William Speirs Bruce and Autism

7 Aug

I have now spent some years reading, writing and thinking about Bruce. Bruce led an important Scottish expedition to Antarctica on his ship ‘Scotia’. Subsequently he spent years building up the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh, which, he hoped would be a permanent national establishment. In addition he started the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate. The syndicate aimed to prospect for minerals in the Arctic and in this work he became thoroughly enmeshed in geopolitics as he petitioned the British Government to annex Spitsbergen

I have come to the conclusion that his (considerable) financial and logistical problems were exacerbated by the fact that he exhibited characteristics that today would be considered as part of the autistic spectrum. These characteristics significantly complicated his dealings with other people.

Autism is of course a wide field, but reasons for considering Bruce belonged in this field are:

Bruce’s loyal friend R.N Rudmose Brown (who wrote a biography of Bruce after his death, an appreciation of his many talents), wrote that even with him (Rudmose Brown), there was never a complete confidence: ‘There seemed to be a barrier that no man and certainly no woman ever crossed. He seldom if ever spoke of his family and childhood, rarely of his private concerns & never of his philosophy of life’.

Bruce clearly did have problems with social communications. His letter to his supporter, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Dr. Hugh Robert Mill, illustrates this. ‘I was intending to tell Mrs. Mill and yourself the other day that I was intending to marry, but when the time came it seemed even more difficult to say so than to reach the South Pole. Such is the case however andI should not like the event to take place without having told you’.

His poor communication skills would have made him irascible – he had quarrels through out his career and seems to have been unaware of the effect that his outspoken comments made on recipients. These quarrels could go on for years. A colleague from student days wrote that he was ‘as Prickly as the Scottish thistle itself’. Another long term associate and supporter (who regularly sent money to help the Bruce family out), wrote ‘I hear Bruce has had a row with Keltie. I do not know what about but I think it is a great pity that he should “fall out” with so many people. Even when one is slighted it is just as well to keep quiet. If a man is doing good work and he is respected he is bound to come out on top sooner than later’.

During his work he had ongoing problems with the British Government, which must have been worsened by his regular outspoken and written criticism of the government’s lack of support for his Scottish demands when compared with its comparative generosity to the English explorers Scott and Shackleton. The government’s refusal to annex Spitsbergen again promoted his public criticism. This, and his (politically unwise) harnessing of his demands to Scottish nationalist sympathies must have alienated the authorities and affected their response to his regular demands for financial backing.

He had scant insight into the demands of family life – even when he was ‘with’ the family he was not ‘in’ it. When he was at home he remained doggedly immersed in his current project, totally ignoring other demands on his time. He would spend days in his study, immersed in his work, ignoring the trays of food left outside the door. He was prepared to sail on his Antarctic expedition the ‘Scotia’ with no pay, apparently without thought of the effect on his wife, struggling to make ends meet, isolated from friends and family, and with a small baby. Although concerned about his children he spent little time with them. The marriage did not last.

Finally, he had a collecting mania. Apparently every scrap of paper he had ever received was in his office after his death!


21 Jul

It is interesting that the frozen Arctic, long considered to be of no commercial or strategic importance, is now increasingly significant in world geopolitics. It was a prescient move when Russia claimed Franz Joseph Land in 1919. The potential benefits of the region seem to multiply. Currently an Eastern Arctic oil strike has boosted Russia’s aim to turn the region into an important source of energy.
Oil has been found in a field below the LAPTEV Sea. This sea lies on the northern coast of Siberia. To the west is the Taymyr Peninsula which is topped by Severnaya Zemlya and to the east are the New Siberian Islands, an archipelago in the extreme north of Russia on the North of the East Siberian coast
To say the least, this is a challenging area for oil extraction. The climate is one of the most severe of the Arctic seas. The air temperature is below 0 °С for 11 months a year on the north, and 9 months on the south. The average temperature in January, the coldest month, varies across the sea between −31 °C (−24 °F) and −34 °C (−29 °F) with a minimum of −50 °C (−58 °F). In July, the temperature rises to 0 °С (maximum 4 °С) in the north and to 5 °С (maximum 10 °С) in the south. Strong winds, plus blizzards and snowstorms are common and snow can fall in the summer The sea is characterized by a temperatures, which ranges from −1.8 °C (28.8 °F) in the north to −0.8 °C (30.6 °F) in the south-eastern parts). The distance to Moscow is over 4.000 km.

