The End of the Heroic Era Conference

The End of the Heroic Era – Conference
  • 24 – 26 March 2017
  • Auckland, New Zealand
  • Organisers: New Zealand Antarctic Society and Royal New Zealand Navy
  • Venue: National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Devonport, Auckland
  • St Christopher’s Chapel, HMNZS PHILOMEL, Devonport, Auckland
  • Seminar Centre, HMNZS PHILOMEL, Devonport, Auckland

The end of the Heroic Era is set with 1917 when the members of the Ross Sea Party arrived in New Zealand. This was the end of Ernest Shackleton’s epic expedition in the Weddell Sea and at the Ross Sea. The conference had the aim to shed more light on that timeframe because there are many aspects to these expeditions which were operating in the Antarctic; however, often it is narrowed down to very few British events.

47 people attended the conference. Eleven presentations of high quality were given. Each presentation had a time limit of 45 minutes. A number of social events gave lots of space for lively discussions on the conference’s topic. As the conference was very well organised all went to plan perfectly.

Brett Fotheringham, CNR, and one of the organisers of the event, opened the conference with a presentation about the meaning of the End of the Heroic Era and where to set the start for this timeframe. He put a lot of attention to the term “hero” and drew it back until ancient times. Philippa Ross, the great, great, great granddaughter of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, spoke of “Ross – a polar Hero” and her approach to her family history. This was followed by a detailed outline on the “Ross Sea Party 1914 – 1917” by Richard McElrea, the part of the Shackleton expedition which is often overlooked.

Another approach took Nigel Watson from the Antarctic Heritage Trust, New Zealand, with “Conserving the legacy of Scott and Shackleton”. He presented the way how young “explorer” could be encouraged to get engaged in the Antarctic and the Sub Antarctic Islands like in the event of the crossing South Georgia in 2016. Three participants re-enact the footsteps of Shackleton, Worsley and Crean who went in 1916 over mountains as last act of an epic journey to save their companions.

Don Webster focused on an overlooked part of the Robert Falcon Scott’s second expedition “The Northern party – winter 1912”. Ursula Rack has focused on the international expeditions which were operating in the Antarctic in that timeframe and presented “The Heroic Era and beyond – an International perspective”. Her aim was it to point out the different interests in Polar research at this time. She also turned some attention to the different kind of “heroes/heroines” to question the term “Heroic Era” for Antarctic Expeditions from 1898 – 1917. Oliver Sutherland told his story as “Last inhabitant of Shackleton’s Hut” when he was working as biologist in the Antarctic in 1962.

Two of the presentations gave insight in “Scott’s changing image” by Lesley McTurk and “Scott – a personal reflection” by Dan Asquith. McTurk focused on the context of Scott’s changing image over the decades. Dan Asquith, a descendent of Scott, presented the conditions of Scott’s last expedition in. As a physician, his focus was on the medical conditions of Scott’s last journey amongst other aspects. A complete different approach presented Dick Reaney who reflected on his re-enactment in the 1980s of the Shackleton’s 36 hours crossing of South Georgia in 1916 “In Shackleton’s footsteps, Weddell Sea Party 1914-16”. Reaney and his team took few days for this adventure and has demonstrated the great achievement of the 1916 event. Peter McCarthy presented a special insight on two of his ancestors with the presentation “In the footsteps of Mortimer & Tim McCarthy, Irish seafaring brothers”. Mortimer McCarthy was Peter’s grandfather and was one of the men with Shackleton on the James Caird when they travelled from Elephant Island to South Georgia to save their companions left behind on the island. Mortimer died in a house fire in 1967 in New Zealand. Tim McCarthy was his granduncle and was with Scott on the Terra Nova Expedition. He was killed in World War One when a torpedo hit the tanker he was serving on close to the Ireland coast.

All these presentations had the heroic aspect in it with many different approaches what has shown how difficult it is to narrow down terms such as hero and heroic to only one or two events in this timeframe. It turned out that the terminology was very much linked to the Edwardian times and was exploited in many different ways. Looking into the presented expeditions it became visible that the conditions were for all the endeavours the same with the cold, limited resources, austral night, and many other factors. However, it was also shown how different some of the events were handled and endured. Survival was one driving factor in extreme situations but the aims such as performing science for a better understanding of the earth system and to fulfil national goals were another purpose to undertake such expeditions.

The presentations will be published in the Antarctic Magazine, the publication of the New Zealand Antarctic Society in the near future.

  • By Dr. Ursula Rack Polar Historian and Researcher at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.