Race for the South Pole: the Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen

Felix Driver revisits the gruelling race to the south pole in a new edition of the rival explorers’ diaries

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Reviewed by: Felix Driver
Author: Roland Huntford
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £20

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Anyone who ventures into print on the subject of Scott and Amundsen these days had better be sure of their ground: the history of polar exploration is a remarkably contentious field.

While the reputations of celebrated explorers have long been fair game for revisionist historians, there is evidently more at stake here than the mere facts of the case, just as an historian’s credibility depends on more than a good story.

The approaching centenary of Amundsen’s triumph and Scott’s disaster will see a flurry of new books, exhibitions and television documentaries, not to mention blogs, tweets and podcasts, and yet further opportunity for controversy, however contrived it may sometimes seem.

Media interest in exploration is nothing new. Explorers have long depended on the oxygen of publicity. In fact, as Roland Huntford reminds us in this edition of the expedition diaries of Scott and Amundsen, the race to publication a century ago was in some ways as important as the race to the south pole itself.

After his devastating discovery of the evidence of Amundsen’s success in the form of a black flag in the snow, Scott clung to the hope that he might yet win the race from the pole by being the first to the nearest telegraph station.

His diary entry for 17 January 1912 concludes: “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it.” But the words italicised here were carefully excised from the version which was posthumously published.

Huntford has no doubt about the reason: As far as the British were concerned, nothing would be done to tarnish the reputation of a national hero.

In his influential 1979 biography of these two explorers, Huntford argued that the realities of Antarctic exploration had been obscured by British vanity and hypocrisy. In this view, Scott was not only culpable for mistakes made in the organisation of the expedition, he also duped the public by effectively crafting his posthumous reputation as a martyr to British enterprise, even as he lay dying in the Antarctic.

Huntford’s latest book offers no concessions to his many critics (the most notable of whom, Ranulph Fiennes, he does not even name). In a brief epilogue, he reiterates his argument concerning the shoddy planning of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, contrasting its poor leadership and bungled execution with the technical skill and environmental expertise of the Norwegians.

Those interested in the scientific work of the Terra Nova expedition will need to look elsewhere. As its title suggests, this book is solely concerned with the race to the pole itself, as tracked through the diaries of the expedition leaders.

There is relatively little context or scholarly apparatus here to guide (or distract) the reader, in contrast with the informative and accessible 2005 edition of Scott’s last journals, published by Oxford University Press.

The few concessions to context include a series of editorial comments interspersed between diary extracts, some sketch maps reprinted from Huntford’s earlier book, and a short glossary for those armchair explorers who can’t tell their sastrugi from their seracs. Rather than offering a new interpretation, this book’s chief contribution rests on the idea of setting the daily diary entries of the two protagonists alongside one another, with minimal editorial interference.

But even this is not straightforward: in dating his diary entries, Amundsen forgot to allow for his crossing of the international dateline.

Reading the journals of Scott and Amundsen together has the advantage of highlighting the relative pace and position of the two expeditions on a daily basis. It also draws attention to the contrasting literary styles of their authors. Of interest here are not simply the celebrated set-pieces, most notably Scott’s powerful final ‘message to the public’, but also more routine matters of format and function.

More might be said about the logistics of diary-making, the intended audiences and the subsequent fate of the texts themselves, as well as their realisation in print and other media.

Furthermore, the intriguing extracts from a third diarist (ski champion Olav Bjaaland, who accompanied Amundsen) which are also included here, raise further questions about the relationship between diaries made on the same expedition.

In view of their similarities, it seems likely that Bjaaland and Amundsen shared their diaries at some point during or after the voyage. But that is a different story. 

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Felix Driver is professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London