Saturday, December 31, 2011

British Antarctic Survey

A maxim in many a post-modern and structural Anthropology or cultural history course during my tenure at the University of Virginia and Brown University, and brief sojourns at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and the Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa held common by my colleagues and instructors was that to better understand a society, inquiry should be directed to those on the periphery.  Furthermore, by gross example, these marginal or liminal groups may either amplify or atrophy discrete structural patterns in the greater society, thus aiding the social scientist in testing theories about cultural universals in the studied society.  This is not a novel idea, the theoretical practice of probing cases on the extreme was explored by leading naturalists and scientists of the nineteenth, twentieth and our own centuries; among them: Charles Darwin who synthesized observations gathered on his voyages aboard the HMS Beagle about evolution, and Walter Falcon Scott journalling weather patterns on his treks across Antarctica.  Extending the argument somewhat by using the same critical modality as those in the social sciences, the student of the British maritime establishment may learn much by casting a thoughtful gaze at the history, uniforms, and traditions of those serving aboard Royal Research vessels of the British Antarctic Survey.  This post will address the first two points.

The British Antarctic Survey's (BAS) history, by virtue of its mission and unique circumstance, mirrors that of the United Kingdom's polar adventures. It may trace its immediate lineage to the halcyon days of heroic exploration by Shackleton and Scott, and Second World War secret Royal Naval expeditions of Operation Tabarin I and II.  The BAS first answered to the Colonial Office as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), and then later as the BAS proper to the National Environmental Research Council (NERC); through these organizational permutations, the ships themselves remained Royal Research Vessels, and mariners civilian.

British scientific interest and exploration of the South Pole began in earnest during the early 1830s with the charting expeditions of John Biscoe.  Following him, the Royal Society and Admiralty, through private donation and public subscription, brought a small, but steady stream of explorers to the Antarctic.  These men-of-science, experiencing the extremes of human endurance, ventured to the continent and its surrounding seas questioning everything from geologic history to ionosphere behavior and photo-plankton life-cycles.  Ships of the period were whalers, borrowed naval ships, and the rare purposefully refitted vessel; all carrying men and materiel to the great ice-shelf and battered polar islands or purposefully (or not) acting as an ice-bound wintering-over base. With fits and starts, exploratory activity was bound by contemporaneous technology; only once the elements could be withstood, did survey give way to dashes to interior peaks and foundation of research camps.  Antarctica played host to scores of international researchers during this heady time - with Great Britain leading the pack.  Then came war, and Antarctic exploration was largely abandoned.  After a decade lull in activity inaugurated by the Great War and broken by Shackleton in 1925, scientific curiosity tempered by national prestige became the new face of exploration; the independent amateur adventurer bowed out to the Royally warranted researcher. It is at this juncture at the cusp of end of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration that the Royal Research Ship or Vessel - with alternate prefixes RRS, RRV or RARV - took the stage.

The Royal Charter of research vessels began with the 1923 Crown purchase of the Discovery for the Royally warranted 1925 Discovery Expedition. This ship was the same three-master which carried Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their 1901-1904 expeditions. Curiously, not coterminous with Discovery's refitting, flags and crests were not created, rather only official uniforms designed (which we shall return to later) - the former happened when British territorial claims in Antarctica were no longer an international afterthought in the late 1960s.  Royal pomp aside, the purpose of the Royal Research Ship was to provide a support platform for scientific endeavor in and around the Antarctic.  Beginning with the astounding success of the RRS Discovery and its crew, the Crown continued its patronage and warranted vessels up until the present day.  And, with the charter of Discovery, a precedent for Admiralty provision of vessels began.  RRS vessels, in turn, were manned by individuals under contract by the organizations which were given the vessels.   Thus, under FIDS, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary under Admiralty proviso placed crew on RRS until the 1962 dissolution of FIDS, and the dual creation of NERC and BAS.  At this point responsibility for the personnel and ships of the RRS fleet - which grew to include oceanographic, fisheries, polar and Antarctic research vessels - was handed to NERC, with the noted exception of the former; it became the province of the British Antarctic Survey.

