Way down South, Peter Beck

A Wise Adventure: New Zealand and Antarctica 1920-1960 
Malcolm Templeton
Victoria University Press, with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Wellington, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734034

Antarctica is often presented as “a pole apart” because of its peripheral location, geographical isolation, tardy discovery, unknown nature, and pristine features. Richard Byrd, an experienced American polar explorer, vividly described the Antarctic experience in Alone (1938): “I felt as though I had been plumped upon another planet or into another geologic horizon of which man had no knowledge or memory.” Antarctica is a cold, ice-covered and windswept continent, where climatic extremes exert a major constraint upon human activity. World maps, which rarely show more than a small coastal section, have reinforced popular perceptions of Antarctica’s marginal status; indeed, frequently they omit the whole continent in spite of the fact that it exceeds the combined extent of, say, China and India
and accounts for some 30% of the area of the southern hemisphere.

Nevertheless, during recent decades Antarctica, though failing to acquire mainstream status, has moved gradually towards the centre of the international stage. During the 1980s, when Antarctic scientists first identified the ozone hole, speculation about “global warming”, “the greenhouse effect” and “the depletion of the ozone layer” fostered a growing appreciation of the continent’s integral role in global developments. New questions were posed about the its management and ownership, alongside a growing acknowledgement of Antarctica’s environmental, resource, scientific and tourist potential. Unsurprisingly, it attracted the attention of a growing number of governments, international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In 1983, the “Question of Antarctica” was taken up at the United Nations, where it has proved a regular agenda topic; thus, a resolution, adopted in 1999, instructed the UN to return to the topic again in 2002.

Much of Antarctica has been visited and studied, im-proved communications have qualified its remoteness, and environmental NGOs, particularly those based in Australia, New Zealand and the USA, have helped to widen the area of public knowledge and understanding. However, it proves difficult still to shake popular images of Antarctica as an inhospitable place where Scott, Shackleton and Byrd, among others, battled heroically against the odds to unveil its secrets. In fact, Antarctic tourism has been largely promoted upon this basis; thus, tour brochures, making frequent use of quotes by polar explorers, exploit the search for “the ultimate travel experience” by those wishing to turn “dreams of adventure into reality”.


New Zealanders should understand the contemporary and future significance of their “Near South” better than most other peoples, particularly as NGOs based within their country have proved instrumental in ensuring a substantial environmental input into the management of Antarctica in general and the policy of the New Zealand government in particular. A decade ago, these groups, prompting an active public debate, contributed to the dropping of the proposed Antarctic minerals regime convention and the adoption of an Environmental Protocol. Geographical proximity, reinforced by the impact of the “ozone hole”, means that Antarctica can no longer be dismissed by New Zealanders as a remote continent. Nor is there any need to explain why their government performs an active role in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) based upon the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Significantly, A Wise Adventure is dedicated to the late Chris Beeby, formerly Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who performed an influential role in the ATS during the 1980s and early 1990s.

But what was the position before 1959? For example:

  • How far and in what manner did New Zealand contribute to the unveiling of Antarctica?
  • Why is a circa 450,000 sq kms sector of Antarctica, located between 16O˚E‑150˚W south of 60˚S, claimed by New Zealand as the Ross Dependency?
  • Why do few other governments recognise New Zealand’s claim?
  • How and why did New Zealand become involved in the negotiations of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty?
  • Why did the USA exert a pervasive influence upon New Zealand’s Antarctic interests? In this vein, why does a statue of Richard Byrd look down from Mount Victoria over Wellington and why do the Americans have a major Antarctic presence at Christchurch?


Templeton, a former member of New Zealand’s Foreign Service, sets out to answer some of these questions, even if, as he stresses in the preface, his book deals only with what he describes as the first stage of New Zealand’s Antarctic role, that is, the period between 1920-60. As a result, he
glosses over the country’s gateway role before 1920. New Zealand’s post-1960 role in the ATS might be covered, he indicates, in a future publication.

