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Mittens, harpoons and one very cold canary: the history of the Antarctic in 100 surprising objects

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 14/10/2022 Sara Wheeler
One cold Communist: Bust of Lenin at the Pole of Inaccessibility, erected by the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1958. - Sebastian Copeland © Sebastian Copeland One cold Communist: Bust of Lenin at the Pole of Inaccessibility, erected by the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1958. - Sebastian Copeland

In this jolly new polar volume, Jean de Pomereu and Daniella McCahey tell the story of the seventh continent through the popular 100-objects format. Is this ironic, these objects being mostly man-made? Antarctica, which occupies 10 per cent of the earth’s landmass, is noted for its inhumanity: a total absence of water in the abiotic interior makes it the only continent which does not sustain indigenous human life.

The authors, both young historians, have drawn on collections throughout the world to produce a robust selection “in a holistic rather than a comprehensive manner”. There are plenty of scientific relics, from James Cook’s chronometer from his second voyage, which set sail in 1772; a Magnetic Dip Circle which once measured the angle between the horizon and the Earth’s magnetic field; and an Edwardian anemometer, to test wind speed. Radio echo sounders follow, along with a nuclear reactor (yes, really) and the Dobson spectrophotometer that in 1985 alerted the world to ozone depletion in the southern hemisphere.

Yet at least 500 years before the continent’s European “discovery” in 1806, Polynesian pioneers had settled on peri-Antarctic territory, as a taoka, or “treasured possession”, in the form of a 14th-century Polynesian marine ivory fishhook found on Enderby Island, reveals. Even earlier Antarctic residents are represented in these pages by fossils – a fern, and a dinosaur femur.

As for the more familiar bipeds: their gear includes an early primus stove, a harness for manhauling from Scott’s first expedition in 1901-4, and mittens knitted by Edith Ronne, one of the first women to spend a season in the south (her husband was the commander of an American expedition to Stonington Island in the forties). Transport ranges from a pony shoe to sledges, tractors, the legendary autonomous underwater vehicle Boaty McBoatface and the SA Agulhas II, a South African polar research ship launched in 2011, and captained by the first Black ice pilot, Knowledge Bengu.

The James Caird is perhaps the most famous of the hundred objects. It is the caulked lifeboat in which Shackleton made his epic journey to South Georgia in 1917 after Endurance went down. (Object 97 is the Endurance wreck, so memorably discovered in March this year.)

Taxidermy of Fridtjof, the canary that travelled to Antarctica on board Roald Amundsen’s boat Fram - Museene i Akershus, Uranienborg, Norway © Provided by The Telegraph Taxidermy of Fridtjof, the canary that travelled to Antarctica on board Roald Amundsen’s boat Fram - Museene i Akershus, Uranienborg, Norway

The book is exceptionally handsome, illustrating in colour not just the selected objects, but accompanying paintings, photographs and further examples of the thing under consideration. The prose, on the other hand, hews to the anodyne. Exhibit 18 is the Aurora Australis, the expedition newspaper edited by Ernest Shackleton and Louis Bernacchi on Scott’s first expedition. Elaborating on these publications, Pomereu and McCahey write, “some from the second half of the 20th century comprise the kind of lewd material that was more prominent within male communities of the time”.

Some selections are weak. Champagne, for example (used in celebrations, apparently), a page from an Encyclopaedia Britannica shipped south by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, or board games, the latter exemplified not by specimens deployed to fill long winters, but three monopoly-type ludic challenges patented by explorers on their return to warmer climes. But the format encourages reader disagreement: that is part of its attraction.

Thought lost: the wreck of Shackleton's Endurance, discovered earlier this year - Getty Images/Royal Geographical Society © Provided by The Telegraph Thought lost: the wreck of Shackleton's Endurance, discovered earlier this year - Getty Images/Royal Geographical Society

Geopolitical gestures pop up as nations struggle to assert territorial ambitions: the thermal suit that the Chilean president Gabriel González Videla sported, for example, on his trip to Antarctica in 1948. Soviet scientists installed a plastic bust of Lenin, and apparently Vladimir Ulyanov still keeps watch: ideological toppling takes a long time at those latitudes. Entries from the art world include “Pee Flag” (number 87) which showcases Anne Noble’s 2014 photographic series of markers designating the spot in a science camp where field personnel must pee or empty pee bottles.

Some of the objects represent categories rather than individual items (skis, hydroponic vegetables, frozen beards). These include the telephone, an entry which stimulates a discussion of the psychological implications of life without women (for most of its short human history, Antarctica has been a male-only preserve). I once spent seven months in the Antarctic, for a travel book. The authors do not cite the extract from an email from home I saw pinned on a noticeboard at South Pole Station: “Yours is bigger, but his is here”.

Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects is published by Conway at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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