Art.II.—On Antarctic Exploration.
[Read before the Otago Institute, 14th May, 1878.]
In a presidential address delivered to the members of this Institute, in February, 1875, Mr. J. T. Thomson cursorily alluded to the subject of antarctic exploration. This subject had been under my own notice for some time previously, and I should probably have asked permission to read a paper upon it but for Mr. Thomson's remarks, which seemed to render it needless for me to do so just then. Other persons, I dare say, have had their attention directed to so fascinating a topic, although, after searching such official records of the proceedings of the different Philosophical Societies in the Australian colonies as are available, I have been unable to discover any paper dealing with it, or any allusion whatever to the matter, save that contained in Mr. Thomson's address. Yet it seems to me that there is no subject better fitted for the consideration of a scientific society in these colonies, and more particularly of the Otago Institute, than the best means of exploring the South Polar Seas. They form a weird and strange region almost unknown to man. They have been unvisited by any exploring expedition since 1843; and no discoveries appear to have been made by whaling vessels, or at all events none have been recorded, to supplement those of Sir James Ross; so that, while during the last five-and-thirty years our knowledge of the North Polar region has been immensely augmented; while Africa has been crossed and re-crossed; while the telegraph line has been carried over the then unknown interior of Australia, absolutely nothing has been done towards clearing up the mystery which enshrouds the regions lying within the antarctic circle. It has been estimated that a portion of the globe, three times the area of Europe, here lies unexplored. The entrance to this field of enterprise, too, is within a few days' steam of Otago.
It is of the highest geographical importance to know whether an antarctic continent exists or not. Cook's researches in the latter part of the eighteenth century dispelled the old belief in a Terra Australis, but
subsequent discoveries revived the idea in a modified form, and it is so long since anything was done towards exploring the antarctic regions, that a hazy notion that a mass of land surrounds the South Pole seems again to be diffusing itself, and we frequently find “the antarctic continent” spoken of as though it were an ascertained fact, whereas its existence is a mere hypothesis, although not a groundless one. What has really been discovered are three large tracts of land, many islands, and two or three pieces of land which may either be islands or the outlying points of a continent. The longest and best known of the three large tracts just mentioned is that lying to the south of Cape Horn, its various parts being named respectively Louis Philippe Land, Palmer Land, Graham Land, and Alexander Island. It is fringed with islands, of which the South Shetlands and the New Orkneys are the principal groups. In the same hemisphere, but due south of port Dunedin, lies Victoria Land, discovered by Sir James Ross in 1841, the coast line of which was further explored by him in the following year. This land is remarkable for being the site of an active volcano, 12,367 feet high, named by Ross Mount Erebus. It is situated in the high latitude of 76° 6′ S., and is in the vicinity of an extinct volcano, called by Ross Mount Terror. Ross traced Victoria Land from the 70th degree of latitude to nearly the 79th, the precise latitude attained by his ships being 78° 10′ S., or nearly four degrees higher than any navigator had reached before. It would appear that Victoria Land, to the south of New Zealand, forms a sort of bight; but what checked Ross's progress, and prevented him ascertaining the precise contour of the land at this latitude, was a solid barrier of ice, without flaw or fissure in its face, from 100 to 300 feet high, trending to the north and east. He sailed along this barrier for 450 miles, without being able to find an entrance or to see any land rising behind it during a great part of the distance, so that, although Ross himself seems to have been of opinion that the barrier screened a body of land, it cannot be positively asserted that such is the case. Victoria Land, may either at the point where Ross met the barrier, trend to the South Pole, or it may, covered by the ice barrier, stretch away to the eastward to meet Alexander Land, between which and Victoria Land the only known Land is Peter 1st Island, on the 91st meridian of west longitude, discovered by the Russian navigator, Bellingshausen, in 1821.
