Davis, John King (1884–1967)

by John Béchervaise

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John King Davis (1884-1967), by unknown photographer, 1911-14

John King Davis (1884-1967), by unknown photographer, 1911-14

State Library of New South Wales, Original : PXE 725/1624-1626

John King Davis (1884-1967), Antarctic navigator, was born on 19 February 1884 at Kew, Surrey, England, only son of James Green Davis, army coach, and his wife Marion Alice, née King. There were early family connexions with Australia: as a young man his father had taught at Sydney Grammar School for four years, and Henry Edward King, of Queensland, was an uncle.

Davis's formal education, at Colet Court, London, and at Burford Grammar School, Oxfordshire, ended in 1900, when he and his father left London for Cape Town, South Africa. On his own initiative, while his father was absent at Kimberley, he joined the crew of the mail-steamer Carisbrooke Castle, as a steward's boy working his passage to England. In that eventful year he signed indentures for four years in the Liverpool full-rigged sailing vessel Celtic Chief, and visited Australia for the first time.

Davis completed his apprenticeship as a seaman and passed the Board of Trade examination for the certificate of second mate on 16 July 1905. Between then and June 1906 he served as second mate of the barque Westland, trading between England and New Zealand, and in the next year, of the Port Jackson. In 1906 in Sydney he gained his first mate's certificate; in New Zealand, in August 1908, his extra master's certificate.

A chance visit to a London exhibition of polar equipment had led to his meeting (Sir) Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of Scott's National Antarctic Expedition in 1901-04. In July 1907, Davis became chief officer of Shackleton's steam yacht Nimrod, sailing for Antarctica on 7 August. For the terminal exploratory voyage in 1909, after Shackleton's highly successful British Antarctic Expedition and his relief from the Cape Royds base, Davis commanded the Nimrod, sailing via Macquarie Island and Cape Horn. Several doubtful sightings of land in the South Pacific were disproved. Until March 1911, Davis assisted Shackleton in winding up the affairs of the expedition. He was then appointed master of the Aurora, and second-in-command of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14, under (Sir) Douglas Mawson; he made five notable cruises, essential in establishing and relieving the wintering bases at Macquarie Island and, on the Antarctic mainland, at Commonwealth Bay and on the Shackleton Ice Shelf.

On the outbreak of World War I, Davis volunteered for active service, and was attached to the military embarkation staff at Sydney. Subsequently he commanded the transport Boonah conveying troops and horses to Egypt and England. In October 1916, on behalf of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments, with Shackleton as supernumerary, he commanded the Ross Sea Relief Expedition, mounted to rescue Shackleton's 'shore party' left at McMurdo Sound to support their leader's epic but ill-fated attempt to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea. After being marooned for two winters with inadequate supplies and equipment, its members reached New Zealand in the Aurora on 9 February 1917.

For twelve months from April 1917, Davis supervised the erection of a mechanical coal-handling plant at Port Pirie, South Australia. Promoted lieutenant-commander, Royal Australian Naval Reserve, he was then appointment Australian naval transport officer, London, dealing with the repatriation of the Australian Imperial Force. He returned to Australia in October 1919. In 1920 he became Commonwealth director of navigation and next year established a cyclone-warning station on Willis Island in the Coral Sea, occupying the island for six months. He remained director of navigation, not without controversy, until his retirement on 19 February 1949. He took leave to command the Discovery during the first voyage (1929-30) of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition under the general leadership of Mawson, returning to his department in July 1930. From 1947 to 1962, Davis was a member of the Australian government's planning committee advising on current Antarctic policy and action. He never lost this deep interest in the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions.

For his services to polar exploration Davis was twice invested with the King's Polar Medal, and received clasps to each. The Murchison Award, of the Royal Geographical Society, was bestowed for his navigation and oceanography during the Australian Antarctic Expedition in 1911-14; he became a fellow of the society in 1915. From 1920 Davis was a member of the Royal Society of Victoria, and was its president in 1945 and 1946. In 1965 he was appointed C.B.E. Australia's second station on the Antarctic Continent, established in 1957, was named Davis in his honour. The Davis Sea, west of the Shackleton Ice Shelf, coasting Antarctica between 90° and 95°E, also commemorates the navigator.

