Bruce, South Orkneys and the Argentine

26 Aug

On the Scotia expedition of 1902-04, Bruce made a Base in the South Orkneys. From here he led a disciplined scientific programme, which included a considerable emphasis on meteorology and magnetology.

When, after the first year he sailed north for refuelling he decided to by-pass the Falklands, coal was too expensive at 49/9d per ton (the expedition funds were virtually used up) and he sailed on to Argentina where coal was half the price. He ‘regretted very much that owing to this I was driven out of a British Colony and forced to refit in a foreign country’.

He was however determined that the work he had started should continue. He wanted the South Orkneys to be a permanent observatory. However in London, the Foreign Office and the Lords of the Admiralty were uninterested in small islands in the South Atlantic of no obvious strategic importance and Bruce had little hope of getting long-term financial support from private backers, so his only option was to approach the authorities in Argentina. On arrival he wrote to the resident British Minister, Mr W.H D Haggard emphasising the importance of maintaining the observatory and suggesting that the Argentine government should continue the work. The Argentine Government responded with remarkable alacrity, publishing a Presidential Decree that authorised the Director of the Argentine Meteorological Service, Dr Walter G Davis, to ‘take over the installation offered by Mr William S Bruce in the South Orkney Islands and to establish a meteorological and magnetic observatory thereon’. The transfer was officially agreed. Dr Davis wrote to Bruce to thank him. The British Foreign Secretary The Marquess of Lansdowne approved the decision. So, the door was thrown open for more than a century of claim and counter claim. Argentina makes a claim on the basis of a continuously occupied scientific base, i.e. a permanent settlement; this claim is strengthened by the Argentineans designating one of their staff as postmaster for the South Orkney Islands – a postal service is internationally recognised as demonstrating effective administration of a territory over which a claim has been made. The stamp that was used was the stamp of the Argentine republic, British claims really stem from the ‘Letters Patent’ of 1908 (amended in 1917), which created the Falklands Island Dependency of the South Orkneys, South Shetlands, South Georgia and Graham Land and a section of Antarctica south of 50° S latitude and between the 20th and 80th degrees W longitude. This forms the legal framework of the current claim.

Bruce believed in international cooperation between scientists. There were other explorations in the Antarctic in these years and Bruce aimed for cooperation and amalgamation of results between the scientists. Indeed the expedition’s meteorological work was pivotal; thousands of meteorological recordings were made. These laid the foundation to our current understanding that the behaviour of sea-ice in the Weddell Sea affects the amount of rainfall in Southern South America: It can be argued that Bruce was the father of the modern network of coordinated work and observations in Antarctica.

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