The Heroic Age – animal human interactions

It's very common to hear people harking back to the time when everything was apparently "better". Before the planet was "ruined", before anthropogenic climate change kicked in, and when everybody treated each other with respect.

Of course I don't hold that view.

Polar exploration had a golden age of sorts which is usually called the Heroic Age. It covers the time period when explorers like Mawson, Shackleton, Speirs Bruce and Scott headed South.

I am interested  in the time period before that too.

The British Library have put over a million images on Flickr. With that sort of resource surely there is something polar before the Heroic age?

Searching on the term "Antarctic" throws up a vast number of results -and a couple immediately caught my eye. They were pictures drawn by one of my new favourite artists: the Scot William Gordon Burn Murdoch.

Ever since I started researching and writing about the polar regions I have always been struck by how people seem to imagine them as some sort of "untouched wilderness". This image naturally caught my eye.

Sealing by William Gordon Burn Murdoch
Sealing by William Gordon Burn Murdoch. Source British Library Flickr Stream.

The image is from page 236 of Murdoch's book FROM EDINBURGH TO THE ANTARCTIC An Artist's Notes and Sketches during the Dundee Antarctic Expedition of 1892-93. The trip started as a whaling expedition but soon turned into a sealing hunt as they failed to find whales.

Murdoch wrote

It is a hideous thing this sealing, and most awfully bloody and cruel. Some of the seals were killed with the ice-picks — a short staff of natural wood about four feet long with a steel pick-head; others were shot. Sport there was none. I would sooner stalk a bunny with a pea-rifle, behind a dyke. than shoot a score of these splendid, dark-eyed seals.

William Gordon Burn Murdoch

 The didn't limit themselves to the seals. The penguins had a time of it too.

Penguin hunt by William Gordon Burn Murdoch
Penguin hunt by William Gordon Burn Murdoch, source: British Library Flickr Stream

The point is that long before the Heroic Age both polar regions were extensively visited and exploited. I made that point in a talk I gave at TEDx Southampton University in 2013.

The real difference for me is that the science was systematic and well organized in the Heroic Age. One of my polar heroes is William Speirs Bruce and he was on the same expedition as Murdoch. He intended to do research but for many reasons he failed, and described his scientific output as "a miserable show".

But the experience did set Bruce up to lead the fantastically successful Scottish National Antarctic Expedition a decade later in 1902-04.

It is worth making the obvious point that we do not interact with the animals the same way today.

Photographing Penguins at South Georgia
Photographing Penguins on South Georgia whilst giving the animals a wide berth

Tourist companies are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), and they publish clear guidelines about how we should interact with animals.


Where do I get this great book?

The Book  From Edinburgh to the Antarctic. An Artist's notes during the Dundee Antarctic Expedition of 1892-3 is available in many formats including the BookReader format, and also an 8 mb pdf download.


And finally

I can't resist using this image and text from page 98 of the book. Burn Murdoch is describing a story the sailors on his ship told him late one night...

Dead Danes
Dead Danes on the shores of Spitzbergen by William Gordon Burn Murdoch. Source: British Library Flickr Stream

 The [sailors told] another tale, rather grisly, perhaps, and we must hope slightly exaggerated. The festive three [sailors] were roaming on the shores of Spitzbergen when they happened on a settlement of dead Danes, each settler lay in his long and narrow house on the top of the frozen ground, and each had a bottle of rum by his jowl to give him heart at the sound of the last trump. This is the manner of the Danes, I am told, or perhaps of the Lapps, I forget which — at any rate, Lapps or Danes, the rum was rum and strong at that, and it was long hours afterwards when my three friends opened their eyes and found themselves still in the land of the dead. Can't you picture these Danes when they awaken — Great Scott ! — won't they be angry ?

William Gordon Burn Murdoch, FROM EDINBURGH TO THE ANTARCTIC, 1894.


Danes, Lapps? I guess there was not too much difference to someone British at the height of the Empire.