Christopher Ondaatje takes an enlightening trip to hell and back and discovers rivalry, courage and imperialism in Antarctica.
Captain Scott, for three generations a hero of polar exploration, has fallen sharply in popular esteem since the publication of Roland Huntford's Scott and Amundsen in 1979. Huntford's book criticised Scott for inhuman leadership, alluded to his battles with his rival Shackleton, accused him of falsifying his diaries and ignored the scientific aspect of his expeditions. It suggested that Scott and his final assault team died from scurvy rather than from starvation, dehydration and exposure. In a subsequent interview, Huntford even stated that Scott had syphilis, which compromised his judgement.
Now Sir Ranulph Fiennes - himself a highly accomplished polar explorer, the first man to reach both north and south poles by surface travel and the first to cross the Antarctic continent unsupported - has written a biography of the maligned Scott that aims to revive his tarnished reputation. It is a fine book, and it would certainly have been the finest biography of Scott but for the fact that Fiennes goes to extraordinary lengths to refute every one of Huntford's allegations, whom he accuses of "conscious deception".
Though his refutation convinces this reviewer, it interferes with what should have been the most vivid and realistic description of Scott's most famous exploits - given the author's personal experience. No previous Scott biographer has man-hauled his way to the south pole as Scott did; and none has walked a thousand miles on poisoned feet. As Fiennes justifiably claims: "To write about hell it helps if you have been there." His background gives him the edge over other biographers in capturing the gruesome heroism of Scott's final historic journey.
Not that Fiennes identifies with Scott, as he admits in the book, nor does he favour his subject over his "brave and brilliant contemporaries", the Norwegian Amundsen and the Irish Shackleton. He accepts that Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton all made serious errors, that all had grave defects and that they all caused other men to die. But he has no truck with Huntford's idea that Scott's heroism was simply a figment of the British imperial imagination.
In 1900, the year that Scott began polar exploration, Britain ruled the richest empire - one greater even than the Roman empire. British institutions controlled no less than one-third of the world's trade and a territory of more than 16.8 million kilometres square, just over a quarter of the planet's land surface. More than 400 million people were British subjects, and English was on the way to becoming the world's most widely spoken language. A little later, in 1908, and again in 1917, as explained in Klaus Dodds' Pink Ice, the Antarctic peninsula, together with the wind-swept islands of the South Atlantic (the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and others), was formally incorporated into the empire by the British government.
The Royal Navy had been the undisputed leader in polar exploration for three centuries. Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, probably inspired by the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle in 1773 by Captain Cook - who believed in the existence of a hidden ice-bound continent within the circle - was anxious to sponsor another polar expedition. In 1899, Markham advertised in both Royal Navy and scientific circles for a leader. The 31-year-old Scott, a commander in the Royal Navy, was appointed leader of the National Antarctic Expedition the following year.
Even at that early stage, criticism was levelled against Markham's preference for using men rather than dogs to haul sledges. Furthermore, he favoured geographical exploration and survey as the expedition's main aims, rather than scientific research - which led to faction fighting between the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society.
Scott made two major polar journeys, in 1902-03 and 1910-12, in which, Fiennes notes, he led more than 60 "highly critical and difficult characters without the whiff of mutiny". The earlier expedition, on the Discovery , was the first great penetration of the southern continent. But it is the second expedition that inevitably forms the main focus of the book. Whatever your view, it is a tale of ambition, deceit, flawed judgement, endurance, suffering, achievement and, in the end, remarkable courage. Between the expeditions, in 1908, Shackleton's opportunistic expedition had come within a mere 156km of the south pole. By 1910, the race to be first was on, as Scott well knew. When he reached the pole on January 16 1912, he discovered that Amundsen had beaten him by 33 days, claiming the prize for Norway and naming the polar plateau after King Haakon VII of Norway, unaware that Shackleton had already named it after the British king.
"The Norwegians then killed and ate one of the dogs that had taken them there," observes a wry Fiennes. But although he claims that Scott's achievement "was as successful as any dog-driven journey in history", it was still a devastating disappointment for Scott, and it quickly led to serious questioning of his decision not to use dogs. His diary entry two months later reveals that he knew dogs would have been his salvation. Once he decided to make a race of it against the Norwegians without dogs, Scott never had a chance.
His tragic 1,290km return journey from the pole brings out the best in Fiennes' powers of description. He calls it "the greatest march ever made".
Four men perished with Scott in the unusually cold and bad weather.
Questions remain as to whether they could have been saved. "Long after Scott's death the men who might have been able to save him lived on and many reached positions of prominence," writes Fiennes. He ends memorably:
"Either way, Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Oates and Evans still lie frozen in the ice, as they have since the day their journey ended. They alone know the truth."
Rather than personal heroism, political struggles are the stuff of Pink Ice , which puts Scott's Antarctic expeditions into present-day perspective.
Dodds, an academic geographer not an explorer, tells an informative and often-compelling story of national rivalries over Antarctica and the South Atlantic and, in particular, the manner in which the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territory can be interpreted as being part of Britain's South Atlantic empire. As explained by Peter Beck in his foreword: "Historical British governments attempted to paint many parts of the world red or pink - depending upon the Atlas colour chart - not excluding southern polar regions. By contrast, in Argentina, maps and textbooks described and coloured Britain's South Atlantic empire as Argentine in what might be regarded as an audacious act of cartographical wish-fulfilment." Pink Ice is a timely reminder of the historical background to the continuing Anglo-Argentine sovereignty dispute following the 1982 Falklands war.
Britain's hopes that the entire Antarctic continent would be annexed were never realised. But, despite the "end of empire" in South Asia and the Middle East post-1945, Dodds shows how British governments of the time went out of their way to maintain Britain's influence as an international power in the South Atlantic. He points out that "the zenith of British Antarctic endeavour was the successful culmination of the CTAE (Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition) under the leadership of Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary in March 1958", which "mirrored the optimism of a Britain recovering from the economic and political dislocation of the second world war".
This expedition, together with the screening of Scott of the Antarctic in 1948, gave British imperialists solace. Scott was effectively heroicised like Clive in Clive of India (1935) and Livingstone in Stanley and Livingstone (1939), despite the film's failure at the box office.
The Fuchs and Hillary expedition fulfilled Shackleton's dream of crossing the Antarctic, yet it was not without problems. Fuchs' team, after two years of planning, left the Shackleton base on the Filchner ice shelf and reached the south pole two weeks after Hillary, who had travelled from Scott Base on the Ross Sea. Despite the achievement, the expedition was not a good example of Anglo-New Zealand, or indeed Commonwealth, cooperation.
There was animosity between Fuchs and Hillary, particularly after Fuchs and his team continued from the pole, against the advice of Hillary, to Scott Base; which was assisted by a mendacious press focusing on the personality clash.
Rivalries of many kinds, including sporting rivalries, are analysed by Dodds in a reflective and opinionated style. It becomes clear that territorial disputes refuse to disappear despite the claims made for globalisation. What's past is prologue.
Christopher Ondaatje is a council member of the Royal Geographical Society and the author of books on the exploration of Africa, most recently Hemingway in Africa .
Author - Ranulph Fiennes
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Pages - 460
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0340826975