||A Review of: Captain Scott
by Christopher Ondaatje
Roland Huntford's book Scott and Amundsen was published in 1979-a
year before Ranulph Fiennes first reached the South Pole. It was
there that he heard about the recently published expos by Huntford
that Captain Robert Scott, the polar hero, was merely a British
imperialist plot. Now Fiennes, himself an extraordinarily accomplished
explorer, and the first man to reach both North and South Poles by
surface travel, and the first to cross the Antarctic continent
unsupported, has produced an anguishing biography of the much
maligned Scott. It is a fine story by a man uniquely qualified to
write the account of Scott's epic and tragic journey to the South
Pole. "In the short, polar summer of 1911 - 1912 five Britons
and five Norwegians raced each other to the bottom of the world.
Only the Norwegians returned." Ranulph Fiennes new biography
Captain Scott is the story of what happened to the British.
This certainly would have been the finest biography of Scott but
for the fact that Fiennes goes to extraordinary pains to discount
everything that Huntford wrote in his 1979 book. It interferes with
what could and should have been the most descriptive and realistic
account of Robert Scott's last journey.
Fiennes openly states in his book that he does not in any way
identify with Scott, nor does he favour Scott over his "brave
and brilliant contemporaries" the Norwegian Amundsen and the
Irishman Shackleton. But he admits "to write about hell it
helps if you have been there." And this is what makes this
biography different from any of the others-and there have been many
of Scott's perilous last journey.
No previous Scott biographer has manhauled his way to the South
Pole, as Scott did; and no previous Scott biographer has walked a
thousand miles on poisoned feet. Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton all
made serious errors, all had grave character flaws, and all caused
other men to die. All too have had revealing biographies about
them but this book is about Scott, and Fiennes's account tells the
gruesome yet heroic story of how Scott and his men made history.
To understand something of the era in which Scott set out to conquer
the South Pole it is important to understand something of Britain
at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 1900 Britain still ruled
the richest empire in the world-even greater than that of the Romans.
Britain's natural resources had spawned a genius for invention and
had led the Industrial Revolution. British institutions controlled
no less than one third of all the world's trade and, at the turn
of the century, the British Empire "spread over ten and a half
million square miles, twenty-six percent of the earth's land surface.
Over 400 million people were ruled by the British and the English
language was becoming the most widely used all over the world."
Added to this was the fact that Britain and the Royal Navy were the
undisputed leaders in polar exploration and had been for three
centuries. Thus Sir Clements Markham, the President of the Royal
Geographical Society, probably inspired by James Cook's 1773 first
crossing of the Antarctic Circle before his murder by Hawaiians in
1779, was anxious to sponsor another polar expedition. He had
certainly been influenced by Cook's belief that a hidden ice bound
continent lay deep within the Antarctic Circle. In 1899 Markham
advertised in both Royal Navy and in scientific circles for an
expedition leader. Scott, then thirty-one years old and a Commander
in the Royal Navy, was first short listed and then appointed leader
of the National Antarctic Expedition on 30th June, 1900.
Curiously, even at that early stage, criticism was levelled against
Markham regarding his preference for man against dog to haul sledges.
Another critical difference between Markham's faction and his mainly
Royal Society opponents was the expedition's chief aim. Was it to
be a scientific research programme? Or should its main thrust be
geographical exploration and survey? Markham and the Royal
Geographical Society faction favoured the latter.
Scott's two major polar journeys, where he led over sixty "highly
critical and difficult characters without the whiff of mutiny"
are the subject of Fiennes's stirring biography. Scott's first
expedition on The Discovery in 1902 - 1903 led to the first great
penetration of the Southern Continent. But it is his second in 1910
- 1912 that is the main focus of this book. It is a tale of ambition,
deceit, flawed judgement, endurance, hardship, achievement, and in
the end, remarkable courage. Shackleton, in 1908, had come, with
his own opportunistic expedition, within a mere ninety-seven miles
of the South Pole; and then Scott in a now famous race, reached the
Pole on 16th January 1912, only to discover that Roald Amundsen had
beaten him to his goal by 33 days, claiming the great prize for
Norway. He named the polar plateau after King Haakon VII of Norway,
unaware that Shackleton had already christened the place after his
own King. "The Norwegians then killed and ate one of the dogs
that had taken them there." It was a symbolic gesture.
Fiennes claims that Scott's achievement "was as successful as
any dog-driven journey in history"-but it was nonetheless a
devastating disappointment and made questionable Scott's decision
to man-haul instead of taking dogs. Amundsen of course relied on
dogs and once he had decided to make a race of it, Scott never had
a chance. Two months later Scott's diaries revealed that dogs would
have been his salvation.
The descriptions of Scott's tragic 800-mile return journey from the
Pole contains perhaps Fiennes's finest descriptive writings. He
claims it to have been "The Greatest March Ever Made."
Five men perished in unusually cold and bad weather of starvation,
dehydration, and exposure, and questions still remain as to whether
Scott's team could have been saved. "Long after Scott's death
the men who might have been able to save him lived on and many
reached positions of prominence."
Although Scott's heroic 1910 - 1912 journey to the South Pole
indicates that he was probably the last great geographical explorer-fame
that endured for another seventy years after the greater part of
the British Empire had been dismantled, the time was ripe for
character assassination. This service was provided by Roland Huntford
in his 1979 biography Scott and Amundsen, which radically changed
the commonly-held image of Scott. He criticised Scott's inhuman
leadership; alluded to his battles with Shackleton; accused Scott
of falsifying his diaries; and ignored the scientific aspect of
Scott's expeditions. He also suggested that Scott and his final
assault team died of scurvy. In a later interview he even stated
that Scott had syphilis, compromising his judgement. Fiennes in
return accuses Huntford of "conscious deception" and goes
to great lengths to analyse Huntford's questionable claims which
have now become the popular truth.
This book is good reading-whatever the opinion. Fiennes ends this
memorable biography with the words "either way, Scott, Bowers,
Wilson, Oates and Evans still lie frozen in the ice, as they have
since the day their journey ended. They alone know the truth."