The famed polar explorer is equally celebrated for his accomplishments and mocked for his failings – it’s not a fair reckoning of the man, writes Jack Hart
At the time of writing, it is 106 years to the day that Roald Amundsen conquered the South Pole – not quite exactly, in truthfulness, as he allegedly entered the history books at precisely 3pm. At that time, Captain Robert Falcon Scott was trudging across the Antarctic, a full 34 days away from the Pole and unaware of Amundsen’s victory. It was his loss in this unofficial but very real race – culminating in the death of Scott and his crew – that has defined Scott’s reputation for most of the past 100 years; he has been heralded as the archetype plucky British amateur, the have-a-go hero who was tragically unprepared for the brutal reality of life at the end of the world.
Recent articles have to come to light, however, that throw doubt on this version of history. Instead, Scott is presented as a professional explorer – a meticulous planner and superb military man – whose fate was decided by a series of unforeseeable events. Ensnared in a web of deception, inefficiency and sheer awful luck, the British captain and contemporary hero still achieved an extraordinary amount before succumbing to the Antarctic winter. His adventures are as captivating today as they were in 1918; more so, even, when you consider the comparative luxuries that modern polar explorers are equipped with. Captain Scott was a true pioneer of polar exploration.
In 1910, Scott was commissioned to explore Antarctica on a scientific undertaking, to study geological features and collect zoological samples – the conquest of the South Pole was his own addition to that brief. Despite his clear ambition to become the first man to ever reach the Pole, it wasn’t the only reason Scott and his men journeyed south, and they travelled encumbered by scientific equipment. The same cannot be said of Amundsen. The Norwegian explorer was due to strike out for the North Pole (after heading south, around the bottom of South America for easier passage via Alaska) but abruptly changed tack, instead making for the South Pole with all haste. Amundsen had a single goal in mind: to reach the Pole first.
When news reached Scott of Amundsen’s intentions – as he was preparing to set sail from New Zealand – it changed their plans entirely. Instead of a careful, scientific enterprise, Scott’s expedition had turned into a race – something they had not accounted for. This deception by Amundsen is not entirely unforgivable as he himself had been tricked into thinking the North Pole had been conquered when, in all likelihood, it hadn’t. Both Amundsen and Scott were competitive explorers, determined to achieve glory for themselves, their men and their countries. The Norwegian’s ruse, however, certainly contributed to Scott’s fatal journey.
On making land in Antarctica, Scott and four of his crew – Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Captain Lawrence Oates, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Dr Edward Wilson – set off immediately in pursuit of Amundsen. The 800-mile journey across a frozen and desolate landscape was a brutal one, made even harsher without knowing whether they were ahead of or behind Amundsen. They would soon find out. On Tuesday 16th January 1912, Scott and his team were one day’s march from the Pole when they discovered the remains of a camp, including sledge tracks and a black flag. “The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole,” wrote Scott in his diary. “It is a terrible disappointment”.
Defeated and miserable, the British team continued to the Pole, took a few conciliatory photographs, and started their return journey immediately. The -25℃ temperature and biting winds must have felt all the more unbearable without the spring of victory in their step. Scott himself put it best: “we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging – and goodbye to most of our day-dreams!”
Reaching the Pole, despite not being the first there, was still a monumental achievement – but it is not why Scott is remembered. His infamous return journey is the stuff of adventuring legends, but for all the wrong reasons.
Petty Officer Edgar Evans was the first to fall. He had likely suffered concussion from a fall, and by 17th February he was in a bad way: “…on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes”. He died overnight. A month later, Captain Lawrence Oates could also go no further – frostbite had set into his legs, so much so that he attempted to freeze the pain by sticking his leg out of the tent overnight. By morning, it was clear that he could go no further. Since Scott and his companions would not leave him, Oates sacrificed himself with the immortal line: “I am just going outside and may be some time”. He limped out into the blizzard and was never seen again.
Scott, Wilson and Bowers lasted less than two weeks after Oates’ departure. On Thursday 29th March, amid temperatures of -44℃, they lay down to rest and never woke up. Scott’s last diary entries are heartbreakingly noble: “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. Last entry: For God’s sake look after our people.”
On the face of things, it does indeed seem a pity: Scott’s expedition came up against both a well-prepared Norwegian team and the full fury of the Antarctic, and lost both times. However, this is not the complete story – as already noted, Amundsen’s deception not only gave him a headstart but forced Scott to strike out for the Pole before he had planned to. As for the fatal journey, it has recently come to light – through research by the University of Cambridge and the Scott Polar Research Institute – that written instructions left by Scott at their base camp were ignored by the other members of their expedition. Scott had ordered for dog sleds to be sent out to meet his team past a food depot on their return journey, but the dogs were only sent as far as the depot, not beyond it. Scott, Bowers and Wilson died only 11 miles shy of that depot.
Far from being the plucky amateur that he is often portrayed as, Scott was an experienced explorer and well-drilled captain; not, as it was put in 1979, “one of the worst polar explorers”. A series of unfortunate events led to his death, but his legend lives on through his diaries, which have acquired a near mythical status. His biographer, David Crane, summed up Scott’s writings and attitude perfectly: “His letters, diary and last message extend our sense of what it is to be human. No one else could have written them; no one else, at the point of defeat and dissolution, could have so vividly articulated a sense of human possibilities that transcend both”. A pioneer indeed.
Images: 1: Pictorial Press Ltd / 2: IanDagnall Computing / 3: Granger Historical Picture Archive / 4: Archive Pics / 5: Photo 12 / 6, 7: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / 8: Henry Bowers