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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Myths in History
Fabrications for politics

Should they be defined as part of a war?

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Contemporary racism against Indigenous People

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?


Douglas Mawson: The Psychology of a Survivor

"It's dead easy to die; it's the keeping on living that's hard." Douglas Mawson

On January 7 1913, Douglas Mawson stood alone as he looked over the blizzard-swept ice of Antarctica. He was 100 miles from main base, his dogs were dead, food almost gone, and he had just made an ice tomb for a fellow explorer. There was little hope for survival. When faced with similar predicaments, other polar explorers had simply pitched a tent, got in their sleeping bags and spent their final days writing their memoirs.

Despite the lack of hope, Mawson did not wait to die. He had a single-minded determination to never surrender and it was this determination that kept him putting one foot in front of the next. Even when the soles of each foot came away to leave exposed flesh, he simply bandaged them back into place and kept his feet moving forward.

Just as Mawson had almost no hope that he would make it back, his search team had almost no hope that they would find anyone alive. All teams had to be back by January 14 otherwise encroaching sea ice would prevent the ship from leaving. Despite the lack of hope, six men decided to endure another Antarctica winter so that they could continue searching, and continue building snow cairns for a lost party that would almost certainly never use them. Against all odds, on January 29 Mawson found one of these cairns. A week and a half later, he walked back into main base with the greatest tale of polar survival ever told.

The incredible nature of Mawson’s story revealed an insight into the psychology of a survivor. While American reality TV shows suggest chances of survival are maximised by looking out for the self, when the ultimate enemy is one’s own will, Mawson's story showed that chances of survival are maximised by looking out for others.



Australian Antarctica

Mawson's survival - background

Mawson was a man driven by science. Born in 1882, he commenced university at the age of 16. In 1905, he became a lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide. Glaciers held Mawson's interest, and he undertook extensive fieldwork in the Flinders Ranges where he studied ancient glacial activity.

In November 1907 Mawson met Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Wanting to see glaciers in action, Mawson joined him on a British Antarctic Expedition. Later Mawson joined expeditions led by Edgeworth David to Mount Erebus, Antarctica's only active volcano and to the magnetic South Pole. In a public tribute, David said of Mawson:

"Mawson was the real leader who was the soul of our expedition to the Magnetic Pole. We really have in him an Australian Nansen, of infinite resource, splendid physique, astonishing indifference to frost."

As Mawson's fame rose, Robert Scott asked him to join his expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole and claim the honour for Great Britain. Mawson; however, was not interested in non-scientific endeavours. Instead, Mawson gained initial funding from the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science to lead his own scientific expedition.

In December 1911, the 'Australasian Antarctic Expedition', led by Mawson departed Hobart aboard the Aurora. Once in Antarctica, numerous research projects were undertaken over the following months. It was 'Far Eastern' sledging expedition; however, that took Mawson into history.  On November 10 1912, Mawson left home base with Belgrave Ninnis, an English army lieutenant and Xavier Mertz, a Swiss ski champion. Only one would return.

Diaster struck five weeks into the expedition. On the 14th December, Xavier Mertz, ahead on skis, signalled that he had spotted a snow-covered crevasse. Mawson made it across with his sled, but Ninnis was not so fortunate. As Mertz and Mawson watched on in horror, the snow bridge collapsed and Ninnis disappeared down the abyss. Mertz and Mawson rushed to the edge and saw nothing except a dog on a ledge 50 feet below, whining with its back broken. They called out for hours, but heard nothing of Ninnis. The men tried to climb down, but couldn't even reach the dog. They then reconciled themselves with their predicament. In addition to losing one of their own, the men had lost their six fittest dogs, their tent, most of their food and their spare clothing. The remaining sledge carried 10 days of rations for the two men and nothing for the six dogs. They were 315 miles (500km) from main base and would not be considered overdue for another month. They were in serious trouble.

