The British Empire Library

The Quiet Land: Diaries of Frank Debenham, Member of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1913

Edited by June Debenham Back

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by E. C. Greenall (Northern Rhodesia 1944-1969)
The diaries concern the expedition, which has for many come to epitomise the Eleroic Age of Antarctic exploration. Though slightly marginal perhaps in Colonial terms, there are those who will welcome the rare insight into its central figure afforded by this book. Frank Debenham was personally known to some of us while at Cambridge in statu pupillari, and to others while in the line of duty at the time of his expeditions to the Bangweulu Swamps, the Kalahari desert and Lake Nyasa.

Affectionately known as Deb, his biographical details and bibliography are modestly summarized in a final chapter which, though illuminating, leaves the reader avid for more. There is mention of an abortive home visit to Australia curtailed by the opening of hostilities in WW1, where, as a company commander of the Ox and Bucks, Deb served in France and Greece. He was seriously wounded in Salonika, effectively terminating his combat duties although not ~ as he humourously comments - his 'light duties' strenuously undertaken elsewhere.

Deb's academic career commenced as an RGS lecturer and fellow of Caius College in 1919. It is excellently portrayed from the inauguration of the Geographical Department in 1920 until his appointment to the Readership in 1928, and the Chair in 1931, culminating in the Department's installation in its present imposing building at the end of Downing Place in 1933. The account graphically illustrates, with extracts from important letters, the concurrent foundation and expansion of the SPRl from the first hesitant steps in 1919 until the official opening of the present institute in 1934 ~ a national monument. It is also shown how, during WW2, the Admiralty came to rely on Deb in the planning of landing operations on sandy beaches, such as Salerno and Anzio, and for the construction of topographical models for its active service departments.

From 1946 to 1960, by now a world expert in natural resources and nearing the conclusion of his academic career. Deb extended his interests to the Colonial Service, and especially to our problems in Central Africa, as is evidenced by no less than 20 publications in his name.

Edited by his daughter, June Debenham Back, the diaries are a record of the first geological and geophysical survey of its kind in the Antarctic. The source material is partly official record, and to a large extent family letters. Part scientific, part sad, the diaries radiate the fund of companionship amongst divers characters united in a common venture. Delighted by the shafts of happiness and the many and witty line drawings, the reader tends to forget about the monotonous diet, frostbite and endless isolation. The comments on diet are of considerable interest as, in many aspects, they were deficient, but there is a record on one notable occasion heralded by a breakfast of fried seal liver followed by cocoa!

Although one of the youngest members of the expedition, it was Deb who was appointed by Commander Evans to take charge of the precious specimens collected, and other scientific material, and to carry on the research the expedition had begun. Deb saw the potential for the future and seized the opportunity, from which emerged the SPRl, a most remarkable living memorial to his leader.

British Empire Book
June Debenham Back
The Erskine Press


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