But the point is that successful extraction will reduce Russian dependence on her current oil sources such as the oil fields in Siberia, and reduce the effect of Western sanctions after the Ukraine crisis – apparently cooperation with America fell through, secondarily to sanctions after the military intervention in the Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

To facilitate transport, a nuclear- powered icebreaker is being built in St Petersburg. This will be the biggest and most powerful of its kind in the world.

There are airfields and bases on the offshore Arctic areas and President Putin is quoted as saying that the Arctic is an extremely important region that will ensure the future of his country. Russian capabilities will increase as she develops the Arctic Region

William Speirs Bruce campaigned energetically for the annexation of Spitsbergen. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, would have no part in this, writing in 1917 that there was no sound reason to consider annexation – this would require an armed force to safeguard the claim, a claim that, by itself would not prevent the island being used by enemies of Britain. In fact in 1918, in the post W.W.1 Versailles Treaty, the dawning international consensus was that Denmark would ’get’ Schleswig (southern Jutland), Sweden, the Baltic Islands, and Spitsbergen would become part of the Kingdom of Norway, i.e. given away without any consideration of its mineral wealth or strategic value. In world politics British interests were focused on the East, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
How times change!

Norman Einstein-ownwork


25 Jun

At Cape Adare in Antarctica, a New Zealand Antarctic Conservationist has unexpectedly found a watercolour, painted by Edward Wilson nearly 120 years ago.
Wilson came from an artistic family; he was an instinctive artist from early childhood. His mother Mary Agnes, who taught her son the rudiments of drawing, was a cousin of the artist Frederick William Yeames (A.R.A.), known particularly for the painting ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father? the painting depicting a small Royalist boy being interrogated by Cromwellians in the reign of Charles I,
As a child Wilson wanted to be a naturalist. A dayboy in Cheltenham College, he spent hours and hours at a farm leased by his mother, observing, recording and sketching its teeming profusion of wildlife – he had a famously quick eye for spotting the small inhabitants of hedgerows and became a remarkable field naturalist.
He studied medicine; initially at Cambridge for preclinical work, followed by clinical training at St George’s Hospital London. Throughout, his interest in art continued. He was a follower of Ruskin, England’s greatest art critic and later he greatly admired Turner who, Ruskin wrote, represented nature with an accuracy that made him unique.
His artistic ability was recognised and appreciated when he was in St George’s; he drew hospital pathological specimens for publication in ‘The Lancet’, he was given the rare privilege of unrestricted entry to the Zoological Society grounds, his drawings of fellow students were cherished.
He was always a keen ornithologist–it was said that he could not only recognise each bird song, but identify what that bird was doing as it sang! He received advice from established bird artists and illustrated ornithological publications, here his aim was to make his bird pictures lifelike – he hated paintings of stuffed birds. ‘No one would think of painting preserved flowers –why on earth do they paint preserved birds?’
Near the end of his medical training he became ill with a chest complaint thought to be tuberculosis. Amazingly, in those days patients were not necessarily isolated and initially he went to a house party in Norway where he continued painting. His symptoms persisted and he was sent to a Spa in Davos (where patients without a temperature sat at communal tables, no doubt passing their germs nicely around)! and it is here in 1899, that it is thought that he painted the image found at Cape Adare, a dead Tree Creeper (a European woodland bird). The painting had the initial T on it.
Josefin Bergmark-Jimenez the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust conservationist, who found the painting, was reported as being unable to stop looking at it, she was thrilled by its vibrancy. But the provenance of the painting was not immediately clear until Bergmark-Jimenez attended a lecture on Wilson in Canterbury University, when she immediately recognised Wilson’s authorship. This may well have been the lecture I gave at Canterbury University on the 8th March 2017! I do hope so!
Apart from naturalist subjects, Wilson was an ‘exploration’ artist. ’The Discovery’ expedition of 1901 was probably the last expedition where artistry was the main method of producing accurate records of the previously unknown continent and Wilson made extensive drawings and paintings of the Antarctic interior He had accurate colour recall, never using a colour grid and when Scott checked the distances shown in his paintings, he found them to be astonishingly accurate. When ‘Discovery’ reached England Wilson’s exhibited paintings were viewed by thousands of visitors fascinated to learn about the unknown continent.
Wilson was, undoubtedly, one of the most outstanding artists to have worked in the Antarctic.

