A century after the explorer lost his race to the Pole, what is the legacy of a pioneering Briton whose failings were more than matched by his epic vision?
By David Robson of The Telegraph Newspaper
Scott’s journal entry for January 15 1912 “It is wonderful to think that two long marches would land us at the Pole…”
Entry for January 16 “The worst has happened or nearly the worst… the Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions… tomorrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the daydreams must go, it will be a wearisome return.”
Entry for March 29 “I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”
These few bleak sentences have echoed down the century. They have often been used in evidence. But evidence of what? Of amazing fortitude or else abject failure; of cruel misfortune or else fatal misjudgment; of signal English virtues or else signal English vices.
Robert Falcon Scott’s status has ranged from hero to 30 degrees below zero. That isn’t because new facts came to light. The facts have been available for decades, but his reputation, like that of other great symbolic figures, has been a sort of barometer of our national attitudes, as much a product of what’s going on here as what happened on the Beardmore Glacier or McMurdo Sound.
News of Scott’s reaching the Pole and his death with his four colleagues did not reach Britain until a year after the event and it came as a terrible shock. Reports gave an account of the heroic end of Captain Oates. For the memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral four days later, there was a bigger crowd than turned up after the sinking of the Titanic. When the service finished, Scott’s sister Grace said, “I never imagined anything so wonderful and uplifting.”
There was a hunger for heroism. It was only a few years since Britain had been humiliated in the Boer War and now conflict in Europe was looming. The courage and ambition that had inspired the Terra Nova expedition was of enormous importance, a testimony to national spirit and endeavour. The brave and serene way Scott faced death was an inspiration. In a few months’ time, hundreds of thousands would face death on the Western Front. It was important they should be told that some things were worth dying for.
In 1913, nearly a million people went to see Scott’s Sledging Journals on show at the British Museum. Memorials were built in many towns, mostly in the south and west of England, and the widows and orphans fund exceeded what was required, leaving a surplus for the foundation of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, now a leading international centre for polar studies.
Much public stress was put on the fact that a major aim of Scott’s expedition had been scientific. If there was a “race to the Pole” he had lost it to Amundsen who got there three weeks before him, but it had been an uneven “race” in every way. First of all, Amundsen had tricked or at least misled Scott, giving him the impression he was heading north to the Arctic before letting drop very late in the day that he was heading south; in a straight race Amundsen would always win – the Norwegians had spent a lifetime skiing.
But, even more important, racing to the Pole was his only intention. Scott had other things on his mind. He had assembled a team of scientists not just to go where man had never been before but also to know what had not been known before.
Today we treat that as enormously important. We know we need to understand what happens in the Antarctic because it affects the rest of the world. To the other explorers – Amundsen and Shackleton, too – it was just the last place on earth.
The Scott obsession diminished over the years. He remained a national hero but, increasingly, troubling questions emerged. Had he and his colleagues been martyrs not to science and endeavour but to his incompetence and vanity? Hadn’t his refusal to use dogs to pull sledges been a catastrophic error?
What of his character and temperament? Wasn’t he moody and vain? Wasn’t he a classic snob, making his non-officer class quarter separately? Didn’t he have favourites? Did he under-provision for the final journey to the Pole? Did he even cajole Oates into committing suicide?
Scott was far too big a figure not to be shot at and far too complex a personality not to be dissected. In any case, the old-fashioned English hero, now lauded for dying well and taking men with him, became a figure to abhor.
In 1979 a journalist called Roland Huntford dragged Scott back centre stage, publishing Scott and Amundsen, an explosively debunking book that became a sensation. As well as making a meal of what he considered Scott’s character defects, he floated the theory that he had persuaded the remaining members of the polar party that by dying together in their tent, they could achieve fame in death.
It was a total trashing, making Scott, rather than chance or the elements, responsible for every bad thing that happened. This version was given even greater currency six years later when the Left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths’s television seven-parter The Last Place On Earth brought the Huntford version into the nation’s living rooms.
It chimed in with the spirit of the times. At the end of the Seventies, Britain was in a period of self-hatred – hobbled by strikes, an economic and industrial basket case, it was more than ready to hear how Norwegian efficiency, clarity and simplicity had outdone class-ridden, self-absorbed English complexity.
Later Scott’s fall from grace was compounded by a new-found enthusiasm for Ernest Shackleton, his sometime colleague and rival who became the favourite British Antarcticist. Shackleton’s newly rebuffed hero status arises not from his successes but how he handled failure; in early 1915 his ship the Endurance became trapped by ice in the Weddell Sea. Over 18 months he was able to keep his men together and lead them to safety. He is now used as a model for leadership courses in business schools. Scott would never be a candidate for that.
Today, Scott’s status has reached what seems like a rational level. He made many mistakes and rendered his final journey torturous because he and his colleagues hauled their own sledges (a very British idea of heroism). Things could have been planned better but it is now fairly well established that what did for them was weather so freakishly and unseasonably cold for Antarctica that nobody could have predicted it.
Of course he is not the pluperfect hero he was in 1913. There are magnificent recent biographies such as Scott of the Antarctic by David Crane that make sense of him and does him justice and Beryl Bainbridge’s wonderful The Birthday Boys, a work of imagination that seems fair to the facts.
We are prey to our current prejudices and obsessions now, just as they were in 1913 and 1979, but we are able to appreciate Scott’s scientific legacy and respond to the resonances of a man with failings who had epic vision. There is much to learn from what he did well and what he did badly. And we should only look with awe at what he and his colleagues achieved and gave us – Edward Wilson’s ornithological drawings, Herbert Ponting’s awe-inspiring photographs.
These combine with the science to bring Antarctica into our world. And Scott’s Journals give the measure of the man. They are a great work: “It is a pity, but I do not think I can write more,” he says. Nobody could.