South Georgia &

South Sandwich Islands

Falkland Islands

British Antarctic

Empire in Antarctica

Captain James Clark Ross and his Antarctic expedition in 1840.


Antarctica, as more and more government officials began to realise the potential strategic, economic, and scientific importance of the last continent, governments began to lay claim to vast tracts of land there, basing their claims on the prior discoveries of their countrymen. The oldest continuously occupied station is the weather station on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys, turned over to Argentina by W.S. Bruce in 1904. This history of occupancy forms a key element of the Argentinean claim to the Peninsula, but the first formal claim over Antarctic territory was made by Britain in 1908 to a large part of the continent south of the Falkland Islands.

The first British explorer to discover Antarctica was James Clark Ross. Between 1839 and 1842, Ross commanded an Antarctic expedition comprising of the vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and charted much of the coastline of the continent, claiming Victoria Land for Britain in 1841. In 1923, this became part of the Ross Dependency, a British territory in Antarctica, now claimed by New Zealand, which is named after him.

Click on the map below of the British Empire in Antarctica to enlarge it.
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Captain Robert Scott explored Antarctica for Britain The British National Antarctic Expedition (1901–1904), led by Robert Falcon Scott, came to within 857 km (463 nautical miles) of the South Pole from its base at McMurdo Sound. In 1903, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition established Osmond House, a meteorological observatory on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. A year later, ownership of the base was passed to Argentina and it was renamed to Orcadas Base. It is the continent's oldest permanent base, and, until World War II, the only one present. Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of Scott's expedition, organised and led the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), again with the primary objective of reaching the South Pole. It came within 180 km (97 nautical miles) before having to turn back. during the expedition, Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier and was the first to reach the polar plateau. Parties led by T. W. Edgeworth David also became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole. On December 141911, a party led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from the ship Frambecame the first to reach the South Pole, using a route from the Bay of Whales (his camp Polheim and up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. Amundsen was followed by Robert Falcon Scott from the Terra Nova over a month later, using the route pioneered by Shackleton. Scott's party later died on the return journey after being delayed by a series of accidents, bad weather, and the declining physical condition of the men. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was later named after these two men. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, led by Ernest Shackleton, set out to cross the continent via the pole, but their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed by pack ice before they even landed. The expedition members survived after an epic journey on sledges over pack ice to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others crossed the Southern Ocean, in an open boat to South Georgia to raise the alarm at the whaling station Grytviken. In 1908, a large section of Antarctica south of the Falkland and South Georgia Islands was claimed for Britain.

In 1923, Britain handed over the Ross Dependencies, to New Zealand. In 1924, France laid claim to Terre Adlie. Australia claimed a large chunk of territory in 1933. In January 1939, Norway formalized its claim to Dronning Maud Land (largely to protect its whaling interests and pre-empt the anticipated claims of the German Schwabenland Expedition). Finally, in 1940, Chile became the third country to claim sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula (after Britain and Argentina). Although the United States pursued no claims of its own, the flurry of international land grabbing may have encouraged the U.S. Congress to establish the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1939. From that moment on, the U.S. government assumed almost complete control of American Antarctic exploration. Other countries were soon to follow suit. By the late 1940s Antarctic exploration had entered a new phase, and one not just due to increased government involvement. For the first time in history, permanent bases were established. The British had been the first when they erected their secret bases in the closing days of the Second World War. Once their existence was known, however, the scramble to occupy the continent was on and other countries established bases there as well. These bases remain active in Antarctica today. Previously a dependency of the British colony of the Falkland Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, claimed by Britain in 1908, was established as a separate British territory in 1962. In 2007, Britain claimed 1 million sq km (386,000 sq miles) of seabed off the Antarctic coast in order to protect oil and gas reserves in the area, thus vastly extending its sovereignty over the continent’s coastal areas. This is permitted under the international Law of the Sea Convention.