A crude tent was made by draping a spare tent cover over skis and sledge struts. It did the job but was not an ideal form of shelter where winds occasionally gusted up to 200mph, and temperatures dropped below -20°C. As for the dogs, they became a mobile food source. For Mawson, this was a concern because the dogs had been so loyal. For Mertz, it was soul destroying. Not only had he spent 18 months caring for the dogs as his children, he was also a vegetarian. On December 15, the weakest dog was killed to feed to the others and the men. This pattern was continued over the next 10 days until the final dog met its end. Unknown to the men, consuming the dog's livers probably resulted in vitamin A poisoning. Just 100 g of husky liver can contain a toxic dose of vitamin A for an adult male. Between them, the two men ate around 6 kilograms. Side effects of vitamin A poisoning include dizziness, lethargy, as well skin drying, loss and fissuring.

On January 1, 1913, Mertz developed severe stomach pains. The next day he lost most of his strength and even needed help to get into his sleeping bag. To make matters worse, the conditions were turning him insane. On one ocassion, he bit off part of his finger and spat it out onto the snow. On other ocassions he had fits. For a few more days Mawson kept him going, but by January 5 Mertz refused to go on. The men rested for a day, but it was no use. Mertz was dying.

There is no doubt that Mawson could have gained access to more food and conserved his own resources had he just cut Mertz lose. Instead, Mawson hauled him into the sled and pulled him alone. Two days later, one hundred miles from main base, Mertz died.

Although pulling Mertz was futile in a sense, it was an act of determination that helped Mawson keep himself going. Had he allowed Mertz to give up, then it would have been easier to give up himself. After Mertz died, such ideas did in fact creep into his mind. He later wrote,

"All that remained was his mortal frame which, toggled up in his sleeping bag, still offered some sense of companionship...For hours I lay in the bag, rolling over in my mind all that lay behind and the chance of the future. I seemed to stand alone on the wide shores of the world...My physical condition was such that I felt I might collapse at any moment...Several of my toes commenced to blacken and fester near the tips and the nails worked loose. There appeared to be little hope...It was easy to sleep in the bag, and the weather was cruel outside."

But Mawson did not wait to die. He got back on his feet, cut the sledge in half and discarded as much as possible. He then buried Mertz under blocks of snow, made a cross out of half of the discarded sledge and picked up Mertz's diary.

While Mertz had found peace, Mawson's struggle continued. Time and again he got back on his feet to keep dragging his poisoned body over the blizzard-swept landscape. Even when the soles of his feet seperated from the flesh he continued. He simply smeared lanolin onto the exposed flesh, bandaged the separated soles back into place and kept walking.

Mawson's resolve was tested again on January 17 when he fell down a crevasse and was only saved by his manhaul harness attached to the loaded sledge. He struggled to pull himself out, reached the lip and then fell back in. Delirious and exhausted, he wanted to die. He later wrote,

"Dangling in space I realised I could always slip out of the harness. I looked forward to the peace of the great release."

Once more he took the difficult option. In his own words, "It's dead easy to die; it's the keeping on living that's hard."

Having seen his comrads perish, Mawson had given up hope of ever making it back. He simply refused to die in any way other than on his feet.  On January 27 a blizzard brought him to his knees. By the 29th, not even determination seemed capable of keeping him going. His food was gone and without strength he was having trouble setting up camp. He then spotted a snow cairn built by his colleagues only a few hours earlier, complete with rations. Attached was a note informing him that the Aurora was waiting and Aladdin's Cave was only 23 miles distant. Despite Mawson's party being almost two weeks overdue, his colleagues hadn't given up the search.

On February 1, Mawson made it to Aladdin's cave. The weather closed in and trapped him for another week. Knowing that encroaching sea ice would soon force the Aurora to set sail, Mawson pressed on to main base. In a tale reminiscent of the ill fatted expedition of Burke and Wills, Mawson arrived in time to see the Aurora sail away into the horizon.