New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust


12 Jun

In 1903 William Speirs Bruce departed his winter base in the South Orkneys and sailed to Argentina for refueling and refit of his ship the Scotia. On arrival in Buenos Aires he offered the continued control of his South Orkney meteorological and magnetic huts to Argentina and agreed to transport Argentine scientist to the site to continue the scientific work under the leadership of his meteorologist Mossman. His rationale was firstly, to ensure that his team’s detailed work would continue and secondly, to further his dream of a coordinated complex of meteorological stations in and around the Southern Atlantic. His motives were purely scientific.
On arrival at Buenos Aires Bruce contacted both the British First Minister
Mr. W. Haggard and the head of the Argentine Meteorological Service – a Mr. Walter Davies. Haggard contacted both the British and Argentine governments and the Argentine authorities responded with remarkable alacrity, thanking Dr. Bruce and promptly accepting the offer within a few days (incidentally about three months before Haggard heard from the British authorities)!
The Argentinean government clearly knew what they were doing. They allocated the work of ‘Postmaster’ to one of their staff. Stamps were issued representing the South Orkneys as an Argentinean suburb. This was a most significant decision -the presence of a postmaster is an internationally recognized part of demonstrating effective administration and authority over any claimed and occupied area. The South Orkney station has now been continuously manned by Argentina for the past 114 years. Bruce’s decision thus opened the door for the claims and counter claims in the region that continue to this day.
Argentina’s claim is based on her continued occupation of the station. British claims to the area are via the Falkland Islands Dependencies, a complex constitutional arrangement for administering British territories in Sub-Antarctica and Antarctica. In 1908 the Dependencies were listed as: South Georgia, the South Orkneys, South Shetlands, and the Sandwich Islands, and the territory of Graham’s Land, an area south of the 50th parallel S, and between 20° and 80° W. longitude. The agreement was modified in 1917 when it was recognized that this definition could be interpreted as a claim on Southern Argentina and Chile! Also explicitly, to extend to the South Pole.
Argentina’s challenge to the Dependencies came first in the late 1920s and then more extensively in the second-world war. In response, in the height of World War II, in the Antarctic Summer of 1943/44, Britain established what became a permanent occupation called ‘Operation Tabarin’. This was primarily a political statement — the Admiralty and Colonial Office aimed to strengthen British territorial rights to the sovereignty of the Falklands Island Dependency, whilst the Foreign Office aimed at minimizing disruption to Britain’s long-standing ties with Argentina and, particularly at that dark time, to ensure the shipment of war-time meat supplies.
Tabarin was the basis from which Britain’s subsequent post-war, long-term involvement in Antarctica developed. The Falklands Island Dependency Survey was renamed the British Antarctic Survey in 1962, its northern boundary changed to 60°. The organization now operates three research stations in the British Antarctic Territory: year round at Rothera, Halley, and summer only at Signy. In addition there are two summer field support stations: Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu.
In addition to continuous climatic, oceanographic, geographic, ice, atmospheric and space weather observations, findings include the record of a volcanic eruption from under the Antarctica ice sheet, which occurred over 2.000 years ago. This was, apparently, the biggest eruption in the last 10,000 years. The volcanic ash was found on the ice surface. A world-changing observation in 1985 was the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This led to an international reduction in the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting substances (ODS) which are mainly responsible for man-made chemical ozone depletion and which were used, for example, in fridges and inhalers.
Halley Research Station is built on a floating ice shelf in the Weddell Sea. The current Halley (VI), is the world’s first re-locatable research facility and indeed has been moved recently because of huge ice cracks in the ice shelf.
Signy is in the South Orkneys Island where Bruce’s work was based. It is a laboratory for biological research open from November to April each year (the southern hemisphere summer).
Bruce is not forgotten here. The Scotia Sea in the South Atlantic is named for his expedition. Also the research community named a laboratory on Signy Island for him in 2016.

Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror

19 May

When I qualified in medicine we knew about chromosomes; curving long threads of DNA that carry our hereditary information, about germ cells, about mitosis when chromosomes duplicate to create daughter calls.
We did not know about forensic DNA profiling, also commonly referred to as DNA fingerprinting. This should not be confused with the fingerprinting techniques carried out at countries’ borders. DNA profiling came into general use in the 1980s, developed by Sir Alec Jeffreys. It is a process whereby DNA samples are matched. Each sample shows everyone’s unique properties but also shows characteristics that are similar to their relatives. Comparison of the DNA of bones from archeological specimens with samples of the DNA of known relatives, may allow for identification of the deceased.
This process is now to be used to gain further information about the causes of the deaths of the crews of HMS Erebus and Terror. This famous expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, set out from Britain in 1845. Its aim was to find a way through the North West Passage, a route that many believed would dramatically reduce the transit time between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and open up a new trade route.
None of the 129 crew members were to survive. The ships became trapped in heavy ice. Sir John and twenty-five of the crew died in 1847. The ships were abandoned in April 1848 and the remaining crew (104 men) began their desperate trek from the northwest coast of King William Land towards the mainland.
Precise details of their fate remained a mystery despite numerous expeditions to ascertain their fate, although for years fragments relating to the expedition were found frozen in ice. Erebus herself was finally located in 2014 in the Queen Maud Gulf, below King William Island, her ship’s bell was recovered in November. In September 2016, the wreck of HMS Terror was found submerged in Terror Bay, which is off the southwest coast of King William Island. Both ships were in remarkably good condition despite being lost in the icy wastes for nearly 170 years.
There is a poignant memorial to the disaster in Waterloo Place in London, which I have often studied. On the memorial are the names of all the crew members. Many theories have been advanced to explain the catastrophe: lead poisoning, scurvy, infection, notably tuberculosis. The ships were well stocked with provisions but clearly food ran out for some of the parties; Dr. John Ray who investigated the fate of the Franklin expedition in 1854, reported stories of cannibalism.
Now, researchers have extracted and sequenced DNA from the skeletal remains of 24 crew members from the expedition. The samples were from numerous different sites including King William Island. Thirty-seven tooth and bone samples were tested and DNA extracted from thirty-two and it is hoped that the work may help actually identify the crew by comparative DNA (if living descendants can be found), also that information about the cause of death will be obtained. The study was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Four of the samples were identified as females; unexpected, as the ship’s documentation did not record women on board. Two possibilities relating to this finding are a) the DNA has degraded over the 160 years since the crew were lost or b) that there were women actually serving in the ship dressed as men – this is thought unlikely, it would have been difficult for four women to successfully concealed their identity. Another study found zinc deficiency in toenails of one of the mummies.
The expedition remained in the public conscience for years. The suggestion of cannibalism apparently infuriated Charles Dickens who collaborated with his friend Wilkie Collins on a Franklin based play The Frozen Deep. Landseer’s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes, shows man ‘proposing’ in the form of a shipwreck and God ‘disposing’ in the form of two bears. But the discovery of Franklin’s ships is one of the most important archeological finds in exploration history. Finding the ships has been likened to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister in 2014, emphasized the importance of Franklin’s ships in Canadian history – the expedition laid the foundation for Canada’s Arctic control- all the waterways in the North –West Passage are claimed as Canadian.

the ships used by Sir John Franklin published by Illustratated London News 24 May 1845/Getty images


29 Apr

William Speirs Bruce visited Franz-Joseph Land in 1896 as a member of the Jackson–Harmsworth Expedition (1894-97), eager to further his apprenticeship in the natural sciences within the icy environment of the Arctic.

Franz-Joseph Land is an archipelago of nearly 200 islands. At 80 -82 °N, it was and remains, ice bound for much of the year. The Franz-Joseph Expedition, which he joined, aimed to survey the Land and, if possible,find a way to the North Pole. This expedition became newsworthy, when Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen (who had not been heard of for three years and were assumed to have perished on their attempt to reach the North Pole),reached Franz -Joseph Land on their southern retreat, a month before Bruce arrived. Nansen was supportive to Bruce who always wanted to return to the icy archipelago and who was persistently concerned about ‘foreign’ interests in the Arctic Islands. He was dismayed at the Russian annexation of Franz Joseph Land in 1914. The Russian steamer ‘Gherta’ reached the archipelago on the 18th August and hoisted the Russian flag.

