1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica, by Chris Turney

review published on October 31, 2013. Reviewed by Erin Britton

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In 1897 an exasperated John Campbell declared that a “very large area of the surface of our small planet is still almost unknown to us. That it should be so seems almost a reproach to our civilisation.” The problem seemed to stem from lack of knowledge about what lurked at the bottom of the world; as Chris Turney notes, “almost everything south of 50 degrees was described [on atlases] as an Unexplored Region and the vast space left embarrassingly blank.” While famous names such as David Livingstone, Alexander von Humboldt and John Hanning Speke had brought reports of Africa and South America to a Europe hungry for tales of adventure and exploration, very little progress had been made into exploring Antarctica since land was sighted for the first time in 1820.

However, 1912 was the year in which this all changed and, as such, Chris Turney convincingly suggests that it should be seen as marking the height of the Heroic Age of Exploration. Curiosity about Antarctica reached its apogee between 1910 and 1914 when five teams of intrepid explorers set out on the greatest race of the age, a competition to see who would be the first to travel beyond the edges of the known world and conquer the treacherous, frozen wastes of Antarctica.

As well as a thirst for scientific knowledge and a desire to better understand our planet, the race to conquer Antarctica was also fuelled in no small part by a desire for national glory as each of the five teams heading south represented a different country. Pitted against each other [and with more than a little help from their teams] in the quest for immortal exploration glory were Captain Robert Falcon Scott from Britain, Roald Amundsen from Norway, Douglas Mawson from Australia, Wilhelm Filchner from Germany and Nobu Shirase from Japan. Although it was Roald Amundsen who ultimately triumphed, 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica reveals that there was far more to the story of the race for the South Pole than that.

The adventures involved on the exploration of Antarctica proved just as exciting to the general public in 1912 as they do today. Each of the five teams who headed south went to great lengths [although not always with great success] to publicise their journeys through books, lecture tours, newspaper articles and interviews, records, and photographs so as to enthral the people back home. Turney uses the first person accounts of these larger-than-life explorers to bring his narrative to life in a powerful and informative fashion. While the tragedy that befell Scott’s expedition and the success of Amundsen’s are still well known today, the other three expeditions have rather faded into obscurity and so to hear of their journeys, hardships and triumphs in their own words is an excellent way to recapture the public’s interest. Turney also discusses the cynical manipulation of the news about Scott’s expedition and the way that certain of the nation’s scientific giants thought it best to keep some of the truth of Antarctica away from the general public.

Chris Turney is able to use his own polar experience to discuss the circumstances that the explorers found themselves in and the kind of privations that they has to endure in the quest for scientific understanding. Although modern visitors to Antarctica have far better supplies and equipment, they too have to face temperatures cold enough to shatter teeth, winds that can easily knock a man down and avoid crevasses in the ice from which there would be no escape. To travel across Antarctica is to encounter as much danger as wonder; as well as fighting the elements, the explorers had to combat starvation, frostbite, snow blindness and the occasional bout of polar madness. It’s frankly amazing that anyone made it to the Pole and lived to tell the [coherent] tale.

1912 is a gripping account of the race to the South Pole. Chris Turney masterfully succeeds in bringing out the different personalities and motivations of the principle explorers and recreating their experiences. For a well-researched, detailed historical account, it still manages to be an exciting page-turner that keeps readers hooked as the differing expeditions head south with varying degrees of success.


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