In its various guises the BAS fleet was never very large, and ships' crew few.  These individuals were (and are) members of the British Merchant Navy and as such are British or British nationals of one sort or another.  During its days as a Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey auxiliary, with long layovers in Stanley (where BAS vessels are flagged and homeport) many a BAS seaman was a Falkland Islander; these days, with off-season dry-docking in the British Isles, this is no longer the case.  At this writing, there are two Royal Research vessels chartered for use by the BAS, the RRS James Clark Ross and the RRS Ernest Shackleton.  Their respective compliment is 80 (11 Officers, 15 Crew, 1 Doctor and 52 Scientific Personnel) and 72 (22 Officers/Crew and 50 Scientific Personnel).  They are run as standard British Merchant Navy Vessels with their organization an outgrowth of a century-old tradition of a division of ship navigation and cargo handling, propulsion and victualing.  As such, each member of the crew has a highly circumscribed role with no overlap in responsibilities among the licensed officers.  Other members of the crew work as a team within their group; however, if holding a specific trade, a crewman works within that in conjunction with their Department; in other words, a motorman would not find himself in catering. This classic departmental division is also found on Royal Navy vessels, but that is where the similarity both begins and ends - BAS vessels, despite being subject to Admiralty rulings, have  no connection with the Royal Navy; although, in theory a reserve Royal Navy officer may serve onboard, but not in the capacity of a warrior.  Using the RRS James Clark Ross as our model (the RRS Ernest Shackleton has a different manning level due to the type of vessel),  the onboard organization is comprised of  Deck, Engineering, and Catering Departments; respectively, each has its province in the superstructure, amidships and the galley.   The Radio Officer, otherwise colloquially known as "Comms man", despite spending most of his time in the bridge is in organizational purview of the Engineering Department, yet reports to the ship's Captain.  Each of the three Departments' compliment with responsibilities is as follows:


  • Captain - Command of the vessel and overall commanding officer.  On the RRS James Clark Ross, he is dubbed the traditional "Old Man"  and sometimes the more playful "Daddy."
  • Chief Officer - The executive officer of the ship.  Involved in the quotidian concerns of the Deck Department.  He is also responsible for the stability of the ship, loading and discharging cargo, and feeder boat operations.
  • Second Officer - Responsible for the passage planning and maintaining the chart portfolio, including navigational corrections.
  • Third Officer - The most junior Deck Officer is responsible for maintaining much of the Life Saving Equipment.
  • Bosun - In charge of the Deck Crew.  His is not a licensed officer's position (likewise as are his subordinates); an approximate US Navy relative position would be that of Chief Petty Officer.
  • Bosun's Mate - This position is subaltern to that of the Bosun.  His responsibilities involve sounding the all the fresh water and ballast tanks.
  • AB's (Able Bodied Seamen) - On the RRS James Clark Ross they are the general deck hands.  The ship carries five.
BAS vessels follow a standard Merchant Navy and Royal Navy watch system.  The Chief,  2nd and 3rd Officer are on watches when at sea.  The Chief does 4-8, 3rd 8-12, and 2nd 12-4.  Also on watch are one of the five AB's who rotate, with two on day work for a week and the other three on watches. The only change in Deck compliment is that from time to time, an additional Deck Officer might join the ship to work with the scientists in the deployment and recovery of equipment.  At times, like most British-flag vessels, the crew may be augmented by a singular cadet.


  • Chief Engineer - He has an equivalent rank to that of the Captain but it would be unusual for him to ever have command of the ship.  His responsibilities include overseeing all aspects ship's propulsion and internal mechanics.
  • 2nd Engineer - Responsible for the day to day running of the Engine Room.
  • 3rd and 4th Engineer - Assist the 2nd as required and directed.
  • Deck Engineer.  Responsible for scientific and supporting equipment, such as winches and gantries.
  • ETO(L) - Electrician.  Responsible for all the electrical equipment onboard.
  • ETO(C) - Communications (Radioman).  Maintains all communications and navigational equipment.  The two ETO's work in tandem with some jobs being covered by both.
  • Motormen - They are highly skilled unlicensed crewmembers; in terms of position, are crucial to the function of the Engine Department.  Prior to the advent of modern training, they were the "old hands" which would undo the mistakes of younger or less experienced engineers as well as serving in the traditional role of providing extra hands.  On the RRS James Clark Ross there are two; they perform engineering tasks allowing the licensed engineers to execute more difficult jobs.
  • Purser - In charge of the Catering Department.  He is also responsible for storing the vessel with victuals and the office of keeping ship's accommodations clean and tidy.  He also acts in the role as a "hotel manager" and looks after the needs of visiting scientists and passengers.
  • Chief Cook - In charge of the Galley; he rates a Petty Officer.
  • Assistant Cook - Second in charge.  He is responsible for baking the bread each day.
  • Chief Steward - Responsible for looking after the accommodations.
  • Stewards - Two work for the Chief Steward and one assists in the Galley.
  • Doctor - The ship has a hospital and when working in Southern waters or "down south" it carries a single doctor.  Historically, the doctor joined the ship in Great Britain and sailed for the entire season; however, as of late, he joined the ship in the Falkland Islands.  The rationale for this change is that in terms of economics, a there has not been a need for one on the Atlantic passage.  Nor is one carried in Arctic waters.

Aboard BAS vessels of today, only the officers have undress uniforms.  Aside from the Deck Officers and the Purser, it is only worn at meal times.  Engineer officers spend their day in working gear or boiler suits and tend to only get changed into uniform for dinner in the evening.  The compliment of the ship and visiting scientists messes are divided among the three groups:  officers, scientists and unlicensed crew.  The Crew all eat in the Crew Mess, with the officers and scientists eating in the Officer's and Scientists Saloon.  Furthermore, following traditions mentioned elsewhere, Stewards wear a uniform while serving in the Saloon.

The RRS James Clark Ross and the RRS Ernest Shackleton operate in different ways, hence the difference in compliment.  Both will move scientists around and act as supply vessels, delivering all the equipment that is required to run an Antarctic Base.  The RRS James Clark Ross tends to the small island of Signy (summer only), Bird Island and South Georgia, as well as the serving as the main relief for Rothera.  The RRS Ernest Shackleton does the relief of Halley each year and then visits the smaller BAS bases.  Both ships take waste as and when required.

Like the original Royal Research vessels, The RRS James Clark Ross acts as a floating scientific platform.  Scientists will join the ship, bringing specialist equipment with them.  The ship will give them accommodation and computing facilities, and then interface their equipment to the ship.  Equipment is as varied as low/high-pressure hydraulics, and electricity in the many forms that it can be turned into interacting with hot/cold water and salt water.  The vessel travels to locations specified by the scientists and deploys the equipment as required.  A typical science cruise on the RRS James Clark Ross will last six or seven weeks.   This upcoming season, the RRS James Clark Ross will carry out about ten or eleven science cruises, with some being complete dedicated cruises for a singular purpose, while others are fitted into other work and may only take a few days or weeks.

An early group photograph of officers on the RRS Sir William Scoresby show them in Merchant Navy garb, with a few unique embellishments.  These uniforms were recently new innovations for the British Mercantile Marine quum Merchant Navy.   In the years that followed the Great War, King George V honored the British Mercantile Marine for its valiant service rendered to the Empire in the face of battle by giving it the official moniker of Merchant Navy with the Prince of Wales as its Master.  This title underscored the fact that British merchantmen were Royal Navy auxiliaries and could be pressed into service in the event of a national emergency; it is worth noting that decades after the United States attempted to follow the British example with varied results.  As a sanctioned and militarized government marine,  Merchant Navy officers were licensed, and at an individual's and company's prerogative, uniformed in distinctive cap devices and special cuff lace (alternately known as braid, distinction lace or rank stripes).  The cap device (hat badge in United States parlance) is comprised of a Tudor Naval Crown surmounting a maroon-cushioned oval on which rests a silver anchor without cable.  The cushion is surrounded by a double border of tightly looped gold wire or purl, and framed by gold oak leaves and acorns.  The stylized Tudor Naval Crown is of particular interest as it is found on official British ship crests - for King Henry is credited with circumnavigating the British Isles.  Cuff lace, also authorized for Merchant Navy officers, followed the pattern set by the Royal Navy with the noted exception of the executive curl, which as opposed to being curvilinear and resting on the uppermost rank stripe was moved between stripes and made lozenge.  As may be discerned from the photograph, officers aboard an RARV wore an insigne quite similar to that of period Merchant Navy (at the time also called interchangeably the Mercantile Marine or Mercantile Navy) and Royal Navy.  This is a not at all uncommon occurrence, as Shipping Lines and the Government Marine wore very similar rank identifiers and uniform components; what is striking is the fact that RARV officers have crowns above their rank stripes and modified Merchant Navy cap badges.  There exists no clear published explanation for this uniform design - other Admiralty-sanctioned bodies and Merchant Navy types at the time wore a insignia, whereas RRS crew wore something altogether dissimilar.  If we think of the RRS crew as Merchant Mariners, then we would expect lozenges and chevrons in the cuff lace; if we think of them as an Admiralty body, then cuff devices would be wavy with elaborate executive curls like their peers in the Fleet Marine Reserve or Volunteer Reserve Navy.  However, if we consider RRS as an independent extra-governmental body, as the Irish Lights Commission, whose maritime personnel wore lace similar to that of the RRS officers, albeit with a miniature lighthouse device above all, then the curious cuff symbolism makes sense.  The RRS had the distinction of being Royally warranted, thus explaining the crown cuff devices.  RRS is unique in being the only British maritime organization to have these specific cuff devices.  Other, private lines, which held warrants from the Crown to carry mail could have a Royal Crown surmounting company insignia on cap devices and buttons but not above cuff lace.

