[Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1911)]
Basically it all comes down to Captain Scott. How do you see him? Hero or villain? Martyr or incompetent?
[Roland Huntford: Scott and Amundsen (1979)]
Like any historical (or human) dilemma, it's never going to be quite as simple as that; but ever since Roland Huntford published his dual biography Scott and Amundsen (1979), with its brutal, excoriating portrait of Scott as an incompetent amateur, it's been pretty difficult to get Humpty-Dumpty back on his perch again.
Did Huntford go too far? His intention - insofar as that can be ascertained after all these years - was simply to restore the balance in reputation between the two explorers. Amundsen had, after all, been damned with faint praise for decades as some kind of soulless technician, heartlessly scooping the South Pole out from under the dogged, noble Englishmen with their man-hauled sledges and heavy burden of noblesse oblige and public school spirit.
Much praise has been lavished on Scott and his companions for their devotion to science: the fact that their sledge was still loaded with geological specimens when it was found next to their dead bodies. Terribly bad luck with weather has also been advanced as an explanation for their failure to return to base ...
The implication all along is that if they'd chosen to make a race of it, like the devious Amundsen, then they could easily have "bagged" the pole ahead of him. As it was, their scientific preoccupations and general good-sportsmanship acted as a kind of brake. Scott, too, has been praised (by Ranulph Fiennes) for his ability to "write good English under the worst circumstances" - his admittedly eloquent diaries and final letters from the tent.
It would certainly be foolish for anyone to cast doubt on Scott's own personal courage, exceptional physical endurance, and fluent way with the pen (any deficiencies there were of course made up for at home by rigorous editing out of personalities and other gripes before his diaries were published - not to mention J. M. Barrie's famous "reconstruction" of what went on in the final hours in the tent. Scott leaning over to pull blankets over his comatose companions, soothing their fevered brows, etc. etc.)
What Huntford set out to do - with the advantage of fluent Norwegian and access to hitherto unconsulted Scandinavian source materials - was to point out the brilliance of Amundsen's achievement. I think the tone of his preface makes it abundantly clear that he had absolutely no idea of what was waiting for him in the Scott papers: the true, unvarnished version of all those carefully laundered accounts of "Scott's Last Expedition" ... Having found so many suppressed passages, so many sidelights in the notes and letters of the other protagonists, he had little alternative than to report on his findings.
Did his iconoclasm become just a little too zestful? Clearly the explorer's son - Sir Peter Scott - thought so, insisting that a proviso to that effect be inserted in Huntford's list of acknowledgments:
Sir Peter Scott, son of the late Captain Scott, has requested me to make clear to all readers that the thanks I have expressed to him in the list of acknowledgments for material which he made available to me must under no circumstances be interpreted as approval of anything in the book, from which he totally disassociates himself and which he did not moreover see before printing. His view is that in order to make a comparative study of Amundsen and Scott it was not necessary to denigrate Scott, let alone his wife. I do not accept that this is what I have done, but I greatly regret any distress that my treatment of the subject has caused to Sir Peter or others.
- Roland Huntford, Scott and Amundsen. 1979. A Weidenfeld Paperback (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993): p.xii.
I guess one might feel just a little more indignant at Huntford's failure to honour the old school tie if there had been any substantive attempts since then to discredit or refute the information he has supplied.
Did Kathleen Scott have a love affair with the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen while her husband was off on his expedition to the South Pole? Well, yes, it appears she did. One can certainly appreciate that a son would not wish this piece of information about his mother to become public, but it does certainly give Huntford some basis for his suggestion that the marriage was more one of expedience than passion.
The vast amounts of new (in 1979) information he provides certainly remain susceptible to more than one reading, but the fact that he was the first to dare to provide any real alternative to Scott hagiography is surely something to celebrate?
[Francis Spufford: I May Be Some Time (1996)]
Francis Spufford, in his his very entertaining and readable cultural history of the polar phenomenon I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1996), prefers (somewhat bizarrely) to attribute Huntford's actions to political bias:
Nor was the debunked version any less open to cultural colouring. Huntford denounced Scott form the New Right, as an example of the sclerotic official personality; the playwright Trevor Griffiths, adapting Huntford's book as a TV drama, attacked Scott from the Left as a representative of privilege and the Establishment bested by a rather democratic, workmanlike set of Scandinavians. [p.5]
Yes, but was Huntford right? Was Scott inefficient and capricious in the way he organised and led his expedition, or is that just a lot of extremist right-wing (and, it appears, left-wing) establishment bashing?
What Spufford does hot allow for throughout his very informative book is the fact that questions of emphasis must always be a matter of opinion. If one wishes to analyse those opinions in political terms, one is (of course) free to do so. The notable omission in his book is any account of his own set of cultural biases - the rather smarty-pants attitude of chronological snobbery which entitles him to devote page after page to generalisations about a distant race called the "Edwardians" (many of whom seem actually to have been Victorians, but to have undergone a weird sea-change as the clocks clicked over into the 1900s ...)
That's not to say that simple examination of the facts will ever answer the question about Huntford's own bona fides. Laying unfair stress on certain details at the expense of others can certainly be used to devastating effect (as the entire history of our legal system would seem to demonstrate: why else pay top dollar for particularly persuasive advocates as opposed to court-appointed hacks?).
That doesn't really mean that facts are irrelevant, or simply a matter of interpretation, or entirely susceptible to spin, however. It's noticeable that Scott's great rival Shackleton's posthumous reputation has not been attacked in the same way, by either right or left-wing revisionists. Could it be that he was simply a better leader? His personal life was certainly at least as murky as Scott's - his attitude towards finance and self-advancement every bit as unscrupulous ...
Amundsen too had a fluent way with him when it came to rubber cheques, and insisted on maintaining absolute control over his men at all times. Why hasn't he been decried as a gloomy, capricious dictator? Could it be that his achievements continue to speak for themselves when examined with any degree of objectivity?
So what were the problems with Scott as a leader (according to Huntford, at any rate)?
- ignorance of Polar conditions, when first appointed to command the Discovery expedition in 1902.
This can't really be disputed by either party to the debate. Scott was chosen to lead by Sir Clements Markham, a foolish old man who regarded the Franklin relief expeditions as the last word in arctic travel, had an unreasonable dislike of dogs, and a fervent belief in the ennobling effects of man-hauling. The death of the entire mid-nineteenth-century Franklin expedition was - to him and many others (including Charles Dickens) - proof of Sir John Franklin's transcendent merits as a leader.
- refusal to repair that ignorance subsequently, despite abundant opportunities to do so.
Scott's diaries during the 1911-1912 expedition reveal again and again how little research had been done on skis, dogs, or even the mechanical workings of the sledges he was relying on to pull him the the Pole. Admirers of Scott as a "scientist" (without a university education or any formal qualifications whatsoever, his observations cannot be said to have shed much light on any particular discipline) or as a "renaissance man" (he certainly spent a good deal of time in the company of his wife's artier friends, such as Max Beerbohm and J. M. Barrie, when he might have been passing the odd weekend in an Inuit village or in a ski-lodge), are forced to hail this as a virtue. The result was that there was one trained skier on Scott's expedition, one trained dog-sled driver, and the mechanic who'd had most to do with building the mechanised sledges was left at home.
- unstable, capricious temperament
Not denied by even his greatest admirers. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, whose classic The Worst Journey in the World (1922) is often seen as a paean of praise for Scott, gives a vivid account of the difficulties of sledging with "the owner": his time-wasting fussiness in the tent, his sudden decisions to go on for another couple of hours when the day's stage was over and his companions were dropping in their traces ... His depressions and fits of rage were also frequently commented on by his companions, even the otherwise faithful Wilson.
- sudden, illogical decisions
You don't need Huntford to document these. Even the central bastion of Scott worship, the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, includes a scene where he insists on his companions abandoning their skis in the middle of their way to the Pole. This is perhaps the single most controversial episode in the whole saga, in fact. Cherry-Garrard states quite clearly that Scott's last-minute decision to take five rather than the planned-for four people on the final stage was the major cause of their failure to survive, entailing (as it did) breaking up every block of food and fuel calculated for four people into a complicated fraction every morning and evening of their last days. Even worse, the fact that no-one knew who among the two last sledge-parties would be going on led to Birdie Bowers having to march all the way without skis, while Scott, Wilson, Bowers and Evans glided on beside him. If this was a rational decision, it's very hard to understand what it was based on. The choice of the blustering drunkard Evans for the final journey (he'd actually been dismissed from the expedition for public drunkenness by Scott's second-in-command in Lyttelton, until reinstated by Scott himself) has also been questioned before and since. He was the first of the party to die, and was ill from a cut on his hand for much of the way to and back from the Pole.
- refusal to respect the chain of command or back up his subordinates
Captain Oates put this very succinctly in a letter home: "the fact of the matter is that he is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere, and when he has got what he can out of you, it is shift for yourself" [quoted by Huntford, p.420]. One shocking instance of this is his decision in his 1905 account of the Discovery expedition not to allow any of his subordinates to speak for themselves or write their own account of the (quite major) explorations they undertook. This completely reversed the normal way in which such expedition reports were written - before and since - and led to threats of a libel action from Shackleton, among others. His reinstatement of Petty Officer Evans by reversing his second-in-command's decision led to an undermining of the authority of the latter, also coincidentally named Evans - the then Captain, later Admiral Evans, author of South with Scott (1921). Captain Evans was one of the hapless three sent home at the last stage from the final Polar party, despite having been promised a place in it. Nor does that appear to have been due to any lack of fitness, given the fact that both Lashly and Crean, sent back with him, were more than a match in robust good health and polar experience for any of the others at this point in the journey.
- lack of magnaminity or vision
After careful subediting by a committee headed by Kathleen Scott, his published diaries were seen at the time as a classic of manly endurance and understatement. When published in full by Roland Huntford in 2010, the full degree of his self-pity and almost rabid hatred of Shackleton were revealed for the first time. Most verbatim diaries do, of course, contain passages one would rather suppress, but when extensive rewriting as well as subtantial omissions are necessary to fit them for the public eye, one does begin to question a little the character of the man who originally wrote them. Again, neither Mawson, Shackleton or Amundsen have suffered at all in reputation from the posthumous publication of their private papers.
- incompetence and sentimentality
The classic case of this, referred to again by Cherry-Garrard as well as Huntford, is Scott's decision not to push his final, "one-ton" supply dump as far south as possible. Why not? Because it might involve cruelty to the horses:
"I have had more than enough of this cruelty to animals ... and I'm not going to defy my feelings for the sake of a few day's march."
"I'm afraid you'll regret it, Sir," said Oates ...
"Regret it or not, my dear Oates," Scott answered, "I've made up my mind, like a Christian. [Huntford, p.367]
Sound good, doesn't it? "Like a Christian" - or like a sentimental fool? All but one of the ponies died on the way back from the depot (one actually had to be dispatched with a pickaxe in the head by Oates himself as it couldn't climb out of the icy water and was about to be eaten by killer whales). The few extra miles which might have been gained were the ones which separated Scott's last camp from the supplies that might have saved them from death (Oates, of course, was already dead at that point). I don't think anyone can refuse Scott the right to decide to commit suicide in the snows through sheer incompetence and pigheadedness (though the "Christianity" of such a decision might well be doubted) - dragging his companions down with him through no fault of their own is a little less admirable, though, surely?
[Apsley Cherry-Garrard: The Worst Journey in the World (1922)]
By contrast with all this, in Amundsen Huntford saw a man determined to learn from his own mistakes, not too proud to take information wherever he could find it, and absolutely committed to the health and welfare of his men. In all the years since 1979, it's been hard to dispute the implicit preference his book presents to us.
