Captain Scott: a second-rate hero?


After a lifetime's research, Roland Huntford thinks he has finally nailed the myth of Scott of the Antarctic: far from being a national hero, the explorer was an amateur whose incompetence condemned his men to death


It was hard to escape Captain Scott if you were a child growing up in Britain any time between the 1920s and the 1970s. He was the man who made the ultimate sacrifice on his return from the south pole; the man who achieved a greater nobility in coming second than his rival did in coming first; the man who embodied the noblest qualities of stoicism and suffering. In short, he was the quintessential British hero, the venerated subject of school assemblies everywhere.


And then, almost overnight, the Scott myth ended in 1979 with the publication of Roland Huntford's book, ‘Scott and Amundsen’. For the first time, the British and Norwegian expeditions to the south pole were forensically examined side by side and Scott was found seriously wanting.


The undisputed facts remained the same, that Amundsen and his team reached the south pole on 15 December 1911 using skis, dogs and sledges, before returning safely to their base camp just over a month later. And that, after Scott's polar party reached the south pole on 17 January 1912 using skis, dogs, sledges and man-hauling, the team died one by one: Edgar Evans died of exhaustion, frostbite and starvation on or around 16 February; Captain Oates, his leg frost-bitten and gangrenous, walked to his death on or around 17 March; and Scott, Wilson and Bowers, too tired to go on, died in their tent out on the Ross Ice Shelf on or around 21 March.


Everything else in the story, however, was up for grabs. Where Amundsen's attention to detail made his expedition seem no more demanding than a skiing trip in the Norwegian outdoors, Scott's appeared a disaster almost from the off. According to Huntford's account, he ignored the basic lessons of previous polar expeditions by failing to either take enough dogs or learn how to drive them properly; he took men who barely knew how to ski; he came unprepared for extreme temperatures; he was indecisive, taking an extra person with him to the pole when his supplies had been based on a team of four. Worst was the veiled accusation that because of all this Scott had effectively condemned his team to death.


It was a damning indictment: one from which rehabilitation seemed impossible. And yet, within 25 years or so, serious writers and academics began to rewrite history in Scott's favour again. First came Ranulph Fiennes in 2003, dismissing Huntford for not being an explorer himself; in the same year, Susan Solomon suggested Scott had just been unusually unlucky with the weather.


Huntford, though, has never been one to duck a fight. He has devoted the last 35 years of his academic career to the study of polar exploration, and in particular to the Scott and Amundsen story. Indeed, his own reputation is now inextricably linked to both men. Two years ago he wrote ‘Two Planks and a Passion’ and this week he publishes ‘Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen’. The first of these was a history of skiing, the second the unedited diaries, but the subtext of both was the same: to nail the Scott myth once and for all.


The Expedition Diaries breaks new ground by letting both men live and die side by side in their own words. And so, on the very day Scott is complaining about unexpectedly cold conditions, Amundsen writes that the temperatures are about what he expected and he is making good progress. And on days when Scott is tent-bound in a blizzard, Amundsen is again achieving his expected daily distance, because he has brought proper sledge compasses. This is a story of amateurs and professionals, heightened by entries from the diaries of Olav Bjaaland, Amundsen's lead skier, who makes the whole thing sound like a day in the Norwegian mountains.


Even more damning for Scott's reputation, Huntford has restored all the cuts that Scott's family and literary executors had made to his published diaries. Here we find a man given to blaming his colleagues for his own failings; a man with a strong sense, quite early in the expedition, that his preparations have been inadequate; a man who describes one of his dying colleagues as stupid; a man who, on realising he has missed out on being the first to the pole, writes that he can still salvage his reputation if he can get the news to the outside world before Amundsen. A man eager to mask his failure by playing up his mission's scientific endeavour. A man who at one point writes his expedition is a shambles.


"Before Scott left for the Antarctic, the British public had little interest in him," says Huntford. "He was considered an inferior version of Shackleton [who then held the record for the going the furthest south] and polar exploration wasn't big in the public imagination, being considered the preserve of the Royal Geographical Society and the navy and therefore a hive of mediocrity. Those with the real ability in extreme conditions went into mountaineering; the unwritten story of British polar exploration is the men who didn't go."


Amundsen's success in reaching the south pole was broadcast almost a year before news of Scott's fate reached the outside world. In that time, while some of the British newspapers were a little huffy about Amundsen having concealed from Scott his intention of heading south, the British public were fairly sanguine. Amundsen's UK lecture tour in the autumn of 1912 was a success and there was feeling that the best man had won.


All that changed in 1913 when news came through that Scott and his men had died. "There was a public outpouring of grief almost on a par with what we later saw with the death of Princess Diana," says Huntford. "The British have frequently made a virtue of disaster, and have a perverse attraction to romantic heroes who fail rather than to Homeric ones who succeed. Most important of all was that Scott was dead; had he come home alive, he would have been soon forgotten."


Yet even this Diana moment was comparatively short-lived. When Scott's expedition diaries came out towards the end of 1913, the reviews were mixed at best, as if the critics suspected the edited diaries were covering up a truth altogether more uncomfortably prosaic than the legend they had been sold. By the time the first world war started, Scott's memory had been half eclipsed; by the end it had been almost totally so.


It was the aftermath of the first world war that was largely responsible for Scott's revival. "The war was the first fought on an epic scale and it left the country with a vacuum of heroes," says Huntford. "There were no Wellingtons or Nelsons for the country to unite around. The generals were discredited and the foot soldiers largely anonymous and forgotten. So there was a real national desire for a modern hero."


The publication in 1922 of ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the expedition member who had discovered the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, put Scott back on a national pedestal, and with the release of the 1947 film Scott of the Antarctic, with its Vaughan Williams soundtrack , his heroic status remained almost untouched for more than 50 years.


By the time Huntford began his research in the mid-70s, the Scott family and the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge happily opened up their archives to him, confident that nothing critical would ever be written. Huntford got an early indication of what was in store, however, after a run-in with a senior academic at the SPRI, who warned him of the dangers of damaging Scott's reputation. When his original book was published in 1979, he had to fight off an injunction taken out by Peter Carter-Ruck on behalf of the Scott family for libel by implication.


The Scott family were right to be concerned. Huntford had been ruthless in his research, and though Scott did not go undefended, Huntford's version rapidly became widely accepted. And yet the Scott legend refuses to die to this day.


"It's strange," says Huntford. "Shackleton, who didn't lose a man when the Endurance was crushed in the Antarctic ice, remains a footnote in the national psyche, while Scott still has an iconic status. Only in Britain do we revere the man who died in failure above the survivor. Elsewhere in the world, Scott is seen as rather second-rate, an incompetent loser who battled nature rather than tried to understand it."


‘The Race for the South Pole’ represents Huntford's final attempt to get Scott and Amundsen's legacies restored to what he believes should be their proper balance. There is simply no more evidence left to find. Will it be enough? Possibly not.


Scott will always have his supporters – and maybe that is as it should be. After all, decline and fall is a paradigm of British life over much of the last hundred years. Perhaps we get the national heroes we deserve.


John Crace, The Guardian, Monday 27 September