However, unlike the Royal Navy and like the Merchant Navy, officer uniforms of the British Antarctic Survey continue to have branch colors between the rank rings on coat cuffs and epaulettes.   The practice for distinguishing non-executive office by such means was abolished in 1955 by the Royal Navy, except for those who must be clearly recognisable as non-combatants serving with the Royal Navy as stipulated under the Geneva Convention.  Since Merchant lines and the Merchant Navy inhabited a civil space their uniforms retained the practice.  The BAS, not subject to Royal Navy regulations, also kept the distinctive colors.  A relevant thought to consider is that since the same tailoring shops provided both shipping lines and the Royal Navy with livery and uniforms, influence of the latter can be discerned in the former, and now former acts as a remembrance of a passed tradition; interestingly, formal military costume these days is thought to retain conservative fashion and embellishments, this example is quite the opposite.

As mentioned previously, the BAS vessel officer insignia closely mirrors that of the Merchant Navy; this is quite visible in the insignia of rank.  At present, on either cuff braid on coats or slip-on epaulettes for shirts, the lace of distinction is thus for BAS vessel officers:
  • Captain and Chief Engineer: four stripes
  • Chief Officer and 2nd Engineer: three stripes
  • 2nd Officer and 3rd Engineer: two stripes
  • 3rd Officer and 4th Engineer: one stripe.
  • Electricians or Electric Technical Officers (ETO) including the Radio Officer, and the Purser: two and one half stripes.
Branch colors, found between the rank stripes are:
  • Black: Executive or Deck.
  • Green: Electricians (ETO)
  • Blue: Engineers.
  • White: Pursers and Catering.
In the late 1950s, branch colors were exactly the same, with the noted exception of:
  • Purple: Engineers.
  • Red: Surgeons or ship's doctors.
Through the 1950s until the present day, Pursers and Catering staff also wear distinctive silver buttons.

Returning to the hat badge itself, of interest and what makes the BAS badge unique is the heterogeneous use of apparently Royal Navy and Merchant Navy symbolic elements.  The cap device is comprised of a Royal crown surmounting a white leather cushioned oval on which rests a black anchor.  The cushion is surrounded by a double border of tightly looped gold purl, and framed by tightly-grouped gold laurel leaves.   The St. Edward crown on the BAS cap badge is such because its fleet were once Royal Research vessels - prior to Elizabeth II's  ascension the crown was a Tudor-style crown, note the difference in both the presented badges and those of the officers in the photograph above.  The white oval is a symbolic reminder of the BAS vessels being involved in Polar region exploration.  And the black anchor is in somber respect of the Antarctic explorer, Sir Walter Scott who died on his last venture to the ice-bound continent.  Thus, a Royal Navy element is not present, and the badge follows a decidedly Merchant Navy pattern.

If we view the uniform as a second skin, then the emblems displayed and badges of rank presented thereupon - as Clastres posits that tattoos do in primitive society - serve as visible metaphors of belonging to and the execution of a polity's power over the individual.  That is, they are potent inscriptions of a subaltern status to society and hierarchical affiliation within societal structure upon the body.  These badges, in turn following Foucault's argument in Discipline and Punish, both remind and bind the self, mold the person into a circumscribed role, and mark an individual person to others.  That's quite a weighty symbolic package taken by donning a uniform, and a few flourishes of cloth and metal, but there you are.

