The Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) was claimed by the United Kingdom and placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1933. It is the largest territory of Antarctica claimed by any nation, consisting of all the islands and territory south of 60°S and between 45°E and 160°E, except for Adélie Land (136°E to 142°E), which divides the territory into Western AAT (the larger portion) and Eastern AAT. It is bounded by Queen Maud Land in the West and by Ross Dependency in the East. The area is estimated at 2,276,651 square miles (5,896,500 km²) with a population of about 1,000 research station staff members. In 1961, the Antarctic Treaty came into force in which Article 4 deals with territorial claims, As a result, only four other states recognize Australia’s claim to sovereignty in Antarctica. The Australian Antarctic Division administers the area primarily by maintaining three year-round stations (Mawson, Davis and Casey), which support various research projects.
Australia has issued postage stamps for the Australian Antarctic Territory since 1957. All have been Antarctic themed, and are also valid for postage in Australia, so in practice they are just Australian stamps with a different inscription. The first stamp issued specifically for the territory was a two pence stamp with a design of explorers and an Antarctic map. This was first issued in Australia on 27 March 1957 and in Antarctica on 11 December 1957. Used stamps from the territory are usually found with either mainland Australia postal cancels, or first day cover cancels as there is relatively little genuine mail from the bases.
Mail is known from numerous Antarctic expeditions: Mawson in 1911 (used stamps of Tasmania), Shackleton in 1921-2 (used stamps of Britain), Mawson again in 1929-31 (used stamps of Australia), and the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) of 1947- 65. The five permanent bases with post offices are Heard Island (opened 25 December 1947), Macquarie Island (7 March 1948), Mawson (15 February 1954), Davis (14 January 1957), and Wilkes (1 February 1959, now closed). All of these handle Australian Antarctic Territory mail and will apply a base postmark to stamps. First Day Covers are now thought to be cancelled with the relevant base name at the Australian Philatelic Bureau. Polar philately is a very popular field and collectors seek out authentic usages from the bases, ships, and bases active in the Antarctic.
The Australian Antarctic Territory stamps appear in the Scott catalogue following the official stamps of Australia and are numbered with an “L” prefix. Scott #L6 was released on 5 July 1961 portraying the first attainment of the South Magnetic Pole during an expedition in 1909. This is the same design as AAT #L1, released in 1957, printed in a different color (dark blue rather the original brown) and with the 5 pence denomination printed as part of the engraved design rather than being enclosed in a typographic circle. The stamp, perforated 14½ on unwatermarked paper, pictures Edgewood David, Douglas Mawson and A.F. McKay of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 which was the first of three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Ernest Shackleton. This is also known as the Nimrod Expedition, named after Shackleton’s ship. Its main target, among a range of geographical and scientific objectives, was to be first to the South Pole. Shackleton’s group failed to attain this goal.
While preparing for his southern journey, Shackleton gave instructions to Edgeworth David to lead a Northern party to Victoria Land to carry out magnetic and geological work. The party was to try to reach the Magnetic Pole, and was to carry out a full geological survey in the Dry Valley area. David’s party consisted of himself, Douglas Mawson and Alistair Mackay. It would be a man-hauling party; the dogs remained at base to be used for depot-laying and other routine work.The party had orders to plant the Union Jack at the Magnetic Pole and to take possession of Victoria Land for the British Empire. After several days’ preparatory work they started out on 5 October 1908, drawn for the first few miles by the motor car. Due to sea ice conditions and adverse weather, progress was initially very slow. By the end of October they had crossed McMurdo Sound and advanced 60 miles (100 kilometers) up the difficult Victoria Land coast, at which point they decided to concentrate all their efforts on reaching the Magnetic Pole. After traversing the Nordenskjold Ice Tongue and the treacherous Drygalski Glacier they were finally able to leave the coast and turn north-west, towards the Magnetic Pole’s approximate location. Before then, David had a narrow escape after falling into a crevasse but was rescued by Mawson.
Their way up to the inland plateau was via a labyrinthine glacier (later named the Reeves Glacier after the Royal Geographical Society’s main map curator), which brought them to a hard snow surface on 27 December. This enabled them to move more swiftly, at a rate of about 10 nautical miles (12 miles or 19 kilometers) daily, taking regular magnetic observations. On 16 January these observations showed them to be about 13 nautical miles (15 miles or 24 kilometers) from the Magnetic Pole. The next day, 17 January 1909, they reached their goal, fixing the pole’s position as 72° 15′ S, 155° 16′ E, at an elevation of 7,260 feet (2,210 meters). In a muted ceremony, David took formal possession of the area for the British Empire.
Exhausted, and short of food, the party faced a return journey of 250 nautical miles (290 miles or 460 km), with just 15 days to complete it if they were to make their prearranged coastal rendezvous with the Nimrod. Despite increasing physical weakness they maintained their daily distances, and on 31 January were 16 nautical miles from their agreed pick-up point. Bad weather then delayed them, and the rendezvous was not reached until 2 February. That night, in heavy drifting snow, Nimrod passed by them, unable to make out their camp. Two days later, however, after the ship had turned south again, the group was spotted and was able to scramble to safety, although in the rush to get aboard Mawson fell 18 feet (5.5 meters) down a crevasse. The party had been travelling for four months and were wearing the same clothes in which they had departed Cape Royds; reportedly “the aroma was overpowering”.