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Special Report: Heard Island Treasure Hunt

The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Declaration

We are all familiar with stories of pirates, mysterious maps and buried treasure – this is a real life mystery. Assisted by members of the Australian Antarctic Division and the Australian Government Archives I have been searching for clues to the whereabouts of the original Heard Island declaration, signed and buried in a canister on the island at Atlas Cove in 1947. If successful the AAD intends to reinstate the declaration (or a facsimile of it) on the island and to include a copy in its historical records at Kingston.

Let’s start with some notes from history and what I’ve been doing to find this document.

On 26 December 1947 a Declaration was made at Heard Island by Expedition Leader Group Captain Stuart Campbell to mark the occupation of Heard Island and the McDonald Islands but also asserting Australian rights over the islands on behalf of His Majesty (King George VI). The decision to make such a Declaration was made on 11 December 1947 in Cabinet Agendum 1275E (AA: Series A2700/9, Roll 15). That Decision required two identical copies of the declaration to be witnessed and signed, one to be inserted in a metal case to be enclosed in a cairn erected at the foot of the flagpole and the second to be returned to Australia.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s film archive contains film footage of a group of men of that first ANARE standing by a flagpole erected in a tussocked mound as the declaration is read, inserted in a canister and buried beneath the flagpole.

While Cabinet’s instructions that the signed Declaration was to be deposited on the Island were followed, there is some doubt as to whether it remained buried for very long. Campbell’s official diary for Friday 26 December 1947 describes the flag raising, the reading and subsequent burying of the declaration but concludes "We heard later that one of the seaman (sic) had dug up the Proclamation an hour or so later, to keep it as a souvenir. I have never checked to see whether this is true or not, but I have a strong feeling that it might be." (AA: Series P1557/1, item NN) Reports by the Captain of the vessel LST3501, Lieutenant Commander George Dixon is silent on this possibility.

The second copy appears to have been brought back to Australia by Campbell as instructed.

In early 1948, the Department of External Affairs sought information as to the whereabouts of the copy of the declaration (sometimes referred to as the proclamation). The copy, together with formal confirming statements by the ship’s master Captain George Dixon as entered in the ship’s log, was located at the expedition’s headquarters in Melbourne; all relevant documents were transferred to Canberra - see various papers on file (AA: Series A1838/2, item 1495/3/2/3/ Part 1). That file contains a Certified True Copy of the Declaration made and signed by then Secretary for External Affairs John Burton on 3 May 1948; a copy of that was transmitted to British authorities.

The file itself does not carry the declaration as signed by Group Captain Campbell, but a file note 30 April 1948 made by a D Jamieson indicates that LST 3501’s "Fair" Logs Nos 1 and 2 including the original copy of the Declaration were "lodged in the Political Intelligence Safe, Dept of E.A." An annotation to the same effect appears on a copy of the draft Cabinet Submission (AA: Series A1068/7, item A47/26/11). Jamieson’s file note of 30 April 1948 carries a further annotation "on 11/10/49 Fair Logs No 1 and 2 were placed in L & C safe". This is the last known sighting of this copy. The file carries no further reference and Archives have discovered nothing else in their records indicating the whereabouts of the Fair Logs and the Declaration.

The matter of the Declaration is covered in ‘Antarctica and International Law: A Collection of Inter-State and National documents’ (W M Bush, Oceana Publications 1982). The Declaration is reproduced in the book (p. 162) the author citing AA: Series A1838, item 1495/3/2/3 Pt 1. Whether this is to the original signed document or the Certified True Copy made by Secretary Burton is not stated nor is it possibly relevant. I am inclined to think it is a reference to the Certified Copy because Bush goes on to quote from the recording of the event in the log book of the expedition vessel LST 3501 citing AA: Series SP551/1, Bundle 737 - this is the series comprising the Log Books of HMC (Her Majesty’s Colonial) Ships, HM (Her Majesty’s) and HMA (Her Majesty’s Australian) Ships 1855 to 1956. That Bush accessed the primary Log Books for the information and did not cite the "Fair Logs" referred to earlier suggests that these documents were not on the file or otherwise available at that time.

Even if the document was not dug up and souvenired as suspected by Campbell, there is the problem of identifying the location of the burial and even if the site is found there must be doubt over the survival of the document and canister given the Island’s weather conditions or the possibility of a later removal by unknown parties.

What happened at Heard Island when we were there?

Members of the 2000-01 Atlas Cove summer party made a thorough search of the area and, though shifting volcanic sand has changed the topography, the original site of the flagpole was found. Eric Woehler kindly showed me the site which he had established by a careful scrutiny of original photographs against the contemporary landscape; my eyes bore this out. At the time we visited Eric had not had the chance to carry out a full excavation, as he was waiting on some equipment including a metal detector to help in the process.

This document marks a significant event not only in ANARE history but also in Australia’s. It would be wonderful to locate either of the original two copies of the declaration document for preservation.

Gordon Bain


  1. An excavation later found no sign of the metal case or its contents.
  2. Articles in the Antarctic Division’s house paper Icy News and their prestigious Australian Antarctic Magazine 2nd edition, Spring 2001 failed to draw any more information or leads.
  3. The declaration reads as follows:

    Whereas in time past the sovereign rights of His Majesty in respect of Heard Island (lat53 10’S., long 73 35’E.) and the McDonald Islands (lat 53 05’S., long 72 32’E.) have in divers manners been asserted and exercised:

    AND WHEREAS His Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth of Australia has authorised me to organise on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth of Australia the effective occupation of these Islands:

    Now therefore I, Stuart Alexander Caird Campbell declare that His Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth of Australia intends forthwith to continue the occupation of these Islands and to administer them as Australian Territories.

    Given under my hand at Heard Island where this record is deposited
    (Signed) Stuart Campbell

    Date 26/12 47



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