Episode 3, Part 2 | The White Continent?

In part 2 of The White Continent? Alok Jha delves further into Antarctica’s colonial history with historian Dr Ben Maddison, to discover some untold stories of the continent. 

Ben’s book Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration  looks at the the discovery of Antarctica ‘from below’, focusing on the sailors, sealers, whalers, cooks and engineers, who were all essential in bringing the upper-class ‘hero explorers’ to the continent and supporting their expeditions. He is currently writing A History of the Southern Ocean, gazing out on his subject matter from Bruny Island, Tasmania, where he lives. When not writing, Ben engages in his lifelong passion for exploring wild places, and has pioneered climbs in Australia, Greenland and North Wales. 

Listen to the podcast below

Why does Antarctica matter to you?

"It's a great example of how history can make a fabricated view of the past, which is so in variance with what we need to know. It's a good example of the role that historians can play in the modern world - we don't really have a proper understanding of Antarctica without a historical understanding."

Dr Ben Maddison, 2021

Further Reading

Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration, 1750-1920 - Empires in Perspective by Ben Maddison

Between 1750 and 1920 over 15,000 people visited Antarctica. Despite such a large number the historiography has ignored all but a few celebrated explorers. Maddison presents a study of Antarctic exploration, telling the story of these forgotten facilitators, he argues that Antarctic exploration can be seen as an offshoot of European colonialism.


The podcast discusses the little known histories of black and indigenous people from Arctic regions being brought to Antarctica as indentured labourers and as polar experts. The first photograph is of Yasunosuke Yamabe and Shinkichi Hanamori, Ainu members of the Shirase Antarctic Expedition 1910-12, brought south as polar experts. The second photo shows a Cape Verde Islander at a whaling station on the island of South Georgia.

Credits: Thanks to Hilary Shibata for the image of the Ainu members; Ian B Hart, Whaling in the Falkland Islands Dependencies 1904-1931 Pequena, Herefordshire, 2006, p.168.

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Episode 3 Part 2 Transcript The White Continent? Part 2

Alok Jha (00:02): Let me take you on a journey to the coldest place on earth and it's last and greatest wilderness on A Voyage to Antarctica. Hello and welcome to A Voyage to Antarctica brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, I'm your host, Alok Jha. In part one of his special two-part episode, we heard from Dwayne Fields about his life and work as a Polar Explorer. Today, I'm delving further into Antarctica's colonial history with historian and climber Dr. Ben Maddison. Ben's book, 'Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration' looks at the discovery of Antarctica from below. It focuses on the sailors, the sealers, whalers, cooks and engineers, who are all essential in bringing the upper-class hero explorers to the continent and supporting their expeditions. He's currently writing 'A History of the Southern Ocean' gazing out on his subject matter from Bruny Island in Tasmania, where he lives. When not writing Ben, engages in his lifelong passion for exploring wild places and has pioneered climbs in Australia, Greenland and north Wales. Ben, let's talk about your own trips to Antarctica. How many times have you been?

Dr Ben Maddison (01:29): I've probably been, say yeah, probably 25, 30 times.

Alok Jha (01:35): Does it get boring going to see the same old white space?

Dr Ben Maddison (01:38): Well, it's never the same old white space. On the one hand, in the general picture, it is the same and it's, it's like going to see just a friend because it's like, because it makes you feel good. It's like, oh, that is fantastic. I haven't seen you for a while, but it's absolutely wonderful to see an iceberg again. You know, that majestic creature, the iceberg that will eventually melt and become, you know, a little crystal of ice and then finally gone. So, there are those parts of going to Antarctica that are never old. And it's never the same Antarctica during climate, not during, I mean, there's no such thing as during climate change yeah, with climate change, Antarctica is changing what we see there changes and going there for long enough, you can actually start to physically experience that yourself which is interesting to be a part of, that magnitude of change. 

Alok Jha (02:57): Is there a trip that stands out for you?

Dr Ben Maddison (02:59): Of course, one of my most memorable trips, is when we were on that crazy stuck in the ice trip in 2013. And that always sticks in my, my mind as one of the most beautiful trips I've ever had because I always wanted to stop one of those tourist ships that I was on right in the middle of the ice and just inhabit it for you know, more than three hours in one particular place. And that's what happened on that trip and as, as well as many other things. So that is certainly one of my most memorable trips into Antarctica because we stopped. And I thought that was a fantastic thing to have accidentally happened.

