In 1911, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen went head to head to be the first to reach the South Pole. While the gruelling challenge ended in victory for Amundsen, Scott and four of his companions perished on the return journey. Why then, asks Max Jones, is the British adventurer remembered as a true British hero?
This article was first published in the August 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine.
As the bells of St Paul’s struck 12 on 14 February 1913, 1,500,000 children gathered in schools around Britain to hear the story of Scott of the Antarctic. The explorer and his four companions had been dead for nearly a year, but the tragic news had reached London via telegraph from New Zealand only at the start of the week.
“Nothing in our own time, scarcely even the foundering of the Titanic”, proclaimed the Manchester Guardian, “has touched the whole nation so instantly and so deeply as the loss of these men”. The Daily Mirror, which first published the photographs taken by the dead explorers at the South Pole, sold over 1,300,000 copies, one of the best-selling issues of any daily paper before 1914. A fund would eventually raise £75,000 to provide for the bereaved and commemorate the dead (nearly £5,000,000 in today’s money).
The great prizes of exploration had captivated the public since the mid-19th century, with the search for the sources of the Nile. Explorers provided an expression of national greatness in an era of imperial rivalry. The young naval officer Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912), had achieved fame after leading a first expedition to the Antarctic in the ship Discovery in 1901–04. He had set a new “farthest south” record, and the expedition made many important scientific discoveries. Scott was promoted to Captain on his return, and was even invited to Balmoral by Edward VII.
His second expedition – which aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole – had departed in the ship Terra Nova in 1910. The “camera-artist” Herbert Ponting accompanied the expedition, chronicling the crew’s adventures and the dramatic Antarctic landscape. Ponting’s pioneering film footage was exhibited throughout Britain in 1911-12, while his compelling photographs illustrated press reports of Scott’s progress.
But Scott lost the race for the South Pole, arriving on 17 January 1912, a month after the Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen. After the disappointment of finding the Norwegian’s flag at the Pole, two members of Scott’s team (Edgar Evans and Captain Oates) died on the return leg, before Scott and his remaining comrades Henry Bowers and Dr Edward Wilson perished on the Great Ice Barrier.
Why, then, was the disaster celebrated in Britain, and around the world? The answer lies in Scott’s own words. A search party had found not only the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson in November 1912, but also the letters and diaries which told their story.
In his last journal Scott had composed a “Message to the Public” – part apologia, part heroic testament, part plea for the bereaved. It claimed the tragedy was “not due to faulty organisation, but to misfortune in all risks which had to be undertaken”, turning defeat into noble sacrifice, a disaster redeemed by the exemplary conduct of the explorers in the face of death. The message gave voice to the heroic fantasies of Scott’s generation. A romantic language of sacrifice pervaded late-Victorian and Edwardian culture, lauding the endurance of hardship as the highest expression of manliness.
‘Plenty of pluck and spirit’
The humiliations of the South African (Boer) War (1899–1902), international competition, the physical deterioration of the masses and decadence of the governing classes, preoccupied Britons before 1914. Scott explicitly crafted his message as a retort to the prophets of national decline. Many commentators followed his lead. The founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, praised Scott for showing “there is plenty of pluck and spirit left in the British race after all”. Socialists, Irish nationalists and militant suffragettes also joined the chorus of praise. “There is, indeed, nothing to match the spirit of the militants”, wrote Christabel Pankhurst, “unless it be the spirit shown by Captain Scott and his brave companions”.
The story of ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ reverberated through the First World War, when sacrifice became commonplace. On 5 May 1916 the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith unveiled a memorial tablet in St Paul’s. Less than two months before the slaughter of the Somme, Asquith declared “there is no figure of our time who holds and will retain the same enduring place in the admiration and gratitude of his countrymen” as Scott. The death of the explorers on a scientific quest offered a powerful model of Britishness, of idealism and honour, to set against Prussian militarism and brutality.
