“What shall we call it?”: Performing Home in Antarctica
On the January 19 1911, just after his Antarctic expedition had settled into its winter quarters at a place he named Cape Evans, Robert Falcon Scott wrote in his diary: “Such a noble dwelling transcends the word ‘hut’, and we pause to give it a more fitting title only from lack of the appropriate suggestion. What shall we call it?”1
Scott and his men would go on to think of this place as home, but Scott’s hesitation in naming it thus is significant, for it shows how home and the idea of homeliness is something that is produced and performed, not something that is simply recognised following the construction of a physical space. Even today, the metaphor of Antarctica as home is not a dominant one.
Under the Antarctic Treaty System, Antarctica is seen as an exceptional polar space, a bloodless domain of scientific research and international co-operation. Scientists and artists visit the stations and facilities within the particular slices of geographical space that make up the continent, and tourists skirt the coasts on cruise ships and zodiac crafts. It is the exceptionality of Antarctica which draws people there – it is a place unlike any other. It has always required significant financial and institutional support to visit the continent at all, and imaginative and literary takes on Antarctica have emphasised its otherworldliness. In media representations Antarctica is more often thought of as an analogue for Mars than as a home in this world. So the question is: how can such a place become homely?
In this essay I argue that in Antarctica, and in historic polar expeditions more generally, home was made in two ways. Firstly, home was realised as a relational space, as somewhere which was connected in the now to the primal homes outside Antarctica. Secondly, homeliness was performed through winter rituals of comfort-eating and snugness. It was by these means that physical spaces of inhabitation were transformed into homes. This transformation allowed spaces to be ‘storied’ – that is, filled with narratives, memories, and the kind of sensed presences that allow mundane spaces to become haunted.
To investigate the meanings of home I follow the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard who developed the concept of ‘lived space’ in contrast to that of ‘abstract space’, the idea of space as a bounded plane of quantifiable distances and co-ordinates – a passive container that does not stretch.2
This Euclidean conception of space draws its power from mathematics and an appeal to an objective framework of space-time. For Bachelard lived space is not quantifiable at all as it pivots on feelings of intimacy. Home is our “‘corner of the world’” and therefore is not simply reduced to an inside space.3
Home exists in relation to other primal homes, such as the childhood home or the nation. Many people decorate their homes with nostalgic photographs of deceased loved ones or events from their youth. Others put up national flags, symbols, or reproductions of constitutions. Through these processes, space can be seen as relational, as something that exists through its bonds to other spaces. Spaces are leaky; they stretch and involve the movement of affects between bodies and minds across great distances. For Bachelard, the dreaminess or cosiness traditionally associated with the home where we grew up is important for it produces the emotional state of “tranquillity” when people open themselves to the world and the world opens itself to them.4
In what follows I focus on the Christmas celebration as a paradigmatic example of how homes were made in Antarctica, how miniature paradises were conjured up.
Celebrations of Christmas during the ‘heroic age’ of polar expeditions (1818-1912) had the primary function of imitating an idealised version of Christmas back at home, thereby forging a sense of contemporaneity with loved ones across distant spaces. Just as at home, there were certain cleansing rituals that needed to be carried out in Antarctica: hair would be cut, beards shaved, and the deck or hut scrubbed and decorated in preparation for relaxation time. Beyond this the festival had several other important functions for the minds and bodies of explorers in the poles. Christmas was a psychological venting period when men could become emotional, think of loved ones, and dream of the primal home. Christmas also created a space in which certain types of deviant behaviour were tolerated and cherished. These included traditions of cross-dressing and play-acting for pantomimes on theatrical productions, mumming, ‘blacking up’ for minstrel performances, over-drinking, gambling, and the publications of satirical verse and song. Christmas, like many winter festivals in world cultures, was also a special time of feasting and over-indulging in foods not normally available to all. Narratives from the heroic period of Arctic and Antarctic exploration show how Christmas was a major nutritional event in the lives of crew members, satisfying a need for calories that was rarely met in the everyday rations. For Arctic explorers, December was a period of darkness and melancholy, as looked forward to the return of more sunlight in January. In Antarctica, Christmas was even more of a performance as the midpoint of the Antarctic winter was at midsummer (June 22). Looking back at accounts of Christmas celebrations, the diaries of explorers are full of details about the food and drink served on Christmas Eve (for Scandinavians) and Christmas Day (for Americans and British), focusing especially on the quality of the (typical) roast beef and plum pudding. Poems and elaborate menus would be composed to celebrate these foods that were seen, by British explorers, as authentic pieces of ‘Old England’; but they were also important sources of vitamins and calories during a mid-winter period generally characterised by depression and fatigue.
