Exposing the cracks in our hero of the Antarctic
In his new book, Flaws in the Ice, historian David Day takes the axe to legendary arctic explorer Douglas Mawson. In 1912, during the Australasian Antartic Expedition of 1911-14 Mawson set out on a 400-mile mapping trek with Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. After 300 miles, Ninnis died falling down a crevasse with most of the food. In this extract from the book, we pick up the story after the death of Mertz as Mawson begins the final 100-mile journey back to the hut.
Mertz had died a grisly death. In his last hours he had been delirious and raving, thrashing about alongside Mawson in the tiny tent. After Mertz broke one of their makeshift tent poles, Mawson was forced to restrain him to prevent further damage. Without a tent, Mawson would be dead, so he used his bulk to hold Mertz down. Eventually, he slipped into a coma (from which he would never wake). Then Mawson placed the unconscious Mertz back in his sleeping bag, where he died "peacefully at about 2am on morning of 8th". Mawson blamed his companion's death on "weather exposure and want of food".
Mawson couldn't have known it at the time, but it wasn't the lack of food that killed Mertz so quickly. Rather, it was the type of food they both were eating — particularly the scrawny dog meat with its almost total absence of fat, which caused them to suffer protein poisoning. Their condition was made worse by scurvy, by a possible excess of vitamin A, by starvation, and by exposure to the cold and wet.
There are three important questions that need to be asked at this point. To what extent was Mawson responsible for their plight? Had Mawson come to the terrible conclusion that there was only sufficient food for one of them to get back to the hut alive? Did Mawson's experience on the Shackleton expedition give him confidence that he could endure starvation rations much better than Mertz? If so, is that why Mawson put them both on what he called "extremely low rations", in the hope that Mertz would die before he did and that Mawson might then survive on the remaining rations? For that is how the events played out. There may never be definitive answers to these questions. Once Mertz stopped writing in his diary, with the last entry being written just a week before his death, Mawson was the only witness to Mertz's tragic decline and ultimate demise.
Whatever the answers, Mawson's chances of survival had now increased. Food that had been shared out sparingly between the two of them would now be Mawson's alone. Not that there was much of it remaining. It's difficult to know exactly how much food was still on the sledge at the time of Mertz's death. All the dogs had been killed, and their bodies butchered, and most of the meat consumed. Yet there could have been sufficient food at this point for one person to get back to the hut, even though there wasn't sufficient for two.
On January 6, Mawson calculated that he "could pull through by myself with the provisions at hand". Two days later, following the death of Mertz, he still made no mention in his diary of being fearful about his food supply. Mawson simply expressed concern that the days spent in the tent might have "cooked [his] chances altogether, even of a single attempt either to the coast or to the Hut". He was particularly concerned that "lying in the damp bag for a week on extremely low rations has reduced my condition seriously". Although Mawson's diary makes little mention of his own health until this point, he now claimed that he was in the "same condition" as Mertz, and that he had similarly "lost all skin of legs & private parts" and had sores on his finger that wouldn't heal, which was a possible sign of scurvy. He might have had a better chance of getting back alive now that Mertz was dead, but his survival was certainly not assured.
Despite this, Mawson was determined to push on, estimating that he was about 100 miles from the hut. He took Mertz outside to bury him, and spent a day making adjustments to his gear. He cut the sledge in half to save weight, sewed a sail from materials, which presumably included parts of Mertz's clothing, and did two boil-ups. He also ate "a little more food than usual", expecting that he would set off the following day. However, the wind remained too strong. Mawson would have been able to haul the sledge, but it would have been impossible for him to pitch the tent by himself. So he stayed another day, increasing his rations in the "hope that it will give me strength for the future". This gives credence to the theory that Mawson had put himself and Mertz on starvation rations in the hope that Mertz would succumb before he did. Now that Mertz was dead, Mawson did the opposite of what he had done when Mertz was alive. Instead of drastically reducing his rations whenever he was confined to the tent for a day, Mawson now increased his rations while he was in the tent so he would have the stamina to go on.
Yet another day was spent in the tent on January 10. Even though the wind dropped by late afternoon, Mawson spent time repairing a broken shovel that had been discarded, and patching his Burberrys.
He also described how he "boiled all the rest of [the] dog meat". What dog meat was he referring to? It had been a fortnight since the last dog, Ginger, had been killed by Mertz on December 28, with Mawson spending several hours cooking some of its meat. Mertz had taken over and cooked more of its meat for 1½ hours. Even more meat was cooked the following day, and Mawson spent three hours cooking yet more of the meat on December 30.
It was another week before Mawson mentioned in his diary on January 6: "I cook up dog meat", although he may have been just heating up dog meat that had already been cooked. So it is surprising that on January 10 he reported cooking the last meat from Ginger, the dog that had been dead for two weeks. Might it have been something else that he was cooking?
It has long been rumoured that it might not have been just dog meat that Mawson was boiling — that he might have taken the opportunity to boil some of Mertz's flesh so that he would have a greater chance of making it back alive. After all, they had been killing their dogs and eating them. Why not make use of his dead companion's body to ensure his own survival?
Some credence was given to these rumours when an American journalist later claimed that Mawson had admitted to having considered such a course for the two days he spent beside Mertz's body. Indeed, it would have been incredible for him not to have considered it, given the shortage of food. According to the journalist, Mawson said that he decided against it, noting that "if I did get back to civilisation it would always leave a bad taste in my mouth, so I buried him and went on".
When this was published in New York, Mawson strenuously denied having ever said it. His denial is not surprising. There is no heroism to be had in cannibalism. His vigorous denial has been accepted by historians, who argue that it would have contravened Mawson's values and that, anyway, he had no need to do it, once Mertz was dead and all his intended rations were available for Mawson's consumption.
Whether or not there was sufficient food to assure Mawson of getting back alive remains a matter of some doubt. When Ninnis died and the food sledge was lost in the crevasse on December 14, the food on the other sledge was only sufficient for 1½ weeks, calculated at the normal ration scale. Those bags of food and the flesh of the six emaciated dogs had already been drawn upon by both men during the 3½ weeks leading up to the death of Mertz. It would have been impossible for both men to reach the hut alive on the little food they had available on December 14.
Although Mawson thought on January 6, a day before Mertz's death, that he could reach the hut by himself, he considered on January 9 that there was "little chance of my reaching human aid alive". His concern now was more to do with his physical condition than the quantity of food remaining. He described how his feet were in "a deplorable condition", with huge blisters having burst, his "frost-bitten fingertips festering, mucous membrane of nose gone, saliva glands of mouth refusing duty, skin coming off whole body". Indeed, his "whole body", wrote Mawson, was apparently rotting from want of proper nourishment.
If eating some of Mertz's flesh could help him recover his strength, heal his sloughing skin and weeping wounds, and increase his chances of reaching the hut, it should not be surprising if he decided to do so. And it is hardly appropriate for us to quibble with his decision.
If Mawson did cannibalise Mertz's body, it would have been because he believed it was going to provide the "proper nourishment" that his body demanded.
This is an edited extract from David Day's Flaws in the Ice (Scribe) rrp $32.95. The book will be launched by Barry Jones at Montsalvat on Tuesday at 6.30pm. Bookings: 9439 8700.