Put simply and brutally, if you want to be worked almost to death, infected with scurvy, and then subtly disparaged in the expedition account, sign up with Captain Scott. Who knows, you might even be offered the chance of literally freezing to death a few miles away from an (inadequately marked - another great cause of controversy in the subsequent inquiry) food depot?
If you want to get back alive, with tales to tell, and a patron for life, choose Amundsen. Admittedly, though, if for any reason you felt you had to dispute or rebel against your leader's decisions during the voyage, you'd find him an implacable and unforgiving enemy subsequently.
I suppose, finally, what's most amazing about the whole thing is just how powerful the Scott myth still is. Huntford's two subsequent exhaustively researched lives of (respectively) Shackleton (1985) and Nansen (1997), both of them praised and celebrated by him virtually without stint, could not remove his reputation as a muck-raker and a rabble-rouser. Foolish, ill-conceived books have continued to appear, by such luminaries as Ranulph Fiennes, in an attempt to restore the fabric of the Scott mythos to its former unblemished whiteness.
For myself, I can say that I read Admiral Evans' South with Scott at school, and - later on - grew addicted to such works as Scott's own diaries (as presented in volume one of Scott's Last Expedition (1913)). When I first encountered Huntford's book in 1981, it came as quite a revelation to me. I realised that a truth could sometimes be reconstructed despite all the paper-burning fervour of white-washing hagiographers, that such revealing asides as Captain Oates':
If Scott was a decent chap I'd ask him bang out what he means to do. [quoted in Huntford, p.420]
could lurk like timebombs in the archive until the time came for them to be revealed. The effect was to give me back some faith in the whole process of writing history.
Scott's reputation as a hero is - I think most people would now have to acknowledge - largely a product of careful spin-doctoring. Ditto the aspersions on Amundsen for somehow unfairly "robbing" the English of their natural preserve, the South Pole.
The distinction Huntford was trying to make, I think, was between complex, flawed characters such as Shackleton and Nansen, with their inner demons and complex personal relationships, but their simultaneous willingness to set something (the survival of their followers and crew) in front of success in a quest, and masochistic individuals such as Scott and Wilson, with their martryr-complexes and refusal to value anyone above themselves and their own weird life-paths.
The types are superficially similar: no-one denies Scott's physical bravery and stamina, his refusal to admit defeat. Nor will we ever cease to marvel at Wilson's mad mid-winter journey to observe the Emperor Penguins at Cape Crozier. In neither case, though, was getting back to tell the tale seen as much of a priority - nor were the lives of companions and subordinates held in any great esteem.
Shackleton, by contrast, lost not a single man in his Endurance expedition, and showed the supreme resolution to turn back within a hundred miles of the Pole in 1908. Better, as he said to his wife on his return, a live donkey than a dead lion.
Courage at other people's expense - the courage of a General Haig, dining on partridges at his French chateau as his troops drowned in liquid mud at Passchendaele - is still preferred by many people to the courage of what Francis Spufford might call "more democratic" leaders, who won't accept a sacrifice they're not willing to make themselves.
It is, in the end, a matter of taste. Haig and Scott are, for me, birds of a feather. Spufford would say that that's because I'm trying to judge them by the standards of my own, very different era. I would say that what distinguishes them from Shackleton and Amundsen is a crucial failure to learn from experience. If you are incapable of acknowledging error in yourself, and compelled always to blame it on others, your mistakes (and both Haig and Scott made many of those) will never benefit you - or those around you.
When, on the other hand, I look at Shackleton (or, for that matter, Douglas Mawson) over the gap of the years I find a fanatical determination every bit the equal of Scott's, but coupled with a humanity and a determination to learn from every misstep which requires no particular special pleading to be comprehensible by the standards of any age.
[Scott & co. at the Pole (1912)]
[For more of my views on the literature of Antarctic exploration - particularly Sir Douglas Mawson's expedition of 1911-14 - see my essay "The Great White Silence" (the title of Herbert Ponting's 1924 silent film about the Scott expedition), forthcoming in the next issue of brief magazine, guest-edited by Scott Hamilton.]