Great honour for the first Swiss in Antarctica | Polarjournal
Swiss Ambassador Pedro Zwahlen (right) and the British High Commissioner to Australia, Victoria Treadell (left), vigorously unveil the two memorial plaques for Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis as part of the commemoration of the deceased expedition members. Image: Dan Broun AAD

Switzerland has been involved in polar research since the beginning of the 20th century. Well known are the expeditions to Greenland by Alfred de Quérvain. But in the “Golden Age of Polar Exploration”, a Swiss scientist, Dr. Xavier Mertz, had also been on the move in Antarctica. He travelled with Douglas Mawson on his first Australian expedition 1911 – 1914. But in the course of this expedition Mertz and his friend Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis lost their lives. Now two plaques have been unveiled in their honour in Hobart Harbour, just outside the museum.

On Mawson Place, directly on Hobart harbour and only 150 metres from the starting point of the expedition at that time, the two commemorative plaques were unveiled in a solemn ceremony by the Swiss Ambassador Pedro Zwahlen and the British High Commissioner to Australia, Victoria Treadell. Also present were the head of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Kim Ellis and the chairman and founder of the Mawsons Hut Foundation, David Jensen. It is also this society that manages the historical legacy of Mawson and its start of Australian exploration in Antarctica. The ceremony was held as part of a commemoration of the victims of the first Australian Antarctic expedition, which had started in Hobart 110 years ago.

A number of high-ranking representatives from Switzerland, Great Britain and Australia attended the commemorative ceremony in the port of Hobart, from where the expedition had set out 110 years earlier. Due to the Corona measures, the celebration remained on a smaller, but no less solemn scale. Image: Dan Broun AAD

David Jensen gave the opening speech, underlining both the importance of the expedition and the merits of the two team members. “It was Australia’s first Antarctic scientific expedition and it was the world’s first truly scientific expedition to the Antarctic,” David Jensen explained. “Recognition of the sacrifices of this expedition has been long overdue and will help tell the story of the two men and Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition.” He pointed out that besides the two plaques, only a cross at Cape Denison, the site of Mawson’s hut and base of the expedition, told of the fate of Mertz and Ninnis.

The Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Pedro Zwahlen, emphasised the pioneering spirit and achievements of Mertz and Ninnis in the course of the Mawson expedition and the importance of Mertz for Swiss-Australian cooperation in Antarctic research. Image: Dan Bround AAD

“He has left his mark on the history of polar research, and his contribution to Mawson’s expedition was the first in a long series of Swiss-Australian collaboration projects in and around Antarctica.”

HE Pedro Zwahlen, Swiss Ambassador to Australia

Ambassador Pedro Zwahlen also said in his speech, “We stand here to commemorate the extraordinary courage and pioneering spirit of Swiss citizen Dr Xavier Mertz and his British friend Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, and their contribution to Science and Antarctic exploration. Dr Xavier Mertz is the first Swiss who set foot on the Antarctic continent.” The Ambassador went on to highlight Mertz’s importance to Swiss-Australian cooperation in Antarctic exploration: “He has left his mark on the history of polar research, and his contribution to Mawson’s expedition was the first in a long series of Swiss-Australian collaboration projects in and around Antarctica.” The British High Commissioner to Australia, Victoria Treadell, also praised the spirit of the two expedition members, saying, “These men lost their lives far from home in the pursuit of advancing human knowledge through scientific discovery. Their contributions to the achievements of the Australian Antarctic Expedition are not forgotten, and our nations honour their legacy and celebrate the unending spirit of scientific adventure.”

Dr. Xavier Mertz (1882 – 1913), born in Basel, was an excellent skier. This was probably one of the reasons why Douglas Mawson took the Swiss with him on the first Australian Antarctic expedition. In the course of time, the lawyer developed into a true Antarctic pioneer and explorer, whose contributions were important for the scientific investigations of the expedition. Pictures: Frank Hurley (from “Xavier Mertz – The Pictures” by Martin Riggenbach)

Dr Xavier Mertz, who was actually a lawyer, successful skier and photographer, and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis of the Royal British Fusiliers, had come forward in response to an advertisement from Douglas Mawson. While Ninnis was able to convince Mawson with his military rank and training, it was probably Mertz’s experience in skiing and his enthusiasm that had brought the actually polar-inexperienced Swiss into the team. As the two had to take Mawson’s ship, the SY Aurora from London to Hobart and were also responsible for the sled dogs, they quickly became close friends.

Xavier Mertz, here on the left, and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis of the British Army, had been hired by Douglas Mawson for his “Australasian Antarctic Expedition”. The three set out in 1912 to explore unknown parts of East Antarctica by dog sled. But both lost their lives on that expedition, Mawson barely surviving. Picture: Frank Hurley (from Martin Riggenbacher “Xavier Mertz – The Pictures”)

In the summer of 1912, Mawson and the two formed one of several teams to undertake research and exploration cruises from Cape Denison in the East Antarctic. During the journey, Ninnis first fell into a crevasse with his sled and most of the equipment and food and disappeared without a trace. Mawson and Mertz, who were more than 500 kilometers from the base, headed back. One by one they shot and ate the sled dogs to survive. But Mertz, weakened and ill, died about 200 kilometers from the base on January 8, 1913. Mawson buried the Swiss and made his way back alone. More dead than alive, he reached the saving camp four weeks later. Mertz and Ninnis, whose bodies were no longer found, were honored by him by naming two large glaciers after them which they had explored. A cross on Cape Denison was the only memorial to the two polar heroes until yesterday.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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