A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration. A Synopsis of Events and Activities

from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09


by Robert Keith Headland

Bernard Quaritch, Ltd., 2009 pp 722. £110 /$180.

Reviewed by Robert B. Stephenson, The Antarctic Circle



Robert Headand’s great work, Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events (referred throughout this review as Headland I) has re-appeared, now entitled A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration. A Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09 (Headland II). All who know Bob have known for years that a ‘new expanded edition’ was in the works. Encountering him at polar events or at SPRI or at the annual gathering at Athy, he would often pull out the fat typescript and invite you to have a look.

     The work—which he liked to refer as his ‘door stop’—enjoyed a gestation period of many years. When I first mentioned it on the antarctic-circle.org website I noted that it was ‘due for publication probably in late 2001.’ In 2003 I commented that ‘there was a sort of indefiniteness as to publication date.’ In 2004, I quipped ‘Imminent, I'm told.’

     As it turned out Headland II was launched at New Zealand House in London on 20 February 2009. Has it been worth the wait? Well, yes, and every Antarctican will want and should have the newest version. But this is not to say that its predecessor should be consigned to the dustheap. Much of what appears in the newest edition can be found with little alteration in the earlier one. More on comparisons in a moment. Let’s first look at the history of this effort.

     In his Introduction, Bob gives some background:

‘This list was first compiled by Dr B.B. [Brian Birley] Roberts in 1945 for the Research Department of the Foreign Office, London. It became available publicly in 1948 as part of the second edition of the Antarctic Pilot (Hydrographic Department, London). Dr Roberts continued editing the list and published a more comprehensive version in the Scott Polar Research Institute’s Polar Record [Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions in Volume 9, Numbers 59 and 60 (May and September 1958)].…’

This appeared as an 87-page off-print published by the Institute and selling for ‘seven shillings and sixpence.’ One would immediately recognize the design and format as the basis for both Headland I and II. (One difference is that Roberts assigned no Index No. (Headland I) or Entry No. (Headland II) to his 600 some-odd entries.)

     Bob continues:

‘Following the 1958 edition, Dr Roberts continued revising the list for a later edition until his death in 1978. Among his papers he left an extensively annotated copy of the 1958 edition, about 800 index cards giving details of additional entries, a series of files on many national expeditions with related correspondence, a collection of notes about supplementary sources which he intended to check and other related papers. In addition he left an endowment, the Brian Roberts Fund, to provide money for research on polar matters. In 1983 I was asked by the administrators of the Fund to prepare a revision of the chronology.’

     Headland I appeared in 1989 just over thirty years after Dr Roberts’ Polar Record version. And now, twenty years after that, Headland II makes its appearance.



         Those not familiar with the book, might wonder what’s there? Bob begins his Introduction by describing the Object: ‘The purpose of this chronology is to record, as concisely as practicable, the history of discovery, exploration, exploitation, surveying, scientific investigation, administration, and related subjects in all regions of the Antarctic.’ Details are given on ‘approximately 5000 expeditions (individual vessels in entries for multiple voyages [mainly sealers and yachts], every voyage of a fleet, and each national annual expedition being counted separately).’

     Entries relate to either expeditions or events. Each entry includes, when known or appropriate, the Year, Event, Leader or Master, Vessel, Entry No. and Description. I could find no single entry longer than about half a page. The front matter has some particularly useful compilations (Antarctic Treaty matters, the very handy Stages of Exploration, Winter Scientific Stations and Bases—both historic and present-day—and the capsule summary of National Antarctic Operations). The Index dominates the back matter in both editions.



So how do Headland I and II compare? As to content, design and presentation, they are close to being the same. So let’s look at them statistically at first.


Pages:  730 vs 722 (that’s right, Headland I is longer than Headland II, but…

Page size (height x width in mm):  245 x 171 vs 300 x 210.

Page area in square meters:  30.58 vs 45.49.

Thickness in mm:  44 vs 43.