Not that one always needed to be on land to celebrate the same festivals that were celebrated back home. By Christmas 1850, over five years had passed since Sir John Franklin’s expedition in search of the Northwest Passage had departed England, with HMS Erebus
disappearing in the unmapped Arctic with some 129 men onboard. With anxiety about the loss of Franklin at its height, Charles Dickens co-wrote a paper on Christmas at the poles for Household Words
with Robert McCormick, a naval surgeon and veteran of an earlier Antarctic expedition onboard the Terror
. In “Christmas in the Frozen Regions” McCormick looked back to the Christmas festivities of 1841 when the ships were beset in the pack ice of the Southern Indian Ocean. After a Christmas meal of roast beef and roast goose (procured from New Zealand) the men enjoyed a “homely never-to-be-forgotten plum-pudding”.5
Just before the Erebus
crossed the Antarctic Circle, the ships were anchored to a massive ice-floe where a “crystal ball-room” was carved out of the ice to celebrate New Years’ Eve. This dance space (known as the “Antarctic Hotel”) was entered by a crystal staircase and featured two elevated ice-chairs for Captain James Clark Ross (Erebus
) and Captain Francis Crozier (Terror
A refreshment room and table were carved out of the ice to serve drinks, or “Antarctic ices”, to the crews. The ringing of 16 bells at midnight (8 for the old year and 8 for the new year) broke the “deathlike silence of the solitude reigned around”, and the dancing and revelry of the men lasted long into the night. While some threw snow-balls at each other and blew horns, others “full of rude
Near the gangway of the Terror
a female figure in a sitting posture named “Haidee” was created out of snow, her head ornamented with a profusion of ringlets, while near the Erebus
the bust of a male figure was formed. Although these performances may seem exotic and eccentric, they had the crucial function of reducing anxiety by engaging in a relational celebration with the primal home. For Dickens, such merry memories aroused sentimental feelings for Franklin and Crozier, lost in the Arctic at Christmas 1850 onboard the very same ships. “We may yet”, Dickens wrote, “hope to see the crews of the ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ once more ready with a yarn about Christmas at the Pole, to help out a Christmas in England".8
Christmas celebrations performed homeliness by making the rhetorical statement: polar explorers are not lost, for by celebrating Christmas they are at home with us, through our hearts and minds.
expedition (Belgian Antarctic Expedition, 1897-9), led by Adrien de Gerlache was the first to over-winter in Antarctica, and therefore it was also the first to hint at the deep psychological problems which life on the white continent could cause. Imprisoned in the ice of the Bellinghausen Sea for almost a year, the crew of the Belgica struggled with a monotonous diet of flavourless canned food (“embalmed beef”) which led to what the ship’s surgeon, Dr Frederick A. Cook, termed “polar anaemia”.9
During the dark months of the Antarctic mid-winter (May-July) the crew began experiencing gloomy thoughts, paranoia, and even heard uncanny screams that Roald Amundsen, First Mate on the expedition, could not explain10
In this context, the Christmas celebrations in 1898 were described as “sterile”: “At home”, Cook wrote, “there may be snow and wind, but there is at hand the companionship of warm friends, the cheer of a bright fire, the charm of flowers and pretty things; but what have we in place of this accustomed holiday gayety?” Homeliness was a tenuous thing, dependent on an intangible mix of comfort and sense of contemporaneity with the world. In their failure to create a sense of home, the crew of the Belgica
suffered the consequences. Cook gave a particularly bleak description of what must have been a dull Christmas dinner, where the crew had to force enthusiasm and “the doubt of our future was pictured on every face”.11
Many explorers drew lessons from the Belgica experience, where boredom, monotony, and scurvy had caused significant mental and physical strains among the crew. In the planning of subsequent expeditions, considerable time and effort was expended on planning rations and devising new combinations of food that would provide enough energy to men sledging and working in extreme cold. Nutrition was a major element in the progress of the Discovery
expedition (1901-4) led by Scott, but just two months into his dash for the South Pole with Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, signs of scurvy were already evident. Therefore it is no surprise that the polar party looked forward to the double rations of Christmas Day 1902 with “childish delight”. This gesture to nostalgia is important, for it shows how Christmas was homely not because of the particular food or company available, but because of the emotional community created by a shared experience rooted in the past. In Scott’s words, Christmas was a “delightful break in the otherwise uninterrupted spell of semi-starvation”, and the men feasted on pemmican, biscuit, seal-liver, boiling cocoa, and large spoonfuls of jam which “left a sense of comfort which we had not experienced for weeks”.12
