The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This photographic equipment was used by Leo Arthur Cotton (1883-1963) during Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition on board the sailing ship ‘Nimrod’. Cotton travelled to Antarctica as a meteorological observer as part of the expedition’s scientific team, alongside fellow Australians Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson.  By 1908, photography had become increasingly popular and was no longer exclusively the domain of professional photographers. For the time of its manufacture, this was a light and portable camera and would have been relatively easy to use.  Working in the harsh Antarctic environment would have been challenging though, with the camera needing to be cleaned with benzene before it could be used outside. For a public hungry to know more about the frozen south, photography was invaluable and early polar explorers took advantage of it to both publicise their experiences and bring the remote region to life.

Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), having had his first taste of Antarctica as a member of Scott’s Discovery Expedition, was fascinated by the south.  Invalided home after the abortive attempt on the South Geographic Pole (much to his dismay), Shackleton was determined to lead his own expedition.  On his return to England, Shackleton had been feted as a hero, a fame that he quickly tried to capitalise on in order to secure expeditionary funds.  By 1907, he had managed to secure the support of his then employer William Beardmore and set about making preparations for his British Antarctic Expedition. Working with very limited funds, Shackleton purchased the ‘Nimrod’, a rather battered, old wooden steamer and set about selecting a crew and equipment for the expedition.

On 1 January 1908, the Nimrod headed south from the New Zealand port of Lyttleton with a team of twenty-three men.  Shackleton planned to use the Discovery’s old Ross island base to launch his attempts on both the South Geographic Pole and the South Magnetic Pole.  Scott was dismayed to learn of Shackleton’s plans and pressured him to work outside of the Ross Island area; claiming it as his own field of work.  The expedition therefore made its way further east along the Great Ice Barrier, only to discover that a large section of the ice shelf had broken off creating a large bay inhabited by hundreds of whales.  The ice conditions made it unsafe to camp in the area and Shackleton was forced to break his promise to Scott and establish his base on Ross Island at Cape Royds.  Leaving a wintering party of fifteen men ashore, the Nimrod then headed off and returned to Lyttleton.

After a winter spent exploring the area around their camp Shackleton was ready to forge ahead with his attempt to reach the South Geographic Pole.  On 29 October, Shackleton accompanied by Frank Wild, Jameson Boyd Adams, and Eric Marshall set off on foot using ponies to help transport their equipment and provisions. Their route to the Pole was arduous and soon took its toll on the ponies, with their final one lost in a crevasse as they climbed the Beardmore Glacier.  By late December the team were suffering from the effects of exhaustion, hunger and altitude sickness. Shackleton accepted defeat; they would not be able to make it to the Pole. After a final push south to 88˚23′S, the party turned back.  The team had got within one hundred miles (one hundred and sixty kilometres) of the Pole.  The return to Cape Royds was a test of their endurance in the face of starvation; their food supplies stretched to the limit.  On 28 February 1908, frostbitten and close to death, Shackleton arrived at the Ross Sea base, returning just in time to catch the Nimrod home.

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Currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

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