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Historic Flag Friday: South Magnetic Pole Flag

When Ernest Shackleton set out on the Nimrod Expedition in 1907, he brought a Union Jack which he intended to plant at the geographic South Pole. Although a Union Jack did end up flying at a South Pole, it was neither the flag nor the pole Shackleton had originally intended.

Shackleton led a four-man team on a 62-day march south toward the geographic South Pole. After a brutal and exhausting journey, they stopped within 100 miles of their destination. Before they turned back, they raised the Union Jack to mark the southern-most latitude thus far achieved. At the same time, far across the continent, three members of the same expedition were preparing to raise their own Union Jack. But this one had polka-dots.

A photo of Jameson Adams, Frank Wild, and Eric Marshall with the Union Jack at 88° 23' S on January 9, 1909. Ernest Shackleton is behind the camera.

The Magnetic Pole Journey

It had been the intention of Shackleton to reach the South Magnetic Pole until tensions between Robert Falcon Scott and himself made it untenable. In 1907, Scott wrote to Shackleton with a request that he change his planned base of operations.

I think you should retire from McMurdo Sound... anyone who has had to do with exploration will regard this region primarily as mine.

Shackleton conceded. He made plans to move his base east to King Edward VII Land, forfeiting his planned journey to the South Magnetic Pole in the process. However, after attempts to land at the location failed and the threat of sea ice grew, the party reverted to their original plan of landing in McMurdo Sound.

It bad news for Scott, whose relationship with Shackleton would continue to worsen. But it was good news for the expedition team as it meant achieving the South Magnetic Pole was once again a possibility. Shackleton arranged to send a party of three men in the direction of the South Magnetic Pole at the same time he and his party marched toward the geographic South Pole. The problem? They only had one flag.

The Creation of the Magnetic Pole Flag

The Union Jack brought down in the ship was reserved for the geographic South Pole journey, but achieving a feat like the South Magnetic Pole without a national flag was unthinkable to the expedition members. Fortunately, the men of the Nimrod Expedition were nothing if not resourceful. It was Bernard Day, the expedition's motor expert, who painstakingly sewed a new Union Jack using fabrics he found around their cabin.

According to Claire McLellan, archivist of the Australian Academy of Science where the flag is now housed,

The flag was made out of a red handkerchief with white spots (that were dyed with red ink), some blue material, and the light canvas material used for cubical curtains in their quarters. It was apparently very difficult to sew the parts together and make the seams fit accurately, as the materials were all of different texture.

The South Magnetic Pole flag. Photo courtesy of the Australian Academy of Science.

The three men in the Magnetic Pole party raised the makeshift flag on January 17, 1909, just eight days after Shackleton and his party had raised theirs. Along with raising a polka-dot variant of the Union Jack, the Magnetic Pole party holds another distinction— one of the first Antarctic selfies. In his book The First Journey to the South Magnetic Pole, party leader Edgeworth David writes:

Mawson placed his camera so as to focus the whole group, and arranged a trigger which would be released by means of a string held in our hands so as to make the exposure by means of the focal plane shutter. Meanwhile, Mackay and I fixed up the flag-pole. We then bared our heads and hoisted the Union Jack at 3.30 p.m. with the words uttered by myself in conformity with Lieutenant Shackleton's instructions, "I hereby take possession of this area now containing the Magnetic Pole for the British Empire."

Alistair McKay, Edgeworth David, and Douglas Mawson with the improvised flag. The string triggering the shutter can be seen in David's hands (center). Click here to subscribe to future True South updates.

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