What Was the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration? | History Hit
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What Was the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration?

A photograph by Frank Hurley of one of the dog sledding expeditions from Endurance.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The ‘discovery’ of America by Europeans in 1492 ushered in an age of discovery that would last until the early 20th century. Men (and women) raced to explore every inch of the globe, competing with one another to sail further than ever before into the unknown, mapping the world in greater detail.

The so-called ‘heroic age of Antarctic exploration’ began in the late 19th century and finished around the same time as the end of World War One: 17 different expeditions from 10 different countries launched Antarctic expeditions with different aims and varying levels of success.

But exactly what was behind this final drive to reach the furthest limits of the southern hemisphere?


The precursor to the heroic age of exploration, often referred to as simply the ‘age of exploration’, peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries. It saw men like Captain Cook map much of the Southern Hemisphere, bringing their findings back to Europe and changing Europeans’ understanding of global geography.

A 1651 approximation of the South Pole on a map.

The existence of the North Pole had long been known, but Cook was the first European to sail into the Antarctic Circle and hypothesise that there must be a huge landmass of ice somewhere in Earth’s southernmost reaches.

By the early 19th century, there was a growing interest in exploring the South Pole, not least for economic purposes as sealers and whalers hoped to access a new, previously untapped population.

However, icy seas and a lack of success meant many lost interest in reaching the South Pole, instead turning their interests northwards, attempting instead to discover a Northwest Passage and map the polar ice cap instead. After several failures on this front, slowly attention began to be refocused on the Antarctic: expeditions set off from the early 1890s, and the British (along with Australia and New Zealand) pioneered many of these expeditions.

Antarctic success?

By the late 1890s, Antarctica had captured the public’s imagination: the race was on to discover this enormous continent. Over the following two decades, expeditions competed to set the new record of making it the furthest distance south, with the ultimate aim of being the first to reach the South Pole itself.

The Antarctic was a steamship built in Drammen, Norway in 1871. She was used on several research expeditions to the Arctic region and to Antarctica through 1898-1903. In 1895 the first confirmed landing on the mainland of Antarctica was made from this ship.

Image Credit: Public Domain

In 1907, Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition became the first to reach the Magnetic South Pole, and in 1911, Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole itself, 6 weeks ahead of Robert Scott, his competition. However, the discovery of the pole was not the end of Antarctic exploration: understanding the geography of the continent, including traversing, mapping and recording it, was still viewed as important, and there were several subsequent expeditions to do just that.

Fraught with danger

Technology in the early 20th century was far from what it is today. Polar exploration was fraught with danger, not least from frostbite, snowblindness, crevasses and icy seas. Malnutrition and starvation also could begin to set in: whilst scurvy (a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C) had been identified and understood, many polar explorers perished from beriberi (a vitamin deficiency) and starvation.

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Equipment was somewhat rudimentary: men copied Inuit techniques, using the hides and furs of animals like seals and reindeer to protect them from the worst of the cold, but when wet they were extremely heavy and uncomfortable. Canvas was used to keep out wind and water, but it was also extremely heavy.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen saw success on polar expeditions partly due to his use of dogs to pull sleds: British teams often preferred to rely solely on manpower, which slowed them down and made life more difficult. Scott’s failed Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913, for example, planned to cover 1,800 miles in 4 months, which breaks down to roughly 15 miles a day in unforgiving terrain. Many of those who set out on these expeditions knew they may well not make it home.

Roald Amundsen, 1925

Image Credit: Preus Museum Anders Beer Wilse, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A heroic age?

Antarctic exploration was fraught with perils. From glaciers and crevasses to ships getting stuck in the ice and polar storms, these journeys were dangerous and potentially deadly. Explorers typically had no method of communicating with the outside world and used equipment which was rarely suited to the Antarctic climate. As such, these expeditions – and those who embarked on them – have often been described as ‘heroic’.

But not everyone agrees with this assessment. Many contemporaries of the heroic age of exploration cited the recklessness of these expeditions, and historians have debated the merits of their efforts. Either way, whether heroic or foolish, 20th-century polar explorers undoubtedly achieved some remarkable feats of survival and endurance.

In recent years, people have tried to recreate some of the most famous Antarctic expeditions, and even with the benefit of hindsight and modern technologies, they have often struggled to complete the same journeys these men did.

Read more about the discovery of Endurance. Explore the history of Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Visit the official Endurance22 website.

Tags: Ernest Shackleton

Sarah Roller