Turning now to the westward and south of Australia, we come to the important discoveries of our countryman Ballemy, the Frenchman D'Urville, and the American Wilkes. These consist of the Ballemy Isles, Sabrina Land, and Adèlie Land. The two latter form a coast line, if we are to credit Wilkes, extending from 154° 27′ E., to 97° 80′ E. long.; but Wilkes's
authority is not of the best, since he seems to have seen a great deal more than sailors of other nationalities could do. Indeed, Ross actually sailed over one spot where Wilkes affirmed that he had discovered a chain of mountains. Without, however, placing too much reliance upon Wilkes's alleged discoveries to the westward, we have the concurrent testimony of himself, Balleny, and D'Urville, that an extensive tract of land does exist in this direction; Balleny Isles, lying considerably to the eastward (lat. 66° 44′ S., and long. 163° 11′ E.), and so forming a connecting link between these and Ross's discoveries. It is noticeable that Cook, on his second voyage, was unable to get so far south as this body of land by four or five degrees, being stopped by the ice, although he was on the right track for its discovery.
Still proceeding westward, we next meet with Kemp Land on the 60th, and then with Enderby Land on the 50th meridian. These were discovered by our countryman Biscoe, in 1831–3. Whether Kemp and Enderby Lands are islands, or the outlying parts of a large mass of land, we do not know; but it is noticeable with respect both to them and the discoveries just mentioned that they all lie adjacent to the antarctic circle.
I have now summarised all that is actually known of the so-called “antarctic continent,” from which you will see that, while there are indications which might lead us to infer a connection between the principal discoveries that have been made, it may well be that the most extensive of these lands are only the chief members of an archipelago. Each hemisphere offers its special attractions to the explorer. In the western, the vast space between Ross's discoveries and Alexander Land, extending over about 60° of longitude, remains to be examined. Cook tried to penetrate its recesses, but could get no farther than 71° 10′ S., which he did on the 107th meridian, when he was beaten back by the ice. Ross made a similar attempt on his second voyage, and actually crossed the antarctic circle in longitude 156° 28′ W., or fourteen hundred miles to the eastward of the place where he crossed it on his first voyage; but he was afterwards driven to the west by the pack, and reached his lowest latitude in 161° 27′ W. There is next the gap between Louis Philippe Land and Enderby Land. This has been tried by various navigators. The most successful was Weddell, who, in 1823, got as low down as 74° 15′ S. on the 35th meridian (W.), and found there a sea clear of ice. Weddell accomplished this great feat in a brig of 160 tons burthen, accompanied by a cutter of 65 tons. He would have sailed still further south but for the lateness of the season, which rendered it prudent to turn back. D'Urvillo, however, following on his track, could not attain to even
66°; and Ross, on the same meridian, was stopped by an impenetrable pack at 65° 13′ S. Ross afterwards sailed eastward, and reached the latitude of 71° 30′ S. in 14° 51′ W. Still further eastward, on the second meridian west longitude, Bellingshausen reached 69° 45′ S. None of these navigators met with land at the extreme limits of their voyages. Finally, it is necessary to ascertain whether a connection exists between Victoria Land and Terre Adélie.
The practical object which I have in view is to urge that, as soon as circumstances permit, an expedition should be fitted out at the joint expense of the Australian and New Zealand governments for the purpose of following up Ross's discoveries, and ascertaining whether land does or does not exist between Victoria and Alexander Land. Such an enterprise would doubtless be outside the routine work of these governments; but is never-theless one to which they might properly devote their attention, unless, indeed, we accept the theory that Englishmen who happen to reside in a colony thereby become emancipated from national duties, and are entitled to consecrate their lives to money-making. The cost would be considerable, but when we reflect how many expeditions, which have made important discoveries in the Arctic Seas, have been despatched from England, the United States, and Germany, at the expense of private persons, it seems absurd to contend that it would be beyond the means of these rich Colonial Governments. What is wanted are two auxiliary steamers, of from 300 to 400 tons burthen, officered and manned from the Royal Navy, and provisioned for three years, so that if a harbour could be found the ships might be able to winter in the Antarctic Seas. The natural starting point of such an expedition would be Port Chalmers. The expedition would sail about the middle of November, and would be able to continue its explorations until the end of February, when it must either look for winter quarters or return home.
