Penguin Diplomacy - the life story of Brian Roberts
polar explorer, Antarctic treaty maker and wildlife conservationist


The Life of Brian Roberts

Brian Roberts (1912-1978) was an ornithologist and polar explorer by inclination, and a civil servant and diplomat by necessity. As the UK’s expert on the Antarctic he became the unheralded eminence grise of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty - one of the most successful and longest-surviving international treaties of the 20th century. The story of his life and its manifold twists, turns and controversies is told here for the first time.

As a schoolboy Brian Roberts resolved to becoRhone Glacierme an explorer. He was not academically inclined; for him education did not come from stuffy classrooms, lectures and exams, but rather from exploring the natural world outside. The family’s independent travels by car around continental Europe and the British Isles were almost unheard of in the 1920s, and would nurture his interests far more than school ever did. The young Brian would browbeat his long-suffering family into exploring by car and boat some of the most difficult terrain in Europe – taking in Alpine passes, Norwegian glaciers, ice tunnels, as well as uninhabited rocky islands off the coast around Britain and Ireland so that he could study seabirds.

 cormorants  Skelligs

Arctic exploration

Brian Roberts’ mission of becoming a polar explorer was kick-started by visiting the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge, which was closed at the time and he had to get in through a back window. Reading Geography at Emmanuel College, Cambridge he spent much of his undergraduate time involved in the Cambridge Bird Club and in organising summer Arctic expeditions to Iceland and to East Greenland - on the latter managing to hitch a lift for himself and two colleagues from the French ‘gentleman polar explorer’ Jean-Baptiste Charcot on his ship the Pourquoi Pas? These expeditions had plenty of hazardous moments: a crevasse-ridden descent from the VatnajĹ‘kull ice cap, a fishing boat journey with an incompetent skipper in a ferocious storm around the south coast of Iceland, and an encounter with an irate male Greenland musk ox, to name a few.


 musk ox

 Antarctic exploration

Antarctic penguins

In his final year Brian Roberts was recruited by the Australian John Rymill to join the 1934-37 British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE) as a biologist and photographer. This was to prove pivotal for his future career, gaining three solid years of experience in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic research and exploration. Originally Roberts was recruited as a surveyor, but due to his appendicitis he had to be transferred to the ship's party. Our account of BGLE includes the previously untold story of the expedition ship and her slow voyages under sail to Deception Island, the Falklands, South Georgia and around the Graham Land coast. Fortuitously those sub-Antarctic areas held far more of interest to an ornithologist than those further south which were explored and surveyed by the main expedition  party.


Part II begins with the war years at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, where Brian Roberts worked firstly on clothing and equipment for the military in cold climates. One of the innovations in clothing introduced for the army was the string vest, which absorbed sweat whilst retaining warm air next to the skin when a woollen vest was worn over it. In 1941 the Admiralty requisitioned the SPRI building for its ‘Blue Books’ project, a scheme for Oxbridge academics to compile a series of Geographical Handbooks for the military. Roberts completed a Handbook on Iceland, following which he was summoned to London to assist in the launching of ‘Operation Tabarin’ to the Antarctic. This was followed by an exhilarating 3-month stay in North America consulting Arctic experts on clothing and equipment, where he was feted as a representative of SPRI and made many American friends who would become key allies during his later postwar diplomatic life. But this visit was to end with him being brought down to earth with a bump. He returned to Cambridge in December 1943 to find himself being summarily dismissed from the Blue Books project, despite the fact that he had obtained official Admiralty approval for his tour of America.

In the event his dismissal from SPRI had a rather fortunate side-effect; it left him available for recruitment to carry out a special task for the Foreign Office in London. Whitehall urgently needed an expert on the Antarctic. Trouble had been brewing during 1943, when Argentina sent an armed cruiser to Deception Island to stake a claim to Antarctic territory that Britain considered to be its own. But the Foreign Office was worried about starting a conflict with the Argentines, on whom Foreign Officce handbook the British depended for supplies of meat. Roberts was recruited to compile a Handbook on Territorial Claims in the Antarctic in order to advise the government on the legitimacy of its claims to the territory. The 200-page document was deemed so sensitive that it was not released to the National Archives until 2007, still redacted in places. It was through this ‘back door’ entry into Whitehall that Roberts acquired his encyclopaedic knowledge and became Britain’s foremost authority on all aspects of the Antarctic, advising the government on geography, history, politics, legal matters, ecology, resources and logistics.