Bruce was prescient in sensing the huge potential of the Arctic Islands. The
Arctic is now thought to account for 13% of undiscovered oil, 30% of undiscovered natural gas and 20% of natural gas liquids – possibly one-quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas and worth in the region of $30 trillion (£21.1 trillion).

Russia has built bases on Franz Josef Land to the concern of the US and other nations.These bases can house about 150 people for up to 18 months and are equipped with every facility including, it is said, nuclear- ready warplanes. This reinforces both Russia’s defense capability, and her other interests in the region and could be considered a threat to Finland, Sweden, Norway and other countries interests in the Arctic region.

In 2015 Russia submitted a revised bid (the first turned down), to the United Nations for territories in the Arctic claiming over 463,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles from her shore. President Putin has visited the archipelago, again emphasising the need to protect Russia’s economic and security interests in the Arctic.Russia has an active Arctic Brigade.

According to some estimates, the Arctic summer ice cap will completely vanish by the year 2050. This will improve access to the Arctic resources, hence bringing more challenges.

Clearly the region is a political hot spot, demanding international statesmanship and co-operation, hopefully without confrontation.

Fridtjof Nansen said ‘The great thing is to move forwards responsibly, steered by the best knowledge we can gather’ Lets hope this happens.

Image Fox News


18 Apr

It is a remarkable thought, when Russian – American relations are at a low point, that Alaska was once part of the Russian Empire. Russia sold Alaska to the United States 150 years ago. If Russia were in possession of the territory today the geopolitical situation would be unrecognisably different.

The first Russian settlement in Alaska was founded in 1784. This was followed quickly by other settlements. The attraction was sea otter fur, which was greatly in demand. The otters in Alaska had thicker, glossier and blacker fur than those on the Pacific N/W coast and California i.e. more sought after. British settlements in Alaska at about this time consisted of a few scattered trading outposts though Captain James Cook had sailed and charted the west coast of North America on ‘Resolution’ in 1778. (One of his midshipmen was George Vancouver who was to return and chart the west coast, hence Vancouver and Vancouver Island).

Over the next century, Russia lost the Crimean War (1853-56), her monopoly on trade was weakened by the British Hudson’s Bay Company, which set up a post on the southern edge of Russian America in 1833, there were concerns about a potential gold rush with an attendant influx from America, finally, the supply of otters diminished drastically.

These financial difficulties and low profits, coupled with the desire to keep Alaska out of British hands contributed to Russia’s willingness to sell its possessions in North America.Czar,Nicholas II also hoped the deal would result in a closer relationship with the United Stated (and a potential union against Britain). On August 1, 1867 U.S. Secretary of State, William Seward, approved the purchase of Alaska for $7,200,000. The United States flag was raised on October 18, 1867 (now called Alaska Day); the region changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

The purchase was not universally popular: ‘Seward’s Folly’ and ‘Seward’s Icebox’ were some of the comments. The foolhardiness of slavishly following popular opinion has been amply shown subsequently in relation to this purchase.

In an article in The New York Times, (31/3/2017), Evan Gershkovich, writes that ‘Russia’s sale of Alaska was a day of mourning for some hard-right Russian nationalists who see the transaction as a gigantic blunder by the ailing Czarist Empire, one that reverberates as the major powers vie for influence over the arctic and its natural riches in an age of climate change’, a comment vividly illustrated by the fact that there is oil in the bedrock below waters surrounding Spitsbergen and the Spitsbergen Treaty finishes in 2020. Mr. Putin has apparently commented that the development of a missile system in Alaska is one of the most pressing security issues.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Bill for Alaska to become the 49th State of the Union in 1959. Congress passed the Bill on 3 January.

This sale would never have happened after the Russian revolution. It could be said that Seward’s purchase of the territory was the best ever use of Federal Funds. Perhaps there should be a Seward Day.