Meanwhile I had observed Shackleton ferreting about in his bundle out of which he presently produced a spare sock, and stowed away in the toe of that sock was a small round object about the size of a cricket ball, which when brought to light, proved to be a noble ‘plum-pudding’.13
This was undoubtedly a touching moment, and it would have resonated among the men as a sign of childhood. Perhaps, like many childhoods, their memories of Christmases at home were half-fantasy or indebted to the myth of Christmases Past spread by Dickens and others in the nineteenth century. While Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson slept well that night (“with no dreams, no tightening of the belt”), the party were forced to turn back on December 30 due to weakness associated with scurvy.14
On his own South Pole expedition (1910-2), Amundsen mentioned how many games, musical instruments, and other objects of interest he brought onboard the Fram
, the same ship that had provided Fridtjof Nansen’s North Pole Expedition crew with a snug home for some three years. Snugness, indeed, was not some indirect effect of a warm berth and decent rations. For Amundsen, it was something that should be planned, for to be sung was to be best placed for the hard work associated with polar exploration: “What an immense difference it makes if one lives in comfortable surroundings. For my part, I can do twice the amount of work when I see tidiness and comfort around me”.15
So the dining quarters of the ship were decorated with pictures and flags while “every man could take a bit of his home in his own little compartment”.16
To be ensconced in the Antarctic is to transform winter into a new experience. It maintains the sense of a battle between human and nature, while allowing for a domestic heroism based around replicating the luxuries of home. Where most people looked on winter as a time of discomfort and want, Amundsen’s cosy hut announced human presence in an uninhabited continent: “And the blacker and more strong the winter night might be, the greater would be this feeling of well-being inside our snug little house”.17
The key thing was that men would emerge from their winter chrysalis unaffected by the maelstrom outside: the wall protects and the door releases. Amundsen well understood Bachelard’s point about interior spaces: “they are in us as much as we are in them”.18
Before leaving Norway, the Fram
took on around 500 Christmas presents from loved ones and well-wishers, a sign that for Amundsen and his colleagues Christmas was a very important festive occasion. In Norway it was traditional for Christmas dinner to take place on Christmas Eve, and the cook on the Fram
, Adolf Lindström, did not disappoint the crew by baking piles of cakes and special breads in preparation for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve 1910, the Fram
was a few weeks from reaching Antarctica and Amundsen took advantage of calm waters by cutting the engine and ordering the ship to be cleaned, washed, and decorated. “Our cosy cabins had a fairy like appearance in the subdued light of the many-coloured lamps, and we were all in the Christmas humour at once”. Amundsen assembled the crew and they sang “Glade Jul” around a table which “groaned beneath Lindström’s masterpieces in the culinary art”.19
As we know from the polar diaries of British and American explorers, emotions always bubbled under the surface on these festive occasions, as the men were given an opportunity to express their melancholy. The singing of sentimental songs was an important emotional activity for polar explorers, activating their sense of attachment to their friends and families back home and Amundsen describes how “among the band of hardy men that sat round the table there was scarcely one who had not a tear in the corner of his eye. The thoughts of all took the same direction, I am certain – they flew homeward to the old country in the North, and we could wish nothing better than those we had left behind should be as well as ourselves".20
Gift-giving was another ritual which expressed a binding connection between the explorers and the national community back home. From his Northwest Passage expedition of 1903-6, Amundsen knew well the value of Christmas presents in promoting social solidarity and he acknowledged gifts sent by groups like the Ladies Committees in Horten and Fredrikstad, and the telephone employees of Christiania. The celebration of Christmas usually involved a balance between gaiety and melancholy, but Amundsen’s description of a festive dinner onboard the Fram
, followed by a mighty kransekake and hot black coffee, suggest that for the Norwegians the Christmas of 1910 was a time of plenty and merry fellowship.
After the Fram
reached the barrier of the Ross Ice Shelf on January 14, 1911, Amundsen picked a location for their hut on the ice some four kilometres from the ship. In an early deployment of the Scandi flat-pack system, the crew assembled the walls and compartments which had been made in Norway before departure:
And there was the house, all finished, exactly as it had stood in its native place on Bundefjord. But it would be difficult to imagine more different surroundings: there, green pinewoods and splashing water; here, ice, nothing but ice. Both scenes were beautiful; I stood thinking which I preferred. My thoughts travelled far – thousands of miles in a second. It was the forest that gained the day.21
Here, Antarctic home maintains a physical connection with Norwegian home: it is literally the same physical space, but simply transferred to the end of the world. This hut was named Framheim and Amundsen could celebrate it as a home, and not simply an ersatz transplantation, because of its snugness: “What a snug, cosy, and cleanly impression it gave us when we entered the door!”22
Again, comfort was a crucial thing for explorers because it provided an immensely powerful link to the primal home. Comfort could be quickly produced by the cook Lindström who, like an archetypal housewife, kept home for Amundsen in his absence. When he saw returning exploring parties on the horizon, Lindström would lay the table with “all manner of dainties” which for Amundsen signified home. Lindström was therefore a valued member of the expedition because he made it easy to perform homeliness. He did this by waking the men everyday with hot coffee and his famous pancakes that would be wolfed down with butter and jam. This allowed Amundsen to claim, like Nansen before him, that he had “never lived so well”.23
Where Lindström, and a delightful steam bath room, could make Norwegian bodies feel cosy inside, the motif of the hearth was an important way of signalling domesticity to the external environment.
Scenes of the fireside have long been associated with the dreaminess and warmth of home. For polar explorers candlelight and firelight were particular triggers for the kinds of flights of fancy and reveries that give us insight into concepts of home. Reveries are the buoys that show us how the Antarctic could be a haunting place for explorers, a place where bodies were liable to be affected by forces from within and outside the landscape. Narratives from the British quest for the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century show how the challenges of over-wintering could uncover a phenomenology of inhabitation that became manifest in reveries, and the quest for the South Pole was no different. On March 31 1911 Amundsen wrote down one such reverie:
At seven o’clock that morning, when I came out of the hut, I saw a sight so beautiful that I shall never forget it. The whole surroundings of the station lay in deep, dark shadow, in lee of the ridge to the east. But the sun’s rays reached over the Barrier farther to the north, and there the Barrier lay golden red, bathed in the morning sun. It glittered and shone, red and gold, against the jagged row of mighty masses of ice that bounds our Barrier on the north. A spirit of peace breathed over all. But from Framheim the smoke ascended quietly into the air, and proclaimed that the spell of thousands of years was broken.24
The phenomenology of this light is a good example of something that exists on the fringes of polar experience but is ubiquitous nonetheless. Light has been taken for granted in histories of polar exploration, discussed either in a negative sense (lack of light during winter) or positive sense (return of light in spring). It deserves more attention than this, for perception and senses of place undergo transformation when natural light diminishes and humans begin to spend more time in enclosed spaces illuminated artificially. The motif of smoke rising from a settlement in the wilderness has deep symbolic meaning in nineteenth-century exploration narratives (“a hieroglyphic of man’s life” in Henry
David Thoreau’s words),25
offering, on the face of it, that primeval reassurance of a place of rest for the explorer in an empty and strange land. But the motif has the double effect of suggesting vulnerability and exposure to the surrounding darkness and cold. Like a microcosm, the home-fire can represent the power and limits of activity in expedition narratives of this period. Amundsen contrasted the spirit of peace with the inhabitation of explorers. It was the job of humans to disturb Antarctica, to break its spell and discover its mysteries. It is from this basis that we can look again at Scott’s question about Cape Evans: “What shall we call it?” For Scott, this hut, with its orderliness and boundaries between men and material, was a “truly seductive home, within the walls of which peace, quiet, and comfort reign supreme”.26
Scott later wondered
how different must be the outlook of the Norwegians. A dreary white plain of Barrier behind and an uninviting stretch of sea ice in front. With no landmarks, nothing to guide if the light fails, it is probable that they venture but a very short distance from their hut. The prospects of such a situation do not smile on us.27
What is clear from these is examples is that to live in Antarctica, to dwell in an uninhabited space, means that comfort becomes as a kind of capital, as key to the aims and iconographies of exploration as instruments and technology.
