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Scott and Amundsen

by Roland Huntford
Putnam’s, 665 pp., $19.95

Roland Huntford has written a book which is at once exciting and sobering, heartening yet troubling. It is exciting to read of two famous marches across Antarctica to the South Pole, sobering to mark the difference between success and failure. It is heartening to rediscover the bravery and resourcefulness of human beings, and troubling to see a long-admired hero tumbled from his pedestal, a long-admired reputation re-examined and diminished. The marches to the Pole are those made by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott in 1911-1912, the one a curiously muted triumph, the other the most belaureled disaster in the annals of polar exploration. The reputation is that of Scott, in British eyes the very beau idéal of a nation’s heroism, the apotheosis of English pluck and sporting spirit, make-do and the close-run thing. “By gad, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” “By gad, sir, so you have!” Only this time it was a life—five lives—with a public acclaim commensurate to the loss.

But Scott and Amundsen is not just a retelling, however knowledgeable and purposeful, of an old story. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking study, in Part One of the lives and characters of the two titular heroes up to the time of their so-called “race to the Pole,” and in Part Two of the race itself. By the end of Part One we are in a position to judge both men with regard to their professional competence, willingness to learn, experience in arctic and antarctic command, and overall fitness to undertake and, when the great day came, carry through the last terrestrial “first” left to man before he reached for the moon and the exploration of outer space. This is a theme worth developing, and Mr. Huntford develops it with zest and conviction.

He has not a shred of doubt that Amundsen was the right man for the job, and Scott the wrong. I find it impossible to dissent from the first half of this proposition, and hard to argue against the second. By the end of Part One Amundsen has emerged as a very formidable customer indeed, the incessant student as well as practitioner of polar travel, physically as hard as nails and in spirit tough as old boots, his head cleared of all cant, a man born to lead men. Big-boned, long-limbed, hardbeaked, he looked the embodiment of northern virtue and endurance. His mother, surveying her elk of a son, called him “the last of the Vikings.”

He was born to a consciousness of high latitudes, knew men like the Tromsø and Hammerfest sealing skippers who wrung their livings from the northern seas and ice, and felt himself one in blood and bone with such giants of exploration as Astrup and Sverdrup and, above all, the remarkable explorer, zoologist, and oceanographer Fridtjof Nansen. His experience was immense, his record one of endeavor and success, from his first season before the mast on the sealer Magdalena, his first winter in the Antarctic as mate on the Belgica under de Gerlache, then his first ship the Gjøa of forty-seven tons, and so unbrokenly on to his triumphs in search of the Magnetic Pole and the Northwest Passage. Skis, dogs, clothes, diet, the lore of the Eskimo: he knew them all. There was no greater master of his trade—and never a master so concerned to know more.

Scott in comparison looks almost an innocent. Born in 1868, he was four years older than Amundsen, had a sheltered upbringing, and was early marked down for the Royal Navy. After Dartmouth and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, he was appointed a sublieutenant on HMS Amphion and later the corvette Caroline. There was some kind of entanglement with a young American lady, but his career as a torpedo officer was unremarkable. His abilities were not striking and he lacked influential connections. At the age of thirty he looked set for a humdrum career; then his prospects brightened when he came to recognize the possibilities of polar work for “double pay and promotion.” His good and bad angel was Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, whose enlistment of his services led to his advancement, and equally to his death some twelve years later.

It is Mr. Huntford’s thesis that Scott got his chance not because he was a good or valued officer, but because he was one the Admiralty could spare. Certainly he had not shown the slightest interest in polar exploration till then, and despite the advice of Nansen and other would-be mentors at home and in Scandinavia he continued to display no very sapient interest in various of its harsh imperatives. He made his first voyage south in the Discovery and then by sledge with Wilson and Shackleton to reach a point “furthest south” of 82° 17’, on December 30, 1902. It is not belittling to conclude of this journey that it was a notable exploit begirt with notable risks and saved by notable good luck. On his long journey west in October 1903 Scott heedlessly ran the same risks and enjoyed equal good luck. With the aid of hindsight and Mr. Huntford’s exposition and analysis it now looks very much like the unheeded rehearsal of disaster to come. A leader cannot continue to be wrong about dogs, skis, rations, and supply depots without the present likelihood and eventual certainty of the deepest kind of trouble.

