Essential Information

National Maritime Museum

18 Dec 2010

'Aurora Australis' was the "first book ever written, printed, illustrated and bound in the Antarctic".

Title page of Aurora Australis, 1908-1909 depicting an Aurora (Polar Lights). F6184   Aurora Australis was 'the first book ever written, printed, illustrated and bound in the Antarctic' (Shackleton 1909, 1:217).

It was produced during the British Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Nimrod Expedition) of 1908–09 led by Ernest Shackleton. The book was published at the winter quarters of the expedition at Cape Royds on Ross Island in the McMurdo Sound during the winter months of April to July 1908.

The production of the Aurora Australis was one of the cultural activities Shackleton encouraged while the expedition team over-wintered to ensure that, as he put it 'the spectre known as "polar ennui" never made its appearance' (Shackleton 1909, 1:216). It also provided a useful souvenir to help publicise the expedition. Produced entirely by members of the expedition Aurora Australis was edited by Shackleton, illustrated with lithographs and etchings by George Marston, printed by Ernest Joyce and Frank Wild, and bound by Bernard Day.

By the time Aurora Australis was created, 'winter publications', newspapers containing articles written by the expedition members, were an established feature of polar expeditions. The tradition can be traced back to the Edward Parry's 1819 expedition in search of the North-West Passage. The first winter publication to emerge from the South Pole was the South Polar Times, produced during Captain Robert F. Scott's Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions. 

In fact, Shackleton was appointed editor of South Polar Times during Scott's first expedition and he oversaw the printing of four issues of the newspaper during the winter months of 1902. When Shackleton was about to set off on his own expedition he decided to go a step further and make the 'first attempt to print a book and illustrate it in the depth of an Antarctic Winter' (Shackleton in preface to Aurora Australis). 

Shackleton was able to take a 'complete printing outfit and the necessary paper' (Shackleton 1908, 1:217) to the South Pole thanks to the sponsorship of the printing firm Messrs. Joseph Causton and Sons, Limited. They also provided three weeks of training in the fundamentals of printing and created the emblematic 'penguin stamp' which was used on the binding. 

The conditions in the winter cabin where the small publishing department established itself presented many impediments to the printing process. Murray and Marston describe the constant 'vibration, noise, and settling smuts' (Cited in Millard 1986, xiii) created by the 15 men who shared a cramped hut heated with a mixture of coal and seal blubber. In order to maintain the correct viscosity of ink when printing Joyce and Wild had to place a candle beneath the inking-plate. On one occasion, the candle was left unattended for too long and 'melted the inking roller... the only one on the continent' (Cited in Riffenburgh 2004, 186). 

George Marston, the expedition artist, provided the illustrations for Aurora Australis using the technique of algraphy (printing from aluminium plates). He managed to produce some striking images despite being forced use a etching press instead of a lithographing press and having to work in the early hours of the morning when there were fewest vibrations in the cabin. The final stage of the production process, the binding, was carried out by Bernard Day, the expedition motor mechanic. The covers were created by reusing the venesta wood from the storage boxes taken on the expedition. Venesta wood was a lightweight composite of three layer of oak or chestnut glued together with waterproof cement. Day cleaned, planned and polished the boards before joining them with a leather spine and attaching the pages with green silk cord. 

Though the articles and poems contained in the Aurora Australis are of no great literary merit, they are distinguished by their provenance and the insight into the daily life and experiences of the expedition members they provide. Some 120 pages long, the book is an anthology of three poems, seven articles of fiction and non-fiction, and several illustrations. Shackleton may have originally intended to sell copies of Aurora Australis on his return from the Antarctic but instead they were all distributed among the members of the expedition and given to other 'friends and benefactors of the expedition' (Millard 1986, xx). Because the copies of Aurora Australis were unnumbered it is unclear exactly how many were produced but it is generally agreed that it was somewhere between 90 to 100 copies, of which some 25 to 30 were bound.

The Caird Library holds two original copies of Aurora Australis: one unbound and one bound. The unbound copy (Library ref: PBP2621) can be seen on display in our Oceans of Discovery gallery while the bound copy (Library ref: PBB4190) is available to view on request in the Caird Library.

For Shackleton and the other members of the British Antarctic Expedition Aurora Australis may only have served to guard from 'the danger of lack of occupation during the polar night' (Shackleton 2000, 145) but for us it represents a tangible link to the frozen South Pole, the first book printed at the sign of 'The Penguins', Latitude 77° •• 32' South, Longitude 166° •• 12' East, Antarctica.

Gary, Assistant Librarian