Christmas Eve 1911 was a very different event for the Norwegians, as Amundsen and his four colleagues, fresh from the conquest of the South Pole ahead of Scott’s party, made their way back to Framheim. In contrast to the previous year, preparations for Christmas Eve were extremely limited, with the party slaughtering the “reprobate” dog Svartflekken the night before, a meal consumed, Amundsen wrote, “with evident satisfaction”. For their Christmas meal, the Norwegians made a bag of pulverised biscuit, served with a sausage of dried milk, and a dish of porridge: “I doubt whether anyone at home enjoyed his Christmas dinner so much as we did that morning in the tent. One of Bjaaland’s cigars to follow brought a festival spirit over the whole camp”.28
Unaware that Amundsen’s party had beaten them to the South Pole, Scott and his party enjoyed their own Christmas feast in 1911, having a four course meal of pemmican with slices of horse meat, flavoured with onion and curry powder, arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit, plum pudding, cocoa and raisins, and a dessert of caramels and ginger. “After the feast”, Scott wrote, “it was difficult to move. Wilson and I couldn’t finish our share of plum-pudding. We have all slept splendidly and feel thoroughly warm – such is the effect of full feeding”.29
Just over three months later, the dejected surviving party of Scott, Henry Bowers, Edward Wilson, and Edgar Evans died in a tent just 18 kilometres short of relief at One Ton Depot.
Cape Evans is the cradle which Scott and his men never made it back to, and it is therefore a site of protection which is missing its inhabitants. Bachelard argued that creating the home is imaginative work that involves building psychic walls of shelter and populating it with memories. And so by virtue of Scott’s uncanny absence/presence, Cape Evans has become the primal Antarctic home. The traces and signs of its absent inhabitants have been preserved and this has transformed the hut into a site of pilgrimage and commemoration. Although Scott and his were buried in their tent out on the Ross Ice Shelf, Cape Evans has become a symbol of Antarctic homeliness, but not somewhere one can live. Dug out of the ice in 1956, it is now a protected site, rather than a site of protection. Having once been a place where one could “dream in peace”,30
it is now a place of dreams where tourists suddenly arrive and suddenly depart after taking photographs of Ponting’s darkroom or the Emperor Penguin on Scott’s desk. Ernest Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds is also enshrined as a kind of empty nest for tourists travelling on the Antarctic circuit. Indeed, Edmund Hillary even reported seeing an apparition of Shackleton walking towards him and “welcoming” him when he first stepped inside the door.31
In locating Framheim on the ice, Amundsen took a calculated risk. After the departure of the Norwegian expedition, Framheim was also buried in snow and ice, but whereas Cape Evans was reclaimed by a subsequent generation of explorers, the piece of the Barrier on which Amundsen’s hut rested broke off at some point around 1960 and was lost in the sea. Amundsen triumphed in the race for the South Pole, but the British explorers who failed in this quest succeeded in becoming ‘housed’ in Antarctica. In the absence of Framheim
there is no Antarctic house for Amundsen to haunt.
1Robert F. Scott, Scott’s Last Expedition: In Two Volumes, 4th ed., 1 (London, 1915), p. 129.
2See Ann Game and Andrew Metcalfe, “‘My Corner of the World’: Bachelard and Bondi Beach”, in Emotion, Space and Society, 4:1 (2011), pp. 42-50.
3Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Maria Jolas trans., (Boston, 1994), p. 4.
4Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos, Daniel Russell trans., (Boston, 1971), p. 173.
5Charles Dickens and Robert McCormick, “Christmas in the Frozen Regions”, in Household Words, 2:39 (1850), p. 307.
7Ibid., p. 308.
9Frederick A. Cook, Through the First Antarctic Night, 1898-99; A Narrative of the Voyage of the ‘Belgica’ Among Newly Discovered Lands and Over an Unknown Sea about the South Pole (New York, 1900), pp. 160, 303.
10See Roald Amundsen, Roald Amundsens Dagbøker: Belgicaekspedisjonen, 1897-1899: Den Første Overvintring i Antarktis, Geir O. Kløver ed., (Oslo, 2009), pp. 90-1.
11Cook, p. 386.
12Robert F. Scott, The Voyage of the Discovery, 2 (London, 1905), p. 63.
13Ibid., p. 64.
14Ibid., p. 65.
15Roald Amundsen, The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the ‘Fram’, 1910-1912, 1 (London, 1912), p. 66.
16Ibid., p. 67.
17Ibid., p. 259.
18Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. xxxvii.
19Amundsen, p. 160.
21Ibid., p. 193.
22Ibid., p. 194.
23Ibid., p. 253.
24Ibid., p. 255.
25Henry David Thoreau, Essays and Other Writings, Will H. Dircks ed., (London, 1895), p.41.
26Scott, Scott's Last Expedition, p. 128.
27Ibid., p. 385.
28IAmundsen, 2 pp. 140-1.
29Scott, Scott's Last Expedition, p. 521.
30Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 6.
31Heather Tyler, “Hut of Hillary’s Hero to be Preserved”, in Otago Daily Times, January 19, 2005.