It is possible that the vessels might not be able to winter in the ice, for one of the peculiar difficulties connected with antarctic explorations is that no harbour has yet been found where vessels can go into winter quarters as they are accustomed to do in the arctic regions. Hence Ross, on each of his three voyages, was only able to remain in the Antarctic Seas during the summer season, and could not therefore utilise the winter for land expeditions. He was also compelled to navigate in sailing ships, and without any of the appliances for securing the health of the crews and the safety of the vessels, which have since almost raised Polar exploration to the rank of an exact science. Nevertheless, his discoveries were of a remarkable character, and in reading his narrative one can easily perceive
how much more he would probably have done had he been aided by steam. On his second voyage, when he attained the highest latitude ever reached, he was 56 days in the pack, which was 1000 miles through, and by the time he had got out of it and reached the ice barrier it was time to return. With steamers he would probably have pierced the pack in two or three weeks. In the event of the expedition being unable to winter in the ice, I should propose that the explorations be renewed in the next and following years, thus making three attempts to accomplish the objects in view.
It cannot, however, be denied that the antarctic explorer has a harder task to encounter than his northern comrade. The cold is more intense; storms more frequent; while a constant heavy swell of the sea adds to the dangers of the navigator. Describing the state of the ice barrier on February 9, 1841, Ross says, “gigantic icicles depended from every projecting point of its perpendicular cliffs, proving that it sometimes thaws, which otherwise we could not have believed, for at a season of the year equivalent to August in England we have the thermometer at 12°, and at noon not rising above 14°; this severity of temperature is remarkable, also, when compared with our former experience in the Northern Seas, where, from every iceberg you meet with, streams of water are constantly pouring off during the summer.” There is not the smallest trace of vegetation visible in these inhospitable regions, even in the middle of summer. The most southerly spot where vegetation has been seen is Cockburn Island, one of the South Shetland Group, situated in latitude 64° 12′ S.; but it only consists of a few mosses, algæ and lichens. No land animals have been observed. Whales, seals, penguins, petrels, and skua gulls are the only visible living creatures in the highest latitudes that have been reached. The winter is rather longer and the summer shorter than in the Arctic Seas. These peculiarities would of course prove great hindrances to land explorations, which would, even if they could be undertaken at all, have to be made under different and more arduous conditions than those attaching to land journeys in the North Polar regions.
The determination of the existence, or non-existence, of an Antarctic Continent is the principal problem to be solved by a South Polar expedition. It must, however, be also borne in mind that the geographical discoveries which have already been made are of the baldest nature. Certain lands are known to exist and that is all. They have never been explored. Louis Philippe Land and the other land to the south of Cape Horn are the only Antarctic Lands of whose geography and productions we have any real knowledge, and that is very limited. But the explorer's foot has never trodden Victoria Land, Terre Adelie, Sabrina, or Enderby
Land. Outlying islands alone have been visited, and then for the briefest period. The main land has been seen from a distance bursting through the antarctic ice-cap and that is all. It is of the utmost interest to know whether all or any of these lands are inhabited by human beings. Their entire separation from the great continents of Asia and America, and the want of even the limited means of subsistence afforded by the North Polar regions for mankind, seem to forbid the supposition but are not conclusive, and nothing but actual research can settle the question.
