneering days of Antarctic exploration.
Cecil Madigan, fourth from left, and members of Antarctica expedition in 1912