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Antarctica: A Biography
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Antarctica: A Biography

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by David Day

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Since the first sailing ships spied the Antarctic coastline in 1820, the frozen continent has captured the world's imagination. David Day's brilliant biography of Antarctica describes in fascinating detail every aspect of this vast land's history—two centuries of exploration, scientific investigation, and contentious geopolitics.

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Since the first sailing ships spied the Antarctic coastline in 1820, the frozen continent has captured the world's imagination. David Day's brilliant biography of Antarctica describes in fascinating detail every aspect of this vast land's history—two centuries of exploration, scientific investigation, and contentious geopolitics.

Drawing from archives from around the world, Day provides a sweeping, large-scale history of Antarctica. Focusing on the dynamic personalities drawn to this unconquered land, the book offers an engaging collective biography of explorers and scientists battling the elements in the most hostile place on earth. We see intrepid sea captains picking their way past icebergs and pushing to the edge of the shifting pack ice, sanguinary sealers and whalers drawn south to exploit "the Penguin El Dorado," famed nineteenth-century explorers like Scott and Amundson in their highly publicized race to the South Pole, and aviators like Clarence Ellsworth and Richard Byrd, flying over great stretches of undiscovered land. Yet Antarctica is also the story of nations seeking to incorporate the Antarctic into their national narratives and to claim its frozen wastes as their own. As Day shows, in a place as remote as Antarctica, claiming land was not just about seeing a place for the first time, or raising a flag over it; it was about mapping and naming and, more generally, knowing its geographic and natural features. And ultimately, after a little-known decision by FDR to colonize Antarctica, claiming territory meant establishing full-time bases on the White Continent.

The end of the Second World War would see one last scramble for polar territory, but the onset of the International Geophysical Year in 1957 would launch a cooperative effort to establish scientific bases across the continent. And with the Antarctic Treaty, science was in the ascendant, and cooperation rather than competition was the new watchword on the ice. Tracing history from the first sighting of land up to the present day, Antarctica is a fascinating exploration of this deeply alluring land and man's struggle to claim it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This sweeping but uninvolving history of Antarctic exploration revolves around the question of who owns a continent that no one really wants. Historian Day (Claiming a Continent) traces two centuries of expeditions that struggled to unravel the mystery of Antarctica (is that unapproachable line on the horizon a coast, a group of ice-bergs, a fog-bank, an island, or a continent?). Entwined in the explorers’ epic befuddlement are perennial efforts by rival nations to claim sovereignty over the elusive terrain by means of competitive mapping and landmark naming and stately possession rituals—flag dropping, fusillade firing, cairn building, plaque inscribing, and proclamation reading—performed for audiences of bemused penguins. There are moments of high drama in the saga, from Scott’s and Shackleton’s doomed journeys to the pole to Robert Byrd’s heroic overflights, but mainly it is a picaresque—and a sometimes tedious one—of semihapless voyages and treks and semiserious diplomatic wranglings. Day provides frustratingly little scientific information about the unique polar environment, but in the background he shows us a swelling fleet of seal hunters, whaling vessels, and factory ships as they slaughter the region’s abundant marine wildlife to the verge of extinction. More than the farcical human empire building he foregrounds, that gripping natural history provides the book’s drama. 35 b&w photos. Agent: Andrew Lownie, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency Ltd. (June)
From the Publisher
"Solid as a block of Antarctic ice itself... [Day's] latest book draws on five years of meticulous research to tell the story of human endeavour in Antarctica, the last continent to be discovered. It paints a poignant biographical picture of the characters involved, the gruelling expeditions undertaken, and the rivalries between nations as they raced to chart the continent and claim possession of it ...excellent." —The Economist

"This is an intoxicating book by Australia's greatest historian." —Peter FitzSimons, Australian journalist and author

"A remarkable work of scholarship and sustained analysis." - Ross Fitzgerald, The Australian

"The fascinating narrative offers a compelling historical understanding of passion to control nature and the way national and economic interests drive scientific exploration... Day's work is epic and incorporates this important, unique unpopulated land into the consciousness of scholars." —Choice

"This scholarly but readable volume surveys the geopolitical history of Antarctica from the dawn of the Age of Reason to the present day. Day is a serious historian. His research has taken him around the world, into archives and libraries and into the minds and intentions of governments." —Greg Ray, Newcastle Herald (AU)

"An eye-opening history of the race amongst nations to be the first to plant their flag in the frozen land. It is a big book, covering Captain James Cook's attempts to find the 'Great South Land' in the 1770s to the present and all the explorers and adventurers in between."
—Courier Mail (Brisbane, Australia)

" For those who enjoy sweeping historical biographies, David Day's Antarctica is a polar reference piece par excellence. "—The Cairns Post (Australia)

