Hot heads, cool re­la­tions on the Antarc­tic track

Madi­gan’s Ac­count: The Maw­son Ex­pe­di­tion: The Antarc­tic Di­aries of CT Madi­gan 1911-1914

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

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

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