Merchant Navy insignia, and by extension BAS insignia, details the very specific identification of place and privilege concerns of the British polity acting within the maritime establishment.  At the interwar zenith of the British Empire, the accepted British Imperial uniform geography reached fruition:  medals and badges of individual distinction found their locus over the chest, close to the heart; a person's station showed itself on the sleeve; and allegiance on one's hat.  Through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, the Royal Navy was the master of the seas, was regarded as force to both emulate and fear; and to mimic.  For example, the color distinction between cuff rank rings elaborated by decree in 1853 for the officers of the Royal Navy soon found its way onto uniforms of commercial lines once their ships aggregated into fleets.  With the adoption of Imperial insignia viz branch colors and cuff braid, many merchant shipping companies attempted to attract business or create an illusion of professionalism by purposefully basing their corporate livery upon the uniform of the Royal Navy.  Cook Castle and Co was the first to  adopting the color "inserts" and went as far as using the executive curl.  Other shipping concerns, following the trend initiated by those with greater gravitas, chose those designs which were generally agreed upon and adopted by uniform suppliers -  albeit tempered by the personal taste of the ship owner as determined by available commercial options - a shade of blue brighter or weave a bit more elaborate than the original.  And, still others had no uniform at all (this last point changed by a series of Royal decrees in 1918, 1919 and finally 1921, only met recension in 1995).

National militaries, following the thesis of De Chambray in Philosophie de la Guerre, are in harmony with a country's social and political organization.  The formal British maritime establishment reproduced the caste system in the discipline and structure of its ships, reaching its symbolic elaboration in the difference between the costume of its officers and men.  Uniform components of prestige materials, lace of gold wire and finely tailored coats were reserved for officers, while petty ("petite" or lesser) officers wore frocks with diminution of fancy detail, and ratings singlets and wool blouses.  Cap devices, it may be noted, follows the same rubric: more detailed for the officer, stripping away of elements for the petty officer, and finally leaving a band of machine-sencilled ribbon for the rank and file. It could be stated that uniform follows function, but when one functions less, one's clothing becomes becomes elaborate for appearance or pretension of status.  It is thought that markers of rank and distinct devices provide an esprit de corps, but only within a culture of rigid and enforced difference.

The crew onboard BAS vessels of the second millennium are not found working in formal uniforms, as may be the case on Royal Navy ships. However, being a Royal Research vessel, all are uniformed in some fashion and officers do own bits of insignia.  The uniform culture that marked wartime Britain has long passed, and informal, if not personally intimate relationships among BAS and other civilian-manned vessel prevail.  Artifacts of an older, formal culture are found in the daily meals in the wardroom in which ship officers may be found in shirt-sleeves adorned with rank-slides.  Reefer jackets, once an item for almost daily wear in temperate climates and formal occasions, rarely find their way from the locker.  The last time a BAS crew was found in such wear was for a Fleet Review in 2005.  The Captain may don his hat on other official duties, such as taking on a pilot or a visit from a dignitary.  The hard work and inclement weather experienced by the crew forces a spirit of pragmatism; they are not in dress rehearsal for battle, and outward examples of individual discipline as manifest by gleaming brass buckles, eternally pressed shirts and waxed shoes have given way to work boots, boiler suits and heavy foul-weather gear.  By and large BAS personnel have not traditionally worn uniforms and caps simply because there are few opportunities to wear them: their work milleu and Antarctic environment are not conducive to fancy dress.  Best of luck to the collector of BAS vessel officer items, they are the rarest of the rare and highly obscure.

References and further reading:

British Antarctic Survey. British Antarctic Survey. British Antarctic Survey, December 1977.

Sir Vivian Fuchs. Of Ice and Men: the story of the British Antarctic Survey 1943-73. Anthony Nelson Ltd., 1982.

Ernest Henry Shackleton. The Heart of the Antarctic: The Story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909. Birlin Publishers, 2002.

BAS, Hat badge

BAS, Hat badge fake

There do exist fake BAS badges on the market and are quite dodgey in their composition.  One found in the wild is described as 1950s Queen's crown British Antarctic Survey badges.  It is quite simply a Royal Navy Officer's cap badge with a piece of white linen placed beneath a black-painted anchor.  The badge is suspect on every account. As is known in cap badge circles, even "economy issue" badges produced at the end of the Second World War are deftly executed - a poorly affixed oval of cloth would never be found on the forward face of a badge.  The wreath is altogether incorrect and the anchor is incongruous in both pattern and period.  If anything, we might suspect a period BAS officer wearing a Royal Auxilliary Fleet badge, and not a poorly defaced RN one.  An image of the cited example is found below.  As always, caveat emptor; this was sold at online auction for some 32pounds - only because the seller misspelled "Antarctic" as "Antartic."