METEOROLOGICAL observation in the Antarctic is of great importance to long-range weather prediction throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The wild and frigid storms originating over the great glacial plateaus in the interior make themselves felt as far north as the Tropic of Capricorn: it has been estimated that the immense Antarctic ice-cap results in a difference of 10° Fahrenheit between the mean temperatures of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. For this reason it is not surprising that in spite of the hardship and danger of wintering in the Antarctic, there are some eighteen weather stations maintained there throughout the year. The interesting fact is that fifteen of these establishments are concentrated within a radius of five hundred miles of Hope Bay, at the northeastern tip of Palmer Land, which reaches up from the Antarctic Continent into the southern Atlantic.

This compact arrangement is not primarily in the interest of science, although the Palmer Peninsula and its archipelagoes offer particularly interesting topography, weather and ocean currents, and are more accessible than any other Antarctic land areas. The primary reason for their concentration is a unique and anachronous contest of increasing intensity devoted, in effect, to the colonization of the last frontier continent. The principal competitors are Britain, Argentina and Chile, whose efforts have more than quadrupled the Antarctic population since the end of the Second World War. All three have claimed sovereignty over sectors in the American quadrant, with the peninsula and its islands as the main objects of contention.

The competition took a new turn on January 30, 1952, when, with a darkening storm moving in over the icy crags of the Trinity Peninsula, a British ship, the John Biscoe, anchored in the comparative shelter of Hope Bay. The John Biscoe, commanded by Captain William Johnson, is one of the ships assigned to the British Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, and its mission to Hope Bay was to reëstablish a meteorological station first built in 1944 and destroyed by fire during the Antarctic summer of 1948-49. The British party discovered, without too much surprise, that there was a new Argentine establishment ashore a few hundred yards from the ruins of their base. After riding out the storm which lasted through the next day, they began to land their supplies and equipment. The naval officer in charge of the Argentine base, according to an account appearing in the London Times the following Monday, indicated that he would resist any attempt to land; and as the first load of supplies was deposited on the beach, a burst of machine gun fire crackled over the heads of the landing party. The unarmed Englishmen were shortly surrounded by Argentine riflemen who forced them to retire from the beach. The Argentine detachment returned their supplies to the ship.

The next day, Sunday, February 3, after consultations in Buenos Aires between the British Ambassador and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the zealous Argentine lieutenant was apparently instructed to hold his fire. The John Biscoe party resumed its landing operations, and eventually the British base was reconstructed. There was a report of a ceremonial visit later by the Governor of the Falkland Islands aboard a small warship.

The shots fired on February 2, 1952, were the first incidence of violence in the course of the competition, and although the affair was not allowed to become a casus belli, it clearly reflected the increasing determination of the Latin Americans to challenge the southernmost outpost of the British Empire. The affair has been treated as an unfortunate misunderstanding by both Britain and Argentina, but the use of firearms by the Argentine naval detachment may well mark the end of the era in which national differences were forgotten in the struggle against the violence of nature.

The seven specific claims to Antarctic sectors have all been made since 1908. On July 21 of that year Britain claimed the Falklands sector, the shape of which was altered by letters patent of March 28, 1917. On July 30, 1923, the Ross Dependency was claimed by Britain; France, on March 27, 1924, claimed Adélie Land, sector boundaries of which were more precisely defined in a decree of April 1, 1938. Australia's claim went into effect August 24, 1936; Norway's claim on January 14, 1939. Argentina's claim was made first in a letter to Britain on November 30, 1925. Chile's was in a decree of November 6, 1940. However, because of the inaccessibility of the interior of the continent--four-fifths of which is still unexplored even by air--and because even those strips of coast which have been charted are scarcely habitable, it has been necessary to define and justify these claims by the use of unique and legally questionable devices.


The geographical delimitation of claims to Arctic and Antarctic territory has been facilitated by the invention of the Polar Sector, attributed to a Canadian Senator named Pascal Poirier. Poirier proposed it in 1907 as a device for proclaiming sovereignty over the Canadian Arctic, and it was adopted by the Canadian Parliament. It has since been used by England, France, Australia, Norway, Chile and Argentina in the Antarctic, and by the Soviet Union in the Arctic.

The sector is an arbitrary device, reminiscent of Alexander VI's Papal Bull of 1493 dividing the globe between Spain and Portugal. It has been traced to the doctrine of Continuity, invoked in past centuries to justify the extension of colonies into the hinterland where effective territorial control was neither possible nor necessary. Because of the need to control islands in or near territorial waters, the Continuity principle has been projected into the principle of Contiguity, used to justify claims to land separated by water from the territory of the claimant state. In the Antarctic, separated from the nearest inhabited continent by over 700 miles of high seas, even the doctrine of Contiguity cannot be applied without reservation.

The substantive justification for the claims themselves can in most cases be documented with legal precedent. This has been done, in general, by analogy with the European colonization of the Americas and Africa, where national sovereignty over terra nullius was established by satisfaction of three general conditions: discovery, publication and effective occupation.

The requirement of publication is satisfied by the issuance to a foreign government of any pertinent official document with the force of national law. It has little significance in the twentieth century, and has not caused any serious differences relating to Antarctic claims.

Satisfaction of the requirements of discovery and effective occupation, however, has been the subject of controversy ever since the British laid claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies sector in 1908. This claim, made in letters patent July 21, 1908, illustrates the abstract quality of the sector. It blithely included some hundred thousand square miles of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, "restored" in an amending decree nine years later, which removed the northwest corner of the Falklands sector. Since the Second World War this controversy has been considerably intensified, particularly in the conflicting claims of Britain, Argentina and Chile in the American Quadrant, and their efforts to outdo one another in demonstrating their rights to territorial sovereignty.

One of the most interesting aspects of this contest has been the Latin American challenge not only to the British claims themselves, but to the first principle advanced in their justification: the legal validity of discovery rights. Discovery, particularly in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was, needless to say, a primary requirement for the claim of a European nation to colonial territory in the Americas, Africa and the islands of the Pacific. As such it was generally accepted in the nineteenth century codification of international law.

It has been given consideration in twentieth century writing on questions of territorial sovereignty in spite of the fact that only the Arctic and Antarctic coasts have not been accurately charted. When the Island of Miangas was awarded to the Netherlands in 1928, Max Huber, in his opinion as Arbiter for the Permanent Court of International Justice, acknowledged that discovery carried inchoate rights to sovereignty, but stated that they must be "completed eventually by actual and durable taking of possession within a reasonable time."[i]

Discovery, however, is explicitly advanced as justification for British claims to the Falkland Islands Dependencies in the Antarctic, and is at least implicit in the Norwegian, French and Australian claims to sectors of the continent in which their respective nationals have made significant discoveries. The United States, while not specifically denying the validity of discovery rights in the Antarctic, has maintained the official position first laid down by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes in 1924, that no nation can claim sovereignty over an area where effective occupation is not possible.[ii]

In an exchange of notes with Britain in the summer of 1951, Argentina denied the validity of British discovery rights in the Antarctic, stating that effective occupation must be the test. Argentine claims to effective occupation, with reference to a weather station operated on Laurie Island since 1904, are in themselves a denial of effective British occupation.

Chile, during the same summer, denied the validity of British discovery rights even more categorically, charging that, "In fact discovery and scientific expeditions carried out in the Antarctic do not and cannot constitute any title over this region."[iii] Chile makes no claim to discovery rights, but claims effective occupation since the establishment of a Chilean whaling station on Deception Island in 1906.

Both Argentina and Chile have refused the British offer to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice. In making this offer, Britain expresses confidence in the validity of her Antarctic claims, and Chile and Argentina seem to exhibit a lack of confidence that they would be rejected. The reasons given for refusing arbitration are various. In addition to their reluctance to weaken their positions by submitting to arbitration, they are aware that an international tribunal might support discovery rights to a certain extent. There is some question as to the effectiveness of the Chilean whaling station on Deception Island as a colonial outpost. The Falkland Islands, included in the Argentine claim, are manifestly an exception to the Argentine assertions of their own continuous and effective occupation of the whole sector. There are, in fact, a number of circumstances which weaken the Argentine and Chilean claims to continuous and effective occupation. Nevertheless Britain has found it necessary to defend her position in the colonization contest.


British discovery rights in the Falkland Dependencies sector have been subject for some years to a different type of challenge from still further north. Although the importance of discovery rights in international law seems to have diminished, the heroic stories of exploration still dominate the literature about the Antarctic, and the question as to who first laid eyes on the Antarctic mainland has received a considerable amount of attention. Whoever it was almost certainly gazed at the mountains of the peninsula known variously as Palmer Land, Graham Land or Tierra O'Higgins. This peninsula extends to within a day's sailing time of waters frequented by seal hunters as early as the first decade of the nineteenth century. It was partly the search for sealing grounds which took Captain Edward Bransfield of the British Navy south to the coast which he named Trinity Land in 1820. Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, of Stonington, Connecticut, who was with the American sealing fleet moored at Deception Island later in the same year, sailed south to investigate the line of mountains which he had sighted from Deception.

