577 Department of External Affairs to Department of the Attorney- General

Memorandum 9 September 1947,



I refer to your memorandum 47/63 of 1st September, 1947, requesting certain information concerning Heard Island.

2. At a meeting of the Polar Committee in London on 13th March, 1947, a paper on the Prince Edward Islands and Heard Island prepared by the Dominions and Foreign Offices was circulated in which it was provisionally suggested that the following possibilities might be considered:-

(a) The Islands might be attached to the Falkland Islands.

(b) The Prince Edward Islands might be annexed by the Union of South Africa and Heard Island by the Commonwealth of Australia.

3. The paper pointed out that:-

'As regards legal claim to the Islands it appears doubtful whether any but an inchoate British title now exists, and it is felt that even this might not now be recognised as subsisting. Should the Islands therefore be annexed as provisionally suggested at (a) and (b) above, the annexing power would have to arrange at least that they should be visited and to exercise some form of effective control apart from the issue of the necessary Order-in-Council or Letters Patent.'

4. Following discussions the Polar Committee agreed that the Australian representative should ascertain the views of his Government regarding Heard Island.

5. At the meeting of the Antarctic Planning Committee on l2th May, 1947, it was decided that a winter party should be left on Heard Island in connection with the forthcoming Australian Antarctic Expedition. Cabinet has now approved this action. The winter party will survey the Island, carry out scientific investigations and make meteorological observations.

6. Heard Island has never been settled at any stage of its history and owing to its bleak climate and lack of vegetation it is doubtful whether it is suitable for habitation.

7. Document AS 3748/453/G regarding Territorial claims in the Antarctic issued by the Research Department of the Foreign Office makes the following comments on page 131 with regard to British sovereignty over Heard Island:-

'British sovereignty over the islands has at no time been disputed or formally recognised by any other Government. It should be noted that only one licence has been granted (to a British company), and that this licence terminated in 1934. It may therefore be argued that this does not constitute anything more than prima facie evidence of British sovereignty. Furthermore, there remains a doubt whether the islands may not now be regarded as having been definitely abandoned. It does not appear that the islands have any potential economic value apart from limited elephant sealing, and there are no good harbours. It is possible, however, that Heard Island might in the future be of strategic importance in connection with air operations over the South Indian Ocean, since there are several areas where landing strips could be built.'

8. The views of interested Commonwealth Departments have been ascertained. Although the Defence Committee has decided that the island is of no strategic value to Australia, the Department of Civil Aviation has recommended annexation in view of possible future use for air navigation. Moreover, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has pointed out that it is import-ant for Australia to have available a possible site for the establishment of a meteorological station in the South Indian Ocean. This Department is inclined to the opinion that it is in Australia's long term interest to secure ownership of the Island and is consulting the United Kingdom authorities as to the most appropriate procedure in case the Australian Government may decide on annexation. [1]

9. In the circumstances it does not appear that any advice from your Department is necessary at the present stage of developments.

The Secretary of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition has been so informed.

1 On 15 September a memorandum was dispatched instructing Heydon to 'take up informally with the Foreign Office and other appropriate authorities the general question of annexation', noting that in view of advice received 'it may be considered of advantage to assert a formal claim to sovereignty on behalf of Australia'. It sought advice on timing and 'best method of achieving this', and suggested that use might be made in discussions of the fact that tentative arrangements had been made to establish postal facilities.

[AA : A1068 A47/26/11]