Review: The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole, Roland Huntford, 1979, 1999.
The Prussian General Moltke the Elder divided military officers into four categories using two criteria: smart-stupid, ambitious-lazy. There is a place for almost every type. The smart and lazy can be commanding officers. The smart and ambitious can be staff officers. Stupid and lazy officers can serve in the line.
But there’s no place for the stupid and ambitious officer. He must be drummed out of the service. He’s a menace to the military and his troops.
Under that criteria, if British polar exploration of the early 20th century would have been conducted on strictly military lines, Captain Robert Falcon Scott would have been expelled from service.
Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole is, along with the doomed Franklin expedition and the Shackleton expedition’s spectacular survival, the most well-known episode in polar exploration. Huntford’s biography is a thorough and convincing attack on the legend of Scott and was hostilely received in Britain on its publication. Scott doomed himself and his man through incompetence and poor leadership.
As a contrast in leadership in two expeditions striving for the same goal at the same time in roughly the same place, Huntford’s book shows it wasn’t bad luck or bad weather or sneaky Norwegians that doomed Scott’s expedition. It was Scott.
The book is a dual biography of Scott and Roald Amundsen. Scott fell into polar expedition as part of his ambition to rise through the ranks of the British Navy. Amundsen, the quintessentially competent explorer, fell in love with the idea of exploring the Arctic regions after reading, at age 15, the accounts of Sir John Franklin’s successful expeditions in 1819 and 1825.
Huntford doesn’t just concentrate on the character of the two men and their experiences, but the greater political and social currents that played into the story and how Scott ended up a heroic martyr to the British and Amundsen came to be regarded with a bit of embarrassment in his own country.
At the turn of the 20th century, the British were concerned that their race was degenerating. The rigors and struggles of polar expedition could show that wasn’t true. That, as much as anything, explains the stupid practice of “man-hauling”, harnessing men as dray animals to pull sledges packed with hundreds of pounds of supplies with them to the South Pole and back. To be fair, it wasn’t Scott’s only plan. Motorized sledges were taken along – a technology that wasn’t yet ready for the task and did little for Scott. He also took along Shetland ponies to pull the sledges, another idea that didn’t work all that well. Neither are excusable given the proven record of using dogs in Arctic exploration. But, as with everything he did, Scott’s use of dogs was haphazard, unplanned, and mostly untrained for. But, to the British, man-hauling’s inefficiencies were a symbol of the vigor and stoicism of the British male.
Norway was not even an independent country when Amundsen was born. In his adult years, when Norway was a new country, it carefully nurtured its relationships with other countries especially Britain. While it was justifiably proud of its Arctic explorers, including Amundsen’s expedition that was the first to take a single boat through the Northwest Passage, it did not appreciation the deception at the beginning of Amundsen’s South Pole expedition.
It wasn’t even officially going to the South Pole. He was leading an oceanographic expedition into the Artic starting at the Bering Strait. He recruited men and got financing on that basis, revealing his true plans to only two people in advance. It was only when underway he revealed the truth. He dispatched letters to various people, including his patron Nansen who had supplied his ship Fram for the expedition. Amundsen said he still intended to carry out the original purpose of the expedition but, since he was in the neighborhood of the Antarctic when passing through the Straits of Magellan, he thought he’d stop off and go to the South Pole.
It was a decision that embarrassed Norway and its relationship with Britain. Now Scott’s expedition didn’t just have the goal of the reaching the South Pole. It was in a race. Before the two expeditions set off for the dash to the Pole, they came across each other in the Antarctic as Amundsen set up a base camp closer to the Pole but thought impractical by Scott. The two expeditions actually met briefly and cordially.
The book is full of many details about both expeditions, and the contrasts are stunning. Before setting out for the pole, Scott dawdled, issued vague orders (or were they just suggestions?) verbally, didn’t bother to have his men trained in using skis even though he had brought a member along specifically for that task. Amundsen’s men spent their time further modifying their dog sleds, paring off every bit of excess weight, modifying their boots and ski bindings, and figuring out the most efficient way to pack the sleds so, when setting up camp, a minimum amount of work was done.
The sloppiness of Scott extended to poorly marking supply depots, an error that was to prove costly on the return from the pole. Amundsen elaborately marked the location of his, essential in the white desert of the Antarctic where fog showed up at times in the summer months of the expedition.
Scott took along a poor choice of rations. His men ended up with scurvy. Amundsen, from an early expedition to the Antarctic, knew scurvy was one of the great dangers of polar expedition took the appropriate rations and had his men eat a Vitamin C rich diet before setting out for the pole.
Scott was often withdrawn, would vacillate in his orders. Amundsen was explicit and made sure every man knew what the goals and expected obstacles were and often sought consensus at critical points. He made sure he had consensus among his men. However, at one point, for the second time in his career as an explorer, he basically resorted to a sort of divination to make a decision.
Scott worked his men to death eventually. They didn’t make it back. All of Amundsen’s men did.. Amundsen knew the value of a regular schedule. When camped, his men did little but sleep and eat and spent much less time each day traveling than Scott’s men. But they made many more miles each day than Scott.
Amundsen wasn’t an infallible leader. Against advice, he made an abortive start, too early, for the Pole and had to return. When the expedition’s dog handler, Hjalmar Johansen, publicly criticized Amundsen’s conduct on the return trip – Amundsen split the party up, Amundsen struck him from the list of people for the successful trip to the Pole. When the expedition returned to Norway, he was the only member not invited to the official celebrations. Amundsen was a very loyal to those who helped him, but he could be quite vindictive about perceived disloyalty. Johansen was one of those sad and tragic men who was a mess in civilized realms, frequently drunk and unemployed, but superbly competent and sober in the harsh conditions of polar expeditions. Amundsen was pressed into taking him by Nansen since Johansen had once saved the latter’s life in the Arctic. Johansen committed suicide shortly after the expedition returned, and his and Scott’s death haunted Amundsen.
In the Scott expedition, there is the tragic and legendary figure Lawrence Edward Grace Oates. It was he who, on the return trip and during a blizzard, uttered the famous line “I am just going outside and may be some time” before leaving the tent. But Huntford memorably fleshes out the man behind that line. Oates, a cavalry officer wounded in the Boer War, was posted to the expedition by the British Army to as a horse expert. When seeing Amundsen’s expedition, he was one of those who realized, by contrast, just how pathetically led and prepared Scott’s expedition was. His letters reveal a man loyal to Scott but under no delusions about his shortcomings as a leader, a man he loathed but followed to his death out of duty.
And it was an agonizing death. On that return trip, Oates, a man with one leg an inch shorter than the other due to that wound, had to walk while his thigh wound opened up due to scurvy.
So why did Scott the failure and bungler so long have a favorable place in the public mind even outside of Britain where he and Oates were the personification of heroic and stoic struggle against doom? After all, even after I saw the excellent 1985 miniseries based on Huntford’s book, I still had a soft enough place in my heart for him to take a picture of his statue when I was in Portsmouth’s harbor.
Scott had one crucial talent Amundsen lacked. (He also, physically, had a great deal of strength and endurance which led him to revile the physical weakness and suffering of some of his men.) He was literarily gifted. In those last days in their tents, Scott composed letters and a journal, carefully crafted for posterity, his account of hardships heroically faced and gratefully accepted. They may have been hardships largely caused by his decisions, but it was a story the public ate up.
Amundsen wrote up his expeditions too. But he had no harrowing struggles to document. He had avoided them through foresight. His accounts were matter-of-fact and emphasized his discoveries.
Scott became a legend. Amundsen, the leader of the first expedition to the South Pole, ultimately became little more than answer to a trivia question. Yes, he was first, but let’s hear more about Scott. However, as Huntford makes clear, Amundsen was very respected in the small fraternity of polar explorers.
There is much else of interest here. The origins of the eventual animosity between Scott and Ernest Shackleton is covered. (There are frequent references in Scott’s journals to besting Shackleton.) The patrons of both men are covered. For Amundsen, that would be Nansen. For Scott that would be the homosexual Sir Clement Markham, something of a gatekeeper for British sponsorship of Antarctic exploration. While Markham seems to have been sexually attracted to Scott, it was not reciprocated since Scott was heterosexual.
Huntford makes clear that Scott had merits besides his literary gifts. He speculates that he probably would have made a fine instructor if he would have continued in the torpedo branch of the Royal Navy rather than have diverted into exploration.
The women in each explorer’s life are covered. Amundsen seems to have some liaisons with prostitutes and a marked penchant for doomed love affairs with married women. Scott seems to have been faithful to his wife though she, while he was in the Antarctic, conducted a sexual affair with Nansen. The legend of Scott was to bestow unprecedented honors on her.
Amundsen’s final years were marked by money troubles but also more exploration. The man who spent thirty years on the ice and never lost a man died while doing an aerial search for survivors of an Italian foray, via airship, into the Arctic.
Huntford, a Norwegian speaker, accessed a lot of records not used by earlier writers on Amundsen, and the book also has several photographs, including the pictures taken by both expeditions at the South Pole.
Quite simply, this is a masterpiece about the history of polar exploration and essential reading for anyone interested in either Scott or Amundsen.
More reviews of polar exploration histories are indexed here.