Although the First World War effectively ended the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, British interest in the region remained high. Shortly after the war, the British government sent a secret despatch to New Zealand’s government, suggesting that the whole of the Antarctic should eventually be part of the British Empire. In 1917 Britain had used the sector principle (which allowed a nation to claim an area of the Arctic or Antarctic from its existing territory to the pole) to extend its claim over areas of the Antarctic coastline as far south as the pole itself. Now Britain was proposing that the Australian and New Zealand governments should do likewise, as they were the nearest countries and had the most convenient ports.
New Zealand interest
Eighty years later former New Zealand diplomat Malcolm Templeton summed up the situation as follows: ‘Thus, almost casually, through an accident of geography, New Zealand was offered a slice of Antarctica larger than New Zealand itself.’1 In May 1923 the New Zealand government agreed to make the Ross Sea region a ‘dependency’, formally controlled by the governor-general.
In the years before the Second World War, New Zealand did little to exert its claim to the Ross Dependency. In August 1923 the New Zealand attorney general had argued that the decision had been made by New Zealand ‘on behalf of the Empire as a whole, and not specially in the interests of New Zealand.’2
In 1926 New Zealand promulgated regulations to manage whaling in the Ross Dependency, but no whaling licences were issued under the regulations.
A Commonwealth scientific expedition – the British Australia New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) – went to the Antarctic in 1929 and 1930–31. Led by Douglas Mawson of Australia, the group included two New Zealanders, scientist Robert Falla and meteorologist Richard Simmers. The New Zealand government helped fund the expedition, but did so reluctantly – the Antarctic was still of marginal interest.
United States interest
In late 1929 an American navy commander, Richard Byrd, flew to the South Pole from a base on the Ross Sea ice shelf. Byrd canvassed the idea of an American claim to Antarctica east of the Ross Dependency. While New Zealand worried about American intentions, they came to nothing, but two other countries’ claims did materialise. France formally claimed a small sector of the continent, Adélie Land, in 1938, and Norway claimed Queen Maud Land in 1939. Although Australia, Britain and New Zealand recognised these claims, the advent of the Second World War effectively put New Zealand’s interest in and concerns about Antarctica on ice.