Alok Jha (03:47): Now, in this podcast series, we've discussed the history of Antarctica at great lengths and talked about the heroic age and the explorers. A lot of the history is white and male. Obviously, that's not the whole story though. And we've touched on some aspects of that already, but can you give us a sense of your research into the history of Antarctica and how you're trying to broaden the white males sort of stories that, that the world knows?

Dr Ben Maddison (04:19): I first became interested in engaging in this sort of re revisionist history of Antarctica when I was employed as a historian on Antarctic tourist ships. And I started reading all the Antarctic histories I could get my hands on, because I didn't really know too much about Antarctic history. And I was absolutely amazed, as a professional historian with a background in labour and working-class history, I was absolutely amazed about the incredible absence from the history books about Antarctica of working people. It was as though the ships sail themselves to Antarctica, the sledges will haul across Antarctica just by Phantom beings, that just, it just happened. And so my, my instinctive intellectual and political response was to, to investigate more deeply the underpinnings of the heroic achievements of the, of Antarctic history and Antarctic exploration.

Alok Jha (05:39): And so what kinds of people are we talking about because you're right, when you hear about the Scott or Shackleton or Morson expeditions I suppose there's a mental shortcut, you think, oh, well, these guys just made it, to the continent by themselves and sail their own ships. And of course, that's not true.

Dr Ben Maddison (05:59): Well, it's not, it's not true at all. And so I'm looking at the sailors who sailed the ships, and then quite often those sailors became the sled haulers and the sort of the proletarian strata of the Antarctic land-based expeditions. But I'm also looking at a whole range of other people that never really make it properly into the histories of Antarctic exploration. Like the people often boys who were sealers in the early 19th century, late 18th, early 19th century. So up to about 1925, the sealers, who were a part, a big part of the early human engagement with Antarctica. And in many ways, they were explorers as well. And we, we often don't know the names of most of these people. There were thousands of them in the early 19th century, early 18th century, sorry. And they, we don't know their names. But nonetheless, they were there, they were part of the process. And then we, we, we leap forward to the early 20th century and they, those anonymous proletarian masses they're in the sealing industry. So we're looking at sailors, we're looking at the, the people who, who worked as cooks and mechanics on the, in the early 20th century and a whole range of these sort of people who never, never get named really.

Alok Jha (07:39): We've been hearing from an Explorer, a British Explorer called Dwayne Fields in this series. And he's, in some respects, a nontraditional Antarctic Explorer. He was born in Jamaica. He comes from a working-class background in London. The kinds of backgrounds that don't traditionally go off exploring in the polar regions, the sort of the polar explorers that, that, that the UK is familiar with are the sorts of middle-class, upper-class almost aristocratic explorers let's say that you hear about the stories you're telling me now about the, the, the sealers and the working people who went to Antarctic in the heroic age, you know, there's parallels. And I, I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about the kinds of places that, that the people you're talking about came from, where did they, how did they end up going to Antarctica? What was their roots to that place? And how is it that we don't know about them?

Dr Ben Maddison (08:40): So, so if, if we take well, some of the very first working-class explorers into the Southern regions not necessarily into Antarctica, but into the Southern deep, close into Antarctica, go way back to Magellan's time. There were actually prisoners, convicts who were, were taken up from the jails and put onto the ships as conscript explorers, basically. So we obviously don't know their names, but we, we know very much that they were sort of coerced into, into undertaking these roles. Now we jump forward several centuries up to the late 18th and early 19th century with the sealing industry and what we do know is that these - and they were mainly male at this point - these young boys, and I'm thinking about one young lad who was a part of a group of shipwrecked sealers on the islands in the, in the early 1820s who came from Essex. And he was 16 years old, and he spent years and years, four years shipwrecked on the islands, before his rescue. And a lot of the people who worked on these ships were very down and out. They were, the sealing industry, was the home for, as far as I can see, for the people who really had very little options in, in British society, in American society. So the other interesting group of workers that come into the picture here in the sealing industry and they reappear again in the whaling industry in the early 20th century, are a group of workers who were brought from the Cape Verde islands, the sealing ships stopped at the Cape Verde islands in the early 19th century for salt, for curing the seal skins. And they also picked up young indigenous workers on the ships, and they took them down to Antarctica. And we don't know much about them, but we do know that we have a few examples of, or evidence that they were there. And that's in the early 1820s, 1840s, and then by the early 19 hundreds, early 20th century, they are back there again. And they went back there in a remarkable way in the whaling industry on the Antarctic peninsula and South Georgia. One of the things that fascinates me about this group of workers is that they are Africans, they are anonymous, we don't, we don't know their names, and they were described by the British inspector of wailing on the Antarctic peninsula in 1923, as slaves. These were enslaved Africans working in the British whaling industry in 1923, Antarctica.