Fortunately, the men had left the door ajar for Mawson's team even though logic stipulated that all were dead. Instead of leaving aboard the Aurora, six men had stayed in Antarctica to continue the search. Despite holding out a glimmer of hope that anyone from Mawson's expedition could have survived, they couldn't really believe it when one of them did. For the men, to see Mawson alive was like seeing the dead return from the grave. In a sense, Mawson resembled the walking dead as his emaciated form and skin loss had him unrecognisable. Upon seeing him, one of his colleagues exclaimed, "My God! Which one are you?"

The Aurora was immediately recalled by radio but ice conditions prohibited the ship from returning. For another winter, the seven men endured blizzards and confinement. It was not until the following summer that they were able to leave. On December 24, 1913 Mawson left Antarctica.  Upon his return to Australia, Mawson was greeted as a hero. Arguably, he was the first Australian icon that everyone admired. Later Mawson said,

 "The welcome home, the voices of innumerable strangers--the hand-grips of many friends--it chokes me--it cannot be uttered!"

The pragmatic justification for Mawson's celebration was that the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was a great feat of science that yielded detailed observations in magnetism, geology, biology and meteorology. Sir Grenfell Price, historian and educator, said of him,

"..the man who, of all southern explorers, gave the world the greatest contributions in south polar science and his own people the greatest territorial possessions in the Antarctic."

While Mawson's expedition did realise some pragmatic benefits, it was Mawson's own story that was truly valuable. A bit like the moon landing, the intangible returns outweighed the tangible returns. It was the story of one man never giving up, and a team of supporters holding faith when all reason to have faith was long gone.

Mawson's story also provides a useful contrast to Robert Scott's Terra Nova expedition that Mawson had declined to be part of. Scott's expedition was all about fame and self-congratulation. It was a motivation that ultimately resulted in catastophe. Scott set off with ponies instead of dogs. Perhaps this was because he wanted more of a challenge or perhaps because liked the noble idea of riding with his nose in the air for the photos. In his own words,

"In my mind no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realised when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts, and by days and weeks of hard physical labour succeed in solving some problem of the great unknown. Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won."

After being beaten to the pole by a Norwegian team using dogs, Scott's party turned for home. One man, not wanting to be a burden to the group, simply walked away to his death. Upon seeing him go, Scott made little effort to keep him going as Mawson did with Mertz. In Scott's own words:

"We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman."

The rest of Scott's party, himself included, met a similar fate a short time later. Their last camp was made on March 19, 1912, only 11 miles from the next depot. The men waited for the weather to clear, but apparently it never did. Consequently, Scott spent the last ten days of his life in a sleeping bag writing letters. In regards to his predicament, Scott wrote:

"Had we lived, I should have a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.

Activity 1 - Questions to think about

  1. Mawson was a man of science but logic stipulated that there was little hope. How did Mawson keep himself going when there was little hope? Was giving up the logical thing to do?
  2. The human body has evolved so that the mind gives up before the body. Why might humans have evolved this way?
  3. Mawson’s struggle to move forward was a battle against the elements but more so it was a battle against himself. Discuss.
  4. By letting Oats walk to his death, the remaining members of Scott’s party were increasing the chances of their own death. Discuss.
  5. Scott was a coward for defining Oates as brave. Discuss.
  6. Did an excessive focus on public glory contribute to Scott staying in his sleeping bag?

Activity - Write a profile

Watch the youtube video above and write a profile on Mawson.



BANZARE Expeditions

Mawson returned to Antarctica in 1929 and 1931, as leader of the first and second British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE). Like the Australasian Antarctic Expedition before it, BANZARE was a great scientific success. It also proved to be very good for Australia. Mawson claimed for Britain all the land of East Antarctica between longitude 40 deg. E and 160 deg. In total, 42 per cent of the continent. In 1935, Britain transferred that claim to Australia.

AntarcticaAustralian Antarctica





John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)