After the Queen’s visit to the Foreign Office this week, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the southern part of the British Antarctic Territory will now be known, at least on British maps, as “Queen Elizabeth Land”. Within hours of this announcement, made in acknowledgement of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee and her service to the country, the story was top of the tweeting trends in the UK. Why all this interest?
This has been a momentous year for all things polar and Falklands-related. We have had the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated Scott expedition, and the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. In March, the posting to the Falkland Islands of the Duke of Cambridge as a RAF search and rescue pilot stirred Argentine political opinion.
In the autumn, parliamentarians called into question a proposal to merge the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre. After several parliamentary debates and committee meetings, it was concluded that Britain had a “strategic presence” in the Antarctic. And while BAS and other university scientists are doing path-breaking research on sub-glacial lakes (alongside mapping), there are other issues at stake. The British overseas territories of British Antarctic Territory, the Falklands, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are disputed by Argentina.
So the timing of this “gift” to the Queen is noteworthy. But it also serves as a reminder of two really important themes that have dominated the geopolitics of the Antarctic Peninsula region for the last 100 years. The first revolves around sovereignty claims and the second, and related point, concerns place naming. Neither is uncontroversial.
The Antarctic Peninsula and the southern part of what the British would term British Antarctic Territory is the most contested part of the polar continent. Formerly known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies, this enormous area, seven times larger than the United Kingdom, is counter-claimed by Argentina and Chile. While the British were the first to claim in 1908, and again in 1917, the Argentine and Chilean governments thought for much of their post-independence history that their nascent countries extended to the South Pole. Argentina and Chile delimited their polar territories in 1940 and 1943 respectively.
The three countries, for much of the first part of the 20th century, were locked into diplomatic, scientific and geographical struggles designed to cement their sovereignty claims to the region. In 1951, a Foreign Office official, Bill Hunter-Christie, described it as “the Antarctic Problem”.
It turned out to be typical British under-statement. Argentina under the leadership of Juan Domingo Peron was busy raising the profile of “Argentine Antarctic Territory” via a series of calculated investments in base construction, aerial photography and public education. Producing maps and charts was considered vital to consolidating geopolitical influence. With the absence of an indigenous human population, maps and charts have always been instruments of power in the polar context.
The Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, since renamed the British Antarctic Survey, was also active in mapping, charting, exploring, and naming territories. There was also time for a privately organised expedition, the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1957-8), to depart from what will now be called Queen Elizabeth Land to make the first mechanised crossing of the continent.
In 1959, geopolitical angst was supposed to have been replaced by scientific cordiality. After six weeks of intense negotiations, 12 countries – including the three counter-claimants – agreed to the terms and conditions of the Antarctic Treaty. Under Article IV, the seven claimants (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand and the UK) all agreed with the other signatories (including the US and Soviet Union) to agree to disagree on the disputed ownership of the polar continent.
All the parties turned to science, and hoped that scientific co-operation would help to cement a more co-operative existence. To be fair, for the next 50 years, the original 12 – and later signatories such as Brazil, China and India – have largely collaborated with one another to manage contentious issues such as fishing and tourism, while using the provisions of the Environmental Protocol to prohibit all forms of mineral exploitation.
But why should there be so much interest in such a cruelly inhospitable region?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the resource potential of the continent encouraged other states, including many from the Third World, to join what was called the Antarctic Treaty System. Every member of the treaty is entitled to establish scientific stations, regardless of whoever claims a particular part of the Antarctic. So in British Antarctic Territory, there are Russian, American, Brazilian, Polish stations, to name but a few.
Respectful science, governed by consensus and exchange, was coming up against speculation about the hidden treasures that might exist under rock and ice. Third World critics thought that all this interest in science was just a cover for what was really driving the interests of the UK and US – oil, gas, coal, and minerals such as uranium. There has been no mining but plenty of money has been made through fishing, whaling, tourism and biological prospecting. The result is to produce a place that is, on the one hand, seen as offering incredible insights into the workings of planet earth, while also promising untold commercial opportunities. Antarctica may be remote but it is also physically and economically connected to the wider world.
Whatever the achievements of the Antarctic Treaty, including turning Antarctica into the world’s first nuclear-free zone, it has been a fraught business. All the claimants know that their claims are barely recognised by the international community. Australia, Norway, France and New Zealand are the only countries that formally recognise the existence of British Antarctic Territory; Argentina and Chile clearly don’t. And the United States and Russia reserve the right to make a claim in the future. Rising powers such as Brazil, China and India have their own interests and are investing ever more in science, exploration and place naming.
Place naming is really important. Along with maps and scientific stations, it is one of the most visible markers of national presence; every country with interests in Antarctica has its own procedures. The map is covered with thousands of names representing geographical features. These reveal lots about a country’s exploratory, scientific, monarchical, geographical, political and iconographic traditions.
According to the Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica, Britain was responsible for nearly 5,000 names, with the US leading the pack with over 13,000. New Zealand put Maori place names on its maps of its polar territory, the Ross Dependency. Even smaller polar operators such as Bulgaria are responsible for hundreds of place names.
However, there are 3,000 places that have multiple names through translation/transliteration, or different names. The Antarctic Peninsula is called Graham Land (UK), Tierra San Martin (Argentina), Palmer Peninsula (US) and Tierra de O’Higgins (Chile). In 1964, the UK and US agreed to a new strategy, which effectively divided the peninsula into two parts and named accordingly. The northern section was called Graham Land and the southern portion became known as Palmer Land on their maps. So agreement is possible – but the US and UK were, and remain, close allies.
In the UK, the Antarctic Place-names Committee (APC) still considers place name proposals, and agreed “Queen Elizabeth Land”. The APC only addresses the British Antarctic Territory (BAT) and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and liaises regularly with the equivalent committees in Norway, Australia, New Zealand, France and the US. Argentina and Chile also have their own equivalents, and these place-naming committees interact with one another.
So while the naming of Queen Elizabeth Land might not have been considered provocative by the British authorities, this 94,000 square mile territory is at the heart of the contested geopolitics of Antarctica. Place names are markers of national sovereignty and symbols of polar nationalism. And in the wake of the merger fiasco involving British Antarctic Survey, the newly anointed Queen Elizabeth Land serves as a reminder that the Government is committed to preserving the British presence in the far south.
Argentina and Chile may not like the naming, but they are not obliged to use it. And they may choose their own counter names in due course. It may now be Queen Elizabeth Land on British maps, but it will not be Tierra de Reina Isabel on Argentine and Chilean maps any time soon.
Klaus Dodds is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, editor of ‘The Geographical Journal’ and author of ‘The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP)