The Falcon and the snowman

by Colby Cosh

It is exciting to see the octogenarian Roland Huntford fighting back against the three decades of revisionism and carping that followed upon the publication of his 1979 book Scott and Amundsen. The book may be more familiar as The Last Place on Earth, which is the title it was given after a mini-series by that name was produced from it. When Scott and Amundsen was published, in the face of threats from imperial nostalgiacs and family members of Robert Falcon Scott, it was seen as the final nail in the coffin of Scott’s reputation.

It had long been obvious to students of polar-expedition lore that Scott had been, as Huntford was to put it, a “heroic bungler”. The Worst Journey in the World, published in 1922 by Scott expedition officer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, scattered cautious hints about Scott’s quality as a commander—and more or less gave the game away with its title. (It is generally thought to be the best single account written by any member of the Shackleton-Scott-Amundsen South Pole race.) But when Huntford was finished with Scott, even the “heroic” part of his reputation was really no longer tenable.

Huntford’s book was followed by a concerted effort to pry loose that coffin nail he had hammered in so firmly. Scott supporters tried to revive the argument, made in Leonard Huxley’s coyly sanitized 1913 edition of Scott’s diaries, that Scott and his South Pole party had run into unforeseeably horrible weather conditions—conditions confined only to Scott’s route; conditions which, by some terrible magic, failed to impede the nearly contemporaneous, geographically parallel Amundsen journey. Huntford has sometimes been derided in Britain as a vaguely treasonable Norwegian partisan—he speaks and reads the language, which is the sort of intellectual attainment that tends to invite suspicion amongst superpatriots—but if Huntford is a psychic traitor, how fortunate for him that the case against Scott was so easy to make.

Scott made dozens of inexcusable, baffling errors and openly irrational judgments in expedition planning, and much of the time, energy, and expenditure involved was consumed with what can only be called screwing around. The commander messed about with motor sledges and ponies when he should have been seeing to the integrity of his fuel tins and the ski education of his men. Later, when both fared poorly on the trail, he blamed everyone but himself.

Weather may have pushed Scott further and further behind Amundsen, extending the Norwegian’s 11-day head start to 34 days by the time Scott reached the pole. But it can’t really explain why Amundsen’s team, with its efficient “eat the dog teams and dash to the Pole” approach, suffered no casualties while Scott’s sledge-hauling wretches suffered falls, snow blindness, scurvy, and delirium. Cherry-Garrard was aware in the ’20s that Scott’s energy budgeting had been Enron-esque, and came as close to success as it did only through inhuman prodigies of effort. In a time before the discovery of Vitamin C, Amundsen took the possibility of scurvy seriously and used knowledge of Inuit and Viking dietary practices to formulate a completely effective prevention plan. Scott, forced by his financial backers to bring a doctor with Arctic experience along on the expedition, stubbornly ignored evidence-based advice to hunt for and consume as much fresh meat as possible.

When the time came to choose a three-man party to accompany him on the run to the Pole, Scott improvised a new supply arrangement and took four instead. These included the jovial, enormous petty officer Edgar Evans, who felt the effects of poor nutrition most and died first, and the famous Captain Oates, whose Boer War wound left him especially vulnerable to scurvy and fatigue. Oates, as every good Anglo-Saxon child knows, had to commit suicide to give the last three survivors even a miserably slender chance at making it back to camp.

It is hard to see Scott as anything but criminally negligent unless one possesses some prior, arbitrary emotional commitment to his legend. He wrote the story of his own last days, and it is hard to find any reason to admire him that doesn’t depend on blind faith in that account, which was written with reputation foremost in mind. He was a great believer in morale and élan, an inexhaustible lugger of grudges, and a self-promoter unto the last strokes of his pen. It is difficult to imagine that he could have been of much comfort to his disillusioned charges in their final frigid days. Long may his self-appointed vindicators continue to feel Huntford’s coolly apportioned wrath.

The Falcon and the snowman

  1. Huntford? Really, Huntford? I'm all for contrarianism but not when it comes at the price of defending Roland Huntford.

