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A groundbreaking history of human interaction with Antarctica, the last continent on earth.

A groundbreaking history of human interaction with Antarctica, the last continent on earth.

For centuries it was suspected that there must be an undiscovered continent in the southern hemisphere. But explorers failed to find one. On his second voyage to the Pacific, Captain James Cook sailed further south than any of his rivals but failed to sight land. It was not until 1820 that the continent's frozen coast was finally discovered and parts of the continent began to be claimed by nations that were intent on having it as their own.

That rivalry intensified in the 1840s when British, American and French expeditions sailed south to chart further portions of the continent that had come to be called Antarctica.

On and off for nearly two centuries, the race to claim exclusive possession of Antarctica has gripped the imagination of the world. Science was enlisted to buttress the rival claims as nations developed new ways of asserting territorial claims over land that was too forbidding to occupy. Although the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 was meant to end the rivalry, it has continued regardless, as new nations became involved and environmentalists, scientists and resource companies began to compete for control.

Antarctica: A biography draws upon libraries and archives from around the world to provide the first, large-scale history of Antarctica. On one level, it is the story of explorers battling the elements in the most hostile place on earth as they strive for personal triumph, commercial gain and national glory. On a deeper level, it is the story of nations seeking to incorporate the Antarctic into their national narratives and to claim its frozen wastes as their own.


Day's Antarctica is an impressive piece of work, an impartial and deeply researched account of the politics of polar annexation.

Richard Hamblyn, The Times Literary Supplement

This is an intoxicating book by Australia's greatest historian.

Peter FitzSimons

Day's compelling account takes the reader beyond the triumphs and failures of various expeditions and narrow nationalist perspectives. This is world and transnational history on a grand scale based upon archives in the USA and Norway as well as Britain, Australia and New Zealand. It is as the dust jacket claims, "the first large-scale history of Antarctica".

Tom Brooking, University of Otago, Australian Historical Studies

A fine book. His biography of Antarctica is a remarkable work of scholarship and sustained analysis.

Ross Fitzgerald, The Australian

Day weaves a masterly tale of expeditions and their leaders in this hugely detailed and well-researched tome. There are some absolute gems with new insights for even the most avid readers on the subject.

Chris Turney, The Times Higher Education Supplement

Behind the scenes, nations have long plotted to win sovereignty and control resources. And that is where David Day's Antarctica: A Biography takes us, into a two-faced world of public and covert intentions where personal and national rivalries abound. Day has done a remarkable job of collating information from rich and varied international sources. Thanks to Day, the intrigues and posturing that saturate the history of this distant land have now been exposed.

Edmund Stump, Nature

In this meticulously researched book, the Australian historian David Day reminds us that there is considerably more to the story of Antarctica than, say, the conquest of Roald Amundsen or the drama of Ernest Shackleton. Day's informative book is a saga of the politicisation of Antarctica, notably from the moment in the late 1930s when the United States entered the territorial contest and the Soviet Union dusted of Bellinghausen's 120-year-old charts to fashion its own claim to chunks of land. His thought-provoking and detailed work reminds us that the future of Antarctica remains even more fiercely disputed and uncertain than when Bellinghausen and Bransfield first saw the continent.

Michael Smith, Irish Times

In his latest book, noted Australian historian David Day seeks to capture the spirit of Cook and Mawson and the deeds of subsequent explorers, which eventually turned into a race for Antarctic sovereignty. Unlike traditional histories of Antarctica, which focus almost exclusively upon exploration and individual explorers, Day blends that narrative with the increasing politicisation of Antarctica as European powers, then the Americas, and eventually Argentina and Chile jostled for territory. Day's biography predominantly focuses on the history of human engagement with the continent and some of its offshore islands.There are intriguing snippets throughout, such as the importance of "stamp diplomacy", as various territorial claimants issued postage stamps and established Antarctic post offices in an apparent bid to reinforce their territorial claims under international law. There were also continuous efforts by various countries - the Americas, British and Russians most prominently - to produce authoritative maps of Antarctica, which were also dominated by place names with connections to each country. Again, the catalyst for such conduct was the desire for territorial sovereignty. Day's narrative is a reminder that Antarctica still remains contested space, just as in 1911, when Mawson's expedition left Hobart.

Donald R. Rothwell, The Sydney Morning Herald

On one level, it's the story of explorers battling the most hostile continent in quests for personal triumph, commercial gain and national glory and, on another, it's about nations seeking to claim it as their own.

The Australian, Wish magazine

This scholarly but readable volume surveys the geopolitical history of Antarctica from the dawn of the Age of Reason to the present day. Day is a serious historian. His research has taken him around the world, into archives and libraries and into the minds and intentions of governments.

Greg Ray, Newcastle Herald

If you like reading about human feats of discovery, this is an excellent and detailed summary.

Kara Nicholson, Readings Monthly

Massive, detailed and eye-opening. David Day's biography of the Antarctic is essentially a story of the human drive to explore, conquer, exploit and claim unknown areas. It's a huge book to fit its subject matter, from the 1770s and Captain James Cook's attempts to find the Great South Land to the Antarctic Treaty, tourism, conservation and scientific research of the present.

Sue Bond, Courier Mail

Australian historian David Day has written several meticulously-researched books, and his latest effort is no exception. Antarctica: A Biography, stretches for 21 chapters and more than 600 pages, but it is more than just a traditional history book on the coldest continent. Rather, it is a collective biography that was more than five years in the making.

Andrew Both, Dubbo Weekender

For those who enjoy sweeping historical biographies, David Day's Antarctica is a polar reference piece par excellence.

Roger Dickson, Weekend Post

This is a well-researched, scholarly work that examines nearly 250 years of history with a deft pen and dry wit.

Roderick Easdale, Country Life

Through Day's eyes, Antarctioca becomes a stage upon which stories of commerciality and national interest play out. It's an impressive and well-researched tome, that details humanity's struggle to conquer, claim and understand this extraordinary place.

Kari Herbert, Geographical, book of the month

An intriguing addition to a centuries-long geopolitical adventure story.

Kirkus Reviews

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Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback


    August 1, 2013

    Vintage Australia

    640 pages

    RRP $34.99

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    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • EBook


    August 1, 2012

    Random House Australia

    624 pages

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Down the Dirt Roads
Sex Crimes in the Fifties
Hillsborough Voices
Australia and the Great War
Courtesan and Countess
Avenue Of Spies
The Making of Australia
Village of Secrets
The Zhivago Affair
Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France
Dad's War
The Trigger