Whaled and Sealed
In the Arctic Sea, all the islands (such as Greenland, Svalbard and Ellesmere Island) had for centuries been populated and divided among nations like the Soviet Union, Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark. But Antarctica was so remote that it was unknown till the late 18th century .
Then some ships landed in the outlying islands of the white continent, such as King George’s Island, and were wonderstruck with the discovery of wildlife -especially fur seals and whales -that promised millions in profits. Other explorers created dreams of massive mineral resources, including coal and oil.
By the early 20th century, more than adozen countries had established whaling and sealing stations and made territorial claims on enormous chunks of Antarctica and its outlying islands. A few scientific stations came up too. But in the main, it was an imperial race for territory and resources.
The main claimants were Britain, the US, the Soviet Union, Japan, Norway , Argentina, Australia and France. But several smaller countries made claims too. Since Antarctica was unpopulated, anybody could establish astation and claim millions of square miles of territory around it.
The earliest plunder was done by the fur trade. Seal fur was of high quality and fetched high prices. Hunters could just walk up to unsuspecting seals and bludgeon them to death.Within a few decades, millions of seals were killed and entire islands were wiped clean.
Then followed a mad rush for whales. The Antarctic Ocean in summer generated vast amounts of plankton that provided food for billions of krill, ashrimp-like creature. These, in turn, were eaten by huge populations of whales, seals and penguins.
Commercial whaling was highly profitable in the 19th century , since oil from whale blubber fetched high prices. Whales stripped of blubber were mostly dumped into the sea in the 19th century . But gradually, countries like Japan and Norway developed a taste for whale meat. Whales are mammals, not fish, and yield red meat that is compared in some countries to fine steak.
Antarctic whales were decimated from the mid-19th century onwards, and many species became scarce and faced extinction. Meanwhile, the tech nological progress of the oil indust ry threw up possibilities of finding vast reserves in the white continent.
Given the sorry history of human plunder, we could have expected an imperial rush for land and natural resources in Antarctica as bloody and widespread as those that occur red when Europeans discovered the Americas. The race for Antarctic ter ritory was already a political fact by the early 20th century.
From Fights to Rights
Yet, a totally new set of global values was created by the horrors of World War 2. This led to the establishment of new global institutions, declara tions of universal rights, and global cooperation in place of never-ending territorial wars. Few realise that but for this foundation in values, globali sation could not have proceeded so rapidly in commerce.
In 1959, the 12 territorial claimants in Antarctica signed a treaty estab lishing scientific and technical col laboration in place of the old com petition. The treaty did not set aside territorial claims, but abolished mi litary bases to create a continent of peace. It did not prohibit mineral or animal exploitation.
But in succeeding decades, the for ces of globalisation beat those of nationalism. All countries agreed to abandon territorial claims, abandon exploitation of resources, and treat Antarctica as a special territory for all humanity , to be conserved and not commercially exploited.
Whale oil was made obsolete by petroleum and this helped forge an agreement to ban commercial whaling.Japan still kills a limited number of whales supposedly for scientific research, though actually to meet a declining local demand for whale meat.Animal populations have revived strongly in the continent.
Instead of hunters, tourists now flood into Antarctica in search of whales, seals, penguins, albatrosses and other minor fauna. Tourism is strictly regulated to check any intrusion of alien species and germs that might affect the natural Antarctic species.
Scientific collaboration in Antarctica led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, and to the Montreal Protocol to solve the problem. This was the first-ever global agreement to meet an environmental threat to all humanity , and has set the pace for other global initiatives.
So, don’t get demoralised by the triumph of Brexiteers and Trump. Globalisation is still going strong in ways that are not obvious, even as some of its rough edges are being smoothened.