Weight in kilos:  1.7179811 vs 2.3558454 (‘Heavy enough to kill small rodents,’ according to Bob)

Price (that I paid):  $114.50 vs $183 (List: £110)

Plates:  29 vs 40 (all repeated and eleven added)

Graphs or Histograms:  4 vs 8

Maps:  27 vs 27 (one has been added, two have been combined)

Introduction:  1-49 (49pp) vs 9-72 (64pp)

Bibliography:  604-621 (18pp) single column vs 627-634 (8pp) double column.

Index:  625-730 (106pp) vs 635-719 (85pp) 

Entries:  3342 on 551pp vs 4865 on 553pp

      BC  <1% vs <1%

      To 1500  <1% vs <1%

      1500-1599  <1% vs <1%

      1600-1699  1.4% vs 1.1%

      1700-1799  4.7% vs 3.8%

      1800-1899  31% vs 26%

      1900-1999  61% vs 60%

      2000-  – vs 7%

      Heroic Age*  9.3% vs 7.8%


      * Belgica expedition (1897-99) – Quest expedition (1922)



     Bob describes some of the changes. ‘It is estimated that fewer than 10% of the entries in the 1989 edition have been significantly amended. As well as those after 1989 the changes include some additional minor voyages of discovery, several hundred more sealing voyages, many more complete names, vessel names for the whaling industry, some corrections to dates and notes, better indexing of subjects, revision of the histograms and bibliography, and similar improvements in completeness and correctness. More than 1500 additional entries have been inserted.’



     Headland II is an essential reference for any Antarctic library or collection and well worth the price. But I do have some small criticisms and one a bit larger.

     The size of Headland I makes it easier to use than Headland II. The added dustwrapper, though attractive enough, kind of gets in the way when one pulls the volume down from the shelf or places it flat on the desk.

     The entries of both editions are numbered but, as Bob explains, these are not comparable, will change again in any future editions and shouldn’t be used for citing. A concordance appears on the last page of Headland II but what’s really needed is something added to the entry itself. For those entries that are in both editions, both Index Nos. (Headland I) and Entry Nos. (Headland II) could have been included. For new entries, just the single number. Doing this would have had the added benefit of making it easy to identify entries that are appearing for the first time in Headland II. Of course, this would have meant more work but what’s another year in the scheme of things?

     There are numerous entries in both editions that, to me, are of questionable interest in an Antarctic reference volume. To take just one example: Tristan da Cunha. This is a long way from the Antarctic and doesn’t appear on any of the maps included but 187 entries are devoted to it, nearly 4% of the total.

     The number of tourist visits to the Antarctic, both on large ships and private yachts, has grown remarkably in the years since Headland I. And this is clearly shown by the entries added in Headland II. Although of less interest to me than earlier explorations and events, particularly those of the Heroic Age, I recognize that some day, perhaps even today, this will be useful information. Certainly no one else is collecting it in this manner.

     Regarding maps: The non-historic ones are more sharply rendered although pretty much the same as in Headland I, with one notable exception. Only the highest elevation is given in Headland II while in its predecessor, the highest appears but the contours are also labeled. Including contours but without labels or knowing the interval, makes the maps less useful. The map for the South Shetlands in both editions is woefully inadequate other than to show the general arrangement of the major islands. This, of course, may have been the intention but having more detail and more place names would be a big improvement. I remain thrilled that Bob continues to use the nomenclature of Greater and Lesser Antarctica. I still have to think a bit to work out which is East Antarctica and which is West.

     Although there are more photographs in Headland II and they are somewhat larger, they appear darker and are not as sharp as those in Headland I.

     In the Contents, there are sections 5.1, 5.2, 5.4 and 5.5. But no 5.3. Actually, there is a 5.3 (mislabeled as 5.4) but no 5.5.

     I’ve searched high and low and have yet to find a key to the symbols used in various entries, an example being number 3575. One’s a black box, another a round sun. I’m assuming these refer to summer and winter but some explanation would seem warranted.

     My biggest criticism, though, is that there is no electronic/DVD or on-line version. The physical book is key, but the ability to search and sort and group and count would make the information all the more accessible and useful. It would also make correcting errors and adding more content much easier and more likely to happen.

     With all this aside, Bob should be justly proud of the final outcome of his Herculean efforts over so many years. This work will assist students, writers and researchers for years to come. One wonders what Bob will set off to do next.