Reminders of Captain James Cook

31 Mar

I have recently made short visits to Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, various places in New Zealand and Vancouver

On the visits I became increasingly overawed by James Cook’s achievements of the 1770s: He has a presence in all of these venues which recognise his momentous accomplishments – he completed two round-the-world explorations: on ‘Endeavour’ 1769-1771 and on ‘Resolution’ 1772-1775. His third voyage, when he sailed on ‘Resolution’, left England in 1776. On this voyage Cook was killed on 14 February 1799, by Hawaiians on the return voyage which followed his attempt to find the North West Passage. The voyage lasted from 1776-1779. On Cook’s expeditions his crew was kept free of scurvy by eating sour kraut and a marmalade of carrots.

In relation to my peregrinations:

In Singapore there is a James Cook University, this is a branch of the James Cook University, based in Townsville, Australia.

In Australia, Cook is well remembered. His first landing was in 1770; the site was suggested as a site for a British colonial outpost. Some years later the location was found to be unsuitable for a settlement/penal colony and a community of SYDNEY was established in a harbour a few kilometres north of the original landing site. It was from here scientists started the first European scientific documentation of the Australian fauna and flora. To day there are impressive statutes of Cook in Sydney, one erected by Yorkshire men. This first voyage was made when he was still a lieutenant. In the course of this groundbreaking expedition, he charted the eastern coast of Australia and named prominent landmarks.

In Melbourne Cook is remembered particularly in Cooks’ Cottage, the oldest building in Australia. The cottage was built in 1755 in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire England by Cook’s parents and brought to Melbourne by Sir Russell Grimwade in 1934. Each brick was individually numbered, packed into barrels and then shipped to Australia. It is a big visitor attraction.

Cook had actually sighted New Zealand before Australia – on 6 October 1769. He landed at Poverty Bay and went on to organise detailed maps of the country. He observed and wrote about the Māori people. He returned to New Zealand on his second voyage and there is a lovely image, painted by William Hodges the expedition artist, of the ‘gang plank’ –a large tree trunk that was used to off load Endeavour at what was to be named Pickersgill Bay. (Pickersgill sailed as third lieutenant on Cook’s second voyage. He has several geographical features named after him in N.Z. and in Australia). From New Zealand Cook explored the Society and Friendly Islands, before crossing the Antarctic Circle and reaching as far south as 71°10’S. He never actually saw the Antarctic though was certain of its existence. He made a mistake in thinking that there was no useful future to be had in further exploration of the forbidding south. He thought it was ‘doomed by nature to everlasting frigidness’ had a ‘horrible and savage nature’ and that ‘a deeper exploration would require resolve and fortitude and would give no benefit to the World’.

The Auckland Arts Festival is going on at present. One of the artistic exhibits a ‘House of Lights’, homage to Cook. This shows a super-life -sized statute of him, in a smooth silvery finish, sitting with his elbow on his knee and looking out to sea. He is seated in a purpose built ‘house’ on the end of a pier, which has brightly coloured representations of the stars that Cook charted his course by. The lights come on in sequence and shine brightly at night.

Vancouver has a big interest in Cook who was the first Englishman after Francis Drake to see both coasts of North America. Cook came to the west coast coast on his third voyage, on his way to find (or disprove the existence of) a western route to the Northwest Passage. In late March 1778, the ships anchored in a small, sheltered bay in the middle of a sound, and parties went ashore. They were the first Europeans on record to set foot upon what became known as Vancouver Island. A midshipman George Vancouver was on this voyage and he wrote that it was ‘the most lovely country that can be imagined’. Captain Vancouver returned in 1791 on an expedition that explored and charted the North West Pacific coast of America. Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver are named for him, as are Vancouver Washington and Mount Vancouver.
The Royal British Columbia Museum BC in Victoria BC has a real sized section of Cooks second ship on his 1776 expedition, Discovery. It is an excellent montage.

What achievements! The first command was occasioned by him being appointed by the Royal Society as its chief observer of the transit of Venus and to find information about the southern continent. The second expedition also had the continent as its main objective. The third was concerned with the North-West Passage. Amazingly, France, the United States, Spain and Russia extended a safe conduct in the war period (The American War of Independence). He is regarded as the greatest of navigators and cartographers.