However, Scott was a splendid writer, and The Voyage of the Discovery, published in 1905, enjoyed a great success with the British public. So long as Britannia ruled the ice she must be deemed to rule the waves, and Scott’s picture of himself was an attractive one. Yet despite this literary success, and his marriage to Kathleen Bruce three years later, Scott had frequent cause for anxiety in the long period between his two Antarctic voyages. The Admiralty was less than pleased with him for allowing the Discovery to get frozen in for a second winter. Nor could their Lordships approve of Scott’s having left the bridge of the Albemarle on a trivial errand shortly before she rammed the Commonwealth on night maneuvers off the coast of Spain.

Unfavorable comparison had been made between the Discovery‘s contribution to knowledge and those of such scientific explorers as Sverdrup, Charcot, and Nordenskjöld. There were hints in the press that Scott’s scientific qualifications were inadequate for the work he had been sent out to do, and that his meteorological observers simply didn’t know their job. Not least, his rival Shackleton’s latest expedition south, with its concomitant heroisms, had made him the nation’s darling, eclipsing Scott. It was time for an announcement, personal and national, self-assertive and patriotic, and in September 1909 the Times and Daily Mail duly carried notice of Scott’s resolve to exert an Englishman’s right to conquer the South Pole.

This announcement brings us to the end of Mr. Huntford’s Part One. Part Two opens with Amundsen’s dramatic riposte. It was known that he had been granted the use of Nansen’s old ship the Fram, and proposed to take her south around the Americas, then north to lodge her in the polar drift and let the wind and current carry her either over the North Pole itself or near enough for a quick dash with dogs over the ice to that as yet unattained goal. But the news of Peary’s genuine and Cook’s spurious claim to have reached the North Pole by sledge over the sea ice in April 1909 changed everything. Amundsen was a maker not a follower of trails, and now only one trail that would consummate his life’s work remained—that to the South Pole. With a determination, resource, cunning, and deceit worthy of some alarming old folktale or saga hero he switched plans and direction, and with just half-a-dozen helpers in the know made for the southern approaches. On leaving Madeira, and after winning over his two officers, who were important, and his best dog-driver, who was essential, he called his crew on deck and let them into his secret. Some gaped, none demurred. “Before going north,” one of them summed it up in a letter to his wife back home, “we shall be making a small excursion to the South Pole.”

Whereby it befell that on Thursday, October 12, Scott, ploughing his way south on the Terra Nova, received a cablegram reading: “BEG LEAVE TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC.AMUNDSEN.”

What followed has been many times related, though never with the sharp counterpointing employed by Mr. Huntford. He carries the two protagonists forward in alternating narratives, a chapter or two to Amundsen, a chapter or two to Scott, covering very much the same stage of their preparations, their march to the Pole, and the march back. It is a grinding comparison of top-sawyer and bottom-sawyer, of the man who could and did and the man who might have but didn’t, the grand master who worked for and ensured success, and the careless producer who hoped the show would be all right on the night, but found it wasn’t. Of a dozen differences one must suffice:

Between the [Beardmore] Glacier and 80° S. Scott had put down exactly two depots; Amundsen on the corresponding stretch, seven.

Of a score of statements, likewise one from each side.

I have come to the conclusion that in dealing with sledge dogs one will benefit most if one assumes that they are at least as intelligent as one’s self. For it will pay off when driving and the life on the ice begins.” [Amundsen’s companion Johansen]

I for one am delighted at the decision [to man-haul 1,000 miles or so, and 10,000 feet of climbing to the Pole and back]. After all, it will be a fine thing to do that plateau with man-haulage in these days of the supposed decadence of the British race.” [Scott’s companion Bowers]

Which sounds remarkably like the decadence of the British brain.

The consequences of such attitudes for both parties appear now to have been inescapable. Amundsen had his problems, some of them substantial, but could cope with them, and reached the Pole on December 15, 1911, with (the term is comparative) comparative ease. There had been a grim butchery of dogs but none of men. Ceremony and duty attended to, they turned for their base at Framheim and reached it without trouble, having never approached their limit of safety and performance.

Scott and his four companions, Bowers, Edgar Evans, Oates, and Wilson (five men in a four-man tent, one without skis), exhausted themselves to reach the Pole, found Amundsen had preceded them by a month, and killed themselves during their effort to get back, the last three men dying a few miles from a food cache. Yet such are the aberrations of human judgment and the vagaries of fame that there would be many to resent the Norwegians for staying alive and admire the British for dying.

