Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The First Antarctic Postmaster


There had been many voyages to the southern polar zones in Victorian times and even earlier, but by Edwardian times the race was well and truly on to explore, survey, map and lay claim to the last unexplored continent: and of course to reach the South Pole itself. The first stamp issued in the Antarctic was part of one of the most determined and courageous expeditions ever in that inhospitable land.

This first philatelic landmark was the work of the expedition led by the 33 year old Ernest Shackleton, which left Britain in his ship the Nimrod on 23 November 1907, and arrived in New Zealand sixteen days later. While there, along with all the other preparations for the expedition, Shackleton took time to be sworn in as a New Zealand postmaster, surely one of the most renowned figures to hold that position. Ernest Joyce, a member of the shore party responsible for the stores, dogs, sleds and the zoological collection, deputised as postmaster when Shackleton was not present, and probably did most of the postal work.

The new postmaster was given a supply of the standard New Zealand 1d red ‘universal postage’ stamps, depicting a female figure as an emblem of trade. These were in panes of sixty (broken down from the original sheets of 240). The stamps had been overprinted vertically in green with the words “King Edward VII Land”, reading upwards. The overprints were carried out by the New Zealand Government Printing Office and by Coulls, Culling & Co. in New Zealand. There were 24,000 copies of the stamps. To regularise them as official issues, specimen copies were sent to the offices and all the countries of the Universal Postal Union.

King Edward VII Land, a great polar peninsula projecting into the Ross Sea, had been discovered and named by the Scott expedition of 1901-4, in which Shackleton took part. This was the segment of the Antarctic, claimed by New Zealand as a Dominion of Britain, where Shackleton planned to land. The stamps were to be used for expedition mail and also, of course, for souvenir post for philatelists and polar enthusiasts. As well as the stamps, the postmaster was kitted out with date-stamps, a postmark canceller and of course an accounts book. The circular postmark read “BRIT, ANTARCTIC EXPD” and was used with black ink.

The Nimrod left New Zealand on 1st January 1908. Until it reached the ice edge, the ship was towed by the S.S. Koonya so that it did not use valuable coal that it might need if it encountered difficulties. In this, as in all his expeditions, Shackleton was a master of careful planning. The Koonya returned to New Zealand on 15 January 1908, carrying the very first batch of Antarctic mail with it.

Shackleton’s vessel carried on alone off the polar coast, heading for King Edward VII Land. But the ice was greater than anticipated and the mission was unable to make a base at its intended landfall. The voyage therefore continued, crossing the Ross Sea, and eventually ending up on the opposite headland at Cape Royds on February 3. This was actually in a different slice of the Antarctic, named Victoria Land, although to the public one expanse of ice sheets and white peaks would probably look much like another.

The expedition, of course, did not have any stamps overprinted Victoria Land and so still made full use of the King Edward VII Land issue. That slight technicality did not seem to bother the postal authorities or collectors, not least because of the incredible achievements of the expedition in its polar exploration.

Probably the greatest achievement was the epic trek, led by Shackleton himself, towards the South Pole. Under harsh conditions and with superhuman determination, this reached to within 100 miles of the Pole before turning back because of dwindling supplies and growing exhaustion. Many people now think this was one of the bravest decisions ever made. A lesser leader than Shackleton might well have pushed on, putting lives at risk for the sake of glory. It took real courage and responsibility to turn back so close to the goal. At the point where they turned back, Shackleton defiantly left a sheet of the King Edward VII Land stamps, enclosed in a brass tube, embedded in the ice.

But this wasn’t the expedition’s only achievement. Its members also conquered the great polar peak of Mount Erebus and a second over-land journey was made to the South Magnetic Pole. Valuable scientific and topographical surveying was also accomplished. The expedition returned to New Zealand on the Nimrod in March 1909. On his return, Shackleton was given a knighthood by the King whose name he had honoured as the first postmaster for King Edward VII Land.

He later went on to lead several other expeditions in the Antartctic, including the most famous, on board Endurance, during 1914-16, when he safely brought back his whole crew even though the ship was badly damaged and they were marooned in terrible conditions. It was while on one more foray, an attempt to circumnavigate the Antarctic by sea in 1922, that Shackleton died of a heart attack. He was buried on the island of South Georgia.

Varieties in the placing of the overprint are common because of the way it was done – thirty stamps at a time. However, a rare variation, presumably a production error, is a double overprint. A more mysterious variation is that some of the postmarks exist in green ink, whereas the expedition supposedly had only a black ink pad. Philatelists even went so far as to pester Captain Joyce, a man who might have had other things on his mind after several journeys in severely sub-zero temperatures, about the green ink postmarks, but he could not account for them.

The Shackleton expedition’s King Edward VII Land issue started a whole history of Antarctic philately. Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic expedition of 1910-1913 also carried stamps with it, this time overprinted Victoria Land. And in more recent times, of course, various south polar territories (British, Australian, New Zealand’s Ross Dependency) have issued stamps of their own, and other countries, such as Argentina and Chile, have used their own national stamps to stake out and reinforce their polar claims. Add to this the stamps commemorating polar expeditions, and the collecting field is quite large.

As so often, Antarctic themed stamps can also help remind us of forgotten history. How many people know that the first ship to over-winter in the Antarctic was Belgian, part of the Belgica expedition of 1897-9 ? Led by Flemish Captain Adrien de Gerlache, it spent about fifteen months on the coast of Graham Land. Two Belgian stamps commemorating the expedition were issued in 1947. One of the crew members was a young and eager Norwegian – Roald Amundsen, later the first man to reach the South Pole. There are even fantasy issues reminding us that, had history been different, other countries might have joined the Belgians: I have seen a Polish Antarctic Territory and a Lithuanian Antarctic issue.

However, none of this subsequent history can detract from the achievement of the Shackleton expedition that began in January 1908, nor its primary place in the philatelic history of Antarctica.

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