The first territorial claims in the Antarctic were made in 1904, at a time when whalers were discovering the Southern Ocean as a hunting ground and the whaling nations were starting to compete for the best whaling sites.
That was the year in which the Norwegian whaler and captain Carl Anton Larsen hoisted the British flag on the newly built whaling station of Grytviken on South Georgia, the building having been partly financed with British capital. Until then the island had been regarded more or less as no man’s land.
Shortly afterwards Britain officially staked a claim to South Georgia, and in 1908 the United Kingdom declared the entire Antarctic peninsula between the 20th and 80th meridians west of Greenwich to be British territory – and that was just the beginning.
In 1923, more than 80 years after the discovery of the Ross Sea by the Englishman James Clark Ross on 5 January 1841, the United Kingdom used his achievements and those of other British explorers as a basis for further claims.
Great Britain first annexed the sector of the Ross Sea between longitudes 160° East and 150° West, making it a dependency of its colony New Zealand. Three years later it laid claim to a further 40 per cent of the Antarctic continent (45° East to 160° East), this time in the eastern Antarctic. In 1933 this sector – with the exception of a small segment (136° East to 142° East) that France had already claimed as its property – was handed over to Australia, a former British colony.
Norway, which was then the biggest whaling nation, observed Britain’s expansionist activities with great concern. The Norwegians feared that their ships would be prohibited from whaling off the coast of the annexed areas.
To prevent such a ban, they organized expeditions of their own in the Southern Ocean, giving the ships’ crews clear instructions to annex any new land that was discovered. Two islands were initially annexed in this way. By 1939 Norwegian explorers had explored and annexed the entire Antarctic sector between 16° 30' West and 45° East, including the coastal waters, the interior of the territory and the geographic South Pole. This region, which is now called Queen Maud Land, covers an area of almost three million square kilometres.
Following Norway’s example, the countries at the most southerly tip of the American continent – Chile (1940) and Argentina (1942) – then laid claim to Antarctic territory. The designated territories not only overlap but also include areas claimed by Britain, but all these territorial conflicts are suspended until the Antarctic Treaty is terminated.