Tall, spare, red-headed, with deep-set piercing eyes, Davis (described in 1920) gave a 'general appearance of quiet power'. In all operations for which he was responsible, he revealed courage, judgment and logistic ability. In 1913, Shackleton wrote: 'Captain Davis is the most experienced navigator of Antarctic seas living … He's an expert on oceanographical work, especially in sounding and dredging in deep waters … He successfully navigated Aurora, landing Dr Mawson at his winter quarters through the stormiest oceans and one of the worst ice seasons ever recorded'. Shackleton's praise of Davis's subsequent landing of Frank Wild's party, 1500 miles (2400 km) to the west, and of completely successful relief expeditions, beset by 'trying and anxious circumstances', is matched by that of Mawson. From his own personal journals, blunt and to the point, one may infer the nature of his trials and dilemmas, and more readily understand why his solutions to them brought such praise. As evident, however, is his impatience with scientists and laymen at sea, his intransigence concerning any factor involving the order and security of his vessel, and his determination, as far as this was concerned, to remain in command.

Davis's contributions to the overall success of Shackleton's and Mawson's expeditions were as unstinted as they were essential; his share of their fame was modest; his loyalty and integrity were absolute. Among the ships' companies, the expedition men, and the supernumeraries alike, he was known for his reserve and sense of responsibility, qualities perhaps inseparable from the loneliness of command at sea. Roald Amundsen had written of one fatal weakness common to many polar expeditions: that the commanders had not always been ships' captains. Once embarked at sea, the expedition had not one leader but two, with incessant friction, divided counsels, and a lowered morale for the subordinate members of the expedition. Davis inserted a lengthy quotation from Amundsen in his diary of the 1929-30 expedition.

When Mawson gained Davis as master of the Discovery, they shared a different leadership from that of the 1911-14 expedition, when Mawson was mainly ashore leading sledging parties. These later research expeditions were maritime ventures, investigating and mapping the coast of Antarctica between approximately 140°E and 50°E, anticipating the ceding to Australia of British interests in that large sector, and the eventual proclamation of Australian Antarctic Territory and the Australian Antarctic Acceptance Act of 1933. In the light of both earlier and later expeditions at sea, disagreements between shipmaster and expedition leader appear inevitable. They were, to quote Archibald Grenfell Price, 'innocent victims of that divided control which … lessened the value of a number of Antarctic expeditions' though 'neither permitted a temporary quarrel to wreck a life-long friendship'.

The main area of dissension concerned the quantities of coal prudence should reserve for the return passage to Kerguelen. An absolute judgment is impossible. In the event, the Discovery reached Kerguelen with ample supplies. A fundamental difference in the attitudes of Mawson and Davis towards the use of aircraft also emerged; the return to Kerguelen earlier than he had expected meant for Mawson the loss of opportunities for mapping from the air, rather than for penetrating the pack ice.

Davis never married; in retirement he lived in Melbourne in a St Kilda Road boarding house. He died on 8 May 1967 in hospital at Toorak and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at $87,407. His publications include With the 'Aurora' in the Antarctic, 1911-1914 (London, 1919); Willis Island: a Storm Warning Station in the Coral Sea (Melbourne, 1923); and High Latitude (Melbourne, 1962), in collaboration with a close friend, Bedford Osborne. His portrait hangs in the 'gallery of explorers' in the Royal Geographical Society's London headquarters.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic (Lond, 1909)
  • D. Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard (Lond, 1915)
  • R. A. Swan, Australia in the Antarctic (Melb, 1961)
  • A. G. Price, The Winning of Australian Antarctica (Syd, 1962)
  • J. K. Davis papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

John Béchervaise, 'Davis, John King (1884–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-john-king-5914/text10073, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 2 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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