The British base their discovery claims on Bransfield's expedition. Palmer's expedition is the basis of American claims which have been made officially that "Palmer Land" was adopted by the U. S. Board of Geographical Names as the official name of the peninsula; a few articles asserting Palmer's discovery have appeared in government publications. Bransfield sighted Antarctic land almost a year before Palmer; however, Palmer's defenders base their claim on the assumption that what Bransfield saw was actually an island, and that Palmer was first to sight the actual mainland. The records of both expeditions are inconclusive, and for several years before the Second World War there was a heated argument between British and American geographers, led by Professor R. N. Rudmose-Brown of Sheffield University and the late Arthur R. Hinks, Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, and by the late Professor William H. Hobbs of the University of Michigan. It was carried on in the pages of such publications as Science, The Geographical Review and Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. The articles aroused considerable public interest in what had previously been an obscure issue.

Another effect of the Bransfield-Palmer controversy, however, was to call forth new contenders for the honor. No dissenting voice has been raised in England against Bransfield's title, but a New England historian has discovered the log of a Nantucket whaling captain named Christopher Burdick who sighted land from a point close to the controversial peninsula, and identified it as the southern continent, which neither Palmer nor Bransfield had done.[iv] This newly discovered log must certainly be treated as seriously as the secondary accounts upon which the titles of Palmer and Bransfield rest. Another contender has appeared since 1949, when Soviet Russian geographers devoted considerable time and effort to the examination of records of the voyage of Admiral Fabian von Bellingshausen, on which during the Antarctic summer of 1820-21 he discovered two large islands off the coast of the continent and sailed very close to the northern coasts of the Palmer Peninsula. As a result of these researches, the All-Soviet Geographical Congress concluded in 1949 that Bellingshausen, sailing in the service of Tsar Alexander I, was the discoverer of the Antarctic Continent.

It is unlikely that there can be any satisfactory answer to the question of who first discovered the southern continent. All existing claims have been based on controvertible evidence. Moreover, there is always a chance that an earlier account will be brought to light. The claims to Antarctic discoveries no longer seem able to satisfy the demands based on them. As a result, even those sector claimants whose assertions of sovereignty are associated with discovery are following the leads of Chile and Argentina. France, Australia and Norway (the last in conjunction with Britain and Sweden) have established winter stations within their sector claims during the last five years, and plan to continue maintaining them.

Admiral Byrd has announced that he is planning a new American expedition as soon as possible. If he is able to muster an organization comparable to "Operation High-Jump" in 1946-47, there is no doubt that he will cause the governments of Britain, Chile and Argentina some little concern. There are indications that "High-Jump," with its 13 ships and 4,000 men, served to remind the Chileans and Argentines that unfriendly control of the Palmer Peninsula would be a real threat to their security. Their recent official geographical publications show that they are taking their Antarctic claims quite seriously.

Beginning in 1948, the British have negotiated annual trilateral agreements with Chile and Argentina which have provided that none of the signatories will indulge in a provocative show of naval strength in the Antarctic seas. A bilateral agreement was concluded between Chile and Argentina in 1947, and an exchange of official observers has been conducted between Chilean and Argentine expeditions--indicative of united opposition to British claims. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance signed at Rio de Janeiro in 1947 included the American Quadrant of the Antarctic in its mutual defense area. This treaty, in effect, applied the Monroe Doctrine to the Antarctic for the first time.

Meanwhile, there has been an increasing awareness of the potentialities of the southern polar area as a strategic land mass, as a potential source of mineral wealth and as a possibly valuable colony. It lends point to the Hope Bay incident as a reminder that European claims to Antarctic sovereignty which have stood unloved but unmolested for a good many years are being challenged.

In the eventual solution of the Antarctic question the assertion of discovery rights will clearly play much less of a rôle than the establishment of effective control. Effective occupation, by a definition which goes back to the sixteenth century, and is found in such instruments as the General Act of Berlin (1885) and the Treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye (1679), is exclusively unilateral. No more than one national authority can operate effectively and independently in the same area even though the number of persons and the amount of property involved be negligible.

The importance of effective occupation, the fact that to be effective it must be exclusive, and the fact that the joint tenancy of Hope Bay, for example, cannot be so regarded, combine to stimulate activity in the American Quadrant. It is perhaps significant that the machine gun has been introduced as an instrument of exclusion.

[i] United Nations. Reports of International Arbitral Awards, v. 2, 1949, p. 845.

[ii] U. S. Department of State. "Foreign Relations of the United States", 1924, v. 2, p. 519-20.

[iii] The British notes and translations of the Chilean and Argentine notes appear in Polar Record, v. 6, no. 43, January 1952, p. 413-418.

[iv] Edouard A. Stackpole, "A First Recognition of Antarctica." Boston Public Library Quarterly, v. 4, no. 1, 1951, p. 3-19.

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