As a historian, my initial tendency when reviewing a book is to look first at the footnotes and bibliography, since primary and secondary sources represent an essential foundation for any serious study. A lengthy list of New Zealand archival sources, supported by 33 pages of footnotes, indicated that this study, which has slightly different titles on the front cover and title pages, is soundly based upon the archives of the Marine Department and the Department of External Affairs (DEA, now called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade). This was of particular interest, given my December 1981 visit to the National Archives at Wellington as part of a project on the international politics of Antarctica, when I was informed that, notwithstanding the 30-year Rule, DEA files on Antarctica were still closed for research.

What Templeton establishes clearly is the inadvertent manner in which New Zealand became involved in Antarctica, since the Dominion was treated as an instrument of British imperial ambitions designed – to quote one British official in 1928 – “to paint the whole Antarctic red” as part of the empire upon which the sun never set. The reality was that, for much of the period between 1920-60, New Zealand governments, despite claiming the Ross Dependency in 1923, proved indifferent to the region; indeed, it is debatable whether there was any real Antarctic policy at all, except perhaps in the years immediately preceding the 1959 Treaty. Moreover, outsiders, particularly Americans like Richard Byrd, proved more active than New Zealanders within the Ross Dependency.


When launching the book, Phil Goff, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, observed that it “traces New Zealand’s constitutional and legal involvement in Antarctica”. As a result, Templeton, though claiming to offer no more than a layman’s view on the ongoing and sensitive sovereignty issue central to New Zealand’s claimant status, adopts a rather blinkered politico-legal approach. He concentrates upon diplomacy, not exploration or science. A densely packed and somewhat pedestrian commentary, alongside a scissors-and-paste approach to archival documents, often makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees, or, one might say, the ocean for the icebergs!

Nor is the book rooted adequately in the existing Antarctic literature. Relevant monographs and articles, like those in Polar Record or the Australian Journal of Politics and History, are largely ignored, while minimal effort is made to view New Zealand developments in the broader international context.  Where reference is made to other countries, Templeton’s reliance upon published sources (eg, Foreign Relations of the United States) or documentation received by the DEA means that readers receive only a simplified view of their policies. His failure to use the Public Record Office in Britain is particularly serious, given the British government’s leading role as an Antarctic imperialist, and the prominent part played by the Foreign Office’s legal advisers in redefining “effective occupation”.  For instance, Operation Tabarin (1943), which reflected British recognition of the enhanced standards required for effective occupation, is not mentioned, even though the policy expressed therein was to dominate post-1945 British and Australasian thinking towards Antarctica. Likewise, Templeton’s failure to visit Archives II at College Park in Maryland (USA) means that both the uncertainties of US policymakers and Byrd’s exchanges with the State Department on Antarctica are glossed over.

Nevertheless, the final chapters offer an illuminating discussion of the background to and nature of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, while arguing that the late 1950s represented a turning-point in New Zealand policy towards Antarctica. But the book ends abruptly, and no attempt is made to stand back and evaluate either the Antarctic scene in 1959-60 or the precise nature of New Zealand’s policy interests in the area. Even so, Templeton reminds readers that the Antarctic issue, going back at least to the 1920s, has proved one of the more enduring themes in New Zealand’s external relations, and that it also casts light on New Zealand’s evolution from imperial dependence to sovereign status.

Despite brief references to the pressure exerted during the 1950s by the press, the New Zealand Antarctic Society, and Sir Edmund Hillary, for a more active New Zealand role, it proves difficult nonetheless to evaluate the extent of public concern about Antarctica. Or was it disinterest in a seemingly valueless area, given Walter Nash’s implied willingness to surrender Antarctic sovereignty and farmers asking how many sheep to the acre it carried? Certainly, Templeton suggests that, before 1960, Antarctica was perceived still by most New Zealanders as “a pole apart”; that is, as their country’s “Far South”!


Peter Beck is Professor of International History in Humanities at Kingston University (UK).


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