Scott of the Antarctic
Peary, the Explorer and the Man
By the end of the nineteenth century not much of the globe remained unknown to the Western world. Even the elusive sources of the Nile had been tracked down in the Mountains of the Moon, and H. M. Stanley had hacked his way through the Iturri Forest in the darkest of Dark Africa. Green hells still remained unplotted in the vastness of the Amazonian basin, and a valley or two in the Himalayas were virgin soil—but the Western European’s hunger for loot, power, and proselytization had drawn him into the uttermost ends of the earth. Protestant missionaries were busy with the naked Ona in Tierra del Fuego, killing them off with measles before they could get them baptized for God, and the Catholics were not daunted by being cooked in Polynesia. Gold had driven men like lemmings to the Yukon and the desert wastes of Australia; whales lured them into the boisterous seas of the Far North and Deep South. National pride, economic greed, hot-gospeling, and strategic fears urged and goaded men into the unknown. Individuals usually felt the urgency for expansion or conversion far more keenly than governments did, who loathed the expense of exploration and feared its implications. They, at least, were quite prepared to live with a non-Christian world.
IF GOVERNMENTS proved hesitant about Africa, they were stonily indifferent to the polar regions. Both Peary and Scott found it difficult to wring a guinea or a dollar from their reluctant politicians. Scott did better, for the British Navy at least paid his debts after his death. Peary, however, enjoyed stronger backing from his public. Nevertheless, both of them had to promote their cause and raise the dollars and dimes through public lectures, which they hated. It is curious that the newspapers and publishers who gained most from their exploits proved to be the most reluctant givers. This is even odder when one considers what excellent value H. M. Stanley’s explorations had proved to his employers, the Daily Telegraph and New York Herald. Unlike Africa, the Arctic did not immediately catch the imagination—eternal snows, endless night, blizzard, and frostbite were no match for cannibals, witch-doctors, female circumcision, child slavery, and ju-ju. The diamonds and gold that threaded the Great Rift also added a feverish dimension of cupidity to all potential discoveries in Africa, but what good were diamonds, gold, or even coal, deep below the icecap, even if they existed? Both for Peary and for Scott the going was hard both at home and in the snows. Fame and money came only after the success of the one and the death of the other.
Peary was the luckier man, luckier in his nature, his gifts, and his enterprise, in spite of the absurdities of the egregious Dr. Cook, whose fatuous claims to have reached the North Pole first clouded Peary’s triumph.
Peary was dominated by a widowed mother—she went to college with him and joined him on his honeymoon. Solitude and distance were essential to his welfare.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.