Many believed Scott’s example had braced the nation for war. Nearly all the officers on his last expedition volunteered for service, and many were decorated for acts of bravery. Scott’s widow Kathleen received hundreds of letters from soldiers, testifying to the inspiration they had drawn from her late husband. Ponting’s films of the expedition were shown to over 100,000 officers and men of the British Army in France. The story of Captain Oates, who, crippled by frostbite, walked into the snow to try to help his friends get through, proved particularly compelling. The films projected an example of comradeship, of men doing their duty to the end, which was all too relevant on the Western Front.
Ponting’s efforts to create a commercial film hit after 1918 proved unsuccessful. He was hampered as he had shot almost no footage of the drama’s main action: the assault on the Pole. But accounts of the Antarctic disaster proliferated after the war, as words not pictures breathed new life into Scott’s story. Publisher John Murray’s cheap editions of Scott’s journals sold over 80,000 copies between 1923 and 1939, while biographies and memoirs kept the story in the public eye. The Antarctic disaster offered an epic of heroism for a generation tired of war. The establishment of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, with the balance of the memorial fund, emphasised the expedition’s scientific aspirations. In 1935 BBC producers argued over the most appropriate way to end their Armistice Day programming (on the anniversary of the ending of the First World War on 11 November 1918) so as to promote the idea of “peace and comradeship”. They agreed to broadcast a play about Scott.
From hero to zero
The Ministry of Information’s manifesto for film propaganda singled out Scott in 1940 as a “national hero”, who should be used to promote “British life and character”. But, although numerous radio broadcasts retold Scott’s story during the Second World War, Ealing Studios did not release the film Scott of the Antarctic until 1948, with John Mills in the title role. The public, however, preoccupied with their own food shortages, did not flock to watch. Scott’s popularity began to wane through the 1950s. Lampooned by comedians Peter Cook and Monty Python, he seemed the embodiment of stiff-upper-lipped Englishness, increasingly out of step in an age which valued emotional expression above self-control. Howard Brenton’s Scott of the Antarctic presented the British explorers as upper-class fools in 1971, stumbling around Bradford Ice Rink on foot, while the Norwegians skated past. After over half a century in circulation, John Murray finally chose not to reprint Scott’s journals in 1978.
Scott was already out of fashion when Roland Huntford published his debunking biography, Scott and Amundsen, the following year. The British explorer had been criticised since 1913, when many commentators acknowledged the superiority of Amundsen’s methods. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a young member of Scott’s team, had revealed Scott’s sensitive, brooding personality in The Worst Journey in the World (1922), a characterisation confirmed in Reginald Pound’s 1966 biography Scott of the Antarctic, the first to be written with full access to Scott’s unexpurgated journals. All, however, had paid tribute to the explorer’s heroism in the face of death. Huntford, in contrast, presented an arrogant fool, who led his companions to their deaths. His Scott was a suitable hero for a nation in decline, an emblem of amateurism and incompetence. Although many were outraged, his seductive interpretation became the new orthodoxy, reinforced in 1985 through Central Television’s docu-drama, The Last Place on Earth. Scott’s reputation suffered further with the resurgence of interest in the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton at the end of the 1990s. Shackleton’s 1914 expedition aimed for the first crossing of the Antarctic on foot but his ship Endurance was crushed by ice – a drama captured on film by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. Thanks to Shackleton’s determined leadership, his party survived their 19-month ordeal. Where Shackleton has been hailed as a model leader, dynamic and inspirational, Scott has been cast as his negative other, remote, capricious and indecisive. The principal complaint of many visitors to the National Maritime Museum’s “South: The Race to the Pole” exhibition in 2000–1 was that Scott had been portrayed too positively.
Over the last five years, however, the revisionist cycle has begun to turn again. The award-winning polar scientist Susan Solomon persuasively argued in 2001 that the British team had been the victims of unusually bad weather on their return from the Pole, as Scott himself had claimed in his “Message to the Public”. Ranulph Fiennes harnessed the experience of a veteran polar traveller to mount a direct assault on Huntford’s interpretation in his 2003 book Captain Scott. And in 2005 David Crane drew on a wealth of previously unused sources, in the most balanced biography of Scott yet published (his account of Scott’s last journey is on page 18).