Alok Jha (12:08): That's not something you hear about very often.

Dr Ben Maddison (12:12): That is not something you hear about very often for probably good reasons. It's hard to create a romantic view of Antarctic history when you when you include in it, these kinds of experiences and these kinds of circumstances in which people found themselves in Antarctica.

Alok Jha (12:54): Given the fact that these stories are lesser known. I wonder, how did you go about uncovering them? Where did you go for your information about these sealing expeditions and the people who were on them? It sounds as if they were almost, they were, they weren't even seen as people and they weren't recorded there. There's no stories told about them. There's no books written about them.

Dr Ben Maddison (13:16): Well, it's quite interesting because there is a paucity of information about, about the people that I'm interested in and that's no, and there's no, it's no accident that there's a paucity of information. All the naval powers required all the personnel to surrender - when the expeditions had returned - all their information, that they had gathered, notes that they had taken, diaries they'd kept, pictures they had drawn and remarkably, even up until the early 20th century photographs that they had taken on their Antarctic employment. So, there's an intentional effort to control the information that is flowing out from Antarctic expeditions to the wide world.

Alok Jha (14:12): Who are the organizations?

Dr Ben Maddison (14:17): The organisations are the exhibition leaders and the financiers, the people who finance the expeditions that they're controlling. In the first place, it was the British Admiralty that required their, all their personnel to surrender up to the Admiralty any records that they had created, any artifacts that they had created during the period of service.

Dr Ben Maddison (14:42): So the question then of how do you get the information is a very interesting one, because there's an intentional effort on the part of the authorities to control what information comes out. But nonetheless, there are always a few cracks in that plan. The plan never is completely totally effective. So for example, one of the most crucial expeditions in Antarctic history was James Cook expedition in 1775, when the second expedition went very close to the Antarctic continent. And one of his sailors, an Irishman named John Mara, when the expedition got back, wrote up an account of his, of the expedition. And it was highly critical of the authorities. It was highly critical of the aristocratic tendencies, of many members of the hierarchy of those of that expedition. And so that was, that is available. And you can, that is now reprinted. So that's one way of getting into it. A number of the sealers who fell on really hard times after their period of sealing, left accounts of their time as sealers, because they were trying to make this a way of making an income in the middle of the 19th century. This is when there's a bit of a vogue for, for 19th century exotic adventures in Europe and in England. So they would publish their, they'd write their accounts of their period of shipwreck or their periods of life as a sealer and and give us many details about the lives of, of people who are at the bottom of the Antarctic hierarchy.

Alok Jha (16:46): Could you paint a picture of what life would have been like for some of these people on, on these expeditions? I mean, we've, we've talked about some people being coerced onto these ships as slaves or, or as, as prisoners, we talked about people being left to row along unknown coastlines by themselves to look for, to look for seals. And this sounds like a very hard life that either you're coerced into, or you do if you've got no other options. I mean, is that the picture you get from your research?

