How the Antarctic Reframes the Context of Class and Empire

Shackleton Expedition, Antarctica, 1915. Photo: REX
Shackleton Expedition, Antarctica, 1915. Photo: REX

Richard Batten
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @Richard_Batten

Review of Ben Maddison. Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration, 1750-1920. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014. xii + 247pp. £60 (hardback), ISBN 978-1848934184. ‘Empires in Perspective’ Series.

class and colonialismThe histories of Antarctic exploration have generally tended to focus on the narratives of intrepid explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott, who led expeditions of endurance to the arduous polar wilderness of Antarctica. In the view of Ben Maddison, this concentration on the heroism of the Antarctic explorers, who he defines as the Antarctic elite or the ‘masters’, was an understandable consequence of how historians had approached ‘Antarctic history almost exclusively from the rhetoric and records of the masters’ [79]. In Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration, 1750-1920 (2014), Maddison suggests that historians have, unintentionally, strengthened the invisibility of the Antarctic working class because they have been hesitant to engage critically with the voices from below on these expeditions.

Indeed, Maddison argues that it was the ‘gentrification’ of Antarctic exploration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that further contributed to the silencing of the working class. This despite the fact that the expeditions to Antarctica were ‘facilitated by multifarious labours of the working class’ [6]. Consequently, Maddison claims to fill this historical vacuum by providing a substantial new interpretation of the history of Antarctic expeditions.

In this well written and fascinating monograph, he has achieved this reassessment of Antarctic exploration through an enquiry of these expeditions in two key areas: class and colonialism. Both of these neglected areas in Antarctic scholarship are explored over the course of the book’s eight chapters, which are distributed in three distinct parts. This structure allows Maddison to examine class and colonialism over the course of 170 years of Antarctic exploration in which he divides this chronology into two specific time periods: 1750-1850 and 1890-1920. This timeline encompasses the evolution of Antarctic exploration from the initial expeditions of the South Atlantic in the late eighteenth century to the ‘gentrification’ of Antarctic expeditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The latter time period incorporates the expeditions by Scott and Shackleton, and is defined as the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration.

Maddison’s new interpretation is based on a reassessment of a pre-existing body of sources and not on the analysis of a newly discovered wealth of knowledge, and there is considerable merit in his doing so. In respect to class, he contends that an analysis of these sources and the experiences of sailors, sealers and other individuals from the maritime working class present on these Antarctic expeditions reveal that ‘it is hard to see that the men who wrote them shared very much of the outlook on Antarctic exploration of their masters’ [5]. The reason for the divergence of the working class viewpoint from the Antarctic elite towards Antarctic exploration is that the workers on the vessels that explored the Antarctic approached their ‘Antarctic experiences as typical representatives of the larger maritime working class from which they were drawn’ [58]. Therefore, Maddison stresses that it is vital that the complexity of the working class experience of Antarctic exploration be reintegrated into the narratives of Antarctic expeditions.

In addition, Maddison contends that the expeditions to Antarctica were ‘shaped, depended on and ultimately were facilitated by and expressive of the wider context of colonialism and empire’ [6]. From 1750, explorations by both Great Britain and France were instigated not solely by an impetus for scientific endeavour but by nations with aspirations to colonise and increase their influence in the mysterious unknown continent in the South Atlantic. According to Maddison, the expeditions that took place during the ‘Heroic age’ were implicitly colonial despite the fact that these expeditions reflected a conglomeration of interests including science, commerce and exploration. By viewing the Antarctic continent as a land mass which the Imperial nations of Europe aspired to claim and expand their spheres of influence, Maddison’s interpretation reaffirms the importance of colonialism in expeditions to explore and conquer the wilderness of Antarctica.

Maddison is quick to acknowledge that this volume could have included an analysis of gender and analyse female voices from the Antarctic working class. The inclusion of experiences of the women from the Antarctic working class in the scope of his analysis would have strengthened the validity of his conviction to understand the complexity of the working class experience during the expeditions to the Antarctic. Nevertheless, Maddison has succeeded in imparting an effective reconsideration of Antarctic exploration based on the dual themes of colonialism and class, which lie at the core of his new interpretation of the history of Antarctic expeditions.

Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration is a valuable contribution not only to the history of Antarctic expeditions but also to the history of European expansion overseas. It will provide both students and scholars with a wealth of insight into the complexity of the Antarctic experience for the explorers and those from the maritime working class who facilitated their expeditions. At the same time, by evaluating these expeditions within this analysis, the author resituates the significance of these expeditions as colonial projects within the broader historical framework of empire. This monograph is equally important in its reassessment of the history of Antarctic exploration and as a valuable foundation upon which future re-evaluations of expeditions to the Antarctic could be built.