A knowledge of the geology of those regions would be of deep interest, but it is noticeable that, according to such observations as could be made, the lands visited by Ross's expedition were wholly volcanic in character. There was an entire absence of sedimentary formations, whose examination in the North Polar regions has yielded such useful fruits to science. Even in zoology a new expedition could hardly be barren of results, for Ross's enriched the naturalist's catalogue considerably. Ice action, too, is playing such an important part in modern geological speculations, that it is a little surprising that such a novel field of study as the Antarctic regions has not been taken up before, inasmuch as ice here assumes highly characteristic forms, quite different from those it presents in the north. Meteorological and magnetic phenomena can also be studied under peculiar advantages. The precise object of Ross's expedition was to take magnetic observations, and to reach the south magnetic pole. Ross determined the position of the latter, but did not get within 160 miles of it. I could, however, traverse a large part of the domain of physical research, pointing out how it would be enriched by an antarctic expedition, but I have said enough to prove that such an expedition would be likely to produce scientific fruits of the utmost value. Its probable commercial results must also not be overlooked. Ross discovered plentifully-stocked whaling grounds, and a rich bed of guano on Possession Island, situated in lat. 71° 56′ S., and long. 171° 7′ E. Upon this island there were scaly penguins in myriads, and the same bird was seen in immense numbers in other places. This species of penguin attains a large size, the birds often weighing as much as 60lbs. or 70lbs. a-piece, and, as they yield a valuable medicinal oil in considerable quantity, their capture ought to be commercially profitable. Seals, too, swarm in the lower latitudes, where they have bred undisturbed during countless ages. Indeed, when we begin to contemplate the vast impetus which might be given to the commerce of New Zealand and the neighbouring colonies by a thorough exploration of the Antarctic Seas, the imagination is apt to wander into boundless regions of potential wealth, only awaiting the enter-
prise of man to become available for his use. I shall not, however, be tempted into this attractive ground, but shall content myself with pointing to its allurements.
I have not entered upon the details of the proposed expedition, because they can be better discussed in a separate paper. My present aim is to direct your attention to an important but neglected subject in which New Zealand is specially concerned. This colony has contributed nothing to the cause of geographical discovery. Australia has done much, and the adventurous feats of travel which have been performed by Eyre, Sturt, Stuart, Leichardt, Burke, and other explorers, are such as to justify the belief that their names will be perpetually preserved, not only in local but in the national memory. It is deeds like these which redeem the colonies from the reproach of being engrossed in the selfish pursuit of wealth; and it is by these means alone that we shall become entitled to rank in the eye of the future historian with our fellow-countrymen in the older parts of the empire. We pride ourselves much upon our industrial successes; upon the vastness of our flocks and herds; upon the immense crops of grain we raise; upon our budding manufactures; the roads, railways, and bridges we have built; and all the other manifestations of our material progress; but these things are for ourselves alone, and can claim no higher praise than appertains to a man who devotes his life solely and successfully to the acquisition of a private fortune. We have as yet done nothing for mankind, nothing for the intellectual advancement of our race; we have laid upon our backs none of those mighty but glorious burdens which fall to the lot of those who occupy the lofty station of citizens of an ancient and illustrious State.
The physical characteristics of New Zealand have virtually shut its settlers out from the field of geographical exploration, so far as the country itself is concerned; but, on the other hand, it is the most convenient base for operations in the noble arena of research which lies open for our enterprise in the South Polar Seas. No real obstacle stands in the way. Experienced officers and men could be got in plenty from the Royal Navy. The Home Government would no doubt willingly lend their services, and the arctic service is so popular in the navy that we should only have to pick and choose from amongst the volunteers. I propose that the vessels should be manned from the Royal Navy, because it was admitted by all competent authorities on the subject that naval discipline tends materially to the success of polar exploring expeditions, and is a sure safeguard against such misfortunes as those which befel Captain Hall's expedition in the ‘Polaris.’ The scientific staff, however, should consist exclusively of
colonists. They would, of course, be easily obtainable. The question of money is the real one, but the difficulty there lies not in our want of funds, but in the unwillingness of the Assembly to vote money for any purpose which is not likely to prove of immediate practical utility. The cost, however, when divided between several colonies would fall lightly enough upon each, and I cannot bring myself to believe that either the colonists of New Zealand as a body, or their representatives in the General Assembly, would begrudge the expenditure of £15,000 or £20,000 (for our share would probably not exceed that sum) upon a scientific work which would shed lasting honour upon the colony.