These recent works have helped rescue Scott’s reputation from the music-hall villainy of some popular accounts. The research of Susan Solomon and others on climate change in Antarctica follows directly in the footsteps of Scott’s pioneering meteorologist George Simpson. Scott must certainly shoulder his share of the blame for the Antarctic disaster. But the scientific legacy of his last expedition deserves acknowledgement and celebration.
Captain Scott’s heroic reputation
10 February 1913: News of the Antarctic disaster is received in London, and makes the late editions of the evening papers.
18 January 1914: Scott’s sledging journals are placed on display in the Manuscripts Saloon of the British Museum.
November 1915: First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour unveils Kathleen Scott’s Fleet Memorial statue of her late husband in Waterloo Place, London.
1923: John Murray publishes the first cheap edition of Scott’s journals, and a special “school reader”.
November 1934: Leading Conservative minister Stanley Baldwin opens Herbert Baker’s new memorial building for the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge
1948: Ealing Studios releases Scott of the Antarctic. The film receives a Royal Command Performance, and boosts sales of Scott’s journals, but fails to attract large audiences.
1953: Annual sale of John Murray’s “cheap edition” of Scott’s journals falls below 1,000 copies for the first time.
1959: Peter Cook performs “Polar Bores” sketch in the Cambridge Footlights revue, The Last Laugh.
1966: Reginald Pound’s biography includes extensive quotations from Scott’s original journals, which had been cut from the published version.
December 1970: Monty Python Series 2, Episode 10, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ is broadcast by the BBC. The episode includes spoof film sketch Scott of the Sahara, which pitches Scott against a “crazed desert lion”, while Oates engages in a “frank adult death struggle with the spine-chilling giant electric penguin”.
1979: Roland Huntford’s classic debunking biography, Scott and Amundsen, is published by Hodder and Stoughton.
1985: Martin Shaw, star of The Professionals, plays Captain Scott in Trevor Griffiths’s TV adaptation of Huntford’s biography, The Last Place on Earth.
1999: 150,000 visitors attend exhibition at the New York Natural History Museum, sparking revival of interest in Ernest Shackleton.
2001: Leading polar scientist Susan Solomon shows that the British team faced unusually bad weather on their return from the Pole, as Scott had argued in his last message.
Captain Scott’s message to the public
Written at the back of his sledging journal as he waited to die, Scott’s message laid the foundations of his legend, transforming disaster into heroic sacrifice. It concluded: “We are weak, writing is difficult, but, for my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks – we knew we took them. Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best till the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly provided for. Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale; but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”
Why do we remember Captain Scott?
Look around Trafalgar Square. Imposing statues of Havelock and Napier stand in Nelson’s shadow, near busts of Admirals Beatty, Cunningham and Jellicoe. Yet their names are largely forgotten: not one made the top 100 Great Britons in the BBC’s 2002 poll.
Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton, in contrast, both made the list. So why do some past heroes continue to fascinate, while others fade into obscurity?
In part their tales are simply gripping yarns. Scott’s own account of his last journey still captivates readers. Rivalry, ambition, and alleged incompetence add controversy to adventure.
Compelling images appear essential to capture the attention of our visual age and Scott’s story was wonderfully illustrated, both by Herbert Ponting and by the haunting photographs of the South Pole found with the bodies of the dead.
The apparent simplicities of polar adventure – of man battling against the elements – appeal today, to an age disenchanted with technology. And, while many Victorian reputations have been tarnished by uncomfortable associations with imperial exploitation, the story of Scott of the Antarctic is more palatable: a heroic epic set on an empty, white stage.
Max Jones is a writer, lecturer and historian. His book include The Last Great Quest and A History of British Heroes.