"In his latest book, noted Australian historian David Day seeks to capture the spirit of Cook and Mawson and the deeds of subsequent explorers, which eventually turned into a race for Antarctic sovereignty. Unlike traditional histories of Antarctica, which focus almost exclusively upon exploration and individual explorers, Day blends that narrative with the increasing politicisation of Antarctica as European powers, then the Americans, and eventually Argentina and Chile jostled for territory." —Sydney Morning Herald

"2012 is the centenary of Scott and Amundsen's race to the South Pole, and publishers have jumped on the band sledge. The winner of the bid for territory goes to Antarctica: A Biography... by David Day, a historian and Australian national treasure. This enormous book approaches the subject head on. The colourful end papers are eloquent: the 'New Map of the World 1703' at the front shows a blank 'taint of ignorance' at the South Pole; at the back there is a more modern cartographer's Antarctica, with its surrounding islands. What Day aims to deliver is the bit in between. The result is a clear and intriguing history of flag-raising."—Literary Review (UK)

"Day has done a remarkable job of collating information from rich and varied international sources. He draws from original accounts, newspaper articles, the recently released papers of US naval officer and polar explorer Richard Byrd..." — Nature

"Day weaves a masterly tale of expeditions and their leaders in this hugely detailed and well-researched tome. There are some absolute gems with new insights for even the most avid readers on the subject." — Times Higher Education

"His thought-provoking and detailed work reminds us that the future of Antarctica remains even more fiercely disputed and uncertain than when Bellingshausen and Bransfield first saw the continent." — Irish Times

"A well-researched, scholarly work that examines nearly 250 years of history with a deft pen and a dry wit."— Country Life

"Day's Antarctica is an impressive piece of work, an impartial and deeply researched account of the politics of polar annexation."—Times Literary Supplement

"Well-researched history... An intriguing addition to a centuries-long geopolitical adventure story." —Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
When was the last time you read a biography of a continent? Day (research associate, La Trobe Univ.; Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others) gives readers the opportunity with his dense and thorough history of the continent. Organized chronologically, chapters cover two to 60 years and have catchy subtitles like "Die Like Gentlemen," "Who Shall Own the Antarctic?," and "This Bloody Flag-Raising Business." Day opens his opus with James Cook in the 1770s, circling Antarctica but never sighting the continent itself. From there, it is game on with various places in addition to Great Britain—Spain, France, Norway, Russia, America, etc.—dodging icebergs, profiting from the indiscriminate killing of seals and whales, charting coastlines, and claiming Antarctica for themselves. Day introduces all the major (and minor) Antarctic expeditions and discusses the historical variety of theories regarding polar conditions. Most of his sources are the expedition documents that are the mainstay of Antarctic history. Of note is his inclusion of a 2012 translation of Shirase Nobu's account of a Japanese expedition of 1910–12. Day closes with a look at current issues regarding the continent, including international treaties, resource extraction, tourism, and scientific research. VERDICT Those seeking a single scholarly history of Antarctica will be well served by Day's offer, but it will require serious commitment from general readers. (Illustrations not seen.)—Margaret Atwater-Singer, Univ. of Evansville Lib., IN
Kirkus Reviews
Day (Research Fellow/La Trobe Univ., Melbourne; Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others, 2008, etc.) examines the strange history of Antarctica, "a continent of many claimants and no owners." In the 18th century, much of the South Pacific was still unexplored. French, Russian and Americans vied to discover a supposed temperate continent, known as "the Great South Land," falsely noted on maps. The expectation was that this would prove to be a habitable, resource-rich landmass suitable for colonization. This hope was dispelled when British explorer James Cook circled the South Pole and, in 1777, published a popular account A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World. In his book, Cook noted the existence of massive icebergs in the region of the South Pole. In a follow-up expedition, a Russian naval officer reported that the glaciers were attached to a landmass. By the 1830s, America, Britain and France launched rival expeditions to discover whether there was a continent worth claiming at the South Pole, but the major enterprise was harvesting the abundant whale and seal populations. Because Antarctica was uninhabited, laying claim to the continent would not occur through conquest, and planting a flag on the coast to establish sovereignty was an empty gesture. The legend of the continent increased with the victorious race to the South Pole in 1912 by Norway's Roald Amundsen and British contender Robert Scott. By 1929, while Britain, Norway, Australia and Argentina all made claims to Antarctica and its potential resources, America moved pre-emptively. Richard Byrd's daring flight over the South Pole allowed him to map and photograph the entire continent. Following World War II, strategic Cold War considerations also came into play. The United States, Soviet Union and others recognized Antarctica's scientific importance and established bases there. Day's well-researched history covers all these stories and more. An intriguing addition to a centuries-long geopolitical adventure story.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
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6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.90(d)

Meet the Author

David Day has been a research fellow at Clare College in Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at University College Dublin, the University of Aberdeen, and the Center for Pacific and American Studies at the University of Tokyo. He is currently a research associate at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He is the author of many books, including Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others and the award-winning Claiming a Continent: A History of Australia.

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Antarctica: A Biography 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found aspects of this fascinating but it did get a touch dry near the end. Overall, a great read though.