In an era when six of the world’s continents had been traversed, conquered or mapped, there remained one area of which little was known. Known attempts to reach the southernmost point of our globe began with Captain Cook’s voyages in the eighteenth century. However, what is now termed ‘the heroic age of Antarctic exploration’ began in earnest more than a century later with three men in particular: Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen.
Shackleton is best remembered for heroic leadership in the face of disaster. In his attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914-17, his ship was slowly crushed by pack ice, yet he and his men survived winter on the ice. Five of them, including Shackleton, also made the treacherous 1,300 km journey between Elephant Island and South Georgia to fetch help and ensured every member of his party survived.
Scott, despite his ignominious end, starving and frost ridden in the icy desert, has been immortalised as the quintessential British hero. His diaries depict a courageous leader, a noble man and the ideal of British Masculinity. His rival, Amundsen, however, is remembered by history as a cold-hearted rationalist, motivated by pride, greed and naked ambition. Each of these men spent much of their lives obsessed with reaching that point at which all lines meet but in the end it was Amundsen who, on 14th December 1911, succeeded in claiming the pole for Norway.
Their race began in 1901 with Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition. The crew was composed of sailors, naval officers, and scientists, among them, Scott’s future rival, Ernest Shackleton. The expedition was only partly a success. Scott brought his team closer to the pole than any previous explorers but was still over 400 miles from his goal when sickness and hunger forced them back. Early on in the expedition a seaman who would not obey orders was told to return to England but refused. In the end it was Shackleton not Scott who, using his fists persuaded the sailor that polar exploration was not for him. Discovery’s importance lies in that it cemented the distinct leadership styles that would define the later expeditions of the two great British Antarctic explorers.
Shackleton’s expedition, Nimrod (1907), brought him closer to the pole than five years earlier but again he was forced to turn back. When Scott heard of his opponent’s failure he was prompted to try again and he did so in 1910, with £20,000 worth of equipment. At the same time, another man was heading south. Previously an Artic explorer and the leader of the first group to sail the North-West passage, Roald Amundsen, upon hearing that America had claimed the North Pole, became increasingly interested in claiming the South for Norway. Ostensibly planning for an Arctic expedition, Amundsen put together a crew to challenge Scott in his mission.
While Scott relied on technology and manpower, Amundsen used his knowledge of the Inuit and Sammi tribes. Scott and his team had top of the range clothing and newly invented motorised sledges while the Norwegians wore lose reindeer skins and were transported by dogs. Although unfamiliar with the terrain, Amundsen was extremely comfortable in his environment. Scott’ over-reliance on untested technology let him down early on.
The two men also had distinct personalities. Amundsen was a cutthroat leader, sending three of his eight-man team home after they bemoaned his ill-advised decision to set off before the end of the bitter Antarctic Winter. His decision to slaughter the dogs that had provided vital companionship was also ruthless. Scott refused to use animals in his final push believing manpower was nobler and less cruel. In addition, he added a person to his final expedition party meaning that rations were severely strained upon his return from the pole. His nobility, courage and defiance made Scott a national hero and yet these are the same reasons why Diana Preston terms the “First Rate Tragedy” that befell him.
Upon his return from the failed Nimrod expedition Shakleton said to his wife ‘a live donkey is better than a dead Lion isn’t it?’ It seems this is precisely what Scott failed to realise. Caroline Alexander writes, “In Norway there is very little tolerance for failure in expeditions… The British in contrast emphasised the struggle”. This is a common theme in the history of British masculinity, that of the courageous loser. Scott became a hero as he chose to die a lion but whether this is a trait to be valorised is questionable.