Nor is this the only irony of the situation. The demi-god Nansen and Mrs. Scott were having a love affair while Scott battled his way across Antarctica. Scott who made such a persistent mess of the means to hand had looked ahead to motor transport and the use of the airplane, and had he been born a few decades later might well have been a famed pioneer. Amundsen, the master of dog and ski and famed ensurer of safety, later threw away his life in an ill-judged air sortie intended to rescue the crashed and castaway Nobile. The invitation to think wry thoughts is freely on offer throughout the concluding sections of Scott and Amundsen.

To sum up, this is an important as well as an absorbing book. It is likewise a roomy and well-documented one, and raises many questions. The most pressing of these for most readers is whether Mr. Huntford has been fair to Scott. The answer, it seems to me, is Yes, he has, with the rider that he would have been no less fair, no less cogent an advocate and fair a judge, had he been less repetitively critical of him. Scott by his own fault or fortune is always lodged on the unfavorable side of an antithesis, and always providing a foil to the knowledge, training, and polar practice of Amundsen (himself not the world’s most amiable character).

Upbringing, career, social and professional milieu, public role, and private ambition, together with the climate of opinion he was born to and helped to transmit, all combined to keep Scott thus disadvantaged. Circumstance and character alike cast him for a part for which he was underqualified, and when his luck ran out his shortcomings, always apparent, looked glaring. Yet there are two things to remember. First, the voyage of the Discovery was distinguished for its sledging achievements and its literary recording; and second, Scott did reach the Pole (unless one starts counting in yards), and of all feats of polar exploration, north and south, Scott’s Last Journey is the first in most people’s minds. So had one the incentive, one could argue that he didn’t do too badly after all and still deserves his old laurels as well as his new rue.

That said, let there be no doubt that Scott and Amundsen is a book that had to be written. On the evidence assembled from a mass of sources published, Scott stands convicted on two counts.

The first is his concept of Great Britain’s imperial destiny, her god-given rightness and righteousness and natural superiority to all other peoples and nations, with which was allied his private dream of fame and glory. There would seem to me to be nothing very heinous in this. The British Empire looked the best imperial bet in sight for most of Scott’s life, and as an officer and a gentleman he was sworn to its service. Mr. Huntford points out repeatedly that there was a mystique of fame circulating in Britain, fame to be won by courage and suffering and if need be by self-sacrifice at the call of duty. Rorke’s Drift and “A Private of the Buffs,” as it were, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Scott’s Last Journey, the Romantic Twilight of the Heroic Ideal. Here again, had one the inclination, one could argue that by reaching the Pole Scott did everything the Service, his superiors, and his inner self required of him.

The more serious charge that Mr. Huntford documents against Scott is that he was at best ill-judging and inefficient, and at worst culpably because avoidably so. His was still the heroic age of polar exploration: man not machine against nature, but there were by now valuable auxiliaries at man’s service. To rely on the murderous toil of men hauling sledges when dogs had proved their worth was a cruel folly; to neglect the lessons about clothing, heating, tents, sledges, diet, and disease so brilliantly and painfully learned by Nansen, Sverdrup, Amundsen, and their like defied common sense; and the frightening risks incurred by Scott’s muddle and miscalculation during his last march invited, and one may now say ensured, the ills that overwhelmed it.

Scott as leader shared each risk and hardship encountered by his men, but it was irresponsible of him to court more of both than was necessary. More skill with dogs (and dogs of the right Greenland breed), more practice on skis and in the arts of navigation, a healthier diet, more frequent and better marked caches—each or any combination of these could have saved their lives, but in respect of each Scott as leader was found wanting. The English polar party were romantic heroes, the Norwegians heroic realists, which made all the difference in the world.

There may be books written to rebut Scott and Amundsen, but at present its evidence and verdict look convincing. Within the limits of our human imperfection Amundsen did just about everything that could be expected of him, or of any other man. Scott may be allowed to have done his best, but technically considered it was a poor and outmoded best. He will remain a British hero, but of a twofold kind: a brave man in adversity, an honor no one can take from him, and the lead player in a cautionary tale, a distinction most men would gladly avoid. Scott and Amundsen draws the moral of that tale.

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