The heroic cold war

Four Antarctic Years in the South Orkney Islands
José Manuel Moneta, translated by Kathleen Skilton and Kenn Back
2017, Bernard Quaritch
440 pages, plates, paperback

WHEN schoolchildren in Britain once excitedly learned about the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration, one name seemed to hover above all others: Ernest Shackleton.

The polar explorer is synonymous with this golden period of adventure and derring do that, for the British at least, seemed to confirm the confident sense that anything was possible for a global empire.

Faint echoes of the risk-taking heroism of Shackleton and his ilk as metaphors for British exceptionalism can still be found in the rhetoric of Conservative politicians and the press today as they mourn the passing of that empire and try to revive notions of “Global Britain”.

But more thoughtful scrutiny of the “Heroic Age” could play a valuable role in modern classrooms in lessons on history and geography, among other subjects. For the exploits of this period were, above all, trans- or multinational, representing one of the great human endeavours to explore a vast wilderness that can be likened to modern space travel.

First and foremost, Shackleton – who was beaten to the South Pole, along with the tragic Scott, by the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen – was not even British, but Irish, and his first expedition was somewhat overshadowed when the Welsh Australian Edgeworth David reached the Magnetic South Pole. Second, this period of exploration from 1909–12, had been preceded by or had included Scottish, Belgian, German, Swedish, French, Japanese, Australian and New Zealand expeditions. Third, the aspiration to explore the unforgiving southernmost continent – a mercilessly cold, dry and windy desert where temperatures have reached a breathtaking –95 °C – was by no means confined to the distant imperial powers and their possessions, as if they were the only peoples with the wherewithal to explore the wilderness.

This is why Four Antarctic Years in the South Orkney Islands is such a valuable book, because it draws attention to the brave men from countries outside the historical narrative hitherto shaped by imperialism, such as Argentina.

In Argentina, schoolchildren have for generations excitedly learned about José Manuel Moneta and his trips to the South Orkneys, which are peri-Antarctic islands distinct from the Antarctic continent proper yet nonetheless covered by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. For those like me who are not familiar with this area, the small South Orkney archipelago lies halfway between South Georgia and the northernmost promontory of the Antarctic continent that is about 500 miles south of Argentina and Chile.

Four Antarctic Years in the South Orkney Islands is Moneta’s fascinating record of the four winters he spent there between 1923 and 1929 – a total duration of four years and nine months – and this English translation is peppered with photographs from the period that take the reader back to a very different era.

It is fair to say that Moneta is to Argentina what Shackleton is to Britain, and this volume – the brainchild of editor Robert Headland, who himself was once stationed on South Georgia – is the first English translation of Moneta’s account of his trips to the islands, which remain the only autobiographical account of the South Orkneys in any language.

Moneta was sent to a meteorological observatory that had been established on the islands – and was vested by Britain to the control of Argentina, whose navy currently runs it – as a technical officer. His visits during this period were by no means the end of his engagement with the Antarctic region, and he contributed subsequently to Argentina’s diplomatic claims, as well as visiting the islands again to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his first expedition.

That it took 78 years for this book to reach an English-language audience – it was first published in Spanish in 1939 as Cuatro Años en las Orcadas del Sur and so far has reappeared in 12 editions – speaks volumes about how the theme of heroic exploration has been monopolised by what were once considered “the great powers”, and especially Britain.

It may seem churlish to make a political point, but testing such narratives is important, because doing so can help to improve our understanding of rival claims to territory in this part of the world that, through ignorance as much as hubris, have led to conflict in the past. The essential sub-text of heroic imperial adventurism was to strengthen a territorial claim that could ultimately yield valuable resources by putting feet on the ground and planting a flag, something that becomes apparent when we read Moneta’s account.

We must not forget, for example, that the South Orkneys are still cherished by both Britain and Argentina as part of a complex set of sovereignty claims frozen by the Antarctic Treaty, yet occasionally – as in 1982 – heated to boiling point by politics. Moneta himself was a strong proponent of Argentine sovereign claims in the region and alludes to the rivalries several times in the book, but also to Argentina’s own tardy efforts to bolster its own claims.

He wrote in his prologue to the tenth edition (1958): “The four years that I spent in the Antarctic were rewarding and productive; not only for me personally, but also for the idea that began to develop in my mind after completing my first expedition in 1923; namely ‘to discover and establish Antarctica for the people of Argentina’. Effectively that is what happened. Four decades ago nobody had a definite concept of what comprised the Antarctic; very few people had seen in action what, at that time, was a thriving whaling industry. The fingers of one hand would give the number of people who had the foresight and intuition to predict the untold mineral riches that lay in the high frozen peaks which emerge from the vast, ice-covered South Polar continent. There was still no concept that all this was Argentine. Most Argentines knew nothing at all about the Antarctic. That ignorance and lack of awareness of our southern assets was exploited to the full by foreign powers. Covertly they explored, established bases and began exploiting certain resources. Just outside our own front door, the Observatory of our base in the South Orkneys over which our flag flew, foreigners levied taxes on oil from the blubber stripped from whales in our territorial seas, right under our noses.” [pp. 25–26]

Given this sub-text, Moneta’s story reinforces the simple historical fact that it is Argentina that has had the longest continuous operating presence in the area of any country; that Argentina’s South Orkney observatory is the oldest permanently inhabited place in Antarctica and includes the oldest Antarctic building that remains in continuous use (today known as Casa Moneta and the museum of the Orcadas station); and that it is Argentina that has provided the longest continuous scientific data series from the region, spanning 11 decades.

In that sense, this book calls upon us to think carefully about our own historical narratives and how these have been shaped to emphasise the primacy of our claims. Recognising the heroic efforts of Moneta and his passionate commitment to this little-known territory may go some way towards achieving the durable reconciliation in this windswept, oft-forgotten region that continues to elude us.