Polar reactions to loss of 'heroic' explorer

The Last Great Quest
July 2, 2004

Until quite recently, it was fashionable to lambast or lampoon Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12. The Antarctic historian Roland Huntford played his part in shattering the myth of Scott as an imperial hero, while the Monty Python sketch "Scott of the Sahara" ridiculed the exploits of the explorer and his four companions. Both were products of the 1970s, when it was perhaps only to be expected that a country labelled the "sick man of Europe" would seek to puncture earlier evidence of imperial hubris.

There are now signs that the contemporary literature on Edwardian polar exploration is taking a more sympathetic interest in Scott's last Antarctic expedition. New evidence suggests that the weather experienced by Scott's party was abnormally severe, and others have challenged the well-established charge against Scott of logistical and managerial incompetence.

As with any figure labelled an imperial hero, Scott and his reputation have undergone frequent historical and cultural revisionism. Max Jones' The Last Great Quest is very much part of this revisionist literature and is to be welcomed precisely because it avoids the bombastic critique of earlier scholars, pundits and comics. Instead, Jones describes the pre-1914 generation's penchant for commemoration and even celebration of Scott as an imperial explorer-hero. Audience reaction is thus an integral, if neglected, part of the Scott story.

Jones starts his narrative, which draws on a decade of research, in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society in London's Kensington Gore. The society's financial and intellectual support was critical to the initiation of the Scott expedition. Under the leadership of its then-president, Sir Clements Markham, polar exploration in general received a higher profile, as it was recognised that the last remaining blank spaces on the world map were largely located in the higher latitudes. Markham was also instrumental in promoting the young naval officer Scott.

He did so at a time of great change in the RGS, as women made their presence felt. Moreover, the RGS became embroiled in disputes with the Royal Society over the perceived uneasy relationship between the presence of Royal Naval officers and the needs of science. During preparations leading up to the 1955-58 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this schism (unbeknown perhaps to Jones) was to reappear only too clearly. For some, therefore, polar exploration provided welcome relief from a messier temperate world. Although Captain Scott does not appear formally until page 60, Jones presents a useful tour de horizon of Edwardian geography, exploration, science and associated ideas of manliness in and out of the field.

Despite enjoying Markham's considerable patronage, the dispatch of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic was not automatically assured.

Sponsorship, lecture tours, media rights and lobbying had to be secured and professionally executed. The Liberal Government contributed £20,000 to the costs of this polar venture. Jones demonstrates clearly that support for Scott and his party was never unqualified. While some eagerly appropriated ideas of imperial vitality and science to justify the expedition, others condemned the profligacy.

The description of the expedition's progress across the ice is justifiably brief as Jones resists retracing each stage of the fateful journey. But he reminds readers that Scott's desire to reach the South Pole ahead of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (and of anybody else for that matter) was keenly developed. It was always rather pretentious to contend that scientific exploration and research alone had motivated Scott.

Scott and his party never returned. His reported demise was wired around the world. Notes of condolence flooded in, and national memorial funds were established. A Mansion House Scott memorial fund had by June 1913 amassed £75,000. Indigenous Antarctic literature in the form of "Scott's Message to the Public" formed the basis for a literary construction of Scott's heroism. It not only provided an explanation for the disastrous loss of life but also a platform for subsequent commemoration.

And, yet, as Jones skilfully shows, public acts of commemoration were always contested and occasionally controversial. The erection of a memorial to the Scott party was dogged by drama as arguments raged over design and location. This is the most original part of the book, as Jones documents new details and shatters well-entrenched shibboleths with the help of archive collections in Cambridge and London. His revelations of how surviving relatives were awarded pensions to compensate for their losses (the Scott family were the most highly rewarded), and the production of a map detailing the geography of commemoration with an emphasis on how national and local expressions of grief coexisted, are enlightening. The allegations surrounding the editing of Scott's diaries are shown to be largely without foundation, as little was changed in the published version, and thus the role of J. M. Barrie as an overprotective master-editor has been exaggerated.

While many in Britain were deeply saddened and shocked by the disaster in distant Antarctica, the Scott expedition provoked others to question the nature of modern life and the role of science and technology. The onset of the First World War further consolidated this sceptical trend.

Alongside the near contemporaneous Titanic disaster, Jones demonstrates that the planning, execution and, most important, reactions to the Scott expedition were multifarious. There was never one story or one myth associated with either ice-bound disaster, and thus it would be unreasonable to expect that public responses were anything less than complicated.

The book's slight disappointment is its epilogue. I would have been delighted to read a little more about the enduring fascination with Scott around the world. Perhaps this is the subject of another book. In the meantime, Antarctic scholars and the general reader can enjoy a well-produced and beautifully illustrated account of an expedition that simply refuses to fade away.

Klaus Dodds is reader in political geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott's Antarctic Sacrifice

Author - Max Jones
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 368
Price - £20.00 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 19 280483 9 and 570 3

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