Scott of the Antarctic – Exploring a Maligned Hero

It is one hundred years since Captain Robert Falcon Scott closed his eyes for the final time in a lonely tent on the continent of Antarctica. His two trusted companions were probably already dead; they died as heroes, a glorious death for an ambitious cause.

Some may not know much about Scott of the Antarctic; they may have read or heard that he was beaten by Roald Amundsen in the race to the South Pole. Maybe the commentary “Scott and Amundsen” by Roland Huntford influenced any opinion already formed.

Scott of the Antarctic on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Captain Scott Image Wikipedia Commons

“I am just going outside and may be some time”

Immediately after the news that Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers bodies had been discovered, much of the world and all of Britain mourned. Their deaths were hailed as a ‘glorious failure’ they along with Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates and Edgar Evans who both perished earlier had given all only to have been ‘beaten’ by the Norwegians.

Oates had given his own life in the hope that his sacrifice would allow the others to survive. Scott records his famous last words as “I am just going outside and may be some time” before he left the tent never to return.

All of the South Pole expeditionary party had experienced great hardships to be the first to reach this prized objective. The final camp of Scott and his two remaining companions Wilson and Bowers was only eleven miles from a food depot. They were merely a single good day’s man-hauling from safety.

In recent years Scott’s accomplishments and leadership qualities have been called into question. Whilst initially he was considered the quintessential British hero, naval officer, explorer, leader of men and making the ultimate sacrifice for the glory of the Empire, his character has recently become tarnished.

“distasteful to attack the character of a man unable to protect himself”

One of the main reasons for this is the published book of Roland Huntford. In his appraisal of the race between Scott and Amundsen he is extremely critical of Scott at every juncture. Anybody reading his work can be excused for thinking Scott was completely incompetent, taking unnecessary risks and a poor leader.

This is not fair however, Huntford seems totally biased towards Norwegian Amundsen, his assumptions are often clouded by an obvious dislike for the British and Scott in particular. His own experience of polar travel is severly limited therefore it is difficult to accept he can speak with any real authority when questioning any of Scott’s decisions. It also seems distasteful to attack the character of a man unable to protect himself and justify his decisions. It appears as self-serving publicity rather than a genuine unbiased assessment of the British explorer. He lays the blame for any failure squarely on Scott’s shoulders

Norwegian polar and Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Norwegion Roald Amundsen Image Wikipedia Commons

Huntford and history have also neglected some facts; although Scott obviously wanted to reach the South Pole first for both personal and national glory it was not his only goal. Scott did not at anytime change his plans once it became evident that Amundsen was also heading to the Pole.

Scott was not merely in the Antarctic to be the first to reach the Pole, his party did extensive scientific research, much of which is still of great relevance today. This was of primary importance to him and he ensured that his team of scientists carried out their research uninterrupted and the ‘race’ did not interfere in any way. His party did extensive surveying of the Antarctic region and the expedition photographer Herbert Ponting also produced some beautiful and important images from the expedition. Scott did not merely want to be the first he wanted to understand!

“His tactics can also be considered questionable”

Amundsen in comparison however did not find time to do any scientific research or surveying and is known to have only taken two photographs during the trip south. He is undoubtedly one of the great polar explorers, but he was also single-minded and he only had one intention which was to be first to the Pole. Every decision he made appears to have been in preparation for this.

His tactics can also be considered questionable. He concealed his intentions regarding travelling to the Pole from everybody until his ship; the ‘Fram’ was already heading to the great southern continent. He actually ‘hid’ from Scott when he came visiting to ask advice regarding transportation methods. He even bought every available sled dog and apparently instructed the sellers that Scott was not to be provided with any dogs.

He informed Scott in a cryptic telegram sent from Madeira “Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic – Amundsen.” His ‘adversary’ was apparently confused and unsure of the exact meaning and it was only when the Norwegians presence in the south was later confirmed that Scott fully realised his intentions.

Henry Ponting captures Scott at work in the Antarctic hut on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Scott at work Image Wikipedia Commons

Scott did make mistakes, some misjudgements were made, he was not perfect. However this was not merely incompetence, the science of polar exploration was still in its infancy. Amundsen also made mistakes and he had much more experience of the conditions than the British and in the difficulties of glacier travel. He was also fortunate that his almost enforced base provided a relatively easy passage onto the Antarctic Plateau via the Axel Heiberg Glacier.

Fortunately more balanced accounts and biographies of Scott than Huntford’s have been published. These included one by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a great polar explorer with far more experience and authority than journalist Huntford. Fiennes came out in defence of Scott, using his extensive knowledge and experience to consider Scott’s problems and decisions. He agreed with few of Huntford’s assessments and was quite scathing in his criticism of him.

Much has also been made of the supposed conflict between Scott and the other great English polar explorer of the era Ernest Shackleton, Shackleton was an officer on Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, went on to lead his own expeditions and in contrast to Scott is held in high regard. Whilst it seems there was some rivalry and that they were not friendly, there is little evidence of the ‘hatred’ they are rumoured to have held for each other. The rumours persist however and considering Shackleton’s popularity they only serve to undermine Scott further.

Personally I believe Scott’s expedition was ultimately of greater significance than Amundsen’s. Inevitably they will always be remembered for the ‘race to the Pole,’ for which the Norwegian will justifiably receive the plaudits. Scott’s legacy however is greater and will retain higher but less publicised significance. The research of the group of scientists he assembled and achievements made under his leadership are still only just being realised.

The real truth is that despite being blown up as such by the media, both historical and modern, it was never really a race. Sure Scott wanted to get there first but it was his secondary goal, for Amundsen it was the only goal!

The South Pole party Oates, bowers, Scott, Wilson and Evans in the Antarctic on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

The Pole Party Image Wikipedia Commons

These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale

Captain Scott was certainly a better writer than Amundsen. His insights regarding the daily life of his party on the continent revealed much and even in the monotonous terrain of the ‘southern journey’ his journal extracts make fascinating reading. His final words managed to stir a whole nation;

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”

Scott should not be considered a glorious failure; he was a competent often innovative explorer, eager to understand and share knowledge for others to comprehend. He placed at least as great an emphasis on research as any inferred race, therefore he should be judged as a heroic success!

Further reading:

“The Worst Journey in the World” – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

“Captain Scott” – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

“Scott and Amundsen” – Roland Huntford

“Scott of the Antarctic” – David Crane

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Comments 2

  1. Linda

    Great post, Iain! I read this fresh from the Scott Exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London last week, which would certainly make anyone rethink any bias against Scott which they held. I knew little, really, before seeing the exhibition, I’d only ever taken in the “headlines.” I left the museum determined to know more, so this post is a great introduction and a guide as to where to begin!

    I was very impressed with his writing too (in fact, commented to my son what a great blog he would have written had they existed back then! I suppose a diary is a kind of blog if it’s read by others!). I hadn’t realized that Amundsen’s venture wasn’t equally scientific, but it seemed to me that he took more risks, so that a certain amount of luck was involved? I guess the use of motorized sledges was very experimental too, perhaps they hadn’t been tested sufficiently at that stage, and shouldn’t have been used by Scott? I also wondered about the horses. It seemed as if Amundsen using far more dogs was a wise move, but if Scott was forced to use horses because there weren’t sufficient dogs then it’s a whole other story? Off to Amazon to order one of the books you recommend I guess!

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