    Huntford's criticisms of Scott have always come in three forms: baseless character assassination (some of Scott's naval records back from when he was an utterly insignificant junior officer are missing? He must have been involved in some scandal the brass covered up!), aggressive use of hindsight (Scott should have known this because we all know it now, regardless of whether or not he could have known it at the time), and just a misunderstanding of what Scott was trying to do (which you get into with your shot as his "screwing around", as if his only objective was to get to the South Pole first – as I'm certain you know, Cherry-Garrard's eponymous "Worst Journey in the World" wasn't the trip to the Pole at all but a subsidiary winter sledge for emperor penguin eggs that Wilson talked Scott into allowing).

    Now, the world needs a Roland Huntford or two to burst bubbles and slaughter sacred cows. There's no doubt – and I doubt even the most enthusiastic Scott defender, from Ranulph Fiennes on down, would argue this – that Amundsen was the better polar trekker and organizer than Scott. But it does not necessarily follow that Scott was stumbling about Antarctica like some polar Mr. Bean, willy-nilly combining inattentiveness and micromanagement until he got everybody killed. I could get into this but really, it deserves more detail than a Maclean's comment can ever boast.

    Now, if you want to correct the reputation of a polar explorer, I'd suggest starting with Shackleton, who could hold a grudge like a champ and was reckless to a degree that would have proven suicidal if not for awfully good luck and the same hefty personal valour and endurance that you don't seem to think exonerates Scott in the least.

    • I'm not "correcting" anything, just affirming well-known though disputed truths. Even the Scott family, who used pretty repugnant tactics to attempt the suppression of Huntford's Scott and Amundsen, have grown half-hearted in their defence of the cult. (And how can anybody still think Shackleton needs rehabilitation? The consensus about him, I think, is that he is now certainly overrated compared with other key members of his Trans-Antarctic Expedition. But then, he picked his men, as Scott picked his.)
      Amundsen certainly had a weird way of understanding an awful lot of things, literally dozens of them, that Scott "could not have known at the time." Some of Scott's decisions that look silly in retrospect are potentially defensible by the historian, but I don't really see how anybody can hem and haw about his mastery in the face of, to take a key example, the decision to run to the pole with five men.

  2. With the gloss of patriotism coming off, it's easier to analyze Scott for his failures without running the risk of being called a traitor. Huntford broke ground on this when it wasn't so easy. He wasn't just being contrarian but attempting to set the history right. There is so much emotionally embedded mythology on Scott that it is not all that surprising if the passion Huntford needed for his work in the face of such opposition likely did carry him too far here and there. With some time and further analysis we can get a true picture of him. But that is focusing on the twigs on the grounds, and missing both the forest and the trees.

    The same thing is underway with Sir John Franklin. From Pierre Burton primarily but hardly exclusively, the image of Franklin the tragic hero like Scott gave way to an image of a bumbling overweight idiot who proved the Peter Principle. It was good to shed the old manufactured narrative. But it is equally important to bring the pendulum back a bit so we can get a true picture of the man and properly understand the history as best we can, as Andrew Lambert has attempted in Gates of Hell.

    • Congratulations on your century.

      I think it would be a facinating study to explore why Britain produced a very few exceptionally competent leaders but a greater number of bumblers that got themselves into epic fails, culminating in the WWI debacle on the Western Front. To me, focusing upon the individual, Franklin or Scott or whomever, fails to bring to light the culture that fostered so many high men of dubious talent. The period when these explorations happened is especially facinating because the rivialry was so very intense and the players did little to hide what they truly felt about their rivals.

      It may well be that other cultures have had a similar experience, Austro-Hungarian Empire seems a likely candidate, but I just don't have the access to the literature to become familiar with it.

      • Oh my. I hadn't noticed I was up that high. Thanks.

        My take on this – without a shred of research but only my general sense as a reader of history – is that the rigid class system is a big part of it. Meritocracy was not the largest determinant in advancement and no determinant in wealth distribution, rewards of society etc. Connections were everything.

        But you can only push the "bumbling" theory so far. The Brits did exceedingly well in what they set out to accomplish in the 19th century, particularly when it came to scientific exploration and military conquest. In fact, quite uncomparable to anything before it except the Romans and even then.

        The way I see it is that there were spectacular failures like Franklin and Scott, in something the Brits thought themselves exceptional, so it is far easier and even necessary to turn those few failures into tragic success stories than to admit to failure.

        • Oh, I believe that there is ample foder in the history of Lord Shelbourne's offspring to keep a dedicated scholar or two of over-reach busy for the forseeable future. I'll even propose a catchy title: Icarus's Empire.

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