16 Mar

I have just given a talk on Edward Adrian Wilson at the University of Canterbury, I spoke to the Antarctic Society (Canterbury branch) and the Canterbury Historical Association,– a really pleasurable occasion.

There is much interest here in the early 1900 expeditions, which came to Christchurch and sailed to the Antarctic from the port at Lyttelton. There is also a very particular connection between Edward and Oriana and New Zealand -the couple had married in 1901, only three weeks before ‘Discovery’ sailed off into the unknown and their delayed honeymoon took place in New Zealand after ‘Discovery’ returned to Lyttelton in 1904. They loved the country and wanted to make their home here. Wilson’s ambition was to record of the local flora and fauna for posterity.

In 1912 Oriana lived for a year in Sumner, Christchurch, staying in ‘Terra Nova’s reassembled old meteorological hut. She was eagerly awaiting her husband’s return. She was to read the devastating news of his death on a billboard –he had been dead for nearly a year and she never really recovered from the blow, though always continued faithful to her husband’s legacy and interests. She made many friends in New Zealand and returned regularly, she made careful recordings of the bird life. Her lifelong connection with the country was rewarded with the CBE, awarded for her war work for the New Zealand government.

But following the two devastating earthquakes of 2011and 2012, the Christchurch that Oriana would have known, the elegant Anglo/Scottish city on the Canterbury plane is no more. Ninety percent of the historic buildings have been demolished. There have been painful years of deconstruction and large areas of flattened buildings remain. On a positive note the city is now reconstructing and rebuilding apace. A modern city center, in an earthquake proof style, is emerging.

The cathedral remains an area of contention. Some want restoration of this iconic symbol of the city forefathers- a little piece of the old country – whilst others favour a modern replacement, I imagine, similar to Coventry. The decision is still to be reached.

Lyttelton can now only be reached from Christchurch by road and train tunnels. Its old stone buildings and warehouses were destroyed, though amazingly, the wooden houses in the amphitheater of hills around the port have survived. The port is active, but passenger ships are currently diverted to Akaroa along the coast.

We have driven over 2.000 km in the N. and S. Island, New Zealand is a beautiful country: beaches, rollers, majestic mountains, farms, vineyards, museums (I was particularly impressed by Wellington and Napier) and the oceans. I can completely understand Edward Wilson’s wish to return and I want to return again. I hope reconstruction will proceed apace.

Christchurch Cathedral today

another viewof destroyed end


10 Feb

When I wrote ‘Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant, Edgar Evans’, I was very aware of the posthumous blame attributed to him in some quarters, for causing the deaths of the rest of the Polar party.
On the return from the Pole all the British party suffered from malnutrition with associated muscle and fat wasting. Edgar was affected the most. The men had equal shares of the rations. Edgar, the biggest man in the group, needed the most calories. In addition I think he had a bacteraemia (infection with bacteria in the blood stream), following a cut to his hand.
Reports at the time made no suggestion of a physical illness but rather, focused on psychological causes:
a) He was the only Rating and therefore isolated.
b) He was depressed that he would not be able to open his pub on The Gower.
c) Most upsettingly, it was suggested that because he left full-time schooling aged 10, he did not have the education to withstand the monotony of the long trek to Base after the British reached the Pole behind the Norwegians. (The thought that Oates consoled himself in his agony, by reciting Virgil, as he trudged across the ice, is ludicrous).

When the news reached England, Edgar was not included in the cigarette card illustrations that were avidly collected and seem to have included pictures of every other explorer, including Amundsen’s team; a book for children indicated that he had failed; illustrated publications missed him out completely. A sonnet included the words that it was as well that he did not know that his deterioration had caught his companions in ‘death’s snare to hold them fast’. The distress and humiliation suffered by his mother, wife and children must have been great.

I am so pleased that Edgar is having a renaissance. The Edgar Evans Club in Portsmouth, run by Rob de Silva and Ginge Fullen is exactly the project that he would have supported; also the fact that his great- great grandson, aged nine, has clearly inherited his strong, burly physique is fascinating. Tyler Ford is the Welsh, British, European and World Kick Boxing and Tae Kwon-do Champion. Tyler’s father writes that Tyler is climbing Snowdon this month in memory of his great granddad, he is also going to Dublin to fight in the world fight series.