The Foreign Office

the mandarin

At the end of the war Brian Roberts continued working at the Foreign Office, given the thankless task of organising the relief ships for the British Antarctic Survey (then known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, or FIDS). In the meantime he continued to return to Cambridge at weekends to produce the SPRI’s house journal Polar Record. He ended up working a 7-day week with two part-time jobs, a gruelling regime that he would continue for another 30 years: one in Cambridge, where he built up and organised SPRI’s extensive library, museum and archives, and one at the Foreign Office where he was able to push for the initiative for the Antarctic Treaty that would eventually be signed in Washington in 1959. In his unique position as head of the Foreign Office Polar Regions section Roberts was meticulous, stubborn and passionate, especially over place naming, terminology and organisation of polar information – provoking long-running feuds with Colonial Office mandarins on the one hand and with SPRI’s Cambridge academics on the other - notably Frank Debenham, James Wordie and Gordon Robin. Roberts’ 5-year battle with Wordie over the adoption of the term ‘ice barrier’ or ‘shelf ice’ on Antarctic maps was perhaps the most notorious of these disputes.


Scott Polar Research Institute

Brian Roberts’ real passion was however not the political work of the Foreign Office Polar Regions section, but the Scott Polar Research Institute, and he desperately wanted to be appointed to the post of SPRI Director. But despite the fact that he had unrivalled qualifications for the post, the odds were stacked against him - not least because of a perceived ‘difficult’ personality that some people commented on in personal references. But more serious for Roberts than the question of the directorship was the consequence of a change in the UK Treasury’s funding route, which resulted in SPRI becoming a sub-department of Cambridge University’s Department of Geography. This move was a red rag to a bull; to Roberts a polar institute should be a national information and resource centre with a library, archives and museum - not focused on specialized academic studies such as geophysics or glaciology. Regardless of SPRI’s own fortunes, for the rest of the world the failure of Roberts to secure the directorship turned out arguably to be a blessing in disguise as he was thereby unable to give up his position at the Foreign Office. The most far-reaching outcome of that was undoubtedly the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, the initiative for which came largely from Roberts himself.

What was the nature of Brian Roberts’ ‘difficult personality’? To many of his acquaintances Roberts was obsessive, often arguing at length points of detail on minutiae that seemed trivial and insignificant to others, but to him were issues of vital importance in the search for integrity and truth. Roberts could become highly emotional on such matters. Thoughout his life arguments over naming and terminology arose frequently, and the G & T (‘gin and terminology’) parties at his Cambridge flat became legendary.

The Antarctic Treaty

Brian Roberts' seminal role in the genesis and evolution of the Treaty is described under Themes.


Outside the conference room Roberts continued to travel widely. On the US Operation Deep Freeze 1961 expedition he had been appointed merely as an official 'observer', but he ended up saving the lives of three young American surveyors caught in blizzard with hurricane-force winds without a tent on a remote and isolated part of Antarctica, by instructing them how to build a rock shelter (aTahiti drama that forms the prologue to the book). Roberts’ diaries of his journeys to Tahiti and Kerguelen and his last journey to the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey provide us with unique accounts of travel in the transitional decades between ‘heroic age’ exploration and mass tourism.

Brian Roberts’ declining years reveal poignantly the progressive ageing from his lean physical strength and youthful vigour towards a degree of stoutness and unfitness. It was the price paid for 30 years of workaholism and an intensely focussed diplomatic bachelor life of air travel, weary conference negotiations, heavy meals and lack of exercise. He died at the untimely age of 66. But 40 years later the Antarctic Treaty that he did so much to create lives on.

Brian Roberts