Dr Ben Maddison (17:24): Well, what is remarkable about the accounts that come from the lower decks, if you like, that from John Mara in 1776, right through to the members of Morson's expedition in the 1911, 12, 13 period, they all displayed incredible awareness of the class basis of, of Antarctic exploration. And they also display an incredible awareness of the fact that totally against the whole heroic and Antarctic romantic vision, they would rather be virtually anywhere else, but Antarctica, they don't want to be working these ships. And they don't want to be spending days breaking the ice from the sales, breaking the ice from the decks, so that the ship can sail. They don't want to spend all their time up to their waist in freezing cold water. They don't want to be wearing anoraks they have to waterproof with paint. They don't want to be doing this kind of work incredibly harsh and the worst was well, the sealers were employed on their ships in terrible conditions, often in the middle of Antarctic winters or Antarctic storms with bare feet having to pay for their own footwear, quite often not getting paid at all, if the cargo went rotten or the ship sank or anything like this, or if they didn't find any seals, they wouldn't be paid at all. So very, very harsh conditions of work. When you get up to the land-based sledging expeditions, where the heartland of the heroic achievements, the Scots, the Shackleton’s, the Ahmansons, the Morsons you know, there's a whole group of people underpinning those expeditions, who do the cooking on these expeditions. They do the sledge hauling on these expeditions. They do the maintenance of equipment on these expeditions. So the distinction between classes was really quite stark.

Alok Jha (20:53): The issue that's come up repeatedly in this podcast series about the history of Antarctica is that we know about the stories of the heroes, we know about the stories of the sort of aristocratic men, the white men mostly, who went to the continent, but clearly there were women, there were clearly people of colour who had been to the continent. You've talked about some of those already, and I wonder if we could just go back to what the history is of people of colour and women on the continent. But from a more realistic perspective, rather than you know, just the ones that we know have been written about.

Dr Ben Maddison (21:35): Prominent contemporary individuals like George Washington Gibbs Jr. and Barbara Hilary, and then Dwayne Fields whose examples allows us to sort of tell a bit of a different story about Antarctica. But before them, there was a big backstory of, of nonwhite connection into Antarctica. And, and you can take it right back if you wanted to, into the histories of Australian indigenous peoples, indigenous peoples in the Pacific and New Zealand with oral traditions of explorers that go deep south from in the middle of the Pacific and in this is sort of in, in 700, in the current era and come back with reporting things that sound like icebergs. So it goes, it can go way back there. And then there's the whole indigenous observations in Southern Australia and Southern New Zealand about what is the meaning of this, of the Aurora Australis, the Southern lights? What does that mean about what is down there? But more tangibly or more close to our own time, but you go back to the sealing industry and the whaling industry, and both those industry, being global maritime industries, brought people of color into wherever they went, so that there was a big connection between South Africa and the sealing industry and the sub Antarctic islands and other islands around there, and all its little mentioned, there's no doubt that some of the people who were there were of African heritage. It is well-known now that many people in the early whaling industry were from the Pacific islands and from New Zealand and from places in Australia as well. So that, that is that connection goes way back. And then we come up into the heroic era and the very first, the very first land-based expedition to Antarctica, 1898 to 1900 or 1901, took with them to indigenous people from what was called Lapland in those days, the Sami people as experts as polar experts, and those people brought their knowledge of how to how to survive and how to operate in polar regions. The Japanese expedition, the Shirase expedition in 1910 also brought two people from what is now the Russian island with them as polar experts and the whole paraphernalia of the heroic era expedition, or much of it was based on indigenous knowledge that was appropriated in various ways by the European and in the Shirase case, the Japanese expedition.

Alok Jha (25:13): Could you talk a bit more about George Washington Gibbs. The history books say that he's in 1940, the first African-American man to set foot on the continent. We've talked already in this conversation about how there were people from Africa who, who were on that continent before. How does he fit into this story?

Dr Ben Maddison (25:35): My view is that individuals like George Washington Gibbs Jr. and Barbara Hillary, so those people had unimaginable struggles as people of colour, to break into the white men's club, that a woman of color to break into the white men's club of Antarctica, unimaginable struggles. But nonetheless I think I resist bringing them completely into the story in the sense that do they become the new people of colour heroes. So I'm, I'm against the whole notion of heroism and the heroic narrative of Antarctic history and Antarctic exploration. So these individuals, I'm not trying to diminish the struggles that they had to do what they did. But if we think about Antarctic history as a series of prominent individuals, then I think it leads us inevitably back into the heroic discourse. So that's my starting point for thinking about George Washington Gibbs and Barbara Hillary and Dwayne Fields. So a century before them, there were people of colour, and I suspect there were probably even Chinese people who were a part of the sealing process in Antarctica.

Alok Jha (27:25): How should we think about these untold stories? You've uncovered many, there are probably scores more people that we don't hear about when it comes to the traditional views of Antarctica and I just wonder, you know, it's very easy to, I suppose it's not easy, I suppose it's very simplistic to just think, oh, well this is just another episode of whitewashing history. These things in history are always told by the victors, and we know that, but how should we think about these things now, what should we be doing to try and bring out these? And why would we do that?

Dr Ben Maddison (28:06): Yeah. What's the point, what's the point of making these observations? I mean, my take on this is that it's important to know that the so-called heroes were there with the support of a huge number of people that were providing them with the kind of the basics of life, basically their achievements were, were built on, on the, the labour and the shoulders of an anonymous, you know, massive people. And why is it important for me? That's an important observation, because I think as we in this era of hyper individualism, the idea of the hero is becoming so powerful and maybe it has been for, you know, since the 1960s. It's become so powerful and it attributes success to an individual personality, an individual set of qualities that I think is a real really misleading view of how society operates. And these people weren't extraordinary individuals who engaged in Antarctic heroic expeditions as leaders, they were individuals of their societies, and we always need to bear in mind, I think, that the individuals are always products of their context. So I think it's important to, to know more fully what that context is. And then when we come to think about Antarctica in current times, for me, it's one of the most profound facts about Antarctica, it's one of the very few places on earth, that was a true - what we know in Australia as a Terra Nullius - that's to say an unknown land, not unoccupied, but unopened land was also unoccupied as it happens. And I think that it has had profound consequences for how Antarctica sits with us today for reasons that I think are to do with the fact that Antarctica was a continent that has never had to be conquered, that never had to be an indigenous population dispossessed. It's ownership by the powers that have come to be stewards over. It has never been morally compromised by a violent process of disposition. That is always the story elsewhere in the world. And I think that it's on this basis and only on this basis, that it's been possible to create Antarctica as the continent of peace. You cannot imagine a continent that had been riven by ethnic race and genocidal processes could ever be described as a continent of peace.

Alok Jha (31:50): That's very profound. And I think that's a very interesting way of looking at it because I feel like the story you're telling also tells, says that even though this is a continent of peace, getting to that point still required the labour and the bodies of many, many people, indigenous people, people of color who have been forgotten in getting there.

Dr Ben Maddison (32:20): Yeah, absolutely, and that's one of the reasons that I want to have their presence in the Antarctic story you know, much more evident. Yeah.

Alok Jha (32:33): It's just, it's a strange type of colonialism isn't? It isn't colonialism in the sense of going to a place and displacing the people who live there, but taking people with you to then forget about them, to conquer new places. I don't know how to think about it. Why does Antarctica matter to you?

Dr Ben Maddison (32:51): You wrote me this question of why does it matter to me? I'm thinking actually does Antarctica matter to me? I was thinking well, is Antarctica any more special than any of the other places, amazing places on the planet? And I think the answer I've come up with is 'Yes'. Antarctica does matter to me because it is such a great example of how history can make a fabricated view of the past, which is so variance with what we need to know. I mean, I think it's a really good example of the role that historians can play in the modern world, because we can, we can look at Antarctica and say, well, you know, we don't really have a proper understanding of it without having a historical understanding. Of course, you know, there are the tropes of Antarctica, the wilderness, now that trope is becoming less and less viable because it's becoming less and less a wilderness. Before COVID, the annual visitation numbers to Antarctica were about 40,000 or more. And I think that has increased from about 4,000, 15 years before that. And yet it is still an incredible capsule on global climate history. And it's still an incredible place to dream in, and it's an incredible place to break your heart in with its beauty.

Alok Jha (34:28): And that's a lovely place to end. Thank you very much for your time.

Dr Ben Maddison (34:38): It's my very great pleasure.

Alok Jha (34:41): Thank you for listening. A Voyage to Antarctica is brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. To find out more about our guests, including photos and videos, head to our website at www.ukaht.org, or follow our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. If you enjoyed this episode, please do listen to part two of The White Continent in which I'll be delving further into Antarctica's colonial history and discovering more untold stories of the continent with historian, Dr. Ben Maddison. This podcast is part of the trust's Antarctica Insight program supported by the Arts Council England, the Garfield Western Foundation, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office. A Voyage to Antarctica was presented by me Alok Jha and produced by Jessica Norman. Ben Hewis is digital producer and the music and sound design is by Alec Hewes. See you next week.