Did the crowds who acclaimed Captain Scott a hero express a truth that historians are reluctant to acknowledge? Max Jones believes we should curtail our modern urge to debunk
Around 11.45pm on Sunday April 14 1912 officers on the deck of the Titanic felt a slight shudder when an iceberg tore a gash 300 feet long in the starboard side of the ship. As the Titanic began its descent into the waters of the Atlantic, five men lay frozen in the Antarctic. A party from the British Antarctic Expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott had reached the spot they calculated to be the geographical South Pole on January 17 1912. They were preceded by a Norwegian expedition under Roald Amundsen, which had reached the pole a month before. Having achieved the British expedition's goal, Scott, Captain Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Petty Officer Edgar Evans then faced an 800-mile journey, hauling their sledge across the ice, to reach base camp and safety. All five perished.
The announcement of the death of Captain Scott in February 1913 caused a sensation in Britain as great as the Titanic disaster. The Manchester Guardian declared "Nothing in our own time, scarcely even the foundering of the Titanic, has touched the whole nation so instantly and so deeply as the loss of these men". One commentator estimated that the crowd gathered around St Paul's for a memorial service to the dead explorers was greater than that for the Titanic service the previous year, the largest ever seen at the cathedral. A special edition of the Daily Mirror, which published for the first time the pictures the explorers took at the South Pole, sold over 1,340,000 copies, one of the best-selling editions of any daily newspaper published before the first world war.
How are we to interpret the extraordinary response generated by the Antarctic tragedy? Today cynics view the heroes of the past with suspicion.Lawrence of Arabia, General Gordon and Captain Scott have all been subjected to attack, exposed by Marxists and feminists as instruments of ideology, and vilified as deserving psychoanalysis rather than hero-worship, their unique achievements the result not of greatness but of flaws in their character.
Debunking past heroes is not a recent phenomenon. Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians - which attacked the reputations of General Gordon, Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale and Thomas Arnold - is 80 years old.Yet assaults on the icons of the past are prominent in history today, nourishing both the buoyant biography industry, and two TV documentary series: Channel 4's Secret Lives and BBC 2's Reputations. Recent victims include John F. Kennedy and Robert Baden-Powell, portrayed as frauds whose public image concealed a history of deceit.
Scott himself was savaged in 1979 by Roland Huntford's controversial biography Scott and Amundsen, the inspiration for Central Television's 1980s docu-drama The Last Place on Earth. Huntford's Scott is an incompetent fool whose errors of judgement led directly to the deaths of his men.
Why then was Scott raised as a hero in Edwardian Britain? For Huntford, Scott was deliberately constructed as a hero by an establishment eager to distract attention from Norwegian victory in the race to the pole. Facts were suppressed and an official version of events contrived to conceal Scott's defects and perpetuate the myth of heroic failure. The censorship of Scott's sledging journals before publication by his wife Kathleen Scott and the playwright J. M. Barrie was the central act, Huntford alleges, in the construction of the legend of Scott of the Antarctic.
Yet this emphasis is misleading. First, while the excision of derogatory comments about his comrades certainly obscured some unattractive aspects of Scott's personality, a comparison of the original and published versions of Scott's journal reveals few changes to the crucial account of the assault on the pole. Second, by the time Scott's sledging journals were published on November 6 1913, Scott was already a hero - the story of the tragedy had been disseminated through newspapers and periodicals, and all the major commemorative projects initiated. To explain the appeal of the story of Scott of the Antarctic, we must look more closely at the way news of the disaster was announced in Britain.
The bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, and the letters and diaries which told the story of their last march, were found on November 12 1912 by a relief party despatched from the British expedition's base camp. The remaining expedition members were picked up from the Antarctic by the ship Terra Nova in January and arrived at Oamaru, New Zealand on February 10 1913. The disaster was announced in a 2,487 word cable transmitted from New Zealand to London later that day.
Scott had entered into an agreement with the Central News Agency rather than with a single newspaper to report his expedition's outcome. This ensured the widest possible distribution for his reports. But Central News insisted on absolute confidentiality for the transmission of information to London. In fact, after the Terra Nova docked at Oamaru the first newspaper reports actually announced that Scott was on board, because the two officers who disembarked offered no comment to the journalists gathered at the harbour. The cable operator at Oamaru later recalled being locked in a room after sending the first announcement to prevent him disclosing any information.
The first cable from New Zealand described the expedition's activities over the previous year and the fate of the polar team. Two passages from Scott's sledging journal were quoted at length: Scott's account of Captain Oates, crippled by frost-bite, walking out into the blizzard; and a "Message to the Public" Scott had written at the end of his journal, in which he claimed the disaster was because of misfortune rather than mismanagement and praised the "hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman." The "message" concluded with a poignant plea that "surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for". Both the "message" and the account of Oates's death were reprinted exactly as Scott had written them.
The first cable from New Zealand, and these two passages in particular, sealed Scott's reputation as a British hero. News from the Antarctic dominated the press for a week. The response to the press reports was immediate. Memorial funds were opened throughout Britain. The Mansion House Scott Memorial Fund eventually raised over Pounds 75,000 to pay off the expedition's debts, provide for the bereaved, and raise a suitable national memorial. While less than the Pounds 412,000 raised by the Titanic Relief Fund, Pounds 75,000 (over Pounds 3 million in today's money) was a substantial sum given that only five men had died.
Donations were reported from all classes of society and all parts of Britain, from Cheam Girls' Club to Alnwick Town Band, from Dinglewood School in Colwyn Bay to a self-proclaimed "Sad Beggar" from Scotland, who contributed a surprising ten shillings. One of the most original initiatives was Evelyn Noble's chain-letter scheme for a "British Girls' Scott Memorial Fund". Letters were distributed asking the recipient to contribute one shilling to the fund, and to copy the letter and send it on to five other girls. (Although one magazine pointed out that 60 per cent of the Pounds 225 raised would have been wasted on stamps.) Numerous souvenirs of the tragedy were produced, from the 24 different memorial postcards printed by eight companies in 1913 alone, to the Captain Scott Cigarettes advertised under the slogan "Cool - like the iceberg". Even in Edwardian Britain the distinction between hero as moral exemplar and hero as celebrity commodity was blurred.
Some Pounds 10,000 from the Mansion House Fund was allocated to finance the erection of a national memorial statue in London. A competition was held and a design by Scottish architect Albert Hodge chosen. He envisioned a 40-foot high monument, with bronze figures of Captain Scott and a winged Britannia standing on a granite pylon. Yet the Mansion House committee failed to secure a site in London for the statue and even considered abandoning the project after the war. The Board of Works refused to sanction the sacrifice of "a single blade of grass in any of the Royal Parks" for a Scott memorial. A site was finally secured on Mount Wise in Devonport, where Hodges's statue was unveiled in 1925. By then 23 other memorials had been erected throughout Britain.
No central authority conducted the chorus of voices which commemorated the Antarctic tragedy. Scott was represented as a heroic figure by local councils, parish churches, professional, industrial and commercial organisations and individual philanthropists. The hero was created by civil society not by the central state. The absence of central direction was reflected, not only by the failure to secure a London site for the national memorial but also in the range of meanings assigned to the tragedy. While Winston Churchill declared the example set by Captains Scott and Oates demonstrated that officers of the armed forces would not fail the empire in the hour of need, the Chief Rabbi, at the 1913 meeting of the Peace Society, raised Scott as a pacifist hero, prepared to sacrifice his life in the peaceful cause of scientific research.
The willingness to challenge cherished beliefs, to expose secret lives and question reputations, remains an essential aspect of the historian's craft. Yet Captain Scott was not raised as a heroic figure in Edwardian Britain through the skilful excisions and embellishments of an editor's pen, nor by any central government propaganda campaign. The Antarctic tragedy struck such a resonant chord in Edwardian public opinion because narratives of the disaster were able to articulate a wide range of compelling cultural concerns about manliness, national decline and scientific progress.
Last year the response to the death of Princess Diana caught many by surprise. The image of the princess was fashioned through countless profiles and photo-ops. But the remarkable public reaction to her death cannot be explained solely through reference to the machinations of spin-doctors. The rare individuals who exert such extraordinary influence over our society and culture deserve more sophisticated attention from historians than a narrow focus on their secret lives.
Max Jones is William